Less than two months before his assassination in Dallas, President John F. Kennedy paid a visit to Central Washington.
In an event at the Hanford nuclear reservation attended by 30,000 people Sept. 26, 1963, Kennedy presided over the groundbreaking for a nuclear reactor that would generate electricity while creating plutonium for use in nuclear weapons.
The N Reactor was the ninth — and last — reactor built at the facility north of Richland near the Columbia River. The previous eight reactors were built during World War II to supply plutonium for the Manhattan Project and, later, developing America’s nuclear arsenal.
U.S. Sens. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson and Warren G. Magnuson as well as local officials pushed for the reactor in the 1950s to preserve jobs at the site as the older reactors were decommissioned.
General Electric initially proposed creating dual-purpose nuclear reactors to make a civilian nuclear-energy industry. The idea was that utility companies could operate the reactors to generate electricity, while the government provided the uranium fuel to run the reactor and would extract plutonium from the spent fuel rods.
The plan faced opposition, as there were people who felt that there was already enough plutonium being produced by other reactors in the country.
Jackson and the state Senate — which argued that Hanford would go from being a power consumer to producer if the project were approved — persuaded Congress to authorize the construction of the plant, but only if the Washington Public Power Supply System would pay for the power facilities to be built on land leased from the Atomic Energy Commission, as well as WPPSS offering half the power generated to private utility companies.
Kennedy’s visit to Hanford came during an 11-state tour of the western United States, targeting states that had snubbed him during the 1960 election. Like Theodore Roosevelt’s and William Howard Taft’s visits to Yakima a half-century earlier, Kennedy’s visit inspired a giant wave of activity as the Tri-Cities rolled out the red carpet.
Schools in Richland dismissed early so children could go with their families to see and hear the president, and high school bands from the Tri-Cities and Prosser performed for the crowds. Contractors at the site cleared off 130 acres to accommodate the crowd and paved a landing pad for the presidential helicopter.
More than 1,500 dignitaries attended in a special roped-off area. It was said that the audience of 30,000 was the largest to attend an event on the nuclear reservation.
Kennedy spoke for 12 minutes, warning about the dangers of nuclear weapons while describing Hanford’s new reactor as “a chance to strike a blow for peace.”
When it came time for the groundbreaking, Atomic Energy Commission member Gerald Tape handed Kennedy a pointer that he said was tipped with a piece of uranium from Hanford’s first reactor. Kennedy brought the wand near a Geiger counter, and as it started to click rapidly, a 60-foot crane came to life and dumped a load of dirt.
“I assume this is wholly on the level and there is no one over there working it,” Kennedy quipped.
After shaking hands with a few people, Kennedy headed to Salt Lake City for another speech.
It took about four hours for the last of the cars to leave the Hanford site — long enough that some people were able to hear Kennedy’s speech in Salt Lake City on their car radios.
The reactor, with a few upgrades, continued to operate at Hanford until 1987, when it was shut down due to its age and worries that it shared some of the same design features as the Chernobyl nuclear reactor that had exploded in Ukraine the previous year.
During its lifetime, it generated more than 65 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity — enough to power roughly 6 million homes for a year.
On June 14, 2012, the reactor, its fuel removed, was “cocooned” to wait for the core’s radiation levels to reach manageable levels, a process that is expected to be complete by 2087.