The Manhattan Project: Making the Atomic Bomb

Part IV: The Manhattan Engineer District in Operation

Hanford Takes Shape

Colonel Matthias returned to the Hanford area to set up a temporary office on February 22, 1943. His orders were to purchase half a million acres in and around the Hanford-Pasco-White Bluffs area, a sparsely populated region where sheep ranching and farming were the main economic activities. Many of the area's landowners rejected initial offers on their land and took the Army to court seeking more acceptable appraisals. Matthias adopted a strategy of settling out of court to save time, time being a more important commodity than money to the Manhattan Project.

Matthias received his assignment in late March. The three water-cooled piles, designated by the letters B, D, and F, would be built about six miles apart on the south bank of the Columbia River. The four chemical separation plants, built in pairs, would be nearly ten miles south of the piles, while a facility to produce slugs and perform tests would be approximately twenty miles southeast of the separation plants near Richmond. Temporary quarters for construction workers would be put up in Hanford, while permanent facilities for other personnel would be located down the road in Richland, safely removed from the production and separation plants.

During summer 1943, Hanford became the Manhattan Project's newest atomic boomtown. Thousands of workers poured into the town, many of them to leave in discontent. Well situated from a logistical point of view, Hanford was a sea of tents and barracks where workers had little to do and nowhere to go. DuPont and the Army coordinated efforts to recruit laborers from all over the country for Hanford, but even with a relative labor surplus in the Pacific Northwest, shortages plagued the project. Conditions improved significantly during the second half of the year, with the addition of recreational facilities, higher pay, and better overall service for Hanford's population, which reached 50,000 by summer 1944. Hanford still resembled the frontier and mining towns once common in the west, but the rate of worker turnover dropped substantially.

Groundbreaking for the water-cooling plant for the 100-B pile, the westernmost of the three, took place on August 27, less than two weeks before Italy's surrender to the Allies on September 8. Work on the pile itself began in February, with the base and shield being completed by mid-May. It took another month to place the graphite pile and install the top shield and two more months to wire and pipe the pile and connect it to the various monitoring and control devices.

Pile D at Hanford. Pile in Foreground, Water Treatment Plant in Rear.
Pile D at Hanford. Pile in Foreground, Water Treatment Plant in Rear.

At Hanford, irradiated uranium slugs would drop into water pools behind the piles and then be moved by remote controlled rail cars to a storage facility five miles away for transportation to their final destination at one of the two chemical separation locations, designated 200-West and 200-East. The T and U plants were located at 200-West, while a single plant, the B unit, made up the 200-East complex (the planned fourth chemical separation plant was not built). The Hanford chemical separation facilities were massive scaled-up versions of those at Oak Ridge, each containing separation and concentration buildings in addition to ventilation (to eliminate radioactive and poisonous gases) and waste storage areas. Labor shortages and the lack of formal blueprints forced DuPont to stop work on the 200 areas in summer 1943 and concentrate its forces on 100-B,with the result that 1943 construction progress on chemical separation was limited to digging two huge holes in the ground. 37