Hanford's N Reactor

  • By Patrick Marshall
  • Posted 2/04/2014
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10702
See Additional Media
Hanford's N Reactor, designed to produce both plutonium for weapons and electricity for the public, was the ninth and final reactor to be constructed at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, located along the Columbia River in Benton County. Washington's senators and local politicians lobbied intensely for the reactor out of fear that jobs would be lost as the eight older reactors (built during World War II for the production of nuclear bombs) were being shut down. The N Reactor began producing plutonium in 1963, and its cogeneration of electricity began in 1964, marking the beginning of the civilian nuclear industry. The reactor's design soon attracted public criticism. Although the N Reactor's recirculation of cooling water resulted in much less radioactivity reaching the Columbia River than was the case with the eight earlier reactors, the N Reactor had no containment building to prevent the spread of radiation in the event of an accident. After serious nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island, in Pennsylvania (1979), and at Chernobyl, in the Ukraine (1986), the N Reactor was shut down for good in 1986. 

Jobs and Dollars

As early as 1954, even as Hanford's eight existing plutonium reactors were approaching the end of their intended lifespan of 20 years, politicians representing the Tri-Cities (Richland, Pasco, and Kennewick), and Washington state pressed the Atomic Energy Commission and Congress for measures that would provide jobs and an infusion of federal dollars for a regional economy that had, over two decades, grown increasingly dependent on Hanford. At the top of that list was construction of a new reactor -- a dual-purpose reactor that could produce both plutonium for weapons and electricity for the public sector. 

The decommissioning of the existing reactors at Hanford was the inevitable result of two factors.  First, given the 24,000-year half-life of plutonium-239 -- the weapons-grade plutonium produced by the Hanford reactors -- there was a limit on how much was needed for the country's weapons programs. (A half-life is the time it takes for an isotope such as plutonium-239 to fall to half of its original value.)  Secondly, the federal government had built more modern and efficient facilities at the Savannah River site in South Carolina that could produce the limited amount of plutonium-239 that was required. 

Launching a Civilian Nuclear Industry 

The dual-purpose reactor for Hanford was first proposed by the General Electric Co. in 1953 as a way to launch a civilian nuclear industry. "Business advocates saw dual-purpose reactors, designed to produce both plutonium electrical power, as the point of entry into the private nuclear arena," write University of Washington historians John M. Findlay and Bruce Hevly. "Under such a plan, a private company would build a reactor and power generating station, and the federal government would provide uranium fuel and retrieve it, process it to extract plutonium, and then pay the operating company for the plutonium while outside customers pay for electricity" (Findlay, 162).

Pushed by local and state business interests, Washington's two senators -- Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson (1912-1983) and Warren G. Magnuson (1905-1989) -- began lobbying for the dual-purpose reactor as early as 1954. Jackson introduced a bill providing for construction of the dual-purpose reactor in 1956. It passed the Senate but failed to clear the House.

"By producing both plutonium and electric power," Jackson told reporters, "the dual reactor literally converts swords into ploughshares" (The Seattle Times, July 23, 1957). In fact, since electricity would be a by-product and the plutonium would still be destined for weapons use, the metaphor was inaccurate. 

Critics argued that the nation did not need more plutonium, at least not more than could be produced by the more modern Savannah River site, which was built in the early 1950s. The cost of a new reactor could not be justified, they claimed. 

The lobbying effort picked up steam in 1958 after the Atomic Energy Commission omitted funds for the project from the budget it sent to President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969). Jackson claimed that the Atomic Energy Commission had already determined that construction of the reactor was feasible and he said that the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, of which he was a member, would seek funds for construction.

Jackson argued that the dual-purpose nature of the reactor, through the sale of electricity, would make the project feasible. Citing an Atomic Energy Commission report, Jackson noted that construction of a plutonium-only reactor would cost $126 million. For just $198 million a facility could be built that would also produce 300 kilowatts a year for sale.

By September, the Atomic Energy Commission ordered final plans to be drawn up by General Electric for a "new production reactor," or NPR, an acronym that would soon be shortened to N Reactor. For its part, Congress had already approved $145 million for construction of the reactor, despite the fact that neither the Defense Department nor the Atomic Energy Commission had requested it. 

"Even this limited success required modifying the proposal for the dual-purpose reactor to make it more politically acceptable," note Findlay and Hevly (Findlay, p. 163). Jackson agreed to language describing the reactor as "convertible" without providing funds for building the power plant. That agreement resulted in Atomic Energy Commission support for Jackson's legislation.

Nuclear Power

Jackson and others in the state, however, did not give up on the power-generating facilities. In March 1959, the Washington State Senate passed a resolution calling for power-generating facilities to be added to the new reactor and noting that it would transform Hanford from a 300-kilowatt consumer of electricity annually to a 700-kilowatt producer.  

Finally, at the end of March, the Atomic Energy Commission relented and agreed to a dual-purpose design. The commission's agreement should, said Jackson, "remove the final roadblock and construction now can proceed with features that will make possible an actual dual-purpose reactor" (The Seattle Times, March 31, 1959). 

But the issue was not settled for good until after the 1960 presidential election. The Kennedy Administration delivered funding for the N Reactor, including the power-generating facility, but only after significant changes were made in the plan. The Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS) would pay for the power facilities to be built on land leased from the Atomic Energy Commission. Also, WPPSS would be required to offer half of the power generated to private power companies.  

In 1962 Congress gave final approval for construction of the dual-purpose reactor. 


On September 26, 1963, only two months before he was assassinated, President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) led groundbreaking ceremonies for the construction of the N Reactor.  Kennedy told a crowd of more than 30,000 people that the N Reactor's dual capabilities -- producing plutonium and generating electricity -- would contribute to the peace of the world.  He described the facility as "the largest nuclear power reactor for peaceful purposes in the world" and "a great national asset" (Tate).

By 1964 the new reactor had begun to produce plutonium, and two years later the steam generator began producing electricity. "Through the exercise of local and regional political clout, Hanford had added both new technology and the new mission of generating electricity," write Findlay and Hevly (Findlay, 166.)

The N Reactor

In its design, the N Reactor shared many features with the eight older reactors on the Hanford site. To begin with, it relied upon water from the Columbia River for cooling -- proximity to the river being a main reason the Hanford site had originally been selected for plutonium production. It was graphite moderated (the carbon atoms in graphite were used to aid the fission -- splitting -- of uranium atoms) and it used uranium for fuel. Finally, neither the N Reactor nor earlier reactors had containments domes to prevent the spread of radioactive material in the event of an accident. 

But the design of the N Reactor also differed significantly from those of the previous reactors.    

The earlier single-pass reactors used Columbia River water to cool the aluminum-jacketed uranium fuel rods. Then the water was pumped to retention basins where it was left to cool and to undergo short-term radioactive decay (30 minutes to six hours) before it was pumped back into the river. In contrast, the N Reactor recirculated its coolant water before returning it to the river. One result of this design difference was the release of significantly less radioactivity into the river. According to historian Michele S. Gerber, "N Reactor's primary coolant system used from 100 to 1,500 gallons per minute of fresh, treated water, a vast decrease from the 35,000 to 105,000 gallons per minute consumed by Hanford's single-pass reactors" (Gerber, Plutonium Production, p. 2-10). 

Another difference was that the N Reactor's water was circulated under pressure, which allowed for a higher operating temperature. That, in turn, made it possible to generate and, ultimately, sell electricity.  

Finally, the N Reactor's recirculating cooling system -- which relied on water to a greater extent than the single-pass reactors -- was safer.  If there were a loss of coolant, there would automatically be a loss of reactivity in the reactor. 

The N Reactor was housed in a reinforced concrete building on top of a thick slab of reinforced concrete. The core itself is a graphite block 39 feet 5 inches high, 33 feet wide, and 33 feet 4.5 inches tall, with 1,004 pressurized tubes arranged in a lattice pattern that carried the nuclear fuel.  In addition, 108 vertical channels were bored to receive ceramic balls to shut down the reactor in the event of problems. 

In addition to its greater efficiency and lower impact on the river, the N Reactor also had safety features not present in the earlier reactors. "The N Reactor core was surrounded with special layers of reflector graphite, then by water cooled thermal shields constructed of boron steel and cast iron, and then surrounded again by a primary shield of high density concrete," writes Gerber.  "Helium gas formed the pile atmosphere. A fog spray system at both the front and rear reactor faces was provided for contamination control and cooling in case of a loss of contaminated steam from the core" (Gerber, Plutonium Production, p. 2-10). 

The design lifetime of the reactor was 25 years, which turned out to be one year longer than its actual lifetime 

Growing Criticism

Even as the N Reactor began producing plutonium for the federal government and electricity for the state of Washington, the facilities at Hanford were the target of growing criticism. "Hanford officials, still under pressure to produce record amounts of plutonium, faced the predicament of whether, or how, to limit production, reduce the radiological burden of the Columbia River, or warn the public of potential risks," writes Gerber "These dilemmas were debated throughout 1963 at Hanford and within AEC headquarters in Washington, D.C." (Gerber, Home Front, 139).

At the same time, some in government had argued that the need for plutonium did not justify the economic and environmental costs of the facilities. In January 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) announced a reduction in the production of plutonium and enriched uranium, citing government studies showing that lower production levels would be sufficient.

"That moment initiated a reversal of Hanford's fortunes: the government began to shut the factory down," write Findlay and Hevly. "By 1971 the AEC had closed eight of the nine reactors, and by 1972 the site had ceased shipments of plutonium. Only the N reactor continued to operate -- generating primarily electricity rather than fuel for nuclear weapons" (Findlay, 63).

In fact, the government also closed the N Reactor briefly in 1971, but then -- pressed by the Washington senators and others, who argued that the state would lose 11,000 jobs -- agreed to keep the reactor running to produce electricity. The Atomic Energy Commission agreed to keep N Reactor generating electricity for three years. In return, the state would pay the federal government $20 million for the steam to generate 4 billion kilowatt hours a year. This figure, too, was a compromise. The state had offered $15 million; the Atomic Energy Commission had asked for $31 million.

Steps were also taken to moderate environmental risks and damages. "Trenches were dug to receive reactor effluent, thus allowing a longer percolation time through the soils just inland from the reactor, for radioactive decay to occur before effluents reached the Columbia River," writes Gerber. "Monitoring instrumentation for waste products was added, secondary and shield coolant loops were converted from single-pass to recirculating systems, and a special containment tank was constructed to hold the pile purge effluent for transfer to Hanford's high level waste storage tanks. Release of this purge material to the Columbia River was discontinued" (Gerber, Plutonium Story, p. 2-10).

While the Atomic Energy Commission was concerned about negative impacts on the local economy if the N Reactor was entirely shut down, Findlay contends that "it was even more concerned about maintaining control over and appropriations for both sites, and about being able to resume a higher level of production if needed in the future" (Findlay, 64).

Diversifying a Regional Economy

The N Reactor was itself an effort, driven largely by local politicians and Senator Henry Jackson, to diversify the economy of the communities around Hanford. And although it did extend federal involvement at Hanford and increase the dollars pouring in, all involved knew it was a temporary measure.  

"The N reactor may have helped diversify the local economy, but it did not help diversify it enough," write Findlay and Hevly. "The anxieties of Richland residents spoke loudly to the economic risks faced by towns near Hanford. In the weeks after Pres. Johnson's announcement of reactor shutdowns, one federal observer warned that without additional help from the AEC the cutbacks proposed for Hanford would create in Richland a downward 'spiral of delinquency, slums, crime, families, poor health, and greater unemployment'" (Findlay, 168). 

In fact, between 1964 and 1976, employment at Hanford fell by only 5.2 percent, from 9,539 to 9,030. "Given that Hanford had lost eight out of nine reactors and virtually ceased the production of fissionable material during this period, its resilience was remarkable," note Findlay and Hevly (Findlay, 65). The relatively small drop in employment at Hanford was due to greater-than-anticipated employment of people for cleanup and for research. The Pacific Northwest Laboratories, managed by Battelle for the Atomic Energy Commission, opened in 1965.

But despite the temporary reprieve on closing the N Reactor, pressures on the Hanford facilities were growing.  

Environmental concerns about radiation and nuclear contamination had long been voiced. Then on March 28, 1979, public alarm about nuclear facilities spiked when a reactor at Three Mile Island near Middletown, Pennsylvania, suffered a partial meltdown and released radioactive material into the environment.

As public concern grew, the N Reactor was already nearing the end of its projected lifespan, and as such, evidenced a growing number of problems. 

"One fundamental problem was the distortion of the graphite stack, where built-in slip joints could not accommodate all of the local distortion, some block cleavage, and actual separation of blocks that had occurred within the central core," writes Gerber. "As N Reactor struggled to remain a crucial piece of America's defense arsenal, many system upgrades were undertaken" (Gerber, Plutonium, p. 2-10).

The upgrades were driven in large part by the Reagan Administration's push to resume the Cold War. Since 1972 the only plutonium produced by the N Reactor had been for research; the Reagan Administration ordered it to return to producing weapons-grade plutonium. At the same time, the Plutonium Uranium Extraction Plant at Hanford, which had been shut down a decade earlier, was started up again. 

On April 26, 1986, public concern spiked again due to a catastrophic nuclear accident far more costly in lives and dollars than Three Mile Island -- the explosion and massive release of radioactive material at the Chernobyl nuclear facility in the Soviet Union.

The End of N Reactor

Since the N Reactor shared some of the same design features of the Chernobyl reactors, and because it was nearing the end of its lifespan in any case, the Department of Energy decided to shut it down in late 1986. It would not be restarted.

The "Hanford Federal Facility Agreement and Consent Order," signed by the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Washington State Department of Ecology in March 1989, marked the transition of Hanford from a production facility to a cleanup effort. The deal promised that Hanford would be cleaned up within 30 years at a cost of $57 billion. As recently as November 2013, however, critics described the cleanup as a "dysfunctional mess," with no expectation of completion before 2047 and no firm estimate on the ballooning costs of the effort (LaFlure).

The story of the N Reactor, if not of its waste, ended on June 14, 2012, when a crowd of about 100 gathered to mark the completion of its cocooning for at least 75 years to allow the core's radiation levels to decay to manageable levels.   

"During the past three years, Hanford workers have torn down six large, attached concrete buildings and sealed up what remained -- the reactor core and the attached heat exchanger building needed for producing electricity," writes reporter Annette Clary. "They took the guard station off the roof and reroofed the remaining structures. On Thursday, some final work was being done to seal up any openings that animals might be able to enter, before the door is closed and locked on the reactor" (Cary). 

Emil Leitz, startup engineer for the plant, who was present at the ceremony, noted that the N Reactor had generated more than 65 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity between 1963 and 1987.

Sources: John M. Findlay and Bruce Hevly, Atomic Frontier Days: Hanford and the American West (Seattle, University of Washington Press, 2011); "$27,000,000 Hanford Items Win Approval," The Seattle Times, July 23, 1957, p. 3; "Dual-Purpose Reactor Asked for Hanford," The Seattle Times, May 11, 1958, p. 34; Associated Press, "New Reactor at Hanford Feasible," The Seattle Times, April 9, 1958, p. 40; Associated Press, "AEC Agrees to Power Plan for Hanford," The Seattle Times, March 31, 1959, p. 21; Michele S. Gerber, The Plutonium Production Story at the Hanford Site: Processes and Facilities History (Richland: Westinghouse Hanford Company, 1996), available at International Panel on Fissile Materials website accessed December 31, 2013 (http://fissilematerials.org/library/ger96.pdf); HistoryLink.org, the Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "President Kennedy participates in ground-breaking ceremonies for construction of N Reactor at Hanford on September 26, 1963" (by Cassandra Tate) http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed December 13, 2013); Michele S. Geber, On the Home Front: The Cold War Legacy Of the Hanford Nuclear Site (Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1992); Lyle Burt and Bob Lane, "Accord Reached to Keep Hanford Reactor Running," The Seattle Times, April 2, 1971, p. 1; Rebecca LaFlure, "Hanford Cleanup Effort Called a Dysfunctional Mess," Tri-City Herald, November 17, 2013 (www.tri-cityherald.com); Annette Cary, "Hanford's N Reactor Sealed," The Tri-City Herald, June 15, 2012 (www.tri-cityherald.com).

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You