The Manhattan Project

Hanford 25th Anniversary Celebration

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Hanford 25th Anniversary Celebration

This program was recorded at the 25th anniversary of the construction of the B Reactor, the world’s first full-scale nuclear reactor, in Hanford, WA. Leading Manhattan Project scientists, including Glenn Seaborg, John Wheeler, Lombard Squires, and Norman Hilberry, as well as its military leaders, General Leslie R. Groves and Colonel Franklin Matthias, participated in the ceremony. They discussed the start of the Manhattan Project, how the reactor’s site was chosen, the challenges of building the reactor and the chemical separations plant, and the different processes that were considered to separate plutonium. They also recalled the relationship between the military and civilian scientists and why they became involved in the Manhattan Project to help win World War II. They philosophized on the significance of nuclear power and its potential for future projects, from agriculture to space exploration.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
June 7, 1968
Location of the Interview: 
Hanford
Transcript: 

[Many thanks to Claude Lyneis for donating this footage to the Atomic Heritage Foundation.]

Narrator: About seventy-five miles northwest of Walla Walla, Washington, in an isolated expanse of open desert, civilization entered into a new age, an age from which it would never emerge the same. Here, in the home of the Wanapum Indians, the terrain is mostly scrubland, laced here and there by cheatgrass, greasewood, and Russian thistle.

The first white man to gaze upon this country was frontier explorer William Clark, when the Lewis and Clark expedition arrived at the joining of the Yakima and Columbia Rivers in 1805.

It is also here, in 1943, where vast herds of wild horses once overran the prairie, that the 400,000 acre government reservation of the Hanford atomic energy plant was created.

Today, twenty-five years later, these surface ruins sketch out the sea of barracks and hutments that once sheltered the thousands of men who created this miracle in the desert. Gone are the apple orchards. Gone, too, are the vineyards and asparagus fields. All that remains are these potholed roads and uprooted trees that ghostly testify to that derelict, wartime encampment which built the world’s first plutonium production reactor.

About twenty-five miles up the Columbia River from the prewar farming community of Richland, Washington, a journey into the unknown began in 1943. This was the $350,000,000 crash program to build the world’s plutonium production facility at Hanford. Across an area half the size of Rhode Island, 640 square miles of open desert, sprawled the massive nuclear facility that became a milestone in the development of atomic energy.

Two and a half decades later, on June 7, 1968, the silver anniversary of that historic beginning of the Hanford Engineer Works was held in the city of Richland, the rural village of 250 people that the atomic age transformed into a thriving community of 25,000.

The 25th anniversary ceremonies began with an informal press conference at the Rivershore Motor Inn, featuring wartime Manhattan Project director, General Leslie R. Groves, and the Atomic Energy Commission Chairman, Dr. Glenn Seaborg.

Glenn Seaborg: It’s a pleasure to be back here for this 25th anniversary reunion and see so many of my old friends, the people that were instrumental in making this project such a success.

Narrator: Dr. Seaborg expressed the feeling that the present status of the Atomic Energy Commission was consistent with any predictions made 25 years ago. He also defined the Commission’s role in nuclear science as one of developing new areas of research to a point where they could be taken over by industry.

In response to the question of America’s decision to build the bomb, General Groves, who headed the Manhattan Project, replied:

General Leslie R. Groves: Taking up I think [Ernest] Lawrence, [Enrico] Fermi, and [J. Robert] Oppenheimer, and Arthur Compton. They were on this committee, and they came up with the answer that they saw nothing else to do. And of course, I would say those were our leaders, in every sense of the word, at that time. They were the best men in the project from the times they could spend.

Narrator: Dr. Seaborg also commented on the question:

Seaborg: I felt that this was the only thing to do at the time. We sincerely thought that we were in a race with the Nazis. A nuclear station had been discovered in Germany. We thought that we were therefore in a race for survival. Whoever got the atomic bomb first would certainly have the upper hand. I might add General Groves, during this time while we were working on the atomic bomb, there were very few scientists that would have had qualms about it. They all felt that this was something we had to do.

Narrator: General Groves personalized the project.

Groves: We would stop and think once in a while, “This is a terrible thing,” but after all, an awful lot of American lives were involved.

Narrator: This conference was followed by a reactor narration session held in B Reactor, the first of the original Hanford plutonium production reactors built by the DuPont Company.

The reactor construction began in June of 1943, and was completed 16 months later in October of 1944. The reactor went critical on September 25, 1944, and 8,540 days later, on February 12, 1968, the reactor was deactivated.

Dr. Charles D. Harrington, President of Douglas United Nuclear, chaired the reactor session and introduced the four panel speakers.

Charles D. Harrington: First of all, on my left here is Colonel Frank Matthias. He is now Vice President of Keizer Engineering, and is responsible for all of the heavy construction and hydroelectric plants in the United States and Canada.

On the far left is Professor John Wheeler. He is the Joseph Henry Professor of Physics at Princeton University. He has done much research and published many scientific papers in the field of the atomic and theoretical physics.

Next on my right is Dr. Dale Babcock, who is Director of Reactor Engineering of the Atomic Energy Division of the DuPont Company.

On my far right is Professor Norman Hilberry, who is Professor of Nuclear Engineering at the University of Arizona since his retirement from the Directorship of Argonne National Laboratories.

Narrator: The unprecedented task of building a secret plutonium production facility was staggering to the imagination. Colonel Matthias remembers the first steps.

Colonel Frank Matthias: My first introduction to the project was on the 14th of December 1942, when General Groves sent me to Wilmington to a meeting with the plant people.

Well now, the next thing is to find a place. So he suggested that I get busy the next day and find out where there was going to be power enough, because one of the requirements was at least 100,000 kilowatts of power. Another requirement was a lot of cool freshwater. The requirements of the construction man, for a good site in a buildable area, was fundamental to them. The desirability of finding an area in which there were as few as possible number of people was also a factor to minimize the relocation problem.

There was initially a hope that this site would not be closer to the coast than 250 miles. This one we missed a little bit. We got an allocation of power from the War Production Board. We got a flight limitation over the area. We worked out an agreement to get both the Army and the Navy out of the area, where they were using it for gunnery practice. And by early January, General Groves came out and looked at the site, and away we went.

We knew there was going to be a tremendous impact on the community. We had the security obligation of keeping everything secret. We knew that the normal services would be tremendously interrupted by the impact of this construction. We didn’t realize how much. But as the job went along, we realized more and more how a project like this gets into just about every phase of human activity. And our problems were multiplied by the site. On the 10th of June, we had 4,500 people working on the project, and on the 11th of June, I called General Groves and reported that we needed 1,500 more common labor. We ended up with a peak employment of 45,000 people.   

Narrator: One of the first American scientists to concentrate on nuclear fission was

Dr. John Wheeler. He recalls the early 1939 incidents.

John Wheeler: How fast it all went is illustrated at least by the circumstance that the chairman of one of the very first committees in the early days of the Manhattan Project, when asked what his requirements would be, said that $5,000 ought to do for the year. [Laughter]

The day that I met [Niels] Bohr was the beginning of work on fission. He soon had to go back to Denmark, but we had great discussions at that time—[Eugene] Wigner, Fermi, [Leo] Szilard—and other colleagues about what would be the future of fission. I could remember Bohr saying that it would be impossible to think of making a weapon, that it would take the efforts of an entire country to do it. And little did he realize that it would be the efforts of three countries involved, England, Canada, and the United States.

But to me, as a very junior member of the enterprise, the most striking thing in the whole project was this contact with my colleagues in the world of engineering to get on with a job, and then the concern about safety. There were six of us from the American group and six of us from the British group sitting across the table. I was discussing this question about safety of reactors, only one chance in a million that control system #1 would fail. And if that failed, only one chance in a million that control system #2 would fail. And if that failed, only one chance in a million that control system #3 would fail, and an unbelievably small chance that everything would break down.

I said, “Then it follows from this, that what we have to worry about is not the failure of the control system, but the failure of human systems. We have to worry about the chance that this will happen. Somebody who is so trusted that he slips through the security system, and so clever that he can turn off the engineering safety system.” Sitting across from me was Klaus Fuchs, the greatest spy of all time. One month later, he was in jail.

So I would summarize then that here we see alchemy, the old dream of manufacturing elements first realized at this city of Richland. We see here also something that to me means very much. The empty hospitals overseas, prepared for the invasion of Japan that were never used, tell only part of this story. The half million or more casualties that were expected on the American side—of course, only a fraction of those that would have occurred altogether. So this reactor means a great deal to me.    

Narrator: Dr. Dale Babcock, who worked with Dr. Wheeler on the development of heavy water reactors, recalls some of the more humorous incidents at Hanford, including an itinerant heating method.

Dale Babcock: The wonderful design engineers that John has been talking about had designed in our room all kinds of valves and traps and whatnot to convey the steam around, and we were getting the excess that didn’t go into the pipes. Another interesting item is the construction of a robot. As you were told, the reactor puts out highly radioactive material. It could not be approached by people unless they were separated from the radioactive material by a large amount of shielding.

The question was asked, what would we do? We didn’t have a mechanism of getting a piece of mechanical equipment in there. Men, of course, couldn’t come in. So the engineers designed a robot, which as I remember, weighed about 30 tons, and of course was largely made out of lead. Gilbert Millen climbed into this robot and as things would happen, they couldn’t get him out. I laughed at him.

Here with Dr. Fermi, one day, he asked us when we were crossing a certain five mile area out here to note the number of coyotes that we saw crossing the road. Well, after Fermi had enough data on this, he told us that there was about one coyote to the square mile on the project out here. One final piece of calculation was, one day someone came in and said, “I hit a coyote today. How do I count it? Does it cross the road?”

Well, it so turned out that this was a very interesting item to Dr. Fermi. He says. “This becomes a collision probability.” He did a little bit of arithmetic and he says, “Why, that says that the cross section of coyote is only one square centimeter.”

Narrator: The reactor session’s final speaker was Dr. Norman Hilberry, whose association with nuclear energy dates back to early 1941.

Norman Hilberry: These days were all exciting. The second safety thing was a lesson I learned in this room. George Weil and I both learned much about safety from the DuPont procedure. We used to kid them that you could always tell a DuPont safety man, because he was the guy that went around with a pocket full of subcontractor’s badges. He kept his job if he could get a DuPont badge off and a subcontractor’s badge on before the guy bounced a second time.

When we started off on January 3, 1942, to design the first gas-cooled reactor, the group in the room were all physicists. As far as I can remember, that day we covered essentially, basically every kind of reactor design, except about three, that’s been suggested since. Came up with a gas-cooled reactor design, which immediately started in. We started in with the reactor design at that moment.

The reason we were doing it, the reason for plutonium, was that the isotope separation might indeed prove to be impossible. It’s a horrible business, really.  Anybody who has ever built a vacuum system, all you had to do was be told what K-25 was like, and this was a nightmare. You knew it was impossible. The fact that they did it doesn’t change it. It was still impossible!   

Narrator: Later that afternoon, the anniversary program moved into one of the large chemical separation canyon buildings, which had been converted into a unique decontamination facility. The President of Atlantic Richfield Hanford Company, Dr. L. M. Richards, was chairman of the plutonium separation session.

L. M. Richards: The T Plant was constructed to isolate plutonium that was formed in the reactors, which you just left. It was built in 1944 by the DuPont Company, and it started operations on December 26, 1944. It’s approximately 900 feet long, or the length of three football fields. It is 72 feet high and 68 feet wide.

In the building are 42 processing cells, 18 feet long, 13 feet wide, and 22 feet high. These cells are covered with concrete blocks 6 feet thick when in actual operation. The walls in this building were designed to reduce the radiation levels, so that individuals could work in the building without hazard. The thickness of the walls range from 5 to 11 feet.

I would like to start off by introducing the first speaker, Dr. Glenn Seaborg, who will cover the events leading up to the decision that plutonium should be manufactured for the war effort. Dr. Seaborg.

Seaborg: Thank you, Larry. I thought that a good place to begin would be using Norman Hilberry’s discussion this morning as a starting point. I remember being called to Chicago in February of 1942 by Arthur Compton. Arthur putting the question to me after describing what they planned for the nuclear chain reaction to produce the plutonium, whether I thought the plutonium could be chemically separated successfully. I told Arthur I thought yes. I thought we would be able to separate this.

Narrator: Dr. Seaborg and his colleagues had discovered plutonium in December 1940. Not until September 1942 was the new manmade element weighed for the first time, a mere 2.77 micrograms. Two years later, in December 1944, the Hanford plant began large-scale production of plutonium. Dr. Seaborg recalls the difficulty in achieving an acceptable plutonium carrying process.

Seaborg: We considered all possibilities. A precipitation process, that would be a process where you would precipitate something tangible from solution and that would carry these illusive, almost invisible amounts of plutonium down so you could filter it out with the precipitate.

We considered volatility processes. That is, methods where you could form a compound so that the plutonium would selectively be vaporized off, and the fission products in the uranium would remain behind.

We considered solvent extraction processes. That would be processes where you could take the water solution and treat it with an organic solvent, and hope you could find a solvent that would extract the plutonium more or less selectively and then leave the uranium and the fission products behind.

We considered absorption processes, that is, where you could put the material through a column with a packed absorbent, hoping the plutonium might be absorbed selectively, and the uranium and the fission products might go through. I’m oversimplifying all this. This would be the ideal process, if we could find that.

We considered metallurgical processes, solid processes where you could melt the material or make salts out of it and extract in that phase.

We had as a basis the work that had been done at the Radiation Laboratory at Berkeley, which showed that plutonium existed in two oxidation states. We tried all kinds of cold precipitants. Finally, as late as December 19, 1942, Stanley G. Thompson found that plutonium could be carried by bismuth phosphate from an acid solution, under certain unusual conditions, conditions that were really different than any we had used up until this time, in a cold precipitation process.

However, the lanthanum fluoride process was still the process of choice, because so much more was known about it. However, the work with the bismuth phosphate process continued during the spring of 1943, and it began to look better and better. Plutonium could be carried down by bismuth phosphate. When the plutonium was in the lower oxidation state, it could be successfully oxidized, and the bismuth phosphate precipitated without carrying the plutonium, when the plutonium was in the upper oxidation state. So we had the outline again of an oxidation-reduction procedure.

So to make a long story short, we were asked to participate in a decision-making session on June 1 of 1943, in which Crawford Greenewalt, Lom Squires, and others were present. The choice being between the lanthanum fluoride process, with its corrosive, objectionable qualities, and the bismuth phosphate process, which was so poorly developed.

I can remember at that meeting, that Crawford Greenwald at one stage turned to me and said that he preferred the bismuth phosphate process, and that he was willing to settle on the bismuth phosphate process, therefore, if I could guarantee for him a yield of at least 50%. I told him that I thought I could guarantee that. On that basis, the decision was made to go ahead with the bismuth phosphate process.

Narrator: Once the plutonium separation process was selected, the next problem was to scale up the micro-chemical tests to the demands of industrial production scales. Dr. O. H. Greager comments.            

Owald H. Greager: The scale of this semi-works was 1/25th, and this seemed to be a reasonable scale for our work there. Our work was largely facial work, of course, because we couldn’t handle an intense radioactivity that would have been involved in full-scale work.

The 1/25th scale operation was almost 10,000 times up from the test tube scale that had been employed in the earlier work. While, as Dr. Seaborg has pointed out, these people were able to demonstrate that the bismuth phosphate process did work, and did carry, and did take the plutonium with it at the full Hanford concentrations they were anticipating., he is talking about something that was done on ultra-microscopic scale or an ultra-micro-chemical scale. He was not talking about the larger scale that we employed in the semi-works.

A 25% yield and one precipitation of a multi-cycle process, which would have to be employed in order to get your plutonium pure enough for the purpose it was going to be used, was far from being anywhere near adequate. The process continued to improve and the yields got better and things looked quite promising at a reasonably early stage. But there were lots of problems to be worked out, and this 50% yield that Glenn referred to a while ago was still on people’s minds as late as the middle of 1944. I could have gotten some very long odds at that particular time with anything like a 75% yield early in the Hanford process.

As the process did show improvement, we finally got to the point where the real      answer that needed to be obtained was whether or not this scaled-up process, this 1/25th scale we were operating on, would carry and would yield a plutonium that we needed on the kind of a scale we are talking about at the full Hanford plutonium concentration.     

Narrator: To produce the purer plutonium, three different steps had to be performed: a plutonium carrying process, an extraction and decontamination process, and the eventual isolation process—and all remotely maintained. Dr. Lombard Squires of DuPont remembers.

Lombard Squires: The design effort for the separations works started well before the DuPont Company became involved in late December of ’42. The designers had two overriding criteria to meet. First involved with the fact that the process couldn’t be firmed up and demonstrated for some period of months. Therefore, the design had to contemplate a great deal of flexibility, to be able to take almost any process the chemists finally decided upon. Greg [Oswald Greager] and his people finally were able to demonstrate and operate it.

Secondly, we had a completely new requirement here, and that was to build a plant that could be remotely maintained. The construction of this plant, as has been mentioned, took just one year, from October of ’43 to October of ’44.

This again, gives you an idea of how timescales are compressed during the war, and how with General Groves and the Corps of Engineers and the vast influence they had in getting materials and people, you could do a job without having to worry about budgets and Congressional hearings and the like. Some ten years later, we built another separations plant. Pretty much the same team of people, pretty much the experience behind us. It took us two and a half times as long under normal commercial conditions.

Narrator: The final speaker was Dr. George Watt, whose salty humor livened up the plutonium separation session.

George Watt: The moment of truth for the group in the 231-Building came with the first shipment of product from the 224-Building. It was received, of course, in a closed container. We transferred it to the vessel in which the first chemical operation was to be done.

To our astonishment, we saw not a clear solution, but a black liquid, on which floated a layer of oil. We couldn’t be sure about the standard solids, because the solution was opaque. We nevertheless proceeded with the chemical addition, whereupon, as was supposed to happen, a green precipitate separated. We stood there with this feeling of great accomplishment, and watched the precipitate re-dissolve, never again to reappear. Vance Cooper, Manny Limner, both of whom were present, and some others and I worked, I believe, three shifts trying to resurrect the precipitate, whereupon we got a reprieve. The second shipment arrived.

I should add that the plutonium concentration in the original one was supposed to have been 30 grams per liter, and turned out to be eight. The iron concentration was such that for a time we debated the advisability of abandoning the plutonium and recovering the iron.

Nonetheless, we put aside the first shipment of product and proceeded to isolate the plutonium from the second shipment. The question of course arose was what to do with the first shipment. I will simply say that we handled this with very great ingenuity. We kept it around until the concentration of plutonium coming through the plant was great enough, and then recycled it.

Seaborg: I must say that George had to handle a really tough process development problem. Actually, the process was chosen somewhat arbitrarily.   

Narrator: Theory had indicated that the bismuth phosphate Process would not work, and many scientists believed that it wouldn’t. Faced with this prospect, Dr. Seaborg remembers his concern.

Seaborg: To me, it was inconceivable and inconsistent despite the theory that it wouldn’t carry. I asked Burris Cunningham, who you will recall I mentioned was in charge of our ultra-micro chemistry group, whether he wouldn’t have another test made just to be absolutely sure.

Burris came to me with a long look on his face, and said his microchemists have made this test and their stuff didn’t carry. It was just oh, 15% or something like this. I said, “Drop everything, roll up your sleeves, go back into the laboratory and test it yourself.” He did, did it that afternoon, and came back late in the day or the following morning. I said, “Well, what was the result?”

He rather sheepishly said, “Well, it carries.”

I said, “How much?”

“Well, 98%.”

I said, “Go back and try and try it again.” He went back again. A day or so later, later in the day, he came back. I said, “Well, what was the result?”

He said, “99%.”

I said, “Okay, that’s good enough,” and that was the process. Then I had to go down the hall and tell George Watt, “This is the process. You’ve got to make it work. The advantage, of course, is that you now have only one process to work on and not all of them.”

Squires: I think one of the advantages we had in this end of the business, though, is the fact that we were pretty much let alone after the period that Glenn describes, when the process was frozen. We may not have known where we were going all at the time, at least we could get there by ourselves. And this, I think, had some advantage.

In my opinion, the job that the DuPont Company did in scaling up this process from these tracer scale experiments and these ultra-micro chemical experiments, to its successful implementation on the industrial scale here in this building, is one of the most marvelous engineering feats in the history of industrial chemistry.

Narrator: The anniversary ceremonies came to a close for the fraternity of nuclear scientists, with a reception and banquet held at the Rivershore Motor Inn. General Leslie Groves, who was in charge of the entire wartime Manhattan Project, recalled the reasons for selecting the Hanford site.

Groves: As most of you may know, I’ve been connected with construction. I have been all over the country. I’ve lived in many parts of it, including the state of Washington, but on the other side of the mountains. I knew the country very well. We also knew where the power was. I told Colonel Matthias just where this plant would probably be. I thought you might be interested in that. It was Horse Heaven.

In general, Hanford at that time looked just like the sagebrush—that is, as an area—looked just like the sagebrush fields you see as you go up towards the reactor locations. That was the general impression. The land did not become valuable agriculturally, until we started to condemn it.

But I wanted to give you that first impression, and how we happened to come here. There were several reasons. One was power, one was the Columbia River, and we were more fortunate in that than we realized when we made the choice. The other thing was that—which was all-important—was an ability to construct year round. Despite all the venomous remarks that have been made about the dust storms, you could work out there.

The other thing that I think is important to remember is what made this project as a whole a success. Actually, it was the triumph of what I’ve always termed “The American Way of Life.” I think one of the most important features in that was the role played by American management.         

Narrator: General Groves spoke about how the project strained even the DuPont resources. He later went on to praise Dr. Wheeler.

Groves: I think the first real physicist who joined them and worked with them was Dr. Wheeler. They leaned on him so heavily I was always surprised that his back didn’t break. Of course, he was more than a physicist. He was a most unusual one. He understood the problems of the engineer and the whole business world, and he had the DuPont organization eating out of his hand.          All they could say to me was, “Can’t you find a few more like Dr. Wheeler to come up and help us?” Some of the others were a little bit difficult at times.   

Narrator: Dr. Glenn Seaborg enlarged upon the success of the large-scale alchemy that was achieved at Hanford.

Seaborg: I recalled that it was during my second trip here in December 1944, that we were asked to sign the numerous specifications for the bismuth phosphate process, which was to be operated in the just-completed first chemical separation plant. This was, amazingly, only 18 months after the historic decision to adopt the bismuth phosphate process for the separation here.

Narrator: Chairman Seaborg then turned his remarks to the broader aspects of the spinoff associated with the massive production of the new chemical element plutonium.

Seaborg: The great potential power spilled forth from the nuclear furnaces of Hanford is now becoming the fire of the future. It’s the type of fire that will bring more people not only physical comforts, through heat, and light, and power, and water, and food—just to mention a few of the benefits—but a large measure of added knowledge and understanding. The time is not far off when clean, compact, competitive nuclear plants will be the conventional power plants of this day.

But being conventional is not the goal of most of us interested in nuclear power, and far from it. We look forward, and are working and planning accordingly, to the day when abundant, versatile, and very economic nuclear power, together with other technological advances that are taking place, will make possible a new era of human progress.

Narrator: Dr. Seaborg closed his remarks with a reference to the future development of very large complexes of reactors called “Nuplex.”

Seaborg: From studies that were originated by Dr. R. Philip Hammond at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and vigorously advanced by Dr. Alvin Weinberg, Director of the Laboratory, have come the idea of constructing large, nuclear-powered agro-industrial complexes on such desert areas. These complexes, using large reactors—even of the types currently under construction today, but of course better when the breeder comes along—would be used to dissolve seawater in quantities of several hundred millions of gallons per day, and to provide the power to produce large quantities of ammonia and phosphorous fertilizer, as well as all other electricity to operate the complex and its community.

The role of nuclear energy on and under the sea and its use as a source of power in remote, inhospitable areas of the earth; its varied applications in space, both in satellites that will give us greater knowledge about the earth and in nuclear-powered projects that will see us colonize the moon and explore the distant planets—all these are among the other possibilities which are evolving in part from the large-scale alchemy that was begun here in Hanford and Richland 25 years ago.

Narrator: Thus the end came to the 25th anniversary ceremonies, commemorating the construction of the world’s first plutonium factory at Hanford.

In a civilization completely dependent upon energy, nuclear energy has been the first new source discovered in over 100 years. These are some of the men who went into the desert and wrenched the energy from the heart of the atom. These are some of the men who formed a unique alliance of government, community, and industry, which helped turn back the dark forces of tyranny that threatened civilization. These are the men who returned to that crucible of wartime endeavor 25 years later to recall their strange odyssey. These are the men who defeated elements both natural and unnatural. These are the men.