Posts Tagged ‘Business and industry’


What remains of the Manhattan Project

Friday, June 12th, 2015

What remains of the Manhattan Project? A lot of documents. Some people. A few places. And a handful of artifacts. Maybe less than one might expect, maybe more than one might expect — it was a very large, expensive undertaking, involving a lot of people, so there being some remnants is not surprising. Though given its size, and importance, perhaps one would expect more.

Some of the attending Manhattan Project veterans. Photo by Alex Levy of the Atomic Heritage Foundation.

Some of the attending Manhattan Project veterans. Photo by Alex Levy of the Atomic Heritage Foundation.

The symposium put on by the Atomic Heritage Foundation last week was really excellent — a really important event. The attendance was higher than I would have guessed. At least a dozen Manhattan Project veterans attended, and many children of Manhattan Project veterans (some of whom were born during the war) were there as well. There were also a lot of nuclear historians, scientists, and enthusiasts. I got to spend time talking with a lot of wonderful people who also cared a lot about, and took very seriously, the history of the atomic bomb. Among those who were there included Richard Rhodes (Pulitzer-winning author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb), Stan Norris (biographer of Leslie Groves), Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin (Pulitzer-winning authors of American Prometheus), John Coster-Mullen (major irritant to government censors and author of Atom Bombs), Avner Cohen (author of many books on Israel and the bomb), Ray Smith (the historian at Y-12), and Clay Perkins (physicist and nuclear "collector"), just to name a few. I saw some of my DC friends and former colleagues, and met a lot of nuclear history enthusiasts. All together, it looked like there was well over two hundred people between the two days of it.

There were several themes to the whole event. One was the creation of the Manhattan Project National Historic Park. There were representatives from both the National Park Service and the Department of Energy to talk about the process going forward, and there was also an excellent address by Senator Martin Heinrich of New Mexico.

Richard Rhodes gave the first address of Wednesday by talking about why we save authentic relics of the past. He took a tack I wouldn't have expected — he started off from the work of the philosopher John Searle on "social reality," the sorts of facts that exist only by mutual agreement. "When we lose parts of our physical past, we lose part of our social past as well." Our preference for the originals of things, the "authentic" objects, isn't just about sentiment, he argued — it is part of what defines us. (And if you don't believe physical things define you, try losing a wedding ring, or an irreplaceable album of old photographs.) Preserving public memories, spaces of our past, whether positive or negative, help us come to terms with who we are, and what we have done. And he made the point, quite effectively, that we do not just preserve the sites that glorify us — Ford's Theatre, Manzanar, and the Sand Creek massacre site are all National Historic Sites as well.

Battle deaths in state-based conflicts, 1946-2013, by Max Roser. This is what Rhodes had in mind regarding the decreased amount of deaths from war since World War II. (Note that if WWII was included in this, it would be even more stark: the rate of battle deaths per 100,000 of global population was 300 for the war as a whole.) There are a lot of ways to parse these numbers, as Roser's site makes clear (the raw numbers of wars has been increasing, some of this decline as a unit of population is due to the massive increase in global population), and there are multiple interpretations of the data (whether the bomb has anything to do with it is disputed by scholars), but it is still very interesting. Source: Max Roser, "War and Peace after 1945,"

Battle deaths in state-based conflicts, 1946-2013, by Max Roser. This is what Rhodes had in mind regarding the decreased amount of deaths from war since World War II. (Note that WWII's rate of battle deaths was around 300 per 100,000.) There are a lot of ways to parse these numbers, as Roser's site makes clear (the raw numbers of wars has been increasing, some of this decline as a unit of population is due to the massive increase in global population), and there are multiple interpretations of the data (whether the bomb has anything to do with it is disputed by scholars), but it is still very interesting. Source: Max Roser, "War and Peace after 1945,"

Rhodes is no fan of nuclear weapons, and doesn't believe that the atomic bombs were what caused Japan to surrender in World War II.1 Yet, he argued that when J. Robert Oppenheimer told his recruits that these weapons might end all war, he might not have been wrong. Rhodes noted the marked decrease of deaths by war in the years that followed World War II, paired with the increased risk of a terrible nuclear holocaust. Nuclear weapons, he argued, were the first instance in which science revealed a natural limit to national sovereignty. In Rhodes framing of it, scientists found facts of the natural world which required new political interventions and methods to avoid certain types of war.

As a result, he said, these Manhattan Project sites were potentially among the most significant in the history of the world. It was an interesting way to start things off.

In an event where the participants are present, it is easy to fall into something that feels like just a celebration. And there were those, without a doubt, who felt positively about the Manhattan Project, that it was necessary to end the war, and all of that. There were also those who thought it wasn't necessary, too. I think my favorite comment came from James Forde, a Manhattan Project veteran who had been employed to clean tubes (later revealed to be gaseous diffusion barriers) near Columbia University during the war. He said that for awhile he felt bad about the atomic bombs, but then he looked more into all of the other damage that non-atomic weapons had done during the war. After that, he lost any enthusiasm for war of any kind. He got solid applause for that.

Age distribution at Los Alamos, May 1945. Top graph is total  civilian personnel, bottom is scientific employees only. Keep in mind this was 70 years ago, so anyone in their 20s then would be in their 90s now. Source: Manhattan District History, Book 8, Volume 2, Appendix, Graph 1.

Age distribution at Los Alamos, May 1945. Top graph is total civilian personnel, bottom is scientific employees only. Keep in mind this was 70 years ago, so anyone in their 20s then would be in their 90s now. Source: Manhattan District History, Book 8, Volume 2, Appendix, Graph 1.

The veterans who were there had all been extremely young at the time. This makes sense, of course — if it is the 70th anniversary, almost nobody older than their early twenties is going to still be around today. And at many of the sites, the youth were in abundance. As a result, most of them had fairly small roles, small jobs, though some of them had rubbed shoulders with the giants. There were a few remarkable anecdotes. Isabella Karle talked about working as a chemist at the Metallurgical Laboratory in Chicago, working on plutonium oxide produced at the Oak Ridge X-10 reactor. She had to move it between buildings, and since it was such a small amount, she just carried it in her pocket. Someone found out she was doing this, and required her, a young woman with pigtails, to be escorted between building by burly guards, attracting more attention than she would have otherwise. She also related a story about carrying a radiation counter around with her, and having it go off next to a Coca-Cola machine. Apparently a deliveryman had forgotten some tubing in his car, and borrow a contaminated tube from a Met Lab office, contaminating the machine with who knows what. Fortunately, she said, she had stumbled across this before anyone had used it.

Ben Bederson told some amazing stories about David Greenglass, who he had bunked with as a member of the Special Engineer Detachment. Greenglass, he said, was a "true believer" of a Communist. Bederson pointed out that he, like many New York Jews at the time, had been interested in Communism for awhile (he had grown up in a part of the Bronx that was considered a "Communist neighborhood") but that most had become disillusioned with it by the time the US was in the war. Greenglass never seemed to take the hint, though, and thought Bederson was a fellow traveler. It was an amusing contrast to people like Klaus Fuchs and Ted Hall, who hid their politics. Bederson eventually asked to be transferred to a different bunk. Later, Greenglass told the FBI he had wanted to try and recruit Bederson but his courier, Harry Gold, told him not to. The reason Greenglass thought Bederson would be a good recruit is because he gave money to the Roosevelt reelection campaign. "That shows you how smart David Greenglass was," Bederson remarked with sarcasm.

The arming plugs of the Little Boy bomb.

Holding the arming plugs of the Little Boy bomb.

Along with the veterans and the historians, there were some artifactual pieces of the past there. Clay Perkins had brought the arming switches of the Little Boy bomb, which he purchased over a decade ago. The green ("safe") one was kept plugged into the bomb until after takeoff. While in flight, the assistant weaponeer, Morris Jeppson, climbed into the unpressurized bomb bay of the Enola Gay and removed it. In its place, he put a red ("armed") plug, making the bomb electrically "live." (The red plug that Clay has is a spare, of course — the original was destroyed in the explosion over Hiroshima. Jeppson brought multiple spares with him since if he had dropped one during the operation, it would have aborted the mission.) Clay let me hold them, which was moving.

There was also a very surprising artifact brought by one of the veterans: a lucite hemisphere with pieces of Trinitite embedded in it. The Trinitite is not so rare, but the lucite was cast in the same mold that made the plutonium pits for the Trinity and Fat Man bombs, and included the small hold for the neutron initiator. This is an incredible thing to have kept (and I was also allowed to hold this, as well). I am sure its existence is the result of a violation of untold numbers of security rules. John Coster-Mullen, as I expected would, came up immediately afterwards to trace the dimensions. It looked how we all expected it to, but it still amazing to see something like this, knowing how secret it once was, and even now is supposed to be.2

I knew the plugs existed, I did not know the lucite existed. There is something profound about holding artifacts that had such strong connections to history. That historical empathy I spoke of in my most recent post has something to do with it — the brain suddenly makes this connection with this world that often seems so far away. But of course it really isn't that far away, and the world we have today is largely a product of it. But sometimes even historians need reminders.

Monthly costs of the Manhattan Project, 1943 through 1946. From the Manhattan District History, Volume 5, Appendix A.

Monthly costs of the Manhattan Project, 1943 through 1946. From the Manhattan District History, Volume 5, Appendix A.

My own contribution to the symposium was a talk about the Manhattan Project as a "Crucible for Innovation." I didn't choose the title (it is not really my style, even though I do teach at "The Innovation University"), but it was easy enough to roll with: how much innovation took place during the Manhattan Project, and why was it successful? I talked a bit about the secret Manhattan Project patent program as one way to measure its innovation. By the time the AEC took over, the Manhattan Project patent program approved 2,100 separate secret patent applications for filing, and had already filed 1,250 of them with the US Patent Office. As I noted in an article from a few years ago, that latter number represented 1.5% of all of the patent applications filed in 1946. The Manhattan Project was not just the building of a bomb, but the creation an entirely new industry from scratch.

Why did the Manhattan Project succeed? Well, I argued, it almost didn't — all you would need for it to have been a "failure" (in the sense of having not produced atomic bombs by the end of World War II) would to have been delayed by likely a few months. Which anyone who has ever tried to run even a small project knows is easy enough to do. I always try to emphasize this lack of an inevitability when I talk about the wartime effort, because it is easy to fall into the fallacy of knowing how the story ends and thus seeing it as predestined. The Manhattan Project was an anomaly: it was not innovation as usual, and it was not the natural or obvious path to take. Which is one reason why the US was the only country who actually went down that path with any seriousness during the war. The Manhattan Project still holds the world record for fastest tested or deliverable nuclear weapon after committing to build one: two and a half years.3

A preview of my forthcoming Manhattan Project sites map. Size is a subjective "prominence" rating given by me, the white dots show the actual location of the sites, and the color corresponds to whether it is government/military, educational institution, or private industry. An interactive version will be unveiled this summer, which will give more information about specific sites and permit zooming in, and etc. This only shows sites in the continental US and lower Canada — there are other non-US sites as well in the final version.

A preview of my forthcoming Manhattan Project sites map. Size is a subjective "prominence" rating given by me, the white dots show the actual location of the sites, and the color corresponds to whether it is government/military, educational institution, or private industry. An interactive version will be unveiled this summer, which will give more information about specific sites and permit zooming in, and etc. This only shows sites in the continental US and lower Canada — there are other non-US sites as well in the final version.

Lastly, I also emphasized the size of the project. I've talked on here about the immense cost of the work, and the greater-than-most-people-realize manpower requirements. But I also unveiled a screenshot of a work in progress. For a while now, I've been trying to make a database of every site where some sort of work on the Manhattan Project was done. I've been combing through the Manhattan District History, through archival files on contracts, and through databases of radioactive Superfund sites. I've been keeping a tally of any places listed as having some role in the final outcome, however minor. My current list is well over 200 separate sites. Some of these places were research institutions (about 40 are educational institutions of some nature), some were military or government institutions (some created from scratch, some pre-existing), and about half were private industry. Some places produced materials, some just produced paper. (The symposium took place in the Carnegie Institute of Science, which was where Vannevar Bush's Office of Scientific Research and Development headquarters were during the war, and I delighted in getting to point this out.) Not all sites were equally important, to be sure. But all played some role, even if most of those places probably did not actually know what their role was. The screenshot above is a preview of the map — it is still a work in progress, and the final version will be fully interactive, sortable into different categories, and so on.

It's a big list. Bigger than I thought when I started it. It just emphasizes again that the Manhattan Project was responsible for the birth of an industry, not just the bomb. Upon learning about the scale of the project in 1944, Niels Bohr told Edward Teller: "I told you it couldn't be done without turning the whole country into a factory. You have done just that." It was an apt observation.

Very little of this infrastructure remains. The Manhattan Project National Historic Park is an important step in the right direction for preservation of this history. There is a long road yet to go in terms of figuring out how to make it available to the public, and how to properly present the material. I remain optimistic that it will be an opportunity to talk about history in a productive way, and to build bridges between the ever-changing present and the ever-receding past.

  1. Rhodes is explicitly convinced by the Hasegawa thesis. In his words, though, "I find tragedy but no dishonor in having used atomic bombs to hasten the end of the war," whether they actually hastened that end or not. It is a nuanced point to make. []
  2. John says it is a bit smaller than the actual pit — the initiator would not have been able to fit in the hole given, and the mass would be off by a few percentage points. So either it was cast in an earlier or alternative pit model, or something happened to it in the meantime. My hypothesis is that it was cast in the actual pit mold, but that it shrunk in some way over time, either because it contracted while it cooled originally (the thermal contraction coefficient for acrylic is around 5X that of uranium, just as a point of comparison), or through some other warping mechanism over the last 70 years. []
  3. The decision to produce nuclear weapons was made in December 1942. The work prior to this was of an exploratory or pilot nature, not a production program. The "Gadget" was ready by mid-July 1945, the other bombs were ready by the end of the month. []

Advertising for weapons designers

Friday, December 14th, 2012

Advertising, annoying as it is in the present, is a great tool for looking at the past. You really do get a sense for what passed as acceptable, who people thought the ideal consumer was, and what kind of life people dreamed they could have, when you look at the elaborate construction of fantasy and insecurity that plays out in the advertising medium.1 This is one of the reasons it is especially galling, as an historian, that many digitized archives of past magazines or journals do not let you search advertising copy, or even — gasp! — have all advertising cut from them. This sort of thing is so irritating for historians, just passing that on.

Jack and Heintz missile systems ad, August 1958. See what you're missing if you cut out the ads? No comment necessary.

Scientific American is a periodical whose online archival incarnation thankfully retains the ads. You can't search them through the default search engine, but they're in the PDFs. By downloading lots of PDFs in bulk (it can be done), you can then run searches for specific ad copy across all of them, or compile the individual articles into massive PDFs that roughly approximate a full bound set. (There are some ways in which having digital sources are a convenience — instant searching! — and some ways in which it is a pain — difficult browsing.)

During the Cold War, Scientific American was a major periodical, much more so than it is today. Its publisher since 1948, Gerard Piel, was not a scientist, but saw himself as an ideal Cold War liberal intellectual lay science enthusiast. He was anti-nuclear weapons and pro-nuclear power, if that helps solidify the type. In the 1950s he was anti-McCarthy and pro-Oppenheimer, by the 1970s he was criticized as being too old for the New Left. When he took over Scientific American, it was still being pitched at industrial researchers and tinkerers; under his management, it became something of a luxury "lifestyle magazine," where the lifestyle in question was science.2

Of these early ads, the ones that really have gripped me in the past are the ones advertising for nuclear weapons scientists and for rocket scientists. They were advertisements that said — in fairly blunt language — that you'd be happier if you were making weapons of mass destruction. There's something particularly American about that.

Without further ado, here are a few of my favorites, culled from issues of Scientific American from the 1950s:

How do you recruit a nuclear weapons designer? Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory tried a number of approaches. Some of these, like the one you see above from September 1956, emphasized that living out in the middle of nowhere could be "leisurely living," and also emphasized the cool topics you'd get to work on: weapons physics, nuclear propulsion, etc. You've also got to admit that Los Alamos had a pretty cool logo at the time, as well. The "we work in an awesome place" pitch is one that Los Alamos would return to on a regular basis.

Los Alamos could also emphasize its history. It was over a decade old at this point, and had done some pretty important things. The above ad, from October 1956, has a wonderful message of "Los Alamos gets in the newspaper because it's important" mixed in with an attempt to recruit young scientists.

Livermore, on the other hand, started out with a much more blunt approach: Got any new nuclear weapons ideas? Tying their work in with the work at Berkeley helped, of course — the Berkeley Rad Lab had at least as fabled a history as Los Alamos, and some of their later ads would do this even more explicitly.

To draw a contrast, take a look at this Sandia advertisement from May 1958. It's more heady and ideological than the "come do science" and the "we have nice mountains" sorts of pitches:

For centuries men have tried to develop new and more powerful weapons to achieve victory in war. Lately these have been weapons of unprecedented power. Now war can become race suicide, and victory thus gained is a delusion. Yet we keep on trying to develop new and more powerful weapons, because we must. Not because we seek victory through a nuclear war, but because through strength we may prevent one. For as long as there are powerful forces with a record of cynical duplicity and oppression, the free world must have weapons capable of neutralizing them. At least until men learn that the only alternate to peace is oblivion. At Sandia, we play an important part in providing this protective strength..."

Although, for all of that rallying against "cynical duplicity and oppression," a few months later (December 1958) a Sandia advertisement compared them to the Spanish Conquistadors — not exactly known for their peaceful ways. But lest you think this is the most politically incorrect form of scientist recruitment you might find from the period...

...Los Alamos had this one in the same issue. No comment here, other than the fact that this is obviously pre-Wen Ho Lee.

Los Alamos also had this wonderful little ad from April 1959, where the fact that they used obscure weapons-physics jargon was taken to show that they were on the cutting edge of science. It's a rather clever advertising approach, you have to admit — taking what might otherwise be seen as a weakness and turning it into a strength. They didn't use this tactic very often, though; other ads from this period had someone different messages, like "Scientists are people," or "we do peaceful stuff, too."

The gender stuff in some of these ads is incredible. This is an ad that ran a few times in 1958, recruiting for rocket scientists at the AC Spark Plug division of General Motors:

This is the Mrs. Behind the Missile... It takes a special kind of woman to be the wife of one of today's missile men. ... They know more about the problems of raising a family virtually alone than they do about the business of producing the missiles themselves. This advertisement is a tribute to the courage of such women, and to the very real contribution they are making to the development of a guided missile arsenal for this nation's defense. ... If you are such a woman, and your husband has engineering or scientific training which could make a contribution to this program, and is not a member of the armed forces, ask him to write — or write yourself — to the personnel section of AC in Milwaukee.

What's most interesting to me about this one is that it, unlike most of the advertisements in Scientific American from this period, is written under the conceit that women are going to be reading the magazine. Most of the ads, it almost goes without saying, were pitched at white, scientifically-educated men. This one seems to be pitched at that guy's wife. Which might seem progressive if it wasn't a pitch for wives to sign their husbands up as rocket scientists so they could live a patriotic life in depressing isolation.

Douglas Aircraft was also on board with the "rocket scientist's lifestyle" pitch, though it's interesting how much more chummy it seems for men than was the one for women. This is from April 1957; it's amazing how many of these rocket scientist ads were just pre-Sputnik. Things got so much crazier after Sputnik that it's hard to forget that people were already pretty hyped up about rockets.

Douglas also used the "our work is so awesome it's secret" pitch as well. "Look at all the nuclear-tipped missiles we've made! Actually, half of them are still secret!" I also really like the line, "These are the projects that require engineers who are looking far beyond tomorrow." An impressive sounding bit of nonsense, no?

In the 1960s, Los Alamos' as got a little more unusual — emphasizing that there was culture out where they worked. I'm not sure too many other places took this approach, though Los Alamos did it quite a few times. These ads are one part recruitment — meant to appeal — and one part projection. How much is the above ad actually soliciting scientists, and how much is it trying to say, "did you know that Los Alamos men appreciate art?"

It's a stark contrast from this sort of ad from Lockheed (October 1956), which makes it look like your non-science time there will be spent playing golf, tennis, or boating.

What to make of all of these? There are a lot of obvious — perhaps too obvious — observations here. Gender stuff. Lifestyle stuff. Technoscientific enthusiasm. You know. But what strikes me as most interesting here is that in some of these, there's a bit of explicit rah-rah Cold War ideology, but mostly it is absent. Is this because ideology is messy, or because it could be taken for granted? That is, do you appeal to rad science and rad living conditions because you don't want to turn off people who aren't totally sold on WMDs, or do you assume that the only people who are going to apply have already made their peace with that idea? I don't know — there's only so much you can see on the surface of these ads, without delving into the processes of their creation, much less their success or failure. Still, as source materials, these sorts of ads are wonderful windows into the past — often as much or more so than the magazine content they abutted. And like all good windows into the past, they raise as many questions as they answer...

  1. There's an obligatory Mad Men reference here, but I never got into the show so I'd probably bungle it. I'm more of a The Wire sort of guy when it comes to television shows, I've got to admit. []
  2. Everything I know about Scientific American and Gerard Piel comes from an excellent senior thesis I had the good fortunate to be an adviser for while I was at Harvard: Emma Benintende, "Who was the Scientific American? Science, Identity, and Politics through the Lens of a Cold War Periodical" (Senior thesis, Department of History of Science, Harvard University, 2011). []

Beer and the Apocalypse

Wednesday, September 5th, 2012

Planning for The End is hard. Nuclear apocalypse is big and scary and complicated. Average people don't want to plan at all — just assume the worst and you'll never be disappointed. Governments, on the other hand, like to plan. Some people see this as an effort to legitimately save lives; others see it as an attempt to convince the public (or themselves) that they are in control of the uncontrollable. There are merits to both points of view. 

All sorts of things have been studied in the name of Civil Defense — of what to do after the Worst Happens. Two questions along these lines I've already discussed in the past: What do you do with all of the dead people? and What will happen to all of our paper-based records? Both of which have "interesting" answers.

Operation Teapot was a series of fourteen nuclear weapons tests conducted in 1955 at the Nevada Test Site, and a number of them were specifically for getting information on nuclear effects for use in Civil Defense. One of these tests, dubbed Operation Cue, was "open" in the sense that the press was allowed to observe it, and it involved nuking a "Survival Town" full of mannequins, the pictures of which were featured prominently in The Atomic Café and were the inspiration for that improbable opening scene to the most recent Indiana Jones movie.

Click for PDF.

One of the many lines of investigation during these Civil Defense tests, Project 32.2a, sought to answer a simple question: What will the survivors drink in the post-apocalyptic world? If the water supply is contaminated or otherwise dodgy, what about all of those cans and bottles that capitalist society churns out by the billions of gallons? The introduction to the final report explains that while lots of attention had been given towards the effects of nukes on food, beverages had been largely ignored:1

Consideration of the problems of food supply show the needs of humans for water, especially under disaster conditions, could be immediate and urgent. At various times some consideration has been given to special packaging of potable water, but since packaged beverages, both beer and soft drinks, are so ubiquitous and already uniformly available in urban areas, it is obvious that they could serve as important sources of fluids.

When the only tool you have is a hammer, all your problems look like nails. The Atomic Energy Commission did what they did best and dropped a nuke on bottles of beer and soda cans. (They were "exposed," in the euphemism of the report. I also love the phrasing above, "the needs of humans for water" — it's like the report was written by extraterrestrials.)

The brave test subjects.

They took a number of different types of bottles and cans, filled with different liquids, and put them in various positions relative to Ground Zero for two nuclear tests ("Shot I" and "Shot II" in the report, probably "Apple I" and "Apple II" of Teapot). The closest ones were less than a quarter mile away from the first test — a mere 1056 feet. The furthest ones out were about 2 miles away.

The results were somewhat interesting. Even the bottles pretty near the test had a fairly high survival rate — if they didn't fall off the shelves, or have something else smash into them (a "missile" problem), or get totally crushed by whatever they were being housed in, they had a good chance of not breaking. Not super surprising, in a way: bottles are small, and there's a lot of stuff in between them and the shockwave to dissipate it. (Bottles seem more fragile than human beings, but in certain respects they are probably easier to keep safe. Also, human beings are rarely in refrigerators, Indiana Jones notwithstanding.)

Fallen soldiers.

As for radiation, only the bottles closest to Ground Zero had much radioactivity, and even that was "well within the permissible limits for emergency use," which is to say, it won't hurt you in the short term. The liquid itself was somewhat shielded by the bottles of the containers which picked up some of the radioactivity.

But there were, of course, still pressing questions to be resolved... how did it taste?

Examination made immediately upon recovery showed no observable gross changes in the appearance of the beverages. Immediate taste tests indicated that the beverages, both beer and soft drinks, were still of commercial quality, although there was evidence of a slight flavor change in some of the products exposed at 1270 ft from GZ [Ground Zero]. Those farther away showed no change.

Immediate taste tests... So immediately after they nuked some beer and soda, someone — it doesn't say who — took a swig of them. In the name of Science. But of course, they didn't stop just there:

Representative samples of the various exposed packaged beers, as well as un-exposed control samples in both cans and bottles, were submitted to five qualified laboratories for carefully controlled taste-testing. The cumulative opinions on the various beers indicated a range from "commercial quality" on through "aged" and "definitely off." All agreed, however, that the beer could unquestionably be used as an emergency source of potable beverages. Obviously, if a large storage of such packaged beers was to be trapped in a zone of such intense radiation following a nuclear explosion, ultimate usage of the beverages beyond the emergency utility would likely be subject to review of the taste before return to commercial distribution.

Not satisfied with their spot taste testing, they sent the radioactive beer on to careful laboratory study. And lo, it tasted acceptable, but not very good! Your tax dollars at work.

But check out that last line again: radioactive beer might not be good to "return to commercial distribution" after the nukes had fallen, because of the taste. At this point I'm not sure what to think about the thoughts of the authors — did they really envision a world where a warehouse of beer was in a zone of "intense radiation" following a nuclear attack, and then, a few weeks later, it would be sent back around to the liquor stores? 

Who would buy once-radioactive beer? I mean, besides me.

For me, the takeaway here is that the next time you find yourself stocking up on beer, remember, it's not just for the long weekend — it might be for the end of days.

  1. E. Roland McConnell, George O. Sampson, and John R. Shari, "Report to the Test Director – Operation Teapot – Project 32.2a – The Effect of Nuclear Explosions on Commercially Packaged Beverages, February-May 1955," WT-1213 (24 January 1957), copy in the Nuclear Testing Archive, Las Vegas, NV, document NV0011597. []

Nuclear This, That, and “Them”

Monday, July 2nd, 2012

I've just returned to (broiling) DC from the annual meeting of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR, variously pronounced "shafe-er" or "shaffer"). Diplomatic historians are a sartorially conservative bunch — much more so than historians of science, who are still far, far more conservative than science studies people — so it highly amusing that the convention center was also host to a meeting of ministers wives and widows (almost entirely African-American, by contrast to the mostly-white SHAFR crowd) and an exhibition of body builders. So the line at the convention center Starbucks would be three fairly dull looking historians (full suit, etc.), two ministers' wives/widows (fantastic dresses, impressive hats, enormous broaches), and at least one leathery-skinned, overly-tanned, veins-bulging guy or gal wearing workout clothes. A fun mix. I should have taken a picture.

My talk was part of a two-panel series titled "After the Nuclear Revolution." (Revolutions were part of the conference theme.) The papers actually marched quite interestingly along chronologically. On the my panel were (in order of presentation) Mary McPartland, a grad student at GWU, myself, and Mara Drogan, a recent Ph.D. recipient from the University of Albany (SUNY), who was the one who organized the two panels.

Mary's paper was about Farm Hall, the English country house where ten German scientists were detained for six  months (July 1945 to early January 1946). In particular, Mary used Farm Hall as a way to explore the immediate postwar nuclear relationship between the US and the UK (problematic to the point of eventual collapse), and their lack of clear understanding as to what they were meant to do with German nuclear scientists in the postwar period.

Three of the Farm Hall heavies: Werner Heisenberg, Otto Hahn, and Kurt Diebner. The British Farm Hall report noted that Hahn was the "most friendly" of the group, that Heisenberg was "genuinely anxious to cooperate with British and American scientists," and that Diebner was "outwardly friendly but has an unpleasant personality and cannot be trusted."

The Americans didn't want to use (or, in their terminology, "exploit") the German physicists for their own programs (they didn't trust them, and they didn't think they knew that much, after all — compare this with their attitude towards the rocket scientists), but they didn't want them going over to the Soviet Union, either. They also didn't want the new German states to suddenly have access to nuclear technology, either. At one point someone apparently joked about just executing them, though it isn't clear that was ever really floated as a realistic option. The UK, on the other hand, had already promised the scientists they'd let them go fairly soon after the war had ended, and eventually that's what happened.

My paper picked up, chronologically, and looked at efforts to reform secrecy during the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission under David Lilienthal's chairmanship. There is an apparent paradox in the fact that Lilienthal saw himself an ardent foe of secrecy, yet some of the worst abuses of secrecy (e.g. hiding the plutonium injection experiments) took place under his watch and often with his explicit approval.

AEC Chief David Lilienthal (center) between a rock (Sen. Tom Conally, left) and a hard place (Sen. Brien McMahon, right). You can see the stress on Lilienthal's face: this is from an emergency AEC-JCAE meeting to discuss the recent arrest of Klaus Fuchs. From the Library of Congress.

The answer to this little riddle is that the early AEC, despite its far-reaching powers, was actually quite weak when it came to the DC political ecosystem — it had no natural political allies except, perhaps, the not-very-well-organized scientists, but they were such a contrarian (and otherwise disconnected) lot that they proved quite unreliable. In an effort to protect the AEC from scandal — and thus perhaps lead to its dissolution in favor of military control — Lilienthal was willing to use secrecy as a weapon for the "ultimate good." His very idealism (in favor of civilian control) became his worst enemy when it came to actually reducing secrecy (because it proved too tempting).

Mara's paper was about Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace program. Specifically, Mara looked at the ways in which the desires to push "peaceful" atomic power by officials in the State Department and the White House were out of sync with the technical assessments by the Atomic Energy Commission, and the consequences of this difference. Exporting power reactors was a key feature of Eisenhower's proposal, but it wasn't seen as a good idea by the AEC — as one member of the National Security Council put it, "before the Council decides upon such a course, it should be aware that it is doing so for psychological reasons alone, and that there are risks, costs, and other problems (such as site selection) involved."

Whaley-Eaton Service Atoms for Peace letterhead, from 1956.

One of the most interesting parts of Mara's paper related to the issue of proliferation. The US of course somewhat dodged the issue in the 1950s, despite the fact that it was sending reactors and expertise worldwide. Internally, the AEC recognized the issue, that "nearly all of the reactors which today appear economically promising for power generation will produce fissionable material in the course of their operation… in significant amounts." Publicly, they were required to be silent. In 1954, though, Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov confronted John Foster Dulles on the issue, asking, "What do you Americans think you’re doing proposing to spread stockpiles of bomb-grade material all over the world under the Atoms for Peace?" Dulles said he was sure that wasn't the case — but after checking back with his staff, found that Molotov had been better briefed on the issue than he had.

Our commentator, Princeton's Michael Gordin (whose work I have previously praised), poked at our papers in variously interesting ways. One thing he did ask was where the Soviets were in any of them — and suggested that their apparent absence was because they just didn't appear in the documents, which itself seems somewhat paradoxical given the Cold War context of all of this.

I noted that in the area of classification matters, for the early AEC, the Soviets were more of an abstract entity than a specific concern. Part of this is because until the detection of the first Soviet test, the US didn't really know much of anything about the Soviet atomic program. They were almost totally in the dark, lacking either human intelligence (e.g. defectors or spies) or technical intelligence (the fallout monitoring became the first real blow at this; there was also, of course, VENONA, but that was just getting under way, and not shared with the AEC).

The Soviets, when referred to, were often just mentioned as "the enemy," and sometimes, even more cryptically, as "them." Everyone knew who "them" was, of course — it was the leitmotif of their efforts — but they knew so little about "them" that it never got much more specific than that. After the detection of the first atomic test (September 1949), and the confessions of Klaus Fuchs (February 1950), there was some effort made to revise the classification system on the basis of what was apparently already known to the Soviets (e.g. plutonium implosion, which was something that not only was verifiable with the technical intelligence, but was explicitly something Fuchs told them about), but it didn't add up to much change. It's always easier to be conservative with secrecy policies than liberal with them — a fact which does not seem to have changed, as our own, current President, who rode in on a promise of greater transparency, seems to have fully embraced the "national security state" mentality that he inherited. (A depressing but, again, not surprising fact.)

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More on Centrifuge History

Monday, June 25th, 2012

I wrote about centrifuges a few weeks ago, and have learned some new, interesting things since then. John Krige, a professor at the History, Technology, and Society program at Georgia Tech, has two quite provocative articles  published about interactions between the US and the UK regarding centrifuges in the mid-to-late 1960s. They are worth your attention.

European centrifuges (URENCO)

Krige's first article is "Hybrid knowledge: the transnational co-production of the gas centrifuge for uranium enrichment in the 1960s," just published online (and forthcoming in print, I believe) in the British Journal for the History of Science (BJHS).1 As the title may tip you off, this is an article for a primarily history of science/science studies crowd, and speaks in that idiom. Don't let the jargon scare you off, though: as far as the genre goes, it's readable and the underlying point is an important one. It concerns the interchanges of centrifuge information between the US and the UK in the early 1960s, which were done under the 1955 US/UK Agreement for Co-operation on the Civil Uses of Atomic Energy, and their consequences when the UK, Netherlands, and Germany decided to go into a cooperative, profitable effort to produce a commercial centrifuge enrichment plant in 1967. (What eventually became URENCO, I believe.)

The US thought this was a somewhat dodgy enterprise — they really didn't think centrifuges would be as profitable as gaseous diffusion, their chosen enrichment method, but the UK disagreed — but were happy to support it, so long as the UK didn't give away any "restricted data" that had been produced by the US. And there's the rub: the UK and US had been exchanging information for a long time, and the UK really thought that it had produced a completely indigenous design (taking off from Gernot Zippe's unclassified contributions) without any significant US "data" in it. The US disagreed and threatened to cut off all future US-UK exchanges if the latter didn't let them verify to their satisfaction that there wasn't any US data in the design. The UK, for its part, thought that it had a really superior centrifuge design compared to the US, and were worried that if the US claimed parts of it were "theirs," it would completely muddy up their attempts to get clear of the US monopoly on the enrichment of uranium.

In the end, the US decided the UK design was kosher enough, and all was well with them. But it's a fascinating (and to me, totally unknown) episode in the US-UK "special (nuclear) relationship," one which really highlights some fundamentally interesting aspects of both US and UK atomic policy, and the fundamentally transnational (as Krige puts it) nature of modern centrifuge development (an Austrian working in the USSR develops technology that he then further works on in the US and the UK which is then turned into a company with the UK, Germany, and Netherlands, etc.). It also gets into some good history of science questions about how one identifies the source of any given piece of design or machinery — and how difficult that can be.

US centrifuges (Piketon)

The second paper by John is "The Proliferation Risks of Gas Centrifuge Enrichment at the Dawn of the NPT: Shedding Light on the Negotiating History," just published online (and imminently forthcoming in print) in The Nonproliferation Review.2 This essay was a winner of an annual prize by the journal (one of two) and John gave a presentation on it last Thursday at GWU (which you can watch online — John is the first of the two speakers/winners, after the introduction by Stephen Schwartz).

In this paper, John tackles the question of the apparent ambiguity in the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) about whether centrifuge-style enrichment activities (like that currently pursued by Iran) were considered a protected form of "peaceful use" to be allowed and encouraged. It has been speculated that at the time of the treaty's writing, the risks posed by centrifuge enrichment — which is a lot smaller scale than gaseous diffusion plants, and thus easier to hide or protect — weren't considered by the NPT drafters, and thus represent an unanticipated "loophole" in the treaty terms.

What John has found is that while centrifuges were not discussed in the official record, they were discussed extensively on the backchannel by the US and the UK. In particular, the UK was extremely worried about the proliferation potential for the gas centrifuge. They, after all, were pursuing the technology themselves, and knew it could be a potent game-changer in breaking the gaseous diffusion monopoly. They wondered if it would not be the angle pursued by a future proliferating state, and conveyed as much to the US.

The US was itself comparatively unworried. It thought that it (and its European allies) could control the spread of centrifuge technology through classification and export controls, and still were dubious that the centrifuge would play a bit role in world affairs anytime soon. I pushed John on this at the talk (you can hear me asking a rambling question about this at the 1:41:24 mark in the video linked above), and he elaborated in a way that I thought was more compelling: the US was weary about getting the treaty signed (they had finally gotten the Soviets on board, and the NPT treaty process was over a decade old at that point), and were worried that any attempt to modify the treaty at that point would bog it down for years to come. Furthermore, the UK was engaging in said partnership with the Dutch and the West Germans, and the US really wanted to make sure the Germans were still on board with the NPT.

(The West Germans were really not too pleased with the NPT and it was a huge hassle to get them to ratify it; like many nations, they appropriately saw it as an infringement on their national sovereignty and their future security options. Of course today the Germans are big supporters of the NPT — it's interesting how these things switch around, depending on where you are sitting at the time.)

The UK didn't push the matter, because it didn't want to rankle the treaty process, either, and because it too wanted to profit off of the centrifuge. So both the US and UK let the matter slide. (I think John's work highlights something that I've been thinking for a short while now: there's a lot of potential for a "deep" history of the NPT, one that goes beyond the open record.)

Iranian centrifuges (Natanz)

Whether this affects one's interpretations of the NPT today — John thinks that there is basically no real legal argument against Iran being able to develop centrifuges, and certainly no argument that the early NPT drafters had left an unanticipated "loophole" in place that anyone is taking advantage of — seems to me, someone not at all versed in international law, to be unclear. (Do off-the-record conversations between two parties count towards later interpretations of a treaty's intent?) But either way, it's a fascinating story. The apparent US lack of concern about specifically centrifuge proliferation has come back to haunt it, these decades later.

  1. John Krige, "Hybrid knowledge: the transnational co-production of the gas centrifuge for uranium enrichment in the 1960s," BJHS (online May 2012). []
  2. John Krige, "The Proliferation Risks of Gas Centrifuge Enrichment at the Dawn of the NPT: Shedding Light on the Negotiating History," The Nonproliferation Review 19, no. 2 (July 2012), 219-227. []