Atomic Energy for Military Purposes: The Official Report on the Development of the Atomic Bomb under the Auspices of the United States Government

atomic-energy-for-military-purposesThis report, written by Henry DeWolf Smyth at the request of Major General L.R. Groves (who led the Manhattan Project), is better known the “Smyth Report.” The copyright announcement by Smyth is interesting. “Reproduction in whole or in part authorized and permitted.” Groves wrote in the Foreword that “…there is no reason why the administrative history of the Atomic Bomb Project and the basic scientific knowledge on which the several developments were based should not be available to the general public.” There also are blunt warnings against requesting or releasing additional information “…subject to severe penalties under the Espionage Act.” Smyth explains in the Preface that “The ultimate responsibility for our nation’s policy rests on its citizens and they can discharge such responsibilities wisely only if they are informed.” He explains that the report is written about the construction of atomic bombs for “…engineers and scientific men who can understand such things and who can explain the potentialities of atomic bombs to their fellow citizens.” The book gives a tutorial on the history of research on atomic structure and radioactivity and the basics of nuclear physics.

The administrative history of the research has been well-documented in many sources, but many of them probably used the information in this book. One issue that was considered in depth early on was the need for secrecy about the research that was being considered or was on-going.  A “Reference Committee” was established in the National Research Council “…to control publication policy in all fields of possible military interest.” Journal editors would send copies of papers to the committee for review. The system worked well. Most physicists were soon absorbed into the various projects, “…which reduced papers being submitted to the committee almost to the vanishing point.” The arrangement was voluntary, but scientists in the country cooperated.  Scientists in Germany, the Soviet Union, and other countries recognized that the United States was attempting to develop atomic energy for a weapon based on the sudden absence of research papers being published by scientists in the U.S.

One piece of information that disagrees with many other sources is that Harry Truman was well aware of the project and its magnitude when he was a Senator. He was briefed by Stimson and Groves on the project immediately after FDR’s death and his inauguration, and he kept “…in constant touch with the program.”

The program to evaluate experimental programs for separation of uranium 235 from the uranium 238 isotope and the evaluation of the possibilities of a chain reaction began about the end of 1941.  Depending on the occurrence of a chain reaction, “…it would be possible to separate plutonium chemically from the other materials; and, finally, to obtain the theoretical and experimental data for effecting an explosive chain reaction with either U-235 or with plutonium. The ultimate objective of the laboratory was to prepare plans for the large-scale production of plutonium and its use for bombs. The laboratory “…could not wait for a chain reaction to be achieved before studying the chemistry of plutonium. It had to assume that plutonium would be separated and to go ahead with formulation of plans for its production and use…research plans were reassessed almost from week to week.”  A self-sustaining chain reaction was first achieved on December 2, 1942 by Fermi and his team.

The objective after the successful operation of a chain-reacting pile was to produce and extract plutonium. It was calculated that production of one gram a day of plutonium would require the generation of 500 to 1500 kilowatts, and the Fermi pile operated at a power level of 0.2 kilowatts. The “…extrapolations both as to chain-reacting piles and to separation processes were staggering. In peacetime no engineer or scientist in his right mind would consider making such a magnification in a single stage and even in wartime only the possibility of achieving tremendously important results would justify it.” “By the end of 1942, about 500 micrograms had been obtained in the form of pure plutonium salts. Although this amount is less than would be needed to make the head of a pin, for the microchemists it was sufficient to carry out weighing experiments, titrations, solubility studies, etc.”

The Clinton semi-works included a unit for plutonium production, but “…the Hanford production units had to be designed, constructed and operated without major guidance from Clinton experience.” The various components of the Hanford facility “…had to be based on incomplete scientific information.” For example, the reactors were originally planned to be helium cooled, but water cooled reactors were constructed. The uranium therefore had to be encased in metal (“canned”) to prevent corrosion. The “…canning problem turned out to be one of the most difficult problems encountered in such piles.”

The highly radioactive slugs from the reactors required the separation facilities to be constructed in concrete “canyons,” and all operations were remote controlled. It was recognized that the wastes from the processes would contain highly radioactive fission products of some thirty elements. “High stacks must be built which will carry off (the) gases along with the acid fumes from the first dissolving unit, and it must be established that the mixing of radioactive gases with the atmosphere will not endanger the surrounding territory.” Work began on the Hanford production piles on June 7, 1943 and the operation of the first pile began in September 1944.

A Health Division was established to assure “…that no one concerned suffered serious injury from the peculiar hazards of the enterprise…Factors of safety used in plant design and operation are so great that the hazards of home and the family car are far greater for the personnel than any arising from the plants.” All manner of instrumentation was developed to measure and monitor radiation. The first was a simple electroscope about the size of a fountain pen. It was electrostatically charged at the beginning of the day. The amount of discharge measured at the end of the day indicated the amount of ionizing radiation exposure. They were not too rugged or reliable, and “film badges” replaced them. “Sneezy” was developed to measure radioactive dust in the air and “Pluto” was developed to measure alpha contamination on clothing and equipment.

There is discussion that before the surrender of Germany it had been considered they might be developing atomic bombs. “There was therefore no choice but to work on them in this country.” It is interesting to note that “…many of the scientists could and did hope that some principle would emerge which would prove that atomic bombs were inherently impossible. This hope has faded gradually…” It was learned the Germans had not proceeded because of the magnitude of the industrial effort that would have been required. Smyth then writes, “…most of us are certain that the Japanese cannot develop and use this weapon effectively.”  Smyth wrote the report before the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but writes “…the future possibilities of such explosives are appalling…”

The process for preparing the Trinity explosion is described in an appendix. The most fascinating description is “…the experience of a blind girl near Albuquerque many miles from the scene, who, when the flash of the test lighted the sky before the explosion could be heard, exclaimed, ‘What was that’?” One observation was that “The effects could well be called unprecedented, magnificent, beautiful, stupendous and terrifying.”

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