OR: Plutonium for First Atom Bomb Discreetly Transported Through Portland in Small Box on Passenger Rail

Wow, the things you learn on a B Reactor tour.

When the first enriched plutonium was ready for transport away from Washington's Hanford Nuclear Reservation, the person in charge had it placed in a small box, took it himself aboard passenger rail at Pasco, rode the train to Portland, made the transfer to Los Angeles, then continued to New Mexico.

This happened in late January 1945. That plutonium enriched at B Reactor was used in the first atomic bomb test later that year. It was detonated July 16 at the Trinity Site in New Mexico, after components of the bomb were assembled at Los Alamos.

Russel Fabre, who manages the B Reactor tours, said that was the best way to transport the plutonium at the time, inconspicuously and completely safe.

"The risk of contamination was virtually nil, unless the plutonium would have been exposed to oxygen, became airborne and someone inhaled it," said Fabre, who works for Mission Support Alliance, a contractor with the Department of Energy, that runs B Reactor tours.

B Reactor was decommissioned in 1968 and has become a visitor site to tell the story of what happened at Hanford.

Fabre said that Col. Franklin T. Mathias made sure the plutonium never mixed with air. Mathias was the chief engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and was in charge of the construction of Hanford. He traveled on that train through Portland to New Mexico with a companion, but no security detail.

"The less conspicuous things were, the safer it was," Fabre said.

Hanford and the making of the bomb was one of the best-kept secrets of World War II. Most of those working at Hanford had no idea what they were building until after President Harry Truman revealed the secret to the world after the first of two bombs were dropped on Japan.

As plutonium production ramped up afterward during the Cold War, secure rail cars were developed to transport it from where it was enriched to where it was used for bomb assembly.

B Reactor tours are offered this summer into mid-September. They are free, but require reservations. Tours booked out quickly when they were first offered in 2005, but in the ensuing years the number of available spots has increased to 10,000 and tours are more readily available to join.

But it's still wise to reserve early, if you don't live in the Tri-Cities and plan to make a B Reactor tour part of a visit to the area.

-- Terry Richard

Copyright 2014 - The Oregonian, Portland, Ore.

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