Field of Science

Book review: "The Apocalypse Factory: Plutonium and the Making of the Atomic Age", by Steve Olson

In the history of the Manhattan Project, Los Alamos has always been the star, and Hanford and Oak Ridge where plutonium and uranium respectively were created have been supporting actors. Steve Olson's goal is to resurrect Hanford as the most important site in retrospect. Its product, plutonium, is now the element of choice in the vast majority of the world's nuclear arsenals. And the product of that creation has created an environmental catastrophe beyond reason.

Olson has written a lively and thought-provoking book about the "devil's element" and the global catastrophe and promise it has bred. Olson's account especially shines in the first half as he describes Glenn Seaborg, Joseph Kennedy and Arthur Wahl discovering plutonium-239 at Berkeley in February, 1942. Very quickly plutonium's promise became clear - unlike uranium whose rare fissionable isotope (uranium-235) it would take herculean efforts to separate from its more copious cousin (uranium-238), plutonium, being a different element from uranium, could be separated using relatively simple chemical means from its parent uranium-238. It was also clear that plutonium could be more efficiently fissioned than uranium and so less of it was needed to build bombs; if this elementary fact of nature had not been true, enough plutonium would never have been produced in time for the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki, and the world's nuclear arsenals might have looked very different. As it turned out, while the Hiroshima bomb needed about 140 pounds (63 kilograms) of uranium, the Nagasaki bomb needed only about 13 pounds (6 kilograms) of plutonium. It is still stupendous and terrifying to think that an amount of plutonium that can be carried as a cube that's about 3 inches on one side can destroy an entire city.
The first hulking reactor at Hanford (Reactor B) went up soon under the watchful eyes of Enrico Fermi, Eugene Wigner and the DuPont company; the first batch of plutonium from Hanford was produced at the beginning of 1945. Olson's book has amusing accounts of the differences in philosophy between the DuPont engineers and the physicists; the engineers thought the physicists considered everything too simple, the physicists thought the engineers made everything too complex. Of special note was Crawfort Greenewalt, a bright young engineer who had married into the DuPont family and who orchestrated DuPont's building of the reactor. Somehow peace was brokered and the warring functions worked well during the rest of the war. The plutonium in the Nagasaki bomb came from Hanford, its high spontaneous fission rate necessitating a revolutionary new design - implosion - used in that bomb and pretty much all its successors.
Olson's account of the Nagasaki mission is gripping. The poor city was the third choice after Hiroshima. Kokura which was the second choice turned out to have significant cloud cover. So did Nagasaki, but at that point the 'Bockscar', the B-29 bomber that was delivering the bomb, made a last-minute decision to bomb in spite of lack of the visual bombing requirement which had been mandated. After the war, even Manhattan Project chief General Leslie Groves who never publicly regretted the bombings said privately that he did not think Nagasaki was necessary.
As the Cold War heated up, the Hanford site became the principal site of production of plutonium for the tens of thousand of nuclear weapons that were to fill the missiles, bombers and submarines of the United States, a number that was many fold that necessary to bring about the destruction of the entire planet in a nuclear exchange between the two superpowers. The reactors were powered down in the 60s and early 70s, only to be powered up again during the hawkish administration of Ronald Reagan. There was another kind of destruction wrought during their operation. In their haste to make plutonium: billions of gallons and pounds of toxic radioactive and chemical sludge and waste were stored in makeshift steel tanks underground; some of this effluent was released into the mighty Columbia River. The scientists and engineers and politicians who made Hanford did not quite understand the profoundly difficult long-term problem for humanity that these long-lived radioactive materials would face. Even today, the Hanford site is often referred to as the most contaminated site in the world, and it is estimated that it could take up to $640 billion to clean up the site.
With plutonium also came jobs and families and hospitals and schools. Olson who grew up in the area talks about the complicated relationship people whose fathers and grandfathers and grandmothers worked on the reactors have with the site. On one hand, they are proud that their work contributed to the end of World War 2 and preserved America's edge and possibly survival during the Cold War; on the other hand, they worry about the bad reputation that the site has gotten as the principal protagonist in creating weapons of mass destruction. Most of all, they worry about the potential cancers that they think the contaminated site might have caused. As Olson documents, studies have found tenuous links at best between the radiation at the site and the rate of cancers, but it's hard to convince people who believe that any amount of radiation must be bad.
Today the Hanford site is part of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park that encompasses Oak Ridge and Los Alamos (I have been wanting to go on a tour for a long time). The B reactor no longer produces the devil's element. Instead it is a mute testament to humankind's discovery of the means of its own destruction. That nuclear weapons have never been used in anger since August, 1945 might elevate it in the future to an importance that we cannot yet gauge.

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