Posts Tagged ‘Hanford’


The price of the Manhattan Project

Friday, May 17th, 2013

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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Hanford doggerel

Friday, March 1st, 2013

The Hanford site, in rural Washington state, was not a very fun place to work during World War II. The conditions were unpleasant, the site was remote, and, well, almost nobody really knew what they were doing there. The amount of compartmentalization was intense: out of the tens of thousands of workers, only a few hundred likely had any real inkling of what was really going on there. They were, of course, building the world’s first industrial-sized nuclear reactors, in order to produce the plutonium that fueled the first atomic bombs. Not exactly the first thing you’d guess you’d be doing if you were a construction worker in 1943, is it? Not knowing what you are building sort of takes some of the fun out of it, especially when you thought you were working on an important war-related project but instead you find yourself building giant concrete cathedrals with no obvious purpose. Concrete cathedrals full of toxic chemicals, at that.

Aerial view of B Reactor at the Hanford Site: isolated and mysterious. Photo: Hanford DDRS, #N1D0030582.

The secrecy at Hanford at Oak Ridge led to lots of speculation about what they were about from those who worked on them and those who lived near them. The Manhattan Project security people, of course, tracked these rumors, both because they occasionally resulted in problems (like inquiries from Congressmen, including a very dubious Senator Harry Truman) and could also potentially lead to attention from journalists, which could in turn lead to real leaks. In general the whole point of Manhattan Project security was to keep people from noticing there was an entirely new industry being created under their noses, and so curious rumors didn’t really help that.

In a sense, this was an inevitable result of the very secrecy they were trying to impose. “Absolute secrecy,” where the fact that there is a secret is itself a secret, leads to all sorts of rampant speculation. Into a total vacuum marches total speculation. My favorite wartime rumor about Oak Ridge is that it was a model socialist community following the beliefs of Eleanor Roosevelt. One can contrast this “absolute secrecy” approach to the “known secret” approach that followed after Hiroshima and Nagasaki: finally, the security people could say, “it’s involved in the atomic bomb, and thus its a secret.” It’s a very different type of secrecy regime.

Squirreled away in the Manhattan Project security files is a really remarkable poem, penned by an unknown source. (I was reminded of it when posting about that “Secret song” earlier this week.) The poem is really quite amazing, in that it ties the bad working conditions at Hanford and the secrecy up into one neat package, and does so to verse as well! I reproduce the poem, “Restricted Information,” below in its entirety.1


It is a “Military Secret”
And I shouldn’t breath a word
But if you will promise not to tell
I’ll tell you what I’ve heard.

What is building here at Hanford
Is quite a mystery
But I’ve found out what it is
And will confide in thee.

It is a torture ground for Hitler
And all his Nazi bunch
And all the other Axis rats
After the final punch.

That he’ll have to live here
Should be bad enough itself
But nothing is quite appropriate
When it comes to his future health.

And so we are spending millions
And considerable effort too
To perfect conditions unbearable
For all the motley crew.

I’ve told you more than I should have
And the details — I wouldn’t dare
That is why it is such a secret —
It would give Hitler too great a scare.

The war might be prolonged
Hitler staving off defeat
With knowledge of his Hanford fate
He would be truly hard to beat.

So promise not to tell a soul
Unless they swear secrecy
For what I have just told
Might put off Victory.

So, in other words, Hanford was so secret, and so miserable, because someday Hitler and his Axis buddies would have to go live there. If they found out how miserable it was to work there, they’d all fight to the death. Pretty cute. You can view the original here.

You’ll note that they classified the entire thing “RESTRICTED,”2 which is somewhat ironic, given the content, no? But it makes sense, given the logic of “absolute secrecy” — when the secret is itself a secret, even things that lampoon the secret are thus secret as well. 

  1. Citation: “Restricted Information,” (n.d., ca. 1945), Manhattan Engineer District (MED) records, Records of the Army Corps of Engineers, RG 77, National Archives and Records Administration, Box 66, “Security (317-2).” []
  2. “RESTRICTED” was the lowest ranking of classification during World War II. It went from “SECRET” to “CONFIDENTIAL” to “RESTRICTED,” and during the war they added “TOP SECRET” as well. In the 1950s they got rid of “RESTRICTED” as a classification category because it was confusing to have both it and “restricted data” together in the same schema. []

A glove box Christmas tree

Tuesday, December 25th, 2012

Well, it’s not actually a glove box, but it’s meant to approximate one, I think. Decorating a tree, Hanford-style:

Hanford glove box Christmas tree

The photo was taken at the Hanford Science Center in the 1960s, and was from an exhibit probably meant to illustrate how dextrous the remote-handling equipment was.

But let’s imagine it’s a real glove box, and that the tree is dangerously radioactive. Just for fun, and in the spirit of Christmas cheer. 

Happy Holidays, from Restricted Data!


The Hanford Rumor Rat (1951)

Friday, December 9th, 2011

This week’s image is a  “security poster” from the Hanford site at the height of the Cold War, warning that “Rumors, too, can Sabotage“:1

Click to view full image.

Subtle it isn’t. I love the nefariousness of the rat, the complexity of his sausage/loudspeaker apparatus, and the content of the “lies, b-z-z-z, rumors”:

  • “Security’s silly” (a sentiment not discouraged by this rather silly poster)
  • “We’re a target” (probably true, if it refers to Soviet weapons or espionage targeting)
  • “Hanford is doomed” (too vague to evaluate as true or false)
  • “Abolish the A-bomb” (a legitimate political position; also, technically neither a lie, rumor, or “b-z-z-z”)

I’ll cut them some slack. 1951 was a pretty uncertain time (exacting scholarly reference on the subject). Maybe confusing legitimate, albeit left-wing, positions with sabotage can be written off a bit.

But the most interesting thing to me about this poster is the confluence of security with morale. Because this isn’t really about technical sabotage: it’s about workers at Hanford feeling depressed about their jobs, and the effect that political opinions can have on that. I’m not sure this particular poster, though, gets around that.

There are some other posters from the period at the Hanford DDRS database (part of my big list o’ links posted previously); just enter “N1D Security Poster” in to the basic search query (the “N1D” limits the results only to images). The rat makes (warning: clunky Java image viewer applet at this link) at least one other appearance.

  1. Source: “Security Posters,” (8 May 1951), Hanford Declassified Document Reference System, accession number N1D0034852. []