The Manhattan Project

Theodore Rockwell's Interview (2005)

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Theodore “Ted” Rockwell was born in Chicago in 1923. As a graduate student at Princeton University, Ted was recruited to work as an engineer at the Y-12 plant in Oak Ridge, TN in late 1943. Rockwell was assigned to the “Tiger Team” at Oak Ridge, which responded to problems that arose in the Y-12 Plant. After the war, Rockwell continued his career in nuclear technology, becoming Technical Director for Admiral Hyman Rickover. In this interview, Ted explains how the electromagnetic separation process of the calutrons worked at the Y-12 Plant and how the gaseous diffusion process at the K-25 Plant worked. He discusses his duties in the Manhattan Project and his work with Admiral Rickover in the years after the war. He also explains why he thinks safety concerns over nuclear reactors, nuclear waste, and radiation are usually blown out of proportion.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
2005
Location of the Interview: 
Washington
Transcript: 

Ted Rockwell: It's Theodore Rockwell, R - O - C - K - W - E - L - L. And what do you want to know?

Cindy Kelly: Okay. Tell us about how you happened to go to the Manhattan Project?

Rockwell: Well, they were interviewing at school. I came along interviewing for a classified project that he couldn't tell us anything about, but it was very important. He wouldn't tell us where they were or what they did. That was back in Christmas vacation of 1943, and I signed up. Then I went back to finish my Master's. But after a short time they called me down and said, "Come on, let's get going. This is a war job." So that's what I did.

I was doing graduate work at Princeton University, and the recruiter came around there to recruit for jobs. I hired on at that point and went down to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, 

outside of Knoxville. And this turned out to be the plant where they separate the fissionable isotope from the non-fissionable massive isotope of uranium. It was that big process.

It was a town of 75,000 people, the fifth largest town in Oak Ridge. Not at that time, but became that by the end of the war. The governor didn't even know it was there at first. President [Harry] Truman didn't know it was there for a while. The story they tell about him was that when he was on the House Appropriations Committee, he couldn't see where all this money was going and started to ask some questions about it. Roosevelt called [Kenneth] McKellar in, I guess, it was and said, "Your guys have been asking questions. We have an important war job we want done and it's going to take a lot of money, and we don't want any questions on it. Can you do that?"

McKellar said, "Yes sir, Mr. President. Where in Tennessee are you going to put this project?" Of course, I guess he didn't know they'd already decided that. [Laughter]

It was an interesting situation down there. It was a frontier town. Frontier towns are different. Frontier people are different. But this was a very different frontier. It was scientists. There were Nobel Laureates there and their children. Their children were going to school with local people, some of whom had never even used indoor plumbing.

So you had a complete scope of activities there, and a social status and so forth. And yet, it was really one very friendly community. We were all inside the fence. It was a place where kids could play and you didn't worry about them getting hurt. But it was a very strange community in a lot of ways, a very socialistic community in some ways, highly technological. In trying to make a normal life, people would set up, let's say, a chapter of the League of Women Voters or the Boy Scouts. But they weren't allowed to contact the headquarters and let people know they were there.

Only first names were used in a lot of these things. So if they report the high school football games or anything, the local paper was not supposed to be taken out of the area. But they knew if some kid ran a home run in a baseball game that they'd want to send it home to grandma or something. So they didn't use last names. Fred did this. John did that. That was all you heard. When the first baby was born, they gave the baby's first name and the parents’ first names, but no last names, because it was this very secret thing.

The famous people, the Nobel Laureates and so forth, all had code names. This caused some confusion sometimes. My wife has an interesting story on that you can get later. But the security thing did make it totally different. I had a friend who went into Knoxville with his girlfriend and he had mailed a letter. He had been working in Berkeley with E. O. Lawrence and had come to Oak Ridge from there. No one at Oak Ridge and Berkeley had any connection with each other. But he wrote a letter to his landlady, dropped it in the mailbox on the street in Knoxville, came back and found the letter pushed under his door with a note saying, "Please use the mail drop." They were not supposed to write directly from one place to the other. He couldn't understand where and how they ever found out and got that letter out of the mailbox in downtown Knoxville. But after he married the girl, he found out she was an FBI agent, so there was an answer to that one. 

My first job was to pick up a task that someone else had started, to save some of the liquid nitrogen. Liquid nitrogen is a pretty exotic substance. It came in by tank car, huge quantities of it. And it's pretty expensive. This gadget was to save the usage of it. And it was indeed effective. I went ahead and built the equipment that had been laid out by another person, and we ended up saving about 85% of the liquid nitrogen, which was going in tonnage lots before that.

But then I got the world's best job. There were seven of us, I guess, right out of school that were picked and put under a senior engineer, a tiger team, a SWAT team. We had the privilege of being able to go into lots of the buildings down there, where most people were confined by security to only one building. We could wander through the plant, and it was a Process Improvement Team. Anything we found that we could improve or any dangers that we could avoid or whatever, this we did. We did about 300 projects on that team, just little two-bit things. Some of them were pretty important, but we had the freedom to roam around with practically no-holes-barred and to work around the clock on these things.

You can walk into the shop, talk to one of the shop guys and say, "I want to do this, and I want to do this and that.”

The guy would say, "Well kid, I don't think you can make it that way, but we could do this." And between the two of us we'd work out a design and we'd sketch it off on a piece of aluminum off the shelf or whatever was there.

“When could I have it?”

“Come back at 6am and we'll have it.” This would be midnight or something like that, and you'd come back and it would be ready to go. So just around the clock anytime, we could work on these things. It was really a beautiful job.

Kelly: This was in one area, or in all of the three areas?

Rockwell: No, all of this was in Y-12. Security would not allow us to go beyond Y-12, but it was unusual even to be able to go into lots of different buildings in Y-12. Most of the young people had a badge only for one building, but I had a whole bunch of buildings that I was able to go into, which was a real special privilege.

Kelly: Tell us a little bit about Y-12. What was there?

Rockwell: Y-12 was a very big area. I've forgotten the number of acres. It was many acres. There were at peak about 22,000 workers there, and they ran these big machines that were designed on the same basis as a cyclotron. The design was based on a cyclotron, which is an atom smasher in the old days as they called it. What happened was that you heated up some uranium salts with electric heaters and vaporized them. The vapor would rise, go through an ionizing path, where they had an electron-producing filament. As it became ionized, then it was attracted to the opposite polarity and was accelerated. So these atoms took off, accelerated in a tank, and they were in a very strong magnetic field.

A charge in a magnetic field gets bent into a curve. It would bend into a semicircle, come back right toward the same direction. But the heavier isotopes under the same acceleration under the same magnetic field would be flung a little further out, because they were heavier. And so the heavier atoms would end up in one pot, and the lighter atoms would end up in an inside pot just a little closer. Of course, in real life these would get scattered a lot and the separation was very incomplete. In theory, you could go to 100 percent separation this way. But that was the deal. We were trying to separate the U-235. That's the fissionable isotope.

Kelly:  If you could draw a diagram of this, what would this diagram look like? Why did they call them D-cells?

Rockwell: These units look like a capital "D." The faceplate on the outside of the magnet, which is all you could see as you walked around these D's were all arranged in a big loop. It looked like a racetrack. They were called racetracks. It was a big elliptical sort of a circle. The faceplates were all out. That was the straight part of the D. And then the semicircle that I described, that the atoms followed in a vacuum, were the curved part of the D. So you fed the material in at the bottom of the D and it was accelerated up and out the top, and against the front of the faceplate.

Kelly: Where were the receivers?

Rockwell: The receivers were up at the top of the faceplate. The source plot was here, so it zoomed around like that. The heavy stuff went into a little bit bigger loop, and the lighter stuff went into a smaller loop.

Kelly: What happened after it collected in these receivers?

Rockwell: Ideally, all the U-235 would have gone into the lower pot. And you'd take that and say, "Here's your pure 235." As I said, no vacuum is perfect and no magnetic field is perfect. So these things scattered quite a bit. So it ended up, the inside of this D-shaped vacuum tank was smeared with the uranium atoms. The tank would then be removed from the track and another one put in. When it had been removed, it was taken out of the chemical area and the goo was washed off of it, the uranium salts were washed off of it. The stuff in the inner pot was enhanced in U-235, the good stuff. Then they would have to run it back through the process again.

Kelly: When you say that this process was imperfect, one of the things that other people talked about is how they trained the operators. Could you describe how the operations worked and what controls they used and what effect that had in this process you described?

Rockwell: I've been describing what happened at the racetrack down on the first floor. Off the outside of this area were the control panels, these long panels, one for each of these D's. And there would be a woman operator there running each of these D's. They were trained to run this process, a very complicated, tricky process, which at Berkeley had been run only by PhD's. They were not only trained how to do this, but they were trained without telling them what the heck they were doing. They were not told it was uranium. They were merely told that they were making some sort of a catalyst that would be very important in the war. But they learned how to do it.

The analogy that I have in my mind is the country kid who has an old Model T, and he doesn't know anything about automotive engineering. But he gets so that he can really tune that thing up with his fingertips and make it just right. These women were really incredible. They'd get these things going. And as I said, they had no idea what they were doing really, but they understood how to optimize this mechanism and make it sing. Sometimes one of the PhDs would come along and say, "I think we can do this a little better," and he'd start tuning the thing.

And pretty soon she'd say, "Get away from here," and she'd have to get it back on track again, because she had the feel for it that he didn't have. The gals got very sentimental about these things. Sometimes they would have to be transferred to another unit, because somebody would be coming on a new shift or something like that. They'd be all upset that they knew this particular unit. They were more concerned about somebody else coming in and messing up their unit. "Nobody knows this like I do. Nobody else's going to do it right. I'll learn the other one all right, but I worry about this one getting messed up.”

And when they shut the plant down a lot of these women took out lipstick and wrote poems and messages to the machine and stuff about shutting down, with all these sort of love notes at the end. When we were down there for the 60th anniversary, one of these was written up and framed on the wall. At the bottom it said, "Words by Noah Webster. Arranged by whomever it was that did the arranging."

But they really got good at this technique. I remember one time I was concerned. It looked to me like the temperature was running a little low on this uranium source. I asked her about it and she says, "No. No. It's okay, honey. Let me show you," and she takes my hand and she leads me over to the recording machine that recorded the temperature. She put my hand on the motor that drives the recording temperature and said, "See. It's nice and warm." So she really didn't know what was going on, but she had it working. She had it working well. Those women deserve a great deal of credit. They really had the touch and really knew how to do it.

Kelly: That's wonderful. That's great. One thing we're trying to do is maybe have an interpretive center for the technologies used at Oak Ridge. And of course, Y-12 is key. K-25, can you explain that? You do a great job explaining these things.

Rockwell: I've just been talking about the electromagnetic separation process, as they call it. And you can see why, because it had the high-voltage electricity and the huge magnets.

Incidentally, if you walk along on the wooden catwalk over that magnet, you could feel the tug of the magnetic field on the nails in your shoes. It was like walking through glue. It was kind of dragging on your feet. It was very strange. The magnet created all sorts of interesting problems. People would take their watch into the watchmaker and the watchmaker would open it up. It was obvious that this was the first time that this watch had ever been opened up, some old watch that they've had for years. And it was all smashed inside. They couldn't understand how it had been smashed inside. Well, the magnetic field had grabbed any steel parts. The brass parts were okay, but the steel parts were yanked out by their roots. You were not supposed to bring any magnetic material, any steel, anywhere near the magnet. If it got within the magnetic field, whamo, it would slam up against the wall there.

One time that happened. They were bringing a big steel plate in and they got it too close to the magnetic field, and it whammed right up against the field and it pinned some poor guy like a barfly against the magnetic field. And so the guys ran over to the boss and said, "Shut down the magnet. We've got to get this guy off."

The guy said, "I've been told that the war is killing 300 people an hour. If we shut down this magnet, it'll take days to get it restabilized so we can get production back up again." He said, "That's hundreds of lives. I'm not going to do that. You're going to have to pry him off with two by fours," which is what they did.

Luckily he wasn't badly hurt, but that showed what our priorities were. When we came to work each morning, there was a big billboard with a picture of a guy in a trench with the bomb going off overhead. And this guy has obviously just been hit. It says, "Whose son will die in the last minute of the war? Our job is to end the war. Minutes count." So we got a pretty good motivational message every morning as we came to work. We knew what we were there for. And even the people that didn't have the slightest idea what they were making, we all knew that we were making something to end the war. That part was very clear in our training.

I've been talking about the electromagnetic separation process. A few miles over the hill, I think it was as much as twelve miles away, was the K-25 Plant, as they called it. That was a plant that operated under a very different process for the same purpose, separating the U-235 from the U-238. What this process was, they put the uranium in a vapor form again, a different vapor this time. They would put it in a vacuum and the atoms would bounce around. The lighter atoms would move faster and hit the walls more often. So if you had a thin barrier where the atoms could occasionally get through, you'd find that the U-235 atoms were hitting the barrier more often, and therefore going through the barrier and you would get a little bit of separation. Not very much, a little tiny amount of separation, but you did it over and over and over again.

You'd pass the stuff that went through on up to another barrier. The stuff that didn't go through went down the other side. And so you ended up getting a separation. But to make this barrier was a very tricky deal. They built that huge plant without really having a working barrier, and they kept working on a basis that "We'll get one." They tried all kinds of techniques. And finally the guy [Edward Norris] that came across the key to how to do it was an amateur painter, a high school graduate, who was unhappy about the way the paint would splatter when he sprayed his paint. He developed a new technique for spraying this paint.

This was a key to how they did the metallurgy of this barrier, but just getting that barrier right was critical. Both processes, both the electromagnetic and the gaseous diffusion process, were really having trouble working. When I got there, they had just been trying to start up production, and it kept going off the line. There was contamination inside the system. They finally had to take all the equipment and send it back to Milwaukee to be recleaned and redone. The magnets had to be sent back, unwound, and rewound again. Because slight amounts of iron chips and that kind of thing were short circuiting out these magnets, which were very high current, a huge amount of current.

Oak Ridge was taking something between ten and twenty percent of all the electricity in the United States. A big part of it was going into those magnets. They would have had to have a huge amount of copper to carry that, and copper was in short demand. Somebody got the bright idea of going to Fort Knox and getting the silver. Actually, they talked about Fort Knox, but I believe it was actually up near West Point. They came and got 14,000 tons of silver. The guy was talking to the Secretary of the Treasury and asked, "How much do you need?"

The Secretary says, "We don't talk tons. We talk troy ounces." But they were talking thousands of tons. They actually built these silver bus bars nearly a square foot. That's a pretty big wire of pure silver, out of which the magnet cores were built.

Kelly: You have so many good stories. I think it's very helpful, because you explain things so well. I want to keep maybe on that line, making sure we've really done a thorough job on Y-12. We've got the magnets. We've got the silver story. Do you know about the counterintelligence people that came in? I just happened to interview two of them in Oak Ridge.

Rockwell: Yeah. I don't know much about that part. We weren't supposed to know about it, and they did a good job of keeping it from us. I'm sure there was a lot of stuff like that going on that we didn't know. Like I said, unless you happened to marry an FBI girl, you weren't apt to find out about it [laughter].

Kelly: Tell us something about the housing.

Rockwell: Housing was an interesting story. There were I guess six different kinds of housing that they labeled A, B, C, D, E, F. The housing that determined what people were eligible for depended on their salary and position. At one point, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the architect who designed the city, did a spectacularly good job, but they kept not telling them much. First they told them it was going to be a city of about 2,500. So they started laying out a city of 2,500. And then they said, "Make it 5,000. Make it 10,000." It kept going up.

But at one stage they had one village, East Village, which was just like the other parts. It had all the same range of housing and the bowling alleys and so forth and so on. That was going to be a Negro village. Being in the South, they had it segregated, but it was still facilities just like everybody else. Well, when they started pouring people in and they didn't have any housing for the managers and so forth and so on, they ended up by having a really hutment center with these little sixteen-foot-square hutments that the black people lived in, with a potbellied stove in the middle and bunks around the side with an open window. It was like a beach cottage. You'd pull up the awning-like things to keep the sun out. In the winter, you'd close it. It was neither very cool in the summer, nor very warm in the winter. The potbellied stove, if you got close enough to it, I guess it was okay.

But the whole layout of the town was quite a beautiful piece of work. I don't know whether you want to get into the geography or not on the thing. The streets were numbered. There was a main drag right down the middle, which was Oak Ridge Turnpike. And then off of that came streets that were named for the states. They went up the hill. They were alphabetically arranged. The states started from Alabama on one end and all the way to Tennessee and so forth at the other end. Then off of that, off of Alabama would be street numbers starting with A, and going on up off of Alabama and others off of Arkansas and Pennsylvania and the rest of them. So the systematic part of the thing and where people lived was pretty good, considering that the whole terrain was curved and that kind of thing.

We lived in a two-bedroom house after our son was born. Yhere were these little loops of streets that came off the states. So the part of the house that faced the street was the kitchen and the bedroom. You may think it's a little strange, but you'd go in and then you're in the living room with a big picture window. And the big picture window looks out into the common wooded area behind instead of out into the street. People would put up a BBQ pit or something out there. That was the common picnic area and play area that the kids could play in and they were boxed off from the streets, which is a very good design.

They built a movie house and they built a community center. They built the usual stuff that you put in a town. The bus service was all supplied free. With the utilities they shoveled this soft, sooty coal into our coal bins free. Every now and then we'd have a dust explosion and blow soot all over the house, but it was free. At a time when people couldn't get appliances or anything like that, we had brand new electric refrigerators and so forth. We were really taken very good care of.

The house cost us $48.50 a month. Forty-eight dollars, that is, and fifty cents, including the bus service, electricity, water, and garbage disposal and all the rest of it. It was a pretty good deal. When I got there in '43, construction was really at a height. They were building a house every twenty minutes or something like that. They were building highways, or roads. You'd get on a bus and a bus driver would suddenly slam on his breaks because there was a house being built across where the road used to be, and the road was detoured around someplace else. I've never seen a place in which you could be simultaneously bogged down in yellow muck and breathing red dust fumes. How they pulled that separation, I could never understand. But people literally left their shoes in the mud sometimes. They would step in the mud and they would pull their foot out and there would be no shoe on it, and they'd just keep going.

When they'd have these dances at the tennis courts, women would show up with these big boots, and then would take the boots off with all of the mud and slip on their golden sandals and away they'd go. Women had an incredible ability to sort of float above all of the dust and the mud and look gorgeous all the time, where the rest of us were kind of wallowing in what was there. But it was all of that going on, all of that construction, and things changing every minute as to what the plan was, because the plans were continually changing.

There were courses. Of course, we were being taught various things. The things that later became textbooks were at that stage of mimeographed pieces of paper. And we had people like Frank Oppenheimer, brother of J. Robert, and Fred Seitz, who was later head of the National Academy of Sciences, people like that were teaching courses. I remember one time there was going to be a quantum mechanics course. I thought, "I've had three semesters of quantum mechanics, but I can use a little brushing up." So I went down there, and in about ten minutes he left me in the dust. Someone finally raised their hand and said, "Professor, can you tell us at what level is this course going to be taken?"

Fred smiled benignly and he said, "Let us say at a popular post-doctorate level." And that's about what it was. But it was wonderful. I mean, the things that we had been told were fundamental. Matter can neither be created nor destroyed. Energy could neither be created nor destroyed. We were down there to do that, what our textbooks all said was impossible.

And so when you were trying to calculate what was going on in a chemical reaction vessel, for instance, and the idea that you would be creating chemicals in this diffusion process, you had the diffusion equations. Everybody knew that. But the diffusion equations didn't assume that you were going to be creating substance out of thin air, which is exactly what was going on. So we were really at the brink, and this is what's exciting for any engineer. You're doing things that nobody had ever done before. Not only that, but were supposed to be impossible. It was the old alchemy. That's what we were. We were in the alchemy business. We were making gold out of lead, so to speak. It was an exciting thing. It was exciting kind of people to be with, and an exciting environment.

Kelly: Talk about the alchemy. How you described it, you were really on a frontier that was kind of at odds with the fundamental principles, which you had learned up to that time in the courses. One thing I'd like to do with all of this material is to inspire future engineers and scientists. How can you make it come across that science is fun?

Rockwell: This whole business of being where the action is is very interesting. Recently—and this is still a part of the Manhattan Project heritage—there was a thing in the paper that said NASA was going to build an atomic ion propulsion system for interplanetary travel. I thought, "Ho hum, there's another thirty-year boondoggle." But at the end of the article it said, "This will be under the direction of naval reactors." These are naval reactors where the guys had built the submarines and built shipping ports, the world's first nuclear power commercial station. I said, "Gee, if they're doing that, they're serious."

I went down and talked to the guy who was running naval reactors and I said, "Are you guys serious about this?"

He said, "You bet."

I said, "Why would you take this thing on? Here you are a four-star admiral. You've got your budget set. You've got a program set. You've got a lot of smart guys working for you. Why would you want to take on a thing like this, which is a real iffy thing?"

He said, "Hey, we can't get the kind of people we want to come in and do what we've been doing for the last forty years and just try to do it a little better. You can't get real live wire kids to come to work on a project like that. Now we can. We've got a job now of the impossible dream of the hero's quest."

When they recruited at Oak Ridge, they couldn't tell people what they were doing during the war, but they recruited under the slogan, "You'll tell your grandchildren you worked at Oak Ridge."

When I was there a couple of weeks ago, sure enough, here were the grandfathers down there with their grandchildren showing them what they were doing. The kids were saying, "Gee grandpa. Did you really do that?" They were proud that they were telling their grandchildren.

I told these kids at naval reactors, "When they come back and write the history of the human race a few hundred years from now, they'll say the human race never really started to rise above the animals until they learned to tap the energy that binds the atoms together and holds the whole universe together. That was the first step. Then now to have as a part of that same heritage, to develop a technique for leaving the planets and roaming through the stars. You'll look back and you'll say, “Naval reactors did both of those things,’ and you'll be proud you worked in naval reactors." And they are. You can see it's given them a whole new spirit. That whole thing about the impossible dream, and we're here doing something nobody else did. You can see it in any new enterprise.

If you go into the Silver Theater in Silver Spring, there's a big picture of the early movie guys. These big ole movie cameras and they've all got that look that they're in on something. They're the first guys in on something new. They've got that gleam in their eye. There's something about being at the beginning of something, being at the frontier. Doing something nobody else ever did before, that's exciting. This is what we were doing and everybody knew it. Even the lowliest guys knew that they were in on something that nobody had ever done before, and the world was going to be different because of them. And that's exciting.

Kelly: People talk about the brilliant theoretical physicists; other people say this was 90% engineering. Can you talk about how much this Manhattan Project was theory?

Rockwell: The Manhattan Project was mostly physicists that were the ones that got the glory. When you look at what DuPont did in building the reactors at Hanford and you look at what Allis-Chalmers, Westinghouse, and GE did with that equipment, it was pretty good engineering, but it was the stuff that was not innovative in the sense that makes the newspapers. They had to build vacuum pumps and they had to build high-voltage equipment. They had to build new metallurgy and new chemistry that people didn't know before, and that doesn't make the newspapers.

But when Admiral [Hyman] Rickover came down there after the war as one of the people who was brought in by industry in the military to learn this new technology, he looked around and said, "These people think this is a science fair. If there's going to be a nuclear industry, it's going to be tech engineering. We're going to have to not look for kids that know what a neutron is. We're going to have to look for people that have built something and made it work, whether it’s switch gears or transformers or turbines. People that have built things and know how things work and know how to operate them is what it's going to take to really make the difference."

I think that's what pulled the thing out from the Oak Ridge type of thing, where a lot of very brilliant physicists were acting as engineers, and I don't fault them for what they did. They did an incredible job, but it wasn't really engineering.

Rickover's people had to convert that to an engineering process that you could turn out these plants by the hundreds. They've made 250 different nuclear power plants and they've never had any accidents in any one of them. The radiation levels in the submarines are lower than the people get at their family's home, because they're underwater and they're not getting all these cosmic rays that you and I get. So making an engineering project out of that is a very critical thing in converting the legacy of the Manhattan Project, which really was a science project, into an engineering technology that became something that every nation in the world can benefit from.

Kelly:  That's good. You talked about Rickover. He really appeared after the war, right?

Rockwell: Yes.

Kelly:  Yeah. One of the themes that we're trying to stress too is the partnership. You did talk about GE and such and so on, but it would be nice if you can give some more credit or examples of the innovative entrepreneurial American industrial guy who was pulled in. It wasn't just the government, it wasn't just academia.

Rockwell: The Manhattan Project was a real contribution in many ways. One of the key ways is the way in which government, science, technology, military, and all kinds of businesses big and small were all brought into the thing. That seems more commonplace today, but it was unusual then. I think General [Leslie] Groves and [J. Robert] Oppenheimer both deserve an awful lot of credit for that, in seeing what was necessary.

In a controversial way, or in an unexpected way, we learned a little bit of the opposite lesson in the naval reactors program, which was one of the products of the Manhattan Project. We put all of our effort into the reactor, the neutrons, the instruments for nuclear instruments and all of that kind of thing because that was new. And we figured that the Westinghouse's and GE's and the Allis-Chalmers and so forth could build the pumps and the valves and so forth. And this proved to be false, because the technological requirements on these new applications were totally unexpected. They all had to go back to ground zero and start over again really in the development of these things. We got the nuclear part under control before we could make valves that worked well and pumps that worked well and instruments and all the rest of it. That took longer than we expected and it was harder than we expected, but it still had to be done within industry and it couldn't have been done anywhere else.

I remember when we were getting ready to build the first pressure vessel that the reactor itself stood in. Harry Mendel was working for Rickover in those days and he went to one of the pressure vessel companies and he told them what we wanted. They said, "Sure, kid. No problem. We know how to do that."

Then Harry Mendel started talking about the quality control they were going to need necessary, and the reactor guy says, "Look. We know how to do these things. You just give us the money and go away and we'll do it right. We know how much quality control we need."

Harry says, "No you don't."

The guy said, "You just leave that to us."

So Harry looks around and he says, "What's that roped off area over there?"

He says, "You don't want to know about that." So of course Harry knew that he had to know about that.

It turns out the guy says, "That's where we build pressure vessels for the Germans. They're very fussy and so we've got their stuff roped off so that it won't interfere with the real work over here."

Harry says, "Have you got any more rope?" That was the point, that industry had to learn a whole new level of quality control and accountability and that kind of thing. But the whole of the world industry benefits by that knowledge, as we've stepped up on that new step of excellence. 

When people talk about atomic energy, the subject of safety always comes up. And the atomic game has gotten itself associated with a sort of mystery and danger. Alvin Weinberg talks about the "Faustian Bargain," that we got this wonderful opportunity to offer humanity a plentiful future, but we're having to pay a devil's price for it. If we slip, we're doomed and all that sort of thing.

This has become a sort of a way of life in the nuclear community. When they talk about they need research money or whatever it's always, "This is nuclear, so we've got to do it extra special," type of thing. It's certainly true that it's important to run nuclear power plants well. It was a wonderful coincidence for the country that the first nuclear power plants were run by submariners, because submariners all understand that if each man doesn't do his job at the instant that it's required, if he doesn't shut that valve or whatever's needed, the ship may be lost. That whole attitude is something different from how everybody else lives.

And when we first wanted to convince the reactor safeguards committee that these ships were going to be properly run, we took them out on conventional submarines, which were the only kind that existed. We hadn't built the new ones yet. We ran through collision drills and fire drills and things like that. We said to [Edward] Teller and his friends, "These are not graduate students. When they know there's something that they're supposed to do, it’s done, and it's done instantly and is done right." They were very impressed that that was so

But nonetheless, a nuclear power plant is not unforgiving. An automobile is unforgiving. An airplane is unforgiving. You can't do anything very wrong very long with a machine like that and not get into trouble. But a nuclear power plant, in contrast, is actually quite stable and quite self-protecting.

The key question is not, “Can we prove we'll never have an accident?” Safety studies always focus on proving that you can have all of these things go wrong and we still won't have a problem. And that's important, because you don't want to get into a problem. But what has been studied but not publicized is the fact that in the element case, you melt the core down like we did in Three Mile Island. Even if there were no containment vessel, we talk about the containment holding and everything and we've studied these things, and it's clear that under the worst realistic case, few if anyone would be killed.

We've gone through this. Nils Diaz, who was head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, has made that same statement publically. We've written an article in Science Magazine by nineteen prominent nuclear people, all of whom are members of the National Academy of Engineering, and made that same statement that, there is nothing you can do to a nuclear power plant that could create a significant public hazard. And if you read these safety reports carefully, they say that, but then they go on and say, "But just to be careful, we'll assume that everything doesn't happen right." The idea is that this'll make it extra safe. But it isn't extra safe to assume that the world is different than it is.

If you're going to try to evacuate everybody in ten miles, or five miles, or fifty miles, or whatever you're talking about, you're going to create all kinds of problems. People are going to get killed trying to run away and so forth. If you assume that a dirty bomb is threatening people's lives, which it cannot do, people are going to panic and trample each other.

I'm concerned that I think we've overdone this emphasis on trying to be safe. We've added so many things that every time a question comes up, we hire more guards and we put up more barriers, and we put more things in the way. This is not the direction of safety. This is a direction of misdirection. Safety devices can cause problems. So I think it's time that having run several hundred nuclear power plants all over the world for nearly forty years now and we've never had a serious accident, I think it's really important that we now step back and look at what is a more realistic way to characterize this danger so that we handle the nuclear waste, for example, in a simple way.

One of the big advantages of nuclear power is that the waste problem is trivial. You'd never know that by reading about it today. But we produce so little waste from nuclear power that you could put it all in drums and you can keep forty years' worth of all the waste at the plant that produced it. You could have a plant that is providing all of the electricity for millions of people, and it can keep all of its waste in a small area. If all of your electricity was produced by nuclear power, the waste from that product, your share of it, would literally be two or three pounds. You could put it in your basement. The only danger is, don't eat it. But I don't think that there's much incentive for people to eat nuclear waste.

I don't know why that's such a big problem. People say, "It stays toxic for so long." But you've got to say, "Compared to what?" Compared to non-radioactive waste, right? That's what we've been dealing with all of our lives. Nonradioactive waste stays toxic forever. Mercury, lead, iron, copper, all of those things stay at undiminished toxicity forever. So why is a material which is continually decreasing in toxicity looked at as an unprecedented hazard? I think we've grown paranoid on this and I think we've got to get past that. That's my sermon. You don't have to go to church now.

Community got so crazy at one point that when they set up an organization called the Eagle Alliance in which they were going to try to get people who don't consider themselves a part of the nuclear community, but were in medicine and in other areas where nuclear technology is used, to get together to work together to promote nuclear power. So they signed a Declaration of Interdependence, as they called it, and said that “We're going to work together in this area.”

The Secretary of Energy got all uptight and said that she thought it was inappropriate that someone who worked at a national lab would be considered pro-nuclear. I consider that ridiculous. Can you imagine somebody say at the Federal Aviation Administration urging people not to take airplanes? You go to the Department of Energy site and they have a little thermostat, "Set your thermostat down. Don't use any more heat." They're trying to tell you not to buy their product.

It's seems to me that's perverse. I can't imagine the airplane people saying, "Do you really have to fly? Couldn't you take the train?" I mean, that's nuts. I don't understand why people in the nuclear field can't be pro-nuclear. I think it's a little unhealthy if they aren’t.

Kelly:  I was actually reading through what you said three years ago. You talked a little bit about how this is the only industry in the world that would design safety as a primary concept.

Rockwell: Yes. Nuclear power is the only industry that started out, before they even built the first one, talking about the safety. If you look back, for instance in steam boilers, we got to the point in this country where there was a steam boiler blowing up every day literally, with an average of about three to five deaths per explosion, before they finally set up a committee with the insurance companies and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers to develop a boiler and pressure vessel code, because they obviously had a problem.

But here we're working on a solution before the problem ever arose. In fact, the problem never has arisen. Nobody's ever been killed by nuclear waste. Nobody's ever been injured by nuclear waste. That's fine, but that doesn't mean that therefore nuclear waste is dangerous. That's a silly way to reason, and yet people have been sort of talked into that way of looking at things.

Kelly:  I'm checking to see if there's anything else before we leave the Manhattan Project that we've got to talk about. We talked about security, safety. What do you think of the dropping of the atomic bomb? Were you a part of any petitions?

Rockwell: It's just amazing and without exception that at every one of the Manhattan Project sites, the next morning after the announcement of the bomb, everyone said, "Hey, we're going to have to do something about this thing. This is a classified Army ordnance project. And yet, we're giving the world a new form of energy. It's going to take something different. We're going to have to get this away from the Army somewhere and we're going to have to go."

Now the question that is always asked is, "Weren't you horrified when you found out that the bomb had wiped out all those people?" The answer is, no. That may sound coldblooded and all that sort of thing, but the decision was never, "Are we going to wipe out the people of Hiroshima, or are we not?" Every city in Japan was being reduced to charred rubble with firebombs and explosions. Hiroshima had not been, because it had been set aside for this test. If we did not drop the atomic bomb, we would have dropped the same kinds of bombs we dropped on everybody else with seventy, eighty, ninety percent destruction of the city. If you look at the aerial views of the cities that were burned out with the firebombing of Tokyo and these other cities, the whole place was just reduced to rubble.

So the decision was not, "Are we going to kill the people of Hiroshima, or are we not?" The decision was, "Are we going to kill them with firebombs or are we going to kill them with a nuclear bomb?" And I think that's important to understand that. Just last week, the Conference of Catholic Bishops in America said that the atomic bomb should be considered unwarranted terrorism because it didn't distinguish between combats and noncombatants. Now I don't know where these guys were when Dresden was bombed or when Tokyo was bombed. The atom was no less discriminatory of its victims than were the explosions or the fires. The Japanese people understand that. When I talked to them in Hiroshima, they understood that fully well. The people who were not killed from the firebombs were horribly burned, just like the people in Hiroshima. From their standpoint, it was little difference. It's like deciding whether you're going to get killed with a knife through the heart or with a gun. I mean, dead is dead.

I should say that the question of, do you then go on and make hydrogen bombs, and do you then go on and decide you need tens of thousands of bombs instead of a few dozen, is a whole different discussion. It had nothing to do with the decision that [President Harry] Truman made. If there was any question about whether Truman should have made that decision, then that question should have arisen three years earlier. When the time came that we finally had this weapon that we all worked so hard on and it was a chance to end the war, the idea that we should be anything but elated when it actually worked seems to me very strange. We were elated. We had done what we wanted to do. The war was over.

I've had people come up to me afterwards over and over again and say, "I understand you worked on the Manhattan Project. You saved my life. I was slated to go over in December or the following April on Coronado or Olympic or one of those various invasions." Recently we found out if where we thought we had a three to one troop margin, and no one tries to make an invasion unless they have at least three times the number of troops as compared to the defenders, we found out that in places it was one to one and that the Japanese had more troops and more tanks and more planes than we had imagined.  

We didn't understand that until some radio intercepts at the last moment. At that point, [Ernest] King, who was the head of the Navy, balked and said, "I don't think we ought to do an invasion. And if you decide to go ahead on that, I don't know what I'm going to do, but I may go public on it. I think it would be a disaster. We shouldn't do that." The Joint Chiefs were about ready to decide that they weren't ready for the invasion based on this new news and that they were going to have to put it off.

Meanwhile, a thousand prisoners a day were dying over on the Japanese-held mainland. People were dying by the thousands. So ending the war was a human thing to do, by all accounts. And there's no question that it would not have quickly ended without that. I just think that that's beyond question when you look at the historical information. That's what the historians like Dick Rhodes who have looked at this stuff tell me.

Kelly:  That was very good. It is amazing to me, "Should they, or shouldn't they?" It's not a question.

Rockwell: That's all I know about it. I'm no special expert on it.

Kelly:  Talk about Rickover now.

Rockwell: The time always comes where you have to talk about Rickover. I spent fifteen years with Admiral Rickover. I was his Technical Director for the last ten of those years. So I wrote out all the new ships. When Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace program came up, he certainly didn't want a military man heading it. But he looked around and there really wasn't any choice.

We were required to build the world's first commercial atomic power plant in Shippingport, Pennsylvania. The wise guys all said, "Well, Rickover's been trying to build an aircraft carrier and he'll just go ahead and make this his aircraft carrier engine and it won't be any different."

But that's not the way he worked. He had been a real hound dog for security, very strong on security classification. But he said, "Look. If this thing is going to be more than a demonstration, if we're really going to give the technology to the world, then we have to declassify it. We've got to go round up all the technology and evaluate it and write textbooks around each of key areas. We've got to get this information into the hands of code committees and state code committees, so that they can be put into state laws like the Boiler and Pressure Vessel Code and the Welding Code. And we're just going to have to do the whole thing." It's as if the Wright Brothers not only got an airplane off the ground, but also built motels, the AAA, the highway systems, and everything else, because we built all of the stuff supporting this whole thing. Eleven shipyards were prepared to handle radioactive materials and maintenance.

Rickover was very clear as he looked around Oak Ridge. He said, "We can't have all these people that represent new nuclear projects all go battle over the same group of kids. We're going to have to go train our own people." He talked Oak Ridge into setting up the Oak Ridge School of Reactor Technology, which gave out a Degree of Pile Engineering, a DOPE degree. You got a diploma that says you were a DOPE, a Doctor of Pile Engineering, which is what they called it in those days. He set up that school and he was instrumental in working with Dr. Weinberg to get it set up. He talked MIT into setting up a Master's program in Nuclear Engineering, which he sent a lot of the Naval Officers through. It was a tough Master's program.

So we had people coming in that were really well skilled. Some of them had combat experience. They had degrees in Naval Engineering and Naval Architect, and then they had this nuclear training too. The ones that didn't go through MIT were sent down to Oak Ridge to go through their school. When we built the prototype sites for the ships, then we trained people on the prototype sites so that we gave a six-month course in the fundamentals of metallurgy and chemistry and physics and all of that stuff.

Then we sent them out to run the plants, start up the plant and operate it, go through the drills and all of that kind of thing. It was a pretty thorough program. We've had educators tell us that his program was better than most Master's degrees programs, from an educational standpoint. It was the real fundamentals. It was not just the trade show type of thing. It was the real fundamentals. These guys knew what they were doing.

Kelly:  I've heard a lot about that. I've heard a lot about people going through that. Does it exist today?

Rockwell: Rickover was on the Board of Advisors at Princeton University one year. He had heard me talking about that, so he got them to invite him up. They were really afraid he was going to tear the place apart. But one of the things that appealed to him was, he went into this Firestone Library, which is a marvelous library up there in Princeton. They have these little telephone booths all through the library. A graduate student working on a project can get assigned one of those booths. It's got its own ventilation and its own lighting and a place to store books. So guys can gather up all the things they're working with and keep them and lock it. It's their own little home for two or three years while they're working on their thesis.

Rickover thought that was just great. He came back and ordered a thousand of these for his own schools. He said, "There's got to be a place where guys could go and be in absolute privacy with no telephones and can work." He was quite taken with that, and also the fact that the Firestone Library students can go into it until midnight or one o'clock or whatever it is, where the Naval Academy library closes at nine o'clock. He says, "Why in the world do you do that? If you don't do that, all the geeks and the nerds will work hard to get way ahead of the other students, and that wouldn't be very good." Rickover really hit the ceiling. He got the thing changed, so that it now stays open a lot later. He had a big impact.

As a matter of fact, when he was dying and I went to see him, I was just barely inside of the room, I hadn't even gotten my coat off and he said, "Rockwell. How the hell are you supposed to know what God wants you to do with your life? Maybe I was supposed to be a cellist. How the hell am I supposed to know?"

It was sort of a tough question to answer, but I reminded him that he said one time, "If at some point all of the hardware that we worked so hard to produce, the only product of our work, disappeared, and the only thing that was left was the impact of the work on the people," he said, "I would settle for that."

I said, "You've left that impact on the people." And he has and that's what I call the Rickover Effect.

Kelly: Can you describe the Rickover Effect?

Rockwell: Well, I just mean that impact on the people, the idea of achieving excellence. The way he did that, he didn't say, "You've got to come in on Saturday. You're not working hard enough." He would get you to make a commitment to get something to somebody by the following Monday. You knew you had to get it and he'd be in trouble if you didn't get it, and you had to get in Saturday to do it. So you were always meeting your own commitments. It was never in a position that he would stand there saying, "Get back to work."

He had always set it up where you had committed yourself. You were getting much more responsibility than anybody that age ought to have, and you knew it. Yet you were determined to try to make it fly. So that was the thing. He had you making your own commitments that you then had to scramble to meet.

We had a very interesting educational thing one time. We did these crew quizzes. We went out and we talked to the guys on the submarine and we'd ask them questions. And unlike what everybody expected, we didn't give them any trick questions, there would be no point in trick questions. We were trying to find out if they really understood the fundamentals.

So I was asking this one Chief, "How do you do this?" It was a simple mathematical thing that he could do to check if he was right. I asked him, "How do you know if that's right?"

He says, "I think it's in the manual somewhere. I can find it."

I said, "Suppose you couldn't find in a manual, what would you do?"

He says, "I'd ask the other Chief. He's been around a long time."

“Well, suppose he doesn't know, what would you do?”

But I said, "Chief, I understand that you teach Math in one of the schools on the side."

He says, "Yeah I do."

I said, "Can you calculate that number?"

“Yeah, I could calculate it. Do you mean right now?”

“Yeah, right now can you do it?”

“Well sure.” And it was zip, zip, zip and he went through it.

I said, "Why were you so afraid to do this?"

He says, "Well I probably shouldn't tell you this," and the Commanding Officer was there and said, "Tell him." So he says, "When we report out to the prototype school and we've just finished this six-month class of theoretical training, the first thing the guy says is to forget all of that theoretical crap. This is the real world out here."

I said, "Oh, I know."

So I told Rickover and he says, "You guys better go straighten that out."

So one of the first things we did was, when they report into the prototype now, you say, “You've got a coal/iron plant that's never been started up. What do you do?”

“I want to make power.”

“How do you make power?”

“You have to pull control rods. Can you just start pulling control rods?”

“No, I guess I shouldn't get the control rods unless I get the pump started.”

“Can you just start the pumps up?”

“I shouldn't start the pumps up if the plant isn't pressurized.”

“All right, how do you pressurize the plant?”

“I can't pressurize a cold plant because you get a fracture problem.”

After they've gone through a few days of that, they begin to realize that all of this fundamental stuff really mattered and was really taught to them for a reason. That's what we're trying to get across. Rickover was trying to make the fundamental stuff real all the time.

That's again a part of the Manhattan legacy, because those guys couldn't have done those things down there in Oak Ridge on a basis of ordinary engineering courses that they'd taken. They had to really understand the metallurgy and the physics and the chemistry of what they were doing, or they wouldn't have been able to do it, even though they were diddling with a pump or something. 

We didn't work all the time down at Oak Ridge. We did have some fun. A group of the guys had put in a hundred bucks apiece, six guys, and bought a little boat. They had the boat out at Lake Norris, which is a part of the TVA system. We'd go out and have some nice parties out on the boat.

There was this pretty girl on the boat by the name of Mary Compton. This guy Chuck and I were noticing that she was a pretty nice gal. But we agreed that she was Lyn's girl and we were Lyn's buddy and we weren't going to let anybody muscle in on Lyn's girl. That night after we got home, I went out to Mary's house. The phone rang and Mary answered it and it was Chuck. I grabbed the phone away and said, "Chuck, you agreed you were going to stay away from her. What are you doing?"

He starts to apologize and all of this other stuff and then all of a sudden he says, "Hey, what are you doing there?"

To make a long story short, one of those days thereafter she and I got married on the Chapel on the Hill in Oak Ridge, which is the one part of the whole town that they haven't changed. It was a deliberate thing. So many people were married or born or baptized or died or confirmed or whatever in that church. It was a real landmark for so many people. People come back and that's one thing they want to see and they want to recognize it. It still looks exactly as it did when we were there.