The Uranium People

the-uranium-people_webThis autobiography by Leona (Woods) Marshall Libby is a valuable asset to anyone wanting to learn about the people involved in the Manhattan Project. Leona was the only woman present when Chicago Pile-1 sustained controlled nuclear reaction under the leadership of Enrico Fermi, who had become Leona’s friend. I obtained the book through my local library’s interlibrary loan process, which I recommend for books such as this one that was published in 1979. Leona’s book focuses on the achievements of the Manhattan Project and includes very little personal information. The book often meanders into stories of events involving Leona and other Manhattan Project scientists, but I thought those distractions from the main story were among the most interesting. The front and back covers of the book contain reproductions of the famous letter from Albert Einstein to F. D. Roosevelt outlining why the United States should speed up research on chain reactions and warning that Germany might have embarked on the same effort. I highly recommend this book, and will warn that I’m going to break from my tradition of trying to restrict this review to two pages. Besides, I haven’t posted a review in weeks, so I “owe” a very long review. I’ll let the reader decide how much they want. I often record page numbers for items from the book in what I call my “personal reviews”, and I’ll leave those in the event someone wants to look up the reference. I also left the sections I recorded in bold for my own reference on passages that I wanted to be certain to remember when writing my book about Rocky Flats.

Leona had done her doctoral work as a chemist in the University of Chicago physics department chaired by Nobel laureate Arthur Compton. Her doctoral professor was future Nobel laureate Robert Milliken. She joined the Metallurgical Laboratory in August 1942. She describes details of her work where she was the only woman participating in activating “Fermi’s Pile.” She also was involved in at Argonne, Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, and Lawrence Livermore Laboratories. Her primary role in the operation of the first nuclear reactor was to build boron trifluoride counters to detect neutron flux. 118 She frequently expresses pride in her soldering skills in making the detectors in her autobiography.  She was obviously disappointed that, “Laura Fermi, who kindly was going to read the book before its publication, died suddenly December 26, 1977.”  Ix-x

There are many stories about Leona’s numerous interactions with Enrico and Laura Fermi. She was clearly an admirer. Chapter 1 begins with the sentence, “Perhaps the most influential person in my life was Enrico Fermi.” She then lists all of his positive attributes and adds, “He managed all of this…without pomposity.” She said even “…he was amazed when he thought how modest he was.” I was also impressed that she said Fermi was influenced by the deterioration of relations between the U.S., Soviet Union, and China and the Soviet detonation of a deliverable hydrogen bomb to lay “…in a store of canned goods and water in his basement.” 1-9 I intend to leave most discussions of how Enrico and his family made it to the United States to escape the Fascism that threatened Laura and their children to a review in another book “Atoms in the Family” authored by Laura Fermi.

She describes how Fermi as a small child acquired the nickname “Little Match” because of his violent temper. Leona first saw the anger in his eyes when he was telling her about this nickname and relaying that it still bothered him that his parents had not recognized or accepted his intelligence when he was a small child. The second time she saw the depth of his anger reveals to me how much respect Fermi had for Leona. She had confronted and disagreed with him after he voted against development of the hydrogen bomb as a member of the General Advisory Committee to the Atomic Energy Commission. The discussion was reduced to shouting, “…leaving us both shaking and speechless. We talked again about this issue only when he was dying, and then with a great deal more understanding for each other.”It is interesting that Fermi expressed significant anger in discussions about Werner Heisenberg and Marie Curie, who had ignored him during his visit to Germany as a young man when they “…had completely ignored him, to the point of exceeding rudeness.” 15-16 Chapter 1 is titled Laura and Enrico Fermi, and I recommend the book for the details about those two people who had such a large impact on the history of the Manhattan Project.

There is another woman scientist who has received little recognition. Dr. Ida Noddak in the 1930s had refuted Fermi’s observations about the neutron irradiation of uranium. “Noddack pointed out that Fermi’s proof, achieved by comparing the chemistry of newly found radioactivities…was not sufficient proof of the existence of a transuranic.” Noddak’s paper was widely ignored, but it wasn’t ignored by Fermi. He diligently followed her advice in evaluating the chemistry of every element he could obtain, irradiate, and study. 43

Leo Szilard is introduced, and he was a strange man who had a huge impact on nuclear physics. He secretly patented a process predicting how a chain reaction could be achieved. “He had gotten the idea from reading an H. G. Wells book written in 1913…” On a disgusting note, Szilard was so arrogant that he believed the maid, and not he, should be responsible for flushing his toilet. 63-64

The question of secrecy of research results in the early years of World War II is introduced. Szilard advocated secrecy while others resisted. Eventually the various scientists agreed to self-imposition of secrecy to protect crucial information, to include the fact that carbon was a preferred moderator for sustaining a chain reaction. 73-74

It is interesting that the scientists very early understood that separation of uranium 235 from uranium 238 would be difficult while plutonium, which could be produced in a nuclear reactor, could be separated chemically with relative ease. They therefore understood “…that the main purpose of the chain reaction was to make plutonium.” The British MAUD committee had reached a similar conclusion. 77-79

The story is told of how Colonel Nichols obtained uranium and radium due to the farsightedness of Edgar Sengier. 83-84

Leona was approved for her PhD by Robert Milliken and hired into the “Manhattan District” by Herbert Anderson. She had become an expert in vacuum technology and in building the boron trifluoride detectors for measurement of neutrons. The first uranium began to arrive from M.I.T. Construction and assembly of the reactor began in the doubles squash court under the football stands of Stagg Field at Chicago University. Arthur Compton approved taking it to criticality “…in the center of a great, thickly populated city…with assurances by Enrico Fermi “…he believed that the chain-reacting pile could safely be built and proved operable…” The assembly began in 12 hour shifts.” 85-89

There are disparaging discussions about failings of Stone and Webster to be the engineering company to build what was needed for the Manhattan Project because of their lack of understanding of the technology, and “…Stone and Webster faded away and Du Pont came in.” 92

Leona writes that the secrecy requirements implemented by Groves preventing exchange of information between various project sites was justified, since Klaus Fuchs and Alan Nunn May could only give the Soviets information about what was happening at Los Alamos (Fuchs) and Chicago (May). 94

Leona mentions being at the University of Colorado where she worked with Eddie Condon. 111

Leona describes how one of her boron trifluoride counters was put into the Fermi’s pile lattice after the fifteenth layer was reached. She adds it was “…one of my better creations…” That is included in the chapter titled “In Chicago,” which describes the famous achievement of a sustained nuclear reaction in “Chicago Pile-1, or CP-1” where Leona was the only female in attendance. Leona and Enrico were trudging “…back home through the blue-shadowed snow, the temperature well below zero. Enrico and I didn’t say a word; I don’t know what he was thinking, but I was thinking, ‘Of course, the Germans have already made a chain reaction because we have, and they have been ahead until now. When do we get as scared as we ought to and work harder’?” She then did ask “…Fermi, when do we get scared? Could our work go faster? That is the quote in Laura Fermi’s book Atoms in the Family.” There was a party at the Fermi’s home, and Laura of course had no idea what was being celebrated. She begged Leona, the youngest member of a totally secret project to tell her what Enrico had done. Leona told her, “He sank a Japanese admiral.”  119-129

Leona describes how as a graduate student and later as a researcher working with Fermi that skill in finding equipment and materials involved taking those items from the area where other researchers were working. “I borrowed freely from other laboratories…” One night she “borrowed” a vacuum pump from Hans Beutler’s room and left a note explaining what she had done. “Beutler found his pump missing…and understandably got mad. He couldn’t reach me because I was asleep. He had a heart attack that day and died. I probably killed him.” 137

The description of building and operating CP-2 at Argonne has some remarkable information. Leona and a coworker were exposed to “…a large dose of radiation from gamma rays…” while soldering a radium-beryllium source. The dose was 200 roentgens, and the only concern Leona mentioned was whether the soldering had been done properly. This must have occurred early in the CP-2 project, which began in March 2013. Leona married John Marshall in July 1943 and was soon pregnant. “I told Enrico so, but neither he nor I told Walter Zimm, who was in charge of CP-2 operations, because Zimm would probably have insisted on kicking me out of the reactor building. My work clothes—overalls and a blue denim jacket—concealed the bulge…my fellow scientists didn’t know I was pregnant, right up to the last day.” Leona “…went to the hospital a couple of days early with high blood pressure, and came out with a baby and was back at work in a week, not quite on a par with Italian peasants but close to it.” She asked a fellow researcher if he wanted to see her baby, “…he told me had already seen one, but I’m sure he had never seen a baby as beautiful as mine.” 155-165

“Fermi was assigned a personal bodyguard, a large man named John Baudino.” Fermi assigned John to several physical tasks associated with the research, taught him some skills required for building equipment, and John never complained. Baudino frequently won gin rummy games with Fermi, and by the end of the project, “Fermi owed him several million dollars. They were both perfectly straight-faced about this debt.” Baudino was required to call Fermi Mr. Farmer, which was an odd name for a person with such a heavy Italian accent despite Fermi’s dedication to learning English. 160-164

Leona was Fermi’s frequent companion when the Hanford operations began, and her descriptions of the facility confirms others that document the remarkable engineering achievements managed by Du Pont at that facility. The “Queen Marys,” the huge concrete canyons where plutonium was extracted from the irradiated uranium, “…were to work well and successfully, and 2 months after the first irradiated slugs were pushed out of the first reactor put into operations, the extracted plutonium had arrived at Los Alamos. That is good engineering.” 166-171

Leona gives some interesting insights into her personal opinion of the risks of being exposed to plutonium. “Plutonium is a very dense metal. When you hold a lump of it in your hand, it feels warm, like a live rabbit. This is because it is emitting energetic alpha particles at a very high rate…Plutonium’s biological effects are subject of much mythology. One reads time after time in the literature how poisonous it is; but reliable evidence for this is lacking.” 171-172

Among the interesting stories in the book is one about how Leona and Enrico decided to explore the desert surrounding the Hanford operations. They noticed an airplane circling overhead and soon saw a man with a revolver walking erratically toward them. The man, who had been following their footprints, soon confronted them, pointed the gun at them, and ordered them to put their hands up with the food they were carrying. He escorted them back to the site while they held their hands aloft with Fermi holding up his sandwich and Leona her partially eaten apple. It was discovered that Enrico, who did not smoke, had forbidden matches in his pocket. They were fined and allowed to finish Enrico’s sandwich and Leona’s apple in the office. 175

Leona describes how she worked directly for John Wheeler, who would later have one of the most famous U.S. security violations of all times. 179

The book has some wonderful pictures beginning with Leona (her hands partially clenched and a copy of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists on a shelf beside her. The pioneers of nuclear science are portrayed in other photos.

There is an interesting paragraph about Fermi’s bodyguard and Leona’s child, which is seldom mentioned in the book. “At Hanford, Baudino wasn’t always needed to guard Fermi in an area already well-defended by a huge body of security personnel…On days when he had nothing in particular to do, he went to our tract house where my mother was baby-sitting, and he gossiped with her and guarded the baby.” Another indication of the value the project had for Leona was that Du Pont reserved a bathroom for her. She said it was “…not really necessary because of some 10,000 square miles of desert outside with its 10,000 sage brush per square mile, occupied only by rabbits and coyotes.” 183-184

Leona discusses Otto Frisch’s idea of experimenting with criticality, as she calls it, “Twisting the Dragon’s Tail.” Other sources call it “Pulling the Dragon’s Tail.” She writes about Louis Slotin and the accident that resulted in exposure to lethal radiation and his death. 203-204

Leona mentions little about her involvement at Los Alamos except to say that Fermi took her “…on the usual hikes…” and trout fishing. The argument between Fermi and purist fly fishermen enters the story. Leona dug for worms while Enrico stood in the cold water fishing. She finally found one worm and Enrico “…gradually used up the worm until it turned white. I guess, although I do not remember for sure, that he probably dried it out and put it in his tackle case for the next time.” Leona’s explanation for why he used worms was “…that if a trout were persuaded to die, then it would be a far better thing that it die seizing an honest bite to eat than that it were swindled to death with artificial food.” 204-206

There is a brief description of the spontaneous and recurring nuclear reaction at Oklo in a uranium deposit in Gabon, Africa. One other possible site for a similar reaction is mentioned to be at Cluff Lake in Saskatchewan, Canada. Leona adds an interesting comment that is pertinent today in the discussion about where to store nuclear waste. She writes that, “…the fact that its fission products (at Oklo) have remained in place for a billion years without dispersing is a reassuring example of contained radioactive waste disposal.” 214-216

The book says Fermi “…suggested to Teller that if a fission bomb should turn out to be feasible, then the enormous energies released in fission might be used to heat hydrogen nuclei to the point that they would be able to fuse.” Leona worked with Teller while he was at the Metallurgical Laboratory. She says he was “…fairly unhappy that his name is always linked with the hydrogen bomb… (And said) I do not want to be called the father of anything.” 233-235

Leona mentions John Gofman, “…the environmentalist who maintains that if even one atom of uranium or plutonium jumps over the fence of a nuclear park, it is one atom too many and will imperil a finite number of human lives.” Gofman (and I thank Leona for misspelling his name “Goffman,” at least once, which makes me feel better about the difficulty in recording the proper spelling of names) at a public hearing assaulted 32 nuclear scientists as liars and traitors and obfuscators of the public on the subject of nuclear energy, naming some of them…” Teller, who was on the stage at the event, wasn’t named. Someone asked about the costs of nuclear energy, and Teller presented the facts that the nuclear production of energy is economical. Ironically, Edward Teller was the instigator of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. His ideas led to the formation of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna. 236-246

Leona mentions the Soviets were able to turn down the Baruch Plan for international control of nuclear weapons, “…because they were confident, with the U.S. recipes and diagrams in hand, that they would soon build their own bombs without making any international concessions.” 248

The Soviet film “Choice of Goals” portrays the Soviet development of the atomic bomb. Stalin told his scientists, “They will not share their secrets with us. We have to solve this problem ourselves.” The movie portrays the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as unnecessary “…because the Soviet Army …finally forced the surrender of Japan…” The director of the film later admitted, “We didn’t invent anything.” The “…first plutonium production reactor built by the USSR, in the fall of 1948, was almost a copy of our materials-testing reactor built in 1943…” The Soviet hydrogen bomb detonated August 12, 1953 …incorporated both the use of lithium deuteride as fuel and the Teller-Ulam arrangement for igniting it…A U.S. official asked about this said, “We can thank Fuchs and a few others like him for that.” 282-285

Du Pont “…was asked to return to government service to build and run the Savannah River Project, which they did.” 289

There is a reference to Eniwetok that indicates Leona was there. It isn’t definitive, but the book says she was confronted by sharks while swimming. There is a brief description of the “George” shot. 295

I commend Leona for mentioning the Rocky Flats Plant (undoubtedly when she was a professor at the University of Colorado). “I have also been to Broomfield (Rocky Flats northwest of Denver) where a very minor amount of tritium was released with processed water at levels far below drinking water standards. A mistake was acknowledged for the release, new checks are being developed to insure (sic) against it happening again.” That is followed with another discussion of risks associated with plutonium. “Critics have testified about ‘Plutonium, the most carcinogenic agent on earth.’ There is little evidence for this.”331

In the event I haven’t encouraged people interested in the Manhattan Project to obtain Leona’s book, I’ll say it straight out. Ask your local library to get you this book as an interlibrary loan.

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