Last updated: March 4, 2022
The Manhattan Project plutonium production story begins at the Shinkolobwe mine in present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo, known as the Belgian Congo during World War II. Miners extracted some of the world’s richest uranium ore from this mine and shipped it to Canada for refining. After refining, the ore arrived at one of several plants in the United States that processed the uranium ore into pure uranium metal and shaped the uranium into billets. Workers loaded the billets onto railcars and shipped the billets to Hanford where they arrived at the fuel fabrication site, also known as the 300 Area. Here, machines milled the uranium billets into cylinders and sealed the uranium cylinders in aluminum jackets creating fuel slugs for the nuclear reactors.
Workers drove the fuel slugs across the Hanford Site to the B Reactor and its two siblings, D and F reactors, for irradiation. After irradiation in a nuclear reactor, workers carefully loaded the highly radioactive fuel slugs into shielded, water-filled casks on train cars for transportation to the T Plant.
At T Plant, the fuel went through a series of complex chemical process to separate plutonium from uranium and other radioactive byproducts. Scientists in Los Alamos, New Mexico, assembled the core of the Trinity Test device and the Fat Man atomic bomb using Hanford’s plutonium. The chemical separation process created millions of gallons of toxic waste that is stored in underground tanks. Safe disposal of this waste is the biggest challenge at Hanford today.
Construction and operation of fuel fabrication facilities began in 1943. The 300 Area also contained experimental and laboratory facilities where scientists tested their theories and conducted experiments that enhanced their understanding of plutonium production. At one time, six small-scale test reactors operated in the 300 Area. Like other Hanford Site Manhattan Project facilities, the 300 Area remained a critical component of the United States defense program during the Cold War and operated into the 1970s. Many of the buildings in the 300 Area have been demolished as part of the US Department of Energy’s cleanup efforts.
Continue Your Journey
The Department of Energy offers tours of the B Reactor, the world’s first full-scale nuclear reactor. The Department of Energy also offers Pre-War Historic Sites tours that explore this community’s settler history from the era before the Manhattan Project.