Until the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, More Hall Annex, a massive concrete building on the University of Washington campus was called the Nuclear Reactor Building. As the name indicates, the building housed a nuclear reactor used to provide training opportunities to students in the Department of Nuclear Engineering. The building was utilized until 1988 when fears about toxic nuclear waste prompted a decline in program enrollment. The nuclear reactor hung out, untouched, until the 9/11 terrorist attacks inspired the university to decommission the reactor for good lest it end up in the wrong hands. As an extra measure, they changed the name of the building to More Hall Annex to deter anyone in search of nuclear material.

Seattle nuclear reactorUW Nuclear Reactor Building. Photo: Jennifer Mortensen, Washington Trust for Historic Preservation

The reactor was repurposed into the flux capacitor for the 1985 classic film, Back to the Future — just kidding. The hunk of radioactive material was taken to The United States Department of Energy’s Hanford Reservation which sits on 586-square-miles in the desert of southeastern Washington State.

Seattle nuclear reactor 2Two Hanford employees working on a reactor core, Hanford Nuclear Reservation, 1961. Photo: MOHAI

Plutonium from Hanford was used in the “Fat Man” bomb which was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan in August of 1945. The nine Hanford reactors produced plutonium from 1944 until 1987. The site has been in a transitional, clean-up phase since 1989.

Seattle nuclear reactor 3Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Photo: Wikipedia

After a vigorous campaign by preservation advocates, the UW Nuclear Reactor building was granted historic landmark status in 2009. The building represents a style of architecture called “brutalism.” Brutalism features giant concrete blocks, heavy shapes, sharp angles, and intricate texture. The Brutalist architectural style was developed in the 1950s and came into vogue during the 1960s and 1970s when college campuses were eager to demonstrate their modernity.

Seattle nuclear reactor 4Nuclear Reactor building built in 1961. Photo: University of Washington

Concrete was considered an honest, humble material, not hiding behind any paint or layers. It was also very inexpensive. Brutalist designs were originally intended to represent a socialist, utopian ideology, but have ironically come to be associated with coldness and totalitarianism. Many people find them downright hideous and call for their destruction.

Architecture students appreciate brutalist buildings because they know that working with concrete requires great skill. Every little detail has to be calculated in advance because once the concrete is poured, there’s no going back to fix it, says Roman Mars in his 99% Invisible podcast on the topic.

Seattle nuclear reactor 5Nuclear Reactor Building. Photo: Jennifer Mortensen, Washington Trust for Historic Preservation

The building has two floors. The larger lower level housed the reactor, a laboratory, a crystal spectrometer, a counting room, classroom space, workshop spaces, restrooms, and offices. The structure was designed by UW architects Wendell Lovett, Gene Zema and Daniel Streissguth.

“The trio designed a structure that could safely house a small “teaching reactor” for student nuclear engineers, but also included enough windows to make the secretive process of generating nuclear energy literally more transparent,” wrote Knute Berger for Crosscut.

The university installed an Argonaut research reactor in the building. The reactor began operations in April 1961 at 10 kilowatts, and increased to 100 kilowatts in 1967. It used Uranium-235, a highly concentrated radioactive material, in the form of three-foot by four-inch by one-quarter-inch plates for fuel and water for cooling.

Seattle nuclear reactor 6Nuclear reactor building sections. Photo: UW facilities

The upper level had a lecture room and the control room for the reactor. Three sides of the upper level were open to the outside, where there was an observation deck. The fourth side was accessible from the inside, for use by students.

University of Washington Nuclear Reactor, ca. 1963. Video: University of Washington Libraries

The More Hall Annex building still stands on University of Washington’s Seattle campus, but its future is uncertain. In 2014 the university unveiled plans to demolish the historic building and redevelop the site into a 130,000-square foot Computer Science and Engineering II building. Seattle preservation advocates Historic Seattle, the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, and Docomomo WEWA have rallied together in a campaign to “Save the Reactor.”

Seattle nuclear reactor 7Nuclear Reactor Building Heartbombing. Photo: John Shea

On the day before Valentine’s Day, 2015, about 25 supporters of the preservation of the Nuclear Reactor Building held a “heart-bombing” in front of the structure. Advocates gathered in Seattle for a group photo holding homemade Valentines to show their love for the historic building.

Seattle nuclear reactor 8Nuclear Reactor Building. Photo: Jennifer Mortensen, Washington Trust for Historic Preservation

In late November, activists submitted letters in support of the preservation of the Nuclear Reactor building in response to the University of Washington’s Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement calling for its demolition. What’s next for the historic building is yet to be seen. You can follow all the atomic drama as it unfolds at Save the Reactor and learn more about Seattle’s role in nuclear history here.

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