You may have read in late August that Hanford's B reactor was granted national landmark status by the U.S. government. The B reactor was the world's first full-scale nuclear reactor, and it helped drive the famed Manhattan Project. It produced the plutonium used for the first atomic test blast and for the bomb the U.S. dropped on Nagasaki, Japan. The well-deserved designation offers an opportunity to raise the issue of landmark status for the University of Washington's own historic Nuclear Reactor Building (More Hall Annex) in Seattle. It was slated for demolition this summer while it was also up for national register consideration. So, what happened?The review has been delayed. Originally scheduled for late July by the Governor's Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the UW requested a postponement. It will now be considered at the council's meeting in Kirkland on October 17. Why the wait? It was requested by the university and is not uncommon, says the state's top preservation officer, Allyson Brooks. The UW promised not to demolish it in the meantime.
The delay gives the UW more time to respond — and object — to the nomination. The reactor is decommissioned, and the UW wants to raze the building. But a UW grad student, Abby Martin, undertook a crusade to save the structure, which is architecturally unusual and a rare example of a 1960s "teaching" reactor complex designed to open the process of atomic energy and the training of nuclear engineers to public view. It was also designed by a team of important Northwest architects.
In the meantime, the UW is trying to get its ducks back in a row. The university wanted to demolish the building this summer, but in light of the nomination, they have gone back to the drawing board on the permit process. According to UW spokesman Bob Roseth, the UW is drafting a new Environmental Impact Statement for the project and is going through the SEPA (State Environmental Policy Act) process again. That process takes into account the historic significance of the building. There could also be some other paperwork issues at the federal end: A question has been raised about whether the Nuclear Regulatory Commission did its homework in assessing the impact to the historic reactor structure during the decommissioning process, which is required by the National Preservation Act.
The UW is also preparing a document that makes its case against preserving the building and is undertaking its own "historic resources study." The UW's ace in the hole, it believes, is the fact that the Nuke Building is not yet 50 years old, the usual threshold for National Register listings (it was built in 1961). However, the law makes an allowance for structures that are "exceptional." Michael Houser, architectural historian with the state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, says their office believes the building is "definitely eligible" under the National Register criterion. The next step is to see whether the governor's council agrees, in which case the final decision would be up to the feds.
There is a growing movement to embrace and recognize the history of the Atomic Age, especially in the West. While the UW's reactor has long been shut down, the building is a fascinating testament to a scientific era symbolized by the New Frontier and seems like a prime candidate for adaptive reuse. A National Register listing won't guarantee its preservation, but it looks like everyone is learning something in the process of ferreting out its history, assessing its significance, and navigating the sometimes arcane and bureaucratic process of keeping history alive. A "teaching" reactor it still is.