Discovering Hanford’s Manhattan Project History

Show Notes

Hanford is a place that has played an important role in the story of Washington State, the United States, and the world. Situated on the eastern side of the state, Hanford played a key role in producing plutonium for the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, during World War II.

In the latest episode of Exploring Washington State, the podcast's host, Scott Cowan, sat down with Becky Burghart, a park ranger at the Hanford site, to learn more about its history and what visitors can expect when they come to explore the site. 

Row of paper bags lit up with messages of peace at Hanford

What tours can visitors take at Hanford?

The Department of Energy offers two tours of the Hanford site: the B-reactor tour and the Pre-Manhattan project tour. The B-reactor tour is four hours long and focuses on the science behind the Manhattan project and how it created the atomic bomb. The Pre-Manhattan project tour, on the other hand, offers visitors a greater sense of the size of the site and knowledge of the settlers who lived in the area before the project began. Visitors must make reservations for the tours. You can register for a tour here. The tour season runs from March to November.

Hanford Reactor B Tour

What was life like for workers at Hanford during the Manhattan project?

The Manhattan project was a top-secret government project that began in 1942. It aimed to develop an atomic bomb that could bring an end to World War II. Hanford was selected as the site for plutonium production because of its location on the Columbia River, its proximity to the Grand Coulee Dam, and its small population.

The site grew from a small agricultural community to a bustling industrial complex in less than two years. The majority of workers were recruited from across the United States, and many of them were women and African Americans.

The living conditions for workers were substandard, with the government-built community of Richland having much better amenities compared to East Pasco, where African American workers were housed. Despite these challenges, workers were dedicated to their patriotic duty and benefited from good paying jobs that provided them with enough food during a time of war rationing.

What is the Hanford site like today?

The Hanford site is still a crucial part of the United States' energy infrastructure, and it is also a site of historical significance. The National Park Service established the Manhattan Project National Historical Park to recognize and preserve the role the site played in the development of the atomic bomb.

The park is one park with three sites that include Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, and Hanford. Visitors can access information about the park on the National Park Service app, which includes a wealth of information about the Manhattan Project sites across the country.

The Tri Cities area offers a range of outdoor activities, such as paddle boarding and fishing, and visitors can also explore the wineries in the area.

What is the history of nuclear reactors at Hanford?

The production of plutonium at Hanford involved the construction of nuclear reactors, starting with the B reactor. The technology that helped scale up production from one small lab to an industrial complex was remarkable. The B-reactor was water-cooled, unlike the air-cooled reactors found in Oak Ridge, TN. Despite the advances in technology, fission, the splitting of an atom into two smaller atoms, wasn't discovered until December 1940. Nowadays, the Hanford site's reactors are decommissioned, and the federal government is working to clean up hazardous waste left over from plutonium production.

Tour at the Hanford B Reactor


Washington State has many natural resources as well as a significant role in modern and world history. Hanford is one of the sites in the state that repays deeper exploration, a place where history meets the present. It provides insight into how technology progressed, how the government recruited workers, and how the project's success or otherwise shaped the identity of the local community. The podcast is an excellent resource for those who want to learn about Hanford before visiting, while the tours and the park make it easy for people to explore the site. Ultimately, it is important to remember that while Hanford was an integral part of the United States' World War II efforts, it is now a place where the technology and the lessons of the past can inform how we approach the future.

Each episode we will have a chat with someone who has a great story to share about Washington State. From artists, to business owners.  Musicians to athletes. Exploring Washington State will showcase the beauty and creativity here in Washington State.

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Want other great ideas of places to visit, or to find out more about people who are making amazing things in Washington State  visit Explore Washington State.

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