The price of the Manhattan Project

Posted May 17th, 2013 by Alex Wellerstein

There’s been a little radio silence over here last week; the truth is, I’ve been very absorbed in NUKEMAP-related work. It is going very well; I’ve found some things that I thought were going to be difficult to be not so difficult, after all, and I’ve found myself to be more mathematically capable than I usually would presume, once I really started drilling down in technical minutiae. The only down-side of the work is that it is mostly coding, mostly technical, not terribly conducive to having deep or original historical thoughts, and, of course, I’ve gotten completely obsessed with it. But I’m almost over the hump of the hard stuff.

Two weeks ago, I made a trip out to the West Coast to hang out with the various wonks that congregate at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute for International Studies. This was at the behest of Stephen Schwartz, who teaches a class over there and had me come out to talk to them about nuclear secrecy, and to give a general colloquium talk.

Atomic Audit

Stephen became known to me early on in my interest in nuclear things for his work in editing the book Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Since 1940 (Brookings Institute, 1998). This is one of these all-time useful reference books; it is the only book I’ve read, for example, that has anything like a good description of the development of US nuclear secrecy policies. And the list of contributors is a who’s-who of late 1990s nuclear scholarship. The book includes really detailed discussions about how difficult it is to put a price tag on nuclear weapons spending in the United States, for reasons relating both to the obvious secrecy issue, but also the fact that these expenses have not really been disentangled from a lot of other spending.

I’ve had a copy of the book for over a decade now, and it has come in handy again and again. I’m not a numbers-guy (NUKEMAP work being the exception), but looking at these kind of aggregate figures helps me wrap my head around the “big picture” of something like, say, the Manhattan Project, in a way that is often lost by the standard historical approach of tight biographical narratives. Of the $2 billion spent on the Manhattan Project, where did it go, and what does it tell us about how we should talk about the history of the bomb?

Here is a breakdown of cost expenditures for the Manhattan Project sites, through the end of 1945:

Site/Project 1945 dollars 2012 dollars %
OAK RIDGE (Total) $1,188,352,000 $18,900,000,000 63%
K-25 Gaseous Diffusion Plant $512,166,000 $8,150,000,000 27%
Y-12 Electromagnetic Plant $477,631,000 $7,600,000,000 25%
Clinton Engineer Works, HQ and central utilities $155,951,000 $2,480,000,000 8%
Clinton Laboratories $26,932,000 $430,000,000 1%
S-50 Thermal Diffusion Plant $15,672,000 $250,000,000 1%
HANFORD ENGINEER WORKS $390,124,000 $6,200,000,000 21%
SPECIAL OPERATING MATERIALS $103,369,000 $1,640,000,000 5%
LOS ALAMOS PROJECT $74,055,000 $1,180,000,000 4%
RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT $69,681,000 $1,110,000,000 4%
GOVERNMENT OVERHEAD $37,255,000 $590,000,000 2%
HEAVY WATER PLANTS $26,768,000 $430,000,000 1%
Grand Total $1,889,604,000 $30,060,000,000

I’ve taken this chart from here. The “current dollars” are 2012 dollars, with a “production line” labor deflator used (out of all of the options here, it seemed like the most appropriate to the kind of work we’re talking about, most of which was construction).

To break the numbers down a bit more, K-25, Y-12, and S-50 were all uranium enrichment plants. Hanford was for plutonium production. “Special operating materials” refers to the raw materials necessary for the entire project, most of which was uranium, but also highly-refined graphite and fluorine, among other things. Los Alamos was of course the design laboratory. The heavy water plants were constructed in Trail, British Columbia, Morgantown, West Virginia, Montgomery, Alabama, and Dana, Indiana. Their product was not used on a large scale during the war; it was produced as a back-up in case graphite proved to be a bad moderator for the Hanford reactors.

I’m a visual guy, so I of course immediately start looking at these numbers like this:

Manhattan Project costs chart

Which puts things a little more into proportion. The main take-away of these numbers for me is to be pretty impressed by the fact that some 80% of the money was spent on the plants necessary producing fissile materials. Only 4% went towards Los Alamos. And yet, in terms of how we talk about nuclear weapons and the Manhattan Project, we spend a huge amount of the time talking about the work at Los Alamos, often with only token gestures to the work at Hanford and Oak Ridge as the “next step” after the theory had been worked out.

We can also break those numbers down a little finer, by turning to another source, Appendix 2 of Richard Hewlett and Roland Anderson’s The New World. There, they have costs divided into “plant” and “operations” costs:

Site/Project Plant Operations Plant %
OAK RIDGE (Total) $882,678,000 $305,674,000 74%
K-25 Gaseous Diffusion Plant $458,316,000 $53,850,000 89%
Y-12 Electromagnetic Plant $300,625,000 $177,006,000 63%
Clinton Engineer Works, HQ and central utilities $101,193,000 $54,758,000 65%
Clinton Laboratories $11,939,000 $14,993,000 44%
S-50 Thermal Diffusion Plant $10,605,000 $5,067,000 68%
HANFORD ENGINEER WORKS $339,678,000 $50,446,000 87%
SPECIAL OPERATING MATERIALS $20,810,000 $82,559,000 20%
LOS ALAMOS PROJECT $37,176,000 $36,879,000 50%
RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT $63,323,000 $6,358,000 91%
GOVERNMENT OVERHEAD $22,567,000 $14,688,000 61%
HEAVY WATER PLANTS $15,801,000 $10,967,000 59%
Grand Total $1,382,033,000 $507,571,000 73%

They do not define how they differentiated between “plant” and “operations” expenses, but the most plausible guess is that the former are various start-up costs (e.g. construction) and one-off costs (e.g. big purchases of materials) and the latter are day-to-day costs (general labor force, electricity, etc.).

Looking at that percentage can tell you a bit about how much of the Manhattan Project was the building of a weapons production system as opposed to building three individual weapons. Nearly three-fourths of the expense was for building a system so large that Niels Bohr famously called it country-sized factory.1

The K-25 gaseous diffusion plant: the single largest and most expensive Manhattan Project site.

The K-25 gaseous diffusion plant: the single largest and most expensive Manhattan Project site.

Another way to look at this is to say that we usually talk about the atomic bomb as project focused on scientific research. But one could arguably say that it was more a project of industrial production instead. This is actually quite in line with how General Groves, and even J. Robert Oppenheimer, saw the problem of nuclear weapons. Oppenheimer, in testimony before Congress in 1945, went so far as to phrase it this way:

I think it is important to emphasize [the role of industry in the Manhattan Project], because I deplore the tendency of myself and my colleagues to pretend that with our own hands we actually did this job. We had something to do with it. If it had not been for scientists, there would have been no atomic bomb; but if there had been only scientists, there also would be no atomic bomb.

This is actually a very important point, and one which shines light onto a lot of other questions regarding nuclear weapons. For example, one of the questions that people ask me again and again is how close the Germans were to getting an atomic bomb. The answer is, more or less, not very close at all. Why not? Because even if their scientific understanding was not too far away — which it was not, even though they were wrong about several things and behind on several others — they never came close to the stage that would be necessary to turn it into an industrial production program, as opposed to just a laboratory understanding. That sheer fact is much more important than whether Heisenberg fully understood the nature of chain reactions or anything like that.

Why do we think of the bomb as a scientific problem as opposed to an industrial one? There are perhaps a few answers to this. One is that from the beginning, the bomb came to symbolize the ultimate fruits of scientific modernity: it was seen as the worst culmination of all of those centuries of rational thought. What grim irony, and what a standard story, that knowledge could lead to such ruin? Another reason is that scientific adventure stories are more interesting than industrial adventure stories. It is much more fun to talk about characters like Szilard, Oppenheimer, and Feynman running around trying to solve difficult logic problems in a desperate race against time, than it is to talk about the difficulties inherent to the construction of very large buildings.

Finally, though, there is the issue of secrecy. The scientific facts of the atomic bomb, especially the physics, were the most easily declassifiable. As discussed in a previous post (with many nods towards the work of Rebecca Press Schwartz), one of the main reasons the Smyth Report was so physics-heavy is because the physics was not terribly secret. Nuclear chain reactions, the idea of critical mass, the basic ideas behind uranium enrichment and reactors: all of these things were knowable and even known by physicists all over the world well prior to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The really hard stuff — the chemistry, the metallurgy, the engineering “know-how,” the specific constructions of the massive fissile-material production plants — was silently omitted from official accounts.

Looking at the costs of the bomb help rectify this perception a bit. It still doesn’t get us outside of the heroic narratives, for they are very appealing, but it can help us appreciate the magnitude of what is left out of the standard story.

  1. Bohr reportedly told Teller upon seeing Los Alamos and hearing about the entire project: “You see, I told you it couldn’t be done without turning the whole country into a factory. You have done just that.” []

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22 Responses to “The price of the Manhattan Project”

  1. J B says:

    It is hard to ‘grasp’ how large or small such dollars are. Here are some recent comparisons:

    From 2008 to 2009, the US Government ‘invested’ up to $184,500,000,000.00 to bail out a single company, AIG. Or more than six times the entire ‘cost’ of the Manhattan project. (1)

    The US Taxpayer pays for approximately $4,000,000,000.00 annually for ‘free’ soda-pop via food stamps. So in two years, one would have paid for the entire Y12 project. For simply fancy sugar water given away at our expense!

    The Government Accountability Office estimates the US Taxpayer wastes $364,000,000,000.00 annually in the Redundant Program of Redundant Programs. (2) Or essentially an entire Manhattan Project per MONTH in simple waste.

    So yes, the project was ‘expensive’. But fairly inconsequential for the leviathan of today’s government spending.



    • I have a graph that I use while teaching to illustrate how dramatically our expectations for federal expense have changed. This shows federal funding for research and development at constant 2005 (or so) dollars from 1955 through 2006. Aside from its rather obvious and interesting features (the parity of civilian and military funding from the mid-1960s through the early 1980s; the obvious effects of the 1980s arms race on military funding; the slump in the immediate postwar; the giant jump after 2001), the main thing I like to highlight with it is that Eisenhower gave his “military-industrial complex” speech in 1961, which looks like such a drop in the bucket compared to what came later.

    • Peter Solem says:

      It is worth noting that the combined reserves of all the central banks on planet Earth could not have purchased a single gram of plutonium in 1941, the year after Seaborg discovered it at Berkeley. Or to put it another way, what good is money if it can’t buy you the goods and services you require? This is a relevant concept, since nuclear weapons are capable of reducing modern civilization to so many ashes, a situation in which dollar bills would have little real value.

  2. Interesting post.

    I’ve noticed that a many people gloss over the differences between the capital costs of the nuclear program and the actual (marginal) cost of making a single device (given you’ve already spent the money on the infrastructure).

    Are there any estimates for the marginal cost for a single first generation (Mark 1 through the production engineered Mark 6) atomic bombs?

    How does this cost compare to the costs of a typical “thousand bomber” raid (including explosives, fuel and equipment losses) on Japan?

    To make accurate estimates of the marginal cost you’d need to know something about the construction of the device (perhaps not too much of a problem for the first generation bombs given Soviet espionage) but clearly secrecy would be a big impediment to determining the cost of later weapons.

    How was this marginal cost thought of by the decision makers? Did they care at all about it?

    It would seem not to be the case in 1945. After all the “cost conscious” planner would not have used Little Boy bomb and repurposed the large amount of U235 in it to building perhaps three (or more) implosion bombs.

    Did they use any economic metrics to think about the nuclear weapons programs “cost effectiveness”? “Megadeaths per megabuck” sounds like the sort of thinking Kahn (or perhaps General Buck Turgidson) would have used.

    • I’ve talked about this with Stephen at some length, and it is discussed a bit in the book, but the main answer seems to be that nobody really kept track of that kind of information, and it is really hard to figure out based on the financial information that was kept track of. I’ve run some back-of-the-envelope numbers before but I can’t remember how I came up with them. Maybe that should be another blog post…! Even just trying to estimate what 1 kg of plutonium cost the government to produce in the 1940s could be an interesting exercise, and is easier than trying to estimate entire systems costs.

      As for the Little Boy issue, this actually did come up during World War II, after the “Trinity” test. Oppenheimer suggested to Groves that they could re-work the HEU in the LB bomb into multiple FM bombs. He estimated though it would take some time to adapt it in a way that they were confident about (it takes a little more work than just re-casting the metal, because the critical masses are just a bit different), and Groves said nix — he wanted it out the door as fast as possible.

      As for whether they used economic metrics… what’s funny to me is that during the early Cold War, the idea of the atomic and hydrogen bombs being “more bang for the buck” was a constant piece of political rhetoric, but nobody really ran the numbers except in the most back-of-the-envelope, how-much-TNT-per-kilogram-of-uranium sort of way. The ways in which the concept is true is mostly trivial; yes, if your goal was total destruction, nuclear warheads are certainly cheaper than other means, though once you factor in the cost of the delivery systems (which are the bulk of Cold War expenditures on nuclear weapons), the margin drops down quite a bit… but that’s a rather limited definition of “cheap,” since you actually don’t want to have to actually use the weapons anyway.

  3. Nice post. A similar misunderstanding exists in the public’s mind in emphasizing Oppenheimer’s role in the project over Groves’s, something that can be partly remedied by reading Stan Norris’s “Racing for the Bomb”.

    For me Feynman really encapsulated the nature of the Manhattan Project when he said that “And that was not much science; it was mostly engineering”.

  4. Stan Norris says:

    According to a Fact Sheet that was prepared by the Pentagon for the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II the total cost of the World War II for the U.S was $288 billion. So the $2 billion Manhattan Project was less than one percent of the cost of the War.

    • Or, put another way, for every $1000 spent by the US on WWII, $7 was spent on the bomb. Which is still pretty impressive for one project…

      One other bit: according to Wikipedia, the unit cost per B-29 was around $640K, and they produced 3,970 of them. So that’s about $2.5 billion. (This obviously does not include the R&D costs, which were surely considerable.) Which is just another way to put those billions into perspective.

  5. Darrell Dvorak says:

    As usual, Alex and Stan Norris have already touched on my primary questions, to wit, do Stephen Schwartz’s estimates include the costs of the Army Air Forces to develop the atomic bombing capability and, regardless, are those costs likely to have been significant in the overall Manhattan Project? From my point of view, those costs would include (1) drop testing the bomb designs, from Muroc in 1943 to Wendover, etc in early Aug 1945; (2) 65 Silverplate B-29s produced plus costs of modifications, 1944-45; (3) Wendover operations late 1944 – late 1945, considering that it was the US’s largest bombing range and incurred the costs of base operations, 509th CG costs, and other costs of the 216th not included in the drop test costs; and (4) the AAF costs locating, preparing for, and occupying, Tinian, 1944-1945.

    • The cost of Project SILVERPLATE from September 1943-September 1945 was $76 million (in 1996 dollars). During that period 46 B-29s were modified. That figure includes training and logistical costs, and so might include some or all of the costs in your items 1, 3, and 4. I’m pretty sure this does _not_ include the original production cost of the modified B-29s.

  6. Peter Solem says:

    It would be interesting to see an estimate of the energy cost of the whole industrial project. The energy cost of running that massive uranium enrichment diffusion plant at Oak Ridge was immense, and my understanding is that it was the hydroelectric dams constructed by the TVA that supplied all the electricity used to power the pumps. Actually, just found a quote on that:

    “Electric energy consumption, courtesy of the TVA, was 20 percent higher than that of New York City. Oak Ridge used one-seventh of all the electricity produced in the United States.”

    It might give a better estimate of resources used to look at energy instead of economics – for example, comparing how much energy went into conventional weapons production vs. nuclear weapons production, vs. supplying fuel to ships, planes, tanks, etc.

    • I think those electricity figures are too high. Cameron Reed has dug up the actual electricity records and found that it is more like 0.9% of national generation. (charts)

      Which is still a lot!

      Some other numbers: there were apparently around 130,000 people involved with the project as a whole; out of a population of ~140 million (1945), that’s a little under .1%. (Which is mind-boggling — about one out of every 1,000 Americans worked on the bomb project?)

      When researching how many secret patent applications were docketed during the Manhattan Project, I found that:

      By the time the Manhattan Project’s authority was transferred to the AEC, on 1 January 1947, over 8,500 technical reports had been examined by the patent officers, over 6,300 technical notebooks had been scrutinized, and 5,600 different inventions in 493 different subject classes— covering everything “from the raw ore as mined to the atomic bomb”— were docketed by Lavender’s office, resulting in some 2,100 separate patent applications being approved for filing, 1,250 of which had actually been filed with the U.S. Patent Office. The magnitude of these numbers, if not immediately obvious, can perhaps be appreciated in light of the fact that the latter number would have been 1.5 percent of all the patent applications filed in 1946—more than one out of every hundred— or the fact that if all of the inventions docketed had been patented, they would have represented around 0.8 percent of all the patents in force at the time.

      Which is also pretty impressive.

  7. Blake says:

    I do not think I can ever recall seeing even a single picture of the inside of K-25 anywhere. Ever. It’s strange since it’s by far the largest and most expensive facility of all and there were pictures of practically every other aspect of the entire damn project if you dig deep enough. Doubly strange in that it’s the most trivially simple in terms of the scientific complexity of the operation: just pressure and filters, and images of the inside would probably be far less likely to reveal any sensitive information than images of, for instance, Y-12.

    • You know, I don’t think I have, either? I have seen pictures of other gaseous diffusion facilities, but I’m not sure about K-25. They don’t look like much — giant vessel with pipes running through them. (Diffuser housings and blowers, I think?) Here are two (unfortunately quite low-res) pictures: a Russian gaseous diffusion plant, and an American one (which one unspecified). In the American one, the red cylinder are axial-flow compressors, the large vessels behind them are diffusers. Here are pictures of the ceramic barriers used in the Russian plant, just to give some indication of what they look like (I’m not sure what I expected, but they didn’t look like what I expected). The US one may well be K-25 or basically identical; compare to the “typical cell” diagram for K-25 shown here.

    • Ah, check this out — I asked on Twitter, and the Atomic Heritage Foundation folks said they have a few photos, including this one and this one.

      • Blake says:

        Ah, very cool. Thanks for leveraging your mighty social network minions to find them! ;D

        • I have a bunch more. In fact, so many that I’ve decided just to make it the subject of the post for this week and they’ll go up tomorrow. So thank you for the inspiration! There is nothing so useful for me as people who ask interesting questions.

  8. On the Atomic Heritage Founadation’s Atomic Wiki site, we have a few photos of the interior of K-25 that come from our collection:

  9. [...] K-25 plant at Oak Ridge was the single most expensive part of the Manhattan Project. It was cost about a fourth more than the entire Hanford site. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the building [...]

  10. […] expenditures: The total estimated cost of the Manhattan Project, which developed the bombs dropped on Japan, was nearly $2 billion in […]

  11. […] expenditures: The total estimated cost of the Manhattan Project, which developed the bombs dropped on Japan, was nearly $2 billion in […]

  12. […] are lots of ways to try and convey the bigness. The size of the buildings and sites, for example. Or the cost — $2 billion 1945 USD, which doesn’t sound that big, even when converted to modern numbers (e.g. around $30 […]

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