Part Two: Producing Fissionable Materials
Chapter 5: Organizing for Production
In June 1942, the Army took its first step to form a production organization for the manufacture of fissionable materials with negotiation of an AEM (architect-engineer-manager) agreement with the Stone and Webster Engineering Corporation of Boston; however, as the complexity of the AEM job became evident in the following months, attempts were made to involve a number of other leading American industrial and construction firms. The Army’s task of getting the skilled manpower and technical know-how required to produce fissionable materials in quantities sufficient to fabricate atomic weapons was not easy. It was complicated greatly by the absolute necessity for speed, which meant that contracts had to be let before the customary preliminary plans and technical data were available. This lack of specific information – blueprints, specifications, and similar data – was an added handicap because many of the scientific and technical processes involved were virtually unknown in industrial circles. Also, because many industrial organizations already had committed most of their resources to war production, the managers and engineers of these organizations were reluctant to take on additional responsibilities for a project of such unusual and uncertain character. The Army therefore was faced with the problem of somehow convincing them that the success of the program was so crucial to the outcome of the war they simply could not refuse to participate.
The question of who should have responsibility for carrying through the plutonium program to the production stage had been a matter of controversy for some time at the Metallurgical Laboratory.1 Some of the scientists had proposed that they themselves direct the design, development and engineering, and construction of the plutonium plant. Metallurgical Laboratory Director Arthur Compton, who early in his career had worked as an employee and consultant for large electrical companies, knew that this proposal ran counter to the procedure customarily followed in American industry, namely, the assigning of research, development, and production to separate departments – a practice
that experience had shown generally brought the most efficient results. He suggested that time would be saved by securing an experienced industrial firm already accustomed to carrying out large-scale projects, leaving the research to the Metallurgical Laboratory staff.
The staff’s reaction, he recalled later, “was a near rebellion.”2 The younger scientists pointed out that they had demonstrated their ability to supervise development of processes to the stage of large-scale production by the success they had so recently achieved in increasing the output of pure uranium metal and graphite. After having contributed so much to its initiation and development, they wanted to see the plutonium program through to final fulfillment. And solidly backing them were those laboratory scientists who had been born and educated in Europe. Most of them were inclined to suspect the motives of large industrial firms. Also, most had a more extensive knowledge of engineering techniques than their American counterparts learned as a regular part of their scientific training.
By early summer of 1942, progress in research required that a decision soon be reached. Compton assembled some seventy-five members of his research and administrative staff to agree on a plan of organization. It soon became apparent they were not going to reach a consensus, so Compton announced he would proceed without their approval. At the OSRD S-1 Executive Committee meeting of 25 June, Compton supported the decision to assign AEM responsibility for the plutonium as well as the other processes to Stone and Webster.
Although the S-1 Committee had suggested that the University of Chicago might operate the pilot facility to be built in the Argonne Forest area southwest of the city, no action had yet been taken. In mid-August, Compton urged Colonel Marshall that an operator should be selected promptly as construction of this unit was about to begin. He also pointed out that the operator of the Argonne chemical facility probably would have responsibility for the separation works of the main plutonium plant; therefore, the operator’s engineering and design personnel should have an opportunity to observe construction of the plant at Argonne.
As possible operators, Compton recommended that Marshall approach E. I. du Pont de Nemours Company, Standard Oil Development Company, or Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation. For reasons of security, Marshall wanted to hold to a minimum the number of firms to be brought in to build and operate project facilities. He proposed that for the time being Stone and Webster add operation of the Argonne separation plant to its other responsibilities. Both Compton and the engineering firm promptly accepted this arrangement – the latter, however, with a proviso that it be permitted to secure technical assistance from other organizations.
At the Bohemian Grove meeting in early September, the S-1 Committee recommended that Stone and Webster get the technical assistance it required. General Groves, newly appointed as Manhattan commander, and Stone and Webster agreed on
26 September that Du Pont should be approached and the S-1 Committee accepted their decision. Two weeks later, Du Pont assented to design and procure not only the chemical separation equipment but also part of the pile equipment for the plutonium pilot plant. At first Du Pont had resisted taking on any responsibility for the piles, pleading lack of experience and strain on its facilities as a result of its other government projects. But Groves and Compton finally persuaded the company that this was the logical solution to a difficult problem.3
Because Du Pont’s contract covered only design and procurement of equipment and because Stone and Webster would operate only the Argonne separation installation, the most important plutonium production problem – securing an operator for the other pilot facilities and the production plant – remained to be solved. Both Groves and Compton were moving rapidly toward the view that the size and complexity of this task required the selection of a company other than Stone and Webster. The Manhattan chief paid his first visit to the Metallurgical Laboratory in early October 1942. Reviewing the plutonium program with Compton and his senior staff, Groves quickly concluded that to bring this process into production was going to be a far greater project than anyone had anticipated. After further consultation, Groves and Compton decided that Stone and Webster should be relieved of all responsibility for the plutonium project, a decision concurred in by both Vannevar Bush and James B. Conant.4
As General Groves learned more about the plutonium process, he also came to the conclusion that it would be preferable to turn the entire project of design, engineering, construction, and operation over to a single firm. If the proper organization were chosen, the gain in efficiency of operation would ease his own task of coordination. One Du Pont policy, in particular, impressed Groves. Unlike most American industrial firms, the company had a long-established practice of building its own plants. Hence, Du Pont had the resources and experience necessary to carry out all aspects of the plutonium production plant, an advantage from the standpoint of both security and speed of getting into production.
When Groves proposed to Compton, Bush, Conant, and other leaders that Du Pont be asked to assume sole responsibility for the plutonium production project, replacing Stone and Webster, he received a generally favorable response. But the Manhattan chief was fully aware that several key members of the Metallurgical Laboratory, with whom Du Pont engineers would have to work quite closely, remained unreconciled to any course that would take plutonium production out of their hands. Furthermore,
some members of this dissatisfied group would be especially upset over the selection of Du Pont, which in many ways seemed to them to epitomize big industry.
Groves, nevertheless, decided to take immediate steps to negotiate an agreement with Du Pont. On 30 October, he invited Willis Harrington, senior vice president of the firm, to meet with him and Conant, who himself once had served as a consultant to Du Pont. Harrington came the next day, accompanied by chemist Charles Stine, also a vice president of Du Pont and a friend of Conant. Groves and Conant gave the two Du Pont executives data on the pile program and general information about the other processes and the military objectives of the project, emphasizing the urgency of the program and frankly admitting there were serious questions as to its feasibility.
Harrington and Stine were appalled at the idea that their company should assume major responsibility for this phase of the atomic program. As they perceived it, the technical requirements were formidable, the operating conditions unorthodox, and the scientific field one in which Du Pont had no special experience and competence. Faced, however, with Groves’ insistence that Du Pont was the only industrial organization in America with the capacity to build the plutonium plant, they reluctantly indicated the company might be able to do the job. But a final decision could only be made by Du Pont President Walter S. Carpenter, Jr., and other members of the firm’s executive committee following an investigation by company chemists and engineers. Consequently, a day or two later, Groves granted the company permission to send a team of experts to the Metallurgical Laboratory to see the work in progress.
On 10 November, General Groves, Colonel Nichols, the deputy district engineer, Arthur Compton, and Norman Hilberry, who was associate director of the Metallurgical Laboratory, went to Wilmington, Delaware, to plead further for Du Pont’s assistance. Groves emphasized to Carpenter that the project was of utmost importance to the war effort, adding that President Roosevelt, Secretary of War Stimson, and Chief of Staff Marshall also shared this opinion. Furthermore, he continued, there was reason to believe the Axis states might soon be producing fissionable materials in quantities sufficient to manufacture atomic weapons. The only known defense against such weapons was “fear of their counter-employment.”5 If the United States could develop such weapons before the enemy, it could materially shorten the war and potentially reduce American casualties by the tens of thousands.
Following his conference with Carpenter, Groves went to a meeting of the Du Pont executive committee. There, he was joined by Nichols, Compton, and Hilberry. With Carpenter presiding at the meeting, Groves repeated what he had said earlier to the Du Pont president. Some committee members expressed reservations, many of them traceable to the report of the team of company chemists and engineers who had just returned from a visit to the Metallurgical Laboratory.
The team had reported that the laboratory scientists had neither demonstrated a self-sustaining chain reaction nor furnished adequate information concerning the basic problem of controlling and removing the tremendous amount of heat that would be generated in a pile operation. And though they were at work on three different pile designs, none – at least when judged in terms of practical engineering – seemed likely to provide a prototype for a large-scale production pile. Progress on the plutonium separation process did not appear much more encouraging. The scientists had yet to demonstrate a method that would separate more than microscopic amounts of plutonium from radioactive fission products. On the basis of its observations, the Du Pont team estimated that only minute amounts of plutonium could be produced in 1943, not much more in 1944, and only enough, possibly, in 1945 to fulfill the planned rate of production for weapon purposes.
The pessimistic tone of the Du Pont executive committee’s evaluation was not surprising; they concluded, nevertheless, that the pile method was probably feasible. To be certain of this, however, they felt Du Pont must have control over all aspects of the project. Furthermore, the government should guarantee the company against loss from the obviously great hazards inherent in the process. Carpenter informed General Groves on 12 November that Du Pont would take the job, and the Manhattan commander immediately directed Colonel Nichols to draft the terms of a contract.
With Du Pont’s participation apparently assured, the Military Policy Committee cautiously endorsed going ahead with plans to build a plutonium plant capable of producing 1.0 kilogram of fissionable material per day. It also directed that Du Pont take over from Stone and Webster at Chicago, relieving the Boston firm of virtually all of its AEM responsibilities for plutonium project activities.6
Hardly had that question been settled when important new data cast serious doubt on the explosive characteristics of plutonium. Wallace A. Akers, technical chief of the British Directorate of Tube Alloys (corresponding to the S-1 Executive Committee), was in Washington, D.C., on 14 November to discuss information exchange with Conant. During a luncheon conversation, Akers revealed that British atomic scientists had discovered that plutonium had premature fissioning tendencies that might make it unsuitable for use in a weapon. Greatly disturbed, Conant checked with Ernest Lawrence and Arthur Compton. When they told him that both Oppenheimer and Glenn Seaborg, a chemist who had done extensive research on plutonium at the University of California, Berkeley, expressed some concern about the possibility of obtaining material of sufficient purity to ensure the fissioning qualities in a weapon, Conant got in touch with General Groves. The Manhattan chief responded immediately by setting up an investigating team composed of Lawrence, Compton,
and Oppenheimer, as well as physicist Edwin McMillan.7
On 18 November the four scientists reported back to Groves in optimistic terms.8 Basing their recommendations on the conclusion that despite “many difficult but solvable problems it should be possible to produce a satisfactory bomb ... from 49 [plutonium] probably during 1945,” they urged maximum speed in building a plutonium production plant. The scientists supported their recommendations with Oppenheimer’s estimate of the degree of plutonium purity required for a bomb.
Instead of convincing Conant and Du Pont of the feasibility of plutonium, Oppenheimer’s data had the opposite effect. By chance, the Harvard University president had just received figures on plutonium purity requirements from British scientist Sir James Chadwick, and when he compared these with Oppenheimer’s, he was shocked to find that the latter’s estimates allowed for a degree of impurity ten times as great. This discrepancy was so large that Conant momentarily suspected American scientists had erred seriously in their calculations. Not until he received additional data and written assurances from Compton and Lawrence was his confidence in the feasibility of plutonium fully restored.9
As for Du Pont’s engineers, Oppenheimer’s estimate appeared so exacting that it would be unattainable in any reasonable period of time. In Groves’ office on 18 November, Charles Stine and Crawford H. Greenewalt, a chemical engineer serving as chemical director of Du Pont’s Grasselli Chemicals Department, complained with some feeling that the Manhattan commander was asking the firm to undertake the most difficult and unpromising of the processes for producing fissionable materials and suggested the company might be better qualified to carry out one of the other processes. Greenewalt’s lack of enthusiasm at this juncture can be traced to his pessimistic interpretation of some information he had received a short time before, leading him to conclude that there was only about a 60-percent chance that a sustained chain reaction would be achieved.10
Compton, who was also present, was shocked by Stine’s assertion that the odds were 100 to 1 against achieving plutonium production in time to be of any value to the war effort. For the Metallurgical Laboratory chief this marked the beginning of a gradual disillusionment with Du Pont. By the end of December he would be seriously suggesting that some other firm be brought in to build the production plants. Compton later recalled that he “probably took Stine’s words much more seriously than they were intended.” Nevertheless,
under those immediate circumstances, he felt that he could not “have drawn such a conclusion without considering the task a waste effort as far as the present war was concerned.” Therefore, Compton determined immediately to try to change “their [Du Pont’s] point of view to one of optimism.11
Reassessment of Processes To Produce a Bomb
At the meeting on 10 November, the Du Pont executive committee suggested that a reappraisal of all aspects of the project would help the company in determining the precise role it should play in the atomic energy program. Seeing the logic of this suggestion, Groves and Conant thought the time was appropriate for a reassessment because project emphasis was shifting from research and development in scientific principles to practical application on an industrial scale. Furthermore, the Military Policy Committee shortly was going to have to prepare a progress report to the President on the project.12
Lewis Reviewing Committee
Groves acted promptly to implement reassessment of the project. On 18 November, following close consultation with Conant, he appointed a five-man reviewing committee, headed by Warren K. Lewis, a highly respected professor of chemical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Groves made certain that Du Pont was well represented on the committee, appointing Crawford H. Greenewalt, who had been a student under Lewis at MIT and was an expert on research; Tom C. Gary, manager of the Design Division in the Engineering Department and a specialist in construction; and Roger Williams, chemical director of the Ammonia Department, who was an expert on plant operations. The fifth member, Eger V. Murphree of Standard Oil Development Company and former head of the OSRD S-1 Section’s planning board, became ill at the last minute and was unable to participate in the committee’s activities.13
The committee’s mission was to review the entire project from a manufacturing standpoint. To accomplish this, committee members would visit Harold Urey’s project at Columbia University, investigate Arthur Comp-ton’s research on the pile process at the Metallurgical Laboratory, and assess Ernest Lawrence’s work on the electromagnetic process at the Radiation Laboratory. They would not evaluate the centrifuge method. The consensus was that this process was unlikely to produce U-235 in sufficient quantities to be of use during the war. The Military Policy and S-1 Executive Committees agreed that all work, including that on a pilot plant, should be reduced to the minimum necessary to establish the feasibility of the method. Although some support for the centrifuge process still persisted,
in time it would be dropped as a major method for producing fissionable material for the bomb. After conferring briefly with Groves and Conant in Washington, D.C., on 21 November, the Lewis reviewing committee began its tour in New York. There, committee members met with leaders of the gaseous diffusion project and inspected the experimental equipment in the laboratories at Columbia University, as well as conferred with representatives of the M. W. Kellogg Company which had been assigned work on the diffusion process. Leaving New York by train, the committee reached Chicago on the twenty-sixth, Thanksgiving Day.14 Compton had first heard about the committee’s impending visit on the nineteenth. Sensing that the occasion would afford him the chance to convince Du Pont and the leaders of the Manhattan Project that plutonium could be produced in quantity, and also that the rest of the atomic program was feasible and of great importance for the war, he and his scientific staff immediately had directed all possible resources into a twofold effort: completing as soon as possible the chain reaction experiment under way since October, and preparing a report to demonstrate conclusively the feasibility of the plutonium project.15
Unfortunately the experiment was still in progress when the committee arrived, but a hundred-page feasibility report was ready for study. This carefully organized and documented report presented a most optimistic estimate of the situation. Plutonium could be produced in one or more of several types of chain-reacting piles, of which a uranium-graphite system cooled with helium, preferably, or with ordinary pure water seemed to offer the most practical solution. Also, chemical extraction of plutonium in a sufficiently pure state to be used successfully in a bomb was feasible. Moreover, this bomb would probably be more effective than previous estimate had indicated. Provided the plutonium project received adequate support, the goal to produce sufficient fissionable material in 1944 and to attain the production stage in 1945 should be possible. Report in hand, the committee left for Berkeley Thanksgiving evening.16
Achievement of the Chain Reaction
The Lewis reviewing committee returned from the West Coast via Chicago on 2 December. Stopping over between trains, they consulted further with the Metallurgical Laboratory staff. “I’m sorry,” Compton explained, “but Enrico Fermi has an important experiment in hand in the laboratory and has asked to be excused.”17
The “important experiment” was, of course, the continuing attempt to achieve a controlled chain reaction in the experimental pile then under construction at the Metallurgical Laboratory. In October, after laboratory scientists had accumulated a sufficient amount of uranium metal and graphite
of requisite purity, two alternating teams began piling graphite blocks intermixed with lumps of uranium in a carefully devised pattern atop a timber framework on the floor of a squash court under the West Stands of Stagg Field, the University of Chicago football stadium. When news of this ongoing experiment reached Groves and Conant during the 14 November S-1 meeting, both men expressed great alarm; however, buttressed with evidence from several tests carried out while the pile was under construction and supported by the senior scientists on his staff, Compton assured Groves and Conant that the experiment posed no great hazard to the heavily populated area adjacent to the university. Although Groves decided not to interfere, he nevertheless alerted the area engineer at the Metallurgical Laboratory to inform him immediately of any signs or developments that indicated the Chicago scientists were underestimating the element of danger.18
Based on the results of earlier experiments, the scientists constructing the pile knew that when it reached a certain size it would become critical, thus initiating what was hoped would be a self-sustaining chain reaction. To prevent the possibility of premature fission and also to be able to control the reaction once it began, the scientists inserted several neutron-absorbing cadmium strips as control rods. Removal of these control rods would release the flow of neutrons in the lumps of uranium and permit the chain reaction to begin; their reinsertion would halt the process. Various measuring instruments also were attached to or placed in the pile, and the whole setup was watched over by Fermi and his colleagues with all the care and nervous intensity that so unique and critical an experiment inspired.
Late in the afternoon of 1 December, Fermi’s crew placed the last lump of uranium and layer of graphite blocks on the pile, by now a massive structure, essentially square in shape and solid-appearing from the floor up to about two-thirds of its height, and from that point to its top near the high ceiling, a series of setbacks.
On the morning of 2 December, the entire experimental group assembled for the crucial test. Most of those present were on the balcony of the court, either as observers or operators of the instrument control cabinet located there. Norman Hilberry, equipped with an axe, was prepared to sever a rope tied to the balcony rail, which would drop into place an emergency safety rod suspended over the pile. A young scientist from the laboratory staff, George Weil, remained on the floor of the court to handle the final control rod. On a platform above the pile, three men stood ready to flood it with a cadmium salt solution, which would absorb sufficient neutrons to halt a runaway reaction if the pile’s other control mechanisms should fail. A hundred feet away, behind two concrete walls, another group monitored the test by means of instruments and an intercommunication system. Should anything go wrong on the squash court, incapacitating the group there, the “remote control” men could throw a switch to activate electrically operated
safety rods and halt the chain reaction.
In midmorning, Fermi sent word to Compton that the test was about to begin and the Metallurgical Laboratory chief, accompanied by Crawford Greenewalt, whom he had selected as the representative of the Lewis reviewing committee, hastened from nearby Eckhart Hall to the stadium. As they arrived, Fermi was testing the pile systematically. As Weil slowly withdrew the final control rod, Fermi carefully checked the recording instruments. With each foot the rod was pulled out, the pile came closer to criticality, and the instruments measuring the neutron activity clicked faster. By about 11:30 A.M. the growing tension among the scientists in the squash court had become obvious. “I’m hungry,” said Fermi, suddenly breaking the spell. “Let’s go to lunch.”
Shortly after 2:00 P.M. the tests were resumed. Faster and faster clicked the neutron counters as the control rod was slowly withdrawn. At about 3:25, Weil moved the rod another foot. Fermi made a rapid computation with his slide rule and, turning to Compton, exclaimed: “This is going to do it.” As the neutron count ran faster, it was obvious Fermi was right. The rate of rise of the count was now constant. “The reaction is self-sustaining,” announced Fermi, meaning that the slow fissioning of uranium atoms in the pile would continue to produce enough neutrons to keep the process going.
After nearly half an hour of operation, when the radiation around the pile began to rise to dangerous levels, Fermi ordered the control rods reinserted. The world’s first self-sustaining nuclear reaction had been initiated, allowed to run, and then stopped. Man had accomplished the controlled release of atomic energy.19
Lewis Reviewing Committee Report
While practical demonstration of a chain reaction did much to relieve the hesitancy of Du Pont, the company’s management was perhaps even more encouraged by the report of the Lewis reviewing committee, submitted on 4 December. On the premise that “production must be substantially 25 kilos of ‘25’ [U-235] or 15 kilos of ‘49’ [plutonium] per month,” the committee felt that the diffusion process had the best chance of producing enough fissionable material of the desired quality and, equally important, that it would probably be the first to attain full-scale production. They agreed that the electromagnetic process was probably the most immediately feasible of all methods under consideration, but it seemed least likely to produce U-235 in the quantity that would be needed. Despite problems, the pile process now had a much better chance of success and might even provide “the possibility of earliest achievement of the desired result.” Accordingly, the committee recommended construction of a diffusion plant,
of a pile pilot plant and several full-scale production piles, and of facilities for producing heavy water. It urged continued developmental work on the electromagnetic process, including building a pilot plant to produce small quantities of U-235 for use in experiments. Finally, the committee recommended that companies with appropriate experience be given the responsibility necessary for operating all these projects. There no longer seemed any doubt concerning the feasibility of producing sufficient quantities of fissionable material.20
When the Military Policy Committee met on 10 December in General Groves’ office, it had before it the report of the Lewis reviewing committee. The effect of this report and the events that had taken place in Chicago a week earlier were evident. At its meeting on 12 November, the Military Policy Committee had agreed to proceed with the construction and operation of a small electromagnetic separation plant; a pilot diffusion plant and, if practicable, a small production plant; and a plutonium plant.21 Now a month later, the committee’s decisions were far more optimistic. The pile method for producing plutonium, it decided, would “be carried forward full blast.” Design for the pilot diffusion plant was well advanced and construction of test units was already under way at Columbia University. But rather than await completion of the pilot plant, the committee decided that work on the design and construction of a full-scale production plant should begin at once. The electromagnetic plant would be comprised of only 500 tanks “in order to get the earliest possible production of material, even though it may be in small quantities.”22 Thus, the Military Policy Committee had opened the way to rapid development of those processes that seemed most likely to provide large-scale production of fissionable materials.
In rapid sequence during the next few weeks, Groves and the Manhattan staff oversaw negotiation of construction and operation contracts. The first of these was a letter contract for Du Pont on 21 December (effective as of 1 December 1942), pending completion of negotiations for a formal contract. It provided that the company secure designs, procure equipment, and erect facilities for a large-scale plutonium production plant, which it would also operate. Although the agreement of 1 December superseded the letter contract of 3 October, which had provided that Du Pont design and procure equipment for plutonium pilot installations, it did not specify that the firm would build a pilot plant. New location problems had made temporary postponement of settling this aspect expedient.23
Du Pont did not want to manufacture plutonium after the war and made clear it was agreeing to do so now only because of the expressed desire of the Army. Accordingly, in the cost-plus-fixed-fee contract, Du Pont waived all profits and accepted the assignment on the basis of reimbursement for the company’s expenses on the project, plus a fixed fee of $1.00. However, arrangements were made to protect the firm from financial losses that might arise, because the hazards concomitant to the new process were not yet fully known or understood and conceivably could result in catastrophic losses for the company. Du Pont requested that the contract be submitted to the comptroller general of the United States for approval, particularly the sections covering reimbursement and indemnification, which the company feared might otherwise be upset by a future ruling. General Groves agreed and, as further assurance to Du Pont, Vannevar Bush also forwarded a letter to President Roosevelt, explaining the basis upon which the government was assuming responsibility for the unique hazards involved in the project.24
The Army had to negotiate with a number of companies for design, construction, and operation of the gaseous diffusion plant. Because the M. W. Kellogg Company had been working for nearly a year on research and design for a pilot plant, the Military Policy Committee decided at its 10 December meeting that this firm should also design and engineer the production plant. Hence, on the twelfth, General Groves requested Kellogg to act as architect-engineer for the diffusion project and, two days later, the company signed the necessary letter contract. To simplify operations and for reasons of security, Kellogg created a wholly-owned subsidiary, the Kellex Corporation,25 for the project. After consulting with Kellex representatives, the Manhattan commander asked Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation to operate the plant. By late January, the Carbide and Carbon Chemicals Corporation – a subsidiary of Union Carbide – had signed a Manhattan letter contract and its engineers had begun working closely with Kellex on difficult design problems.
While earlier plans had called for Stone and Webster to build the diffusion plant, it soon became clear this job would overburden the engineering firm’s already heavily taxed resources. Some consideration also was given to having Kellex construct the plant, but Groves decided that organization would have its hands full with the design and engineering problems. Groves remembered that he had been favorably impressed by the management, skill, and integrity of the J. A. Jones Construction Company of Charlotte, North Carolina, which had
built several large camps for the Army. The company accepted a letter contract covering this assignment on 18 May 1943.26
Arrangements already had been made for Stone and Webster to build the electromagnetic plant; however, because project leaders had decided that the task of operating the plant would be beyond the firm’s practical capabilities, Groves offered the job to the Tennessee Eastman Corporation, a subsidiary of the Eastman Kodak Company, which had considerable experience in chemical processes. On 5 January 1943, Tennessee Eastman informed Groves that it would accept the job and the next day signed a letter of intent, pending negotiation of a formal contract. Within a few days key personnel of the company went to the Radiation Laboratory at Berkeley to familiarize themselves with Lawrence’s experimental electromagnetic separation units.27
Upon examining the plans for various types of piles at the Metallurgical Laboratory in early November 1942, Du Pont engineers had rated the pile with a heavy water moderator second only to the helium-cooled graphite pile. It now appeared to be the logical choice “as a second line of defense” in case the graphite pile should fail. Accordingly, Du Pont recommended that the Manhattan commander take immediate steps to increase the monthly production of heavy water to approximately 3 tons per month: 0.5 tons to be produced by the electrolytic process at the Trail plant already under construction, and 2.5 tons by the distillation process at new plants to be built by Du Pont as adjuncts to ammonia-producing facilities already under construction by the company at government-owned ordnance plants. (At the request of the S-1 Committee, Du Pont earlier had investigated and ascertained the practicability of employing the distillation process to produce heavy water.)28
Both the Military Policy and S-1 Committees endorsed Du Pont’s recommendations. Under the terms of a letter contract of 16 November, Du Pont agreed “to select a process and provide facilities for the production of heavy water in order to make available a supply of this material at the earliest possible date.”29 Groves authorized the company to expand facilities under construction at Morgantown Ordnance Works, near Morgantown, West Virginia;
the Wabash River Ordnance Works, adjacent to Newport, Indiana; and the Alabama Ordnance Works, near Sylacauga, Alabama. (See Map 2.) Du Pont would build and operate the facilities, making as extensive use as possible of existing steam plants and other installations. Because Du Pont already had contracts with the Army’s Ordnance Department for construction and operation of munitions-making facilities at each of these ordnance plants, it was agreed the additional work could be covered by supplements to these contracts, thus eliminating the need for the Manhattan chief to negotiate new agreements. Nevertheless, for reasons of security, each heavy water plant was to be built and operated almost entirely under the immediate supervision of the local area engineer and general supervision of the Manhattan District. The Ordnance Department, in Colonel Marshall’s words, was “not to be involved in the design or knowledge of use of the product.”30
Hanford Engineer Works
Until November 1942, project leaders had assumed that the main plutonium production plant would be located at the Tennessee site.31 However, Du Pont was greatly concerned about the hazards of manufacturing plutonium on a large scale. An atomic explosion might devastate an area surrounding a plant and send a lethal cloud of radioactive dust and gases over a much larger zone. Such an explosion less than 20 miles from Knoxville could be a catastrophic disaster.
Groves himself already had qualms about placing a hazardous operation adjacent to electromagnetic and gaseous diffusion plants and near other important war production facilities in the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) region. Even if the physical effects were limited, an explosion would compromise the security of the whole project. If the plant were to be built at the Tennessee site, more land than originally contemplated would have to be acquired, a time-consuming process. Furthermore, there was a strong possibility that a power and labor shortage in the TVA area might
interfere with construction and operation of the plutonium plant.
All of these factors entered into the decision of the Military Policy Committee on 10 December that “a new plant site [for plutonium production] will have to be selected in an isolated area, but near power and water.”32 Groves sent Colonel Nichols and Lt. Col. Franklin T. Matthias to Wilmington on the fourteenth to discuss choice of a new site with Du Pont officials and with Compton and other representatives of the Chicago project. Matthias, an experienced civil engineer in civilian life, had been working with Groves on various problems, including the atomic energy program, and, while he had not yet been officially assigned to the Manhattan District, he was Groves’ tentative choice for the key position of area engineer on the plutonium project. The Wilmington conference concentrated on developing guidelines, with the main emphasis on safety limitations, for the new site. When Matthias returned, Groves directed him to make an inquiry concerning sites where sufficient electricity would be available.
Matthias consulted first with those Corps of Engineers officials whom Groves had indicated would know a great deal about the wartime power situation. As a result, when he sat down with Groves and two Du Pont officials on 16 December to draw up more specific plans, he had considerable information about potential sites. The precise criteria that emerged from this discussion indicated that the site selected would have to be relatively large, isolated from centers of population, easily acquired, and with access to a large amount of water and power. Based on the estimated space needed for six atomic piles and three separation plants, an area 12 by 16 miles would be necessary for the production facilities alone. This amount of space would allow for contingencies well beyond the then anticipated requirements. It would permit a distance of 1 mile between each of the piles and 4 miles between each of the separation plants. Laboratories would have to be at least 8 miles away from these separation plants, and the workers’ village and nearest railroad or highway at least 10 miles away. About 100,000 kilowatts of continuous power would be required, as well as 25,000 gallons of water (preferably soft) per minute for use in cooling the piles. A relatively mild climate, level terrain, a ready supply of sand and gravel, and ground and subsurface conditions favorable for heavy construction were also desirable for speed and economy in building the various facilities. And finally, along with other considerations, an area of comparatively low land values would reduce costs and facilitate acquisition.
As Groves, Matthias, and the two Du Pont representatives visualized it, the site would contain at least 700 square miles, with no main highway or railroad traversing it. This central area would consist of a restricted zone, 24 by 28 miles in size, in the center of which would be a 12- by 16-mile plant area. If possible, the site should be centered in a sparsely populated area, 44 by 48 miles in size, with no towns of more than one thousand inhabitants. The outer 10 miles of this last-named area would
constitute a buffer zone from which all residents would be removed, although it would not necessarily have to be purchased by the government.
Groves favored the Pacific Northwest, convenient to the growing power resources of the great Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) on the Columbia River. (See Map 2.) In this he was supported by Brig. Gen. Thomas M. Robins, the assistant chief of the Corps of Engineers, and Carl H. Giroux, the Corps’ chief power expert, who also suggested possible sites in the southwest as alternate choices.
Matthias and the Du Pont representatives investigated possible site locations from the California-Arizona border near Hoover Dam to the great Grand Coulee Dam in northeast central Washington. They checked a score of potential locations and studied maps and detailed reports prepared by the Los Angeles, Sacramento, and Seattle district engineers. Four sites appeared promising: two in Washington – one near Grand Coulee Dam and the other in the vicinity of Hanford, a community in the south central part of the state; a third on the Pit River, near the almost completed Shasta Dam in northern California; and the last on the California-Arizona border in the Needles-Blythe area, easily accessible to power from Hoover Dam. Because Matthias and his colleagues strongly favored the Hanford location, General Groves directed Col. John J. O’Brien, head of the Engineers’ Real Estate Branch, to begin a preliminary appraisal of the site. Meanwhile, Groves also made a personal inspection of the area on 16 January 1943 and gave it his approval.
Before asking for War Department authorization for acquisition of the Hanford site, Groves sought and received the BPA’s assurance that it could provide adequate power when needed. The site selection team had found that the BPA’s only recently completed trunk transmission line running between Grand Coulee and Bonneville Dams traversed the western portion of the projected Hanford site, with a major substation located at Midway, just outside the site area. This meant that a connection into the BPA system could be made quickly, guaranteeing an initial power supply for plant operations as soon as needed.
The Hanford Engineer Works, as the plutonium production site was designated officially, comprised about 670 square miles (slightly smaller than contemplated) in an isolated part of the south central Washington region near the confluence of the Columbia and Yakima Rivers. It lay primarily in Benton County, but also included parts of Yakima, Grant, Adams, and Franklin Counties. Very sparsely settled, the site included only three tiny communities: Hanford, White Bluffs, and Richland. A few miles to the southeast was the larger town of Pasco, an important rail center. Yakima, some 20 miles to the west, was a small city serving as a trade center for a surrounding rich agricultural area.
The major population centers of Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, and Spokane were all more than 100 miles distant. The Columbia River provided ample cold water of unusually high purity for cooling; the terrain and climate were close to ideal. Bounded
generally on the south by the Yakima River, on the east and north by the Columbia, and on the west and southwest by a steep 3,500-foot ridge line, the site was, for the most part, flat or slightly rolling, with only the 1,000-foot-high Gable Mountain rising to the north from the otherwise unbroken terrain. Excellent rail transportation lines ran nearby and a fairly extensive, existing road system could be extended without much difficulty over the level terrain.
The shape of the site was irregular, but roughly circular, extending on a north-south line about 37 miles at its widest point and with a maximum east-west breadth of about 26 miles. The tentative plan called for purchase of a little less than half of the land and for lease of the remainder. The outer 10-mile security buffer zone was no longer considered necessary, but two. smaller areas totaling some 60 square miles, adjacent to an important sector of the site, were to be leased for security purposes. The estimated cost of acquiring the entire site was slightly over $5 million.
With Under Secretary of War Patterson’s approval on 9 February, acquisition began immediately. By late spring much had been acquired, but gaining control of the entire site would be a long process. Had General Groves been able to foresee the troubles that lay ahead, he might well have selected another site.33
Plutonium Semiworks: Argonne vs. Tennessee
The decision to shift the site of the main plutonium production plant from Tennessee to the Pacific Northwest threw open to question once again the location of the semiworks for the pile process.34 In December 1942, after learning that the main production facilities probably would not be built at the Tennessee site, Arthur Compton and his Metallurgical Laboratory staff favored going back to the original plan of centering plutonium experimentation, testing, and pilot plant production of fissionable material at the conveniently situated Argonne Forest site.35 (See Map 2.) But Du Pont, having full responsibility for the plutonium program, strongly opposed this alternative. Du Pont engineers placed considerable emphasis on the hazards involved in setting up operations near a large
metropolitan area; they did not think there would be enough room at the Argonne site; and they also saw certain disadvantages in having the semiworks readily accessible.
Du Pont also objected to the Metallurgical Laboratory staff assuming it could dictate plans and policies on matters that the company held to be its own prerogatives. Compton had already detailed physicist Martin D. Whitaker, who had worked with Fermi on the first pile, and other staff members to supervise development of research facilities that would operate in connection with the semiworks. Du Pont, however, had a long-established policy that a research staff must not be permitted to exert too much control over the design and construction phases of a project. When this happened, the company had found, the staff had a tendency to keep making changes that seriously interfered with construction progress. In the world of industry, Du Pont felt, the research laboratory was the servant of management, not its master.
General Groves realized that if the differences between the Metallurgical Laboratory scientists and the Du Pont industrial engineers could not soon be resolved, there was serious question as to whether they would ever function efficiently as a team. From the Army’s point of view, achievement of a harmonious working agreement on the design, construction, and location of the semiworks was crucial, not only for present operations but also for future plans regarding the main production plant. Now that Du Pont had made significant progress on its design and procurement of essential equipment for the works, both Groves and Du Pont officials felt that no further delays could be tolerated. Furthermore, the efforts of Crawford Greenewalt, Du Pont’s liaison representative, to establish an agreement with the Chicago scientists had not been too successful. Consequently, on 4 January 1943, Du Pont accepted the Army’s alternative solution that the company design and construct the buildings to house the pilot pile and chemical separation facilities.
The Army-Du Pont agreement, however, still left the question of the location of the semiworks unsettled, and this issue was the main item on the agenda of a conference held in Wilmington on 6 January. Hoping to get a prompt decision, General Groves sent two of his ablest officers from District headquarters – Colonel Nichols and Lt. Col. E. H. Marsden – to assist the area engineer at Wilmington, Maj. William L. Sapper, in presenting the Army’s views to the representatives of Du Pont and the Metallurgical Laboratory. The Manhattan chief ‘s strategy succeeded; the meeting closed with a tentative agreement that the semiworks be erected at the Tennessee site.
The tentative agreement almost, but not quite, settled the issue. Under a previous agreement governing relations between Du Pont and the Metallurgical Laboratory, all important decisions had to receive final approval from both Compton and Greenewalt. Greenewalt’s assent was a foregone conclusion, but Groves knew that Compton was not likely to give in without at least an effort to salvage something for the Argonne site. In anticipation of this, he sent Colonel Nichols to Chicago.
Conferring with Compton and his assistant, Norman Hilberry, Colonel Nichols stressed the greater safety of the Tennessee site. Nichols’s argument, however, failed to alter Comp-ton’s conviction that the Argonne site was adequately safe and eminently suitable. Furthermore, he contended, to shift to Tennessee now would be a severe blow to the morale of his laboratory staff. The Metallurgical Laboratory did not have enough scientists and technicians to staff another major research center in addition to those at Chicago and Argonne. If the decision was going to be to erect the semiworks in Tennessee, Compton concluded, then the Argonne Laboratory should be authorized to build for its own use a pile of sufficient size to produce the supply of plutonium it needed for experimental purposes.
Nichols suggested to Groves that a meeting between Compton and Roger Williams, head of Du Pont’s TNX Division (the company’s special organization for carrying out its atomic energy program commitments), might pave the way to an agreement. Sensing that the time had arrived for decisive action on his part, Groves immediately arranged to meet with Williams, Compton, Hilberry, and Fermi on 11 January in Chicago. Colonel Marshall also came from District headquarters in New York to assist in pressing for a decision.
The meeting opened with Williams reiterating Du Pont’s opposition to Argonne. Then the group considered
alternative sites. Williams warned that a site other than Tennessee or Argonne would result in a further serious delay. Location at Hanford, for example, would require too much time, would very likely interfere with construction of the production facilities, and would place the installation too far away from Wilmington and Chicago. Finally, with Compton still reluctant, the group agreed that the semiworks should be built in Tennessee.
The question of who would operate the semiworks also came up for discussion at the Chicago meeting. Taking advantage of Williams’s presence, both Groves and Compton proposed that Du Pont operate as well as build the semiworks. But Williams, pleading lack of authority, avoided making a commitment.
The next opportunity for discussing the semiworks problem came at a conference on pile project policies, held in Wilmington on 16 January. General Groves was away on an inspection trip at the Hanford site, but Colonel Nichols and Maj. Arthur V. Peterson, the Chicago area engineer, were on hand. Compton, accompanied by Hilberry and Whitaker, came determined to persuade Du Pont that, as builder and operator of the main production plant, it logically should also perform both these functions for the semiworks. But Williams, acting again as spokesman for a strong Du Pont delegation, had ready some effective counterarguments. In perfecting any new technical process, he pointed out, Du Pont always left operation of the experimental plant stage to the research staff. Furthermore, Williams continued, Du Pont felt especially unqualified to operate the semiworks because it involved major processes entirely outside the field of chemistry, the company’s normal area of specialization. Williams thus proposed that the University of Chicago operate the semiworks and Du Pont furnish the university with engineers, accountants, and similar personnel.
Compton obviously was profoundly shocked by Williams’s proposal. Neither in terms of its fundamental purpose nor of its proper function, he said, could a university operate an essentially industrial enterprise at a location some 500 miles from its campus. The Du Pont representatives countered with the observation that the university would be performing at least one appropriate function: educating company personnel in the special art of making plutonium. Compton knew that the Army would prefer not having Du Pont take on operation of the semiworks because it believed the firm’s resources would be taxed to the limit in building and operating the plutonium production plant and in carrying out its other war contracts. He agreed to consult with Conant in Washington, D.C., and with the administration of the University of Chicago.
There can be little doubt that Compton still held serious reservations on the task of operating the semiworks. He was even more dubious that the University of Chicago administration could be persuaded to agree to the task. Conant gave him no encouragement; the Harvard president took a dim view of a university running an industrial plant. Hence, perhaps no one was more relieved than Compton when the University of
Chicago agreed to accept a contract for operation of the plutonium semiworks. An exchange of letters between Groves and University of Chicago President Robert Maynard Hutchins in March 1943 provided the necessary formal agreement for negotiation of a War Department contract. Hutchins, who happened to be absent from the campus at the time the actual decision was made, remarked to Compton the next time he saw him on the street: “I see, Arthur, that while I was gone you doubled the size of my university.”36
For General Groves, successful resolution of the plutonium semiworks problem was a major administrative achievement. As the program developed, this accomplishment set the standard for future cooperation between Du Pont and Compton’s plutonium research and development activities – a key factor in working out the far more complex problems of building and operating the great plutonium production works at Hanford.
As the size and complexity of the atomic energy program increased, the Army had to face the problem of additional funding. The decision to develop four processes was obviously going to cost a great deal more than could be covered by the original financial commitment. A few days after Groves took command of the Manhattan Project in September 1942, Colonel Marshall discussed with him the necessity for speed in appropriating the remainder of the $85 million earlier approved for the program. Only $38 million had actually been allocated during the summer, and the rest would soon be needed. Groves, however, did not take any immediate action. In early November, Marshall again raised this question but now reported that future needs would total around $400 million. Agreeing with this estimate, Groves earmarked the remainder of the $85 million for the Manhattan Project and laid the groundwork for a drastic increase in its funding.
On 15 December, the Military Policy Committee forwarded the $400 million estimate to the President, recommending that the necessary additional funds be made available early in 1943. Also, the committee urged that General Reybold, the Engineers chief, be authorized to enter into contractual obligations beyond the funds then under his control, should obstacles arise to prevent an early appropriation of additional money.
Roosevelt approved the committee’s recommendations, and preparations were begun to secure the funds confidentially within regular Army appropriations. By April 1943, the need for General Reybold to exercise his authority to spend additional money was clear. Some $50 million would be
required by the end of June and an additional $286 million within another six months. In late May, General Somervell, the Army Service Forces commander,37 authorized Reybold to make available to the Manhattan Project $300 million from engineer funds; however, by this time, an additional $400 million was needed to carry the project through to the end of 1944. This sum, too, was soon made available under disguised purposes in the Military Appropriations Act of 1944. At least for the immediate future, it appeared fiscal requirements had been met. When the problem rose again in the following year, new means would have to be devised to solve it.38
By spring of 1943, approximately six months after General Groves’ assignment to the Manhattan Project, major advances in the atomic program provided more promise than at any time in the past of success in building an atomic bomb. These included achievement of a self-sustaining chain reaction in the pile method; assurance of an adequate supply of uranium ore; selection of plant sites and work on their acquisition; letting of contracts for construction and plant operation; and appropriation of requisite funding through 1944. Work on the design of a bomb was progressing, bolstered by satisfactory progress in the research and development of methods to isolate a sufficient quantity of U-235 and of the apparent feasibility of obtaining and using plutonium as a fissionable explosive. Project officials now believed there was a good chance that the production of bombs on a one-permonth basis would begin in the first half of 1945. By mid-1943, the Manhattan District had taken over administration of most of the OSRD research contracts and was preparing to assume responsibility for the rest in short order.39 Now that the period of joint Army-OSRD administration of the program was coming to an end, all work on the development of the atomic bomb would continue under the direction of the Army.