Hanford's B Reactor: A park haunted by the 20th century

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Hanford's B Reactor, a brutally bleak building on the Columbia River, was born in the secrecy of the Manhattan Project. Seventy years later, Congress is poised to turn the floodlights on.

Under legislation championed by U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell and U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington, the B Reactor and atomic bomb sites in two other states would be preserved and opened to the public as the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. They would take their place alongside other parks fraught with the nation's past, including Valley Forge and Independence Hall.

The B Reactor belongs in that company, though its historical role has been far more sobering. The world's first non-experimental nuclear reactor, it produced the plutonium that devastated Nagasaki and ended World War II in August 1945.

Radioactive isotopes created in its successor plants have been used for radiation therapy, many kinds of diagnostic scans, treatment for heart disease and other illnesses.

For decades, NASA has used a form of plutonium created in the B Reactor's progeny to power America's deep-space probes. The Curiosity rover now crawling around the Gale Crater on Mars is powered by the isotope.

The B Reactor, like the other Manhattan Project sites, will be a place for contemplation, not celebration. There's no shortage of things to contemplate there.

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