From the Manhattan Project, a legacy of discovery and a national burden
The bomb-bay doors on the B-29 Superfortress Bockscar swung open over Nagasaki, Japan, a little before noon on Aug. 9, 1945, and at 11:58 a.m. one 10,800-pound bomb fell away.
Minutes later, a 5,300-pound sphere of high explosives imploded inside the bomb casing. The blast squeezed a softball-sized, 13.6-pound plutonium core to the size of a tennis ball, a super-critical mass that started a chain reaction.
The resulting nuclear explosion killed approximately 39,000 people and injured another 25,000, according to the online Atomic Archive. It was the second use of a nuclear weapon in war and the first to employ a plutonium implosion device, still a mainstay of nuclear weapons technology.
Scientists and engineers of the Manhattan Project, the top-secret World War II nuclear weapons program, fused raw science and practical engineering to create the implosion bomb at Project Y, the Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico. The Hanford Engineer Works along the banks of the Columbia River in central Washington produced the plutonium. The bomb was tested at an isolated desert flat near Alamogordo, N.M., known as Trinity Site.
Trinity Site today is a once-a-year tourist attraction. But 75 years later, national laboratories at Los Alamos and Hanford, part of an extensive network that is the Manhattan Project legacy, are still in business.
National franchise The two-year crash effort to build the bomb that encompassed a handful of locations nationwide has grown into 17 national laboratories and dozens of affiliated sites overseen by the Department of Energy on a budget this year of more than $34 billion.
They continue to design new weapons and maintain the nation’s nuclear arsenal, but most of their work is geared toward basic science that yields amazing discoveries.
“There’s a lot of impressive work going on at the lab outside of the nuclear weapons programs, whether it’s on energy or on computing or on any number of scientific areas. They still maintain a high caliber of research in the national interest,” said Steven Aftergood, a freedom-of-information advocate for the Federation of American Scientists. “I wouldn’t want to overlook that.”
On top of its work as a weapons designer, Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the critical work of the Manhattan Project took place, today engages in basic research in myriad topics, from black holes to cloud computing and climate change. The lab is also using genomics to diagnose cases of the coronavirus.
When the Cold War ended, lab experts also turned their expertise to helping the former Soviet Union dismantle its nuclear weapons.
Los Alamos laboratory may be the most famous Manhattan Project site, but it wasn’t the only one and it wasn’t even the first. That distinction belongs to Argonne National Laboratory, on the outskirts of Chicago, that grew out of physicist Enrico Fermi’s search at the University of Chicago for the first sustained nuclear reaction.
“They were trying to figure out what the critical mass is, how much uranium 235 fissile core … do you actually need to start a chain reaction,” said Robert Rosner, former Argonne lab director.
Argonne is one of 10 national laboratories under the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. While some, like Argonne, Hanford (today the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory) and Oak Ridge, have roots in the Manhattan Project, they no longer work primarily on weapons development. The Pacific Northwest lab, for example, played a part in the detection of gravity waves in 2015.
Argonne, originally known by its code name, the Metallurgical Lab, became the home of the civilian nuclear power program, Rosner said. It created the world’s very first power reactor, the Experimental Breeder Reactor, at Argonne West, now the Idaho National Laboratory.
Three national laboratories are still primarily devoted to the work of nuclear weapons, including their non-nuclear components. Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif., and Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, N.M., fall under the authority of the National Nuclear Security Administration.
Model teamwork The Manhattan Project employed as many as 130,000 people and cost nearly $2 billion, about $28.6 billion today. Work at Los Alamos alone cost taxpayers about $74 million, or $1.06 billion today, according to the Brookings Institution.
The Energy Department in fiscal year 2019 budgeted $2.9 billion for Los Alamos National Laboratory, of which 66%, or $1.9 billion, was intended for weapons programs.
At its height during World War II, Los Alamos employed about 5,000 people. “Today there are over 12,000 people in the lab, just the lab,” Rosner said during a phone interview July 15.
In addition to the raw and applied sciences the labs produce, they preserve a model for integrating scientists, engineers and other experts across a variety of fields that is not widely practiced in the commercial world, Rosner said.
“Integrated teams are the secret behind national laboratories,” he said. “Universities traditionally cannot do this, and the reason is that we’re a silo. We have a physics department, a chemistry department – there’s a math department.”
Academics find rewards in their own disciplines, said Rosner, who is now a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Chicago. Most physicists working at Los Alamos are astrophysicists, he said.
“Astrophysicists are a good example of that. Astronomers,” Rosner said. “They’re not thinking about money; they’re thinking about the universe, right? The Big Bang.”
Few commercial enterprises can afford research and development the way the labs do it, he said. The old Bell Laboratories, before its break-up in 1982, produced significant advances, such as the silicon chip.
“Ask yourself, does AT&T or Verizon or all of the other what used to be called Baby Bells, do they have big, basic research labs?” he said.
Toxic chapter The uglier legacy left by the Manhattan Project and the weapons labs is written in starker terms, including cleanup decrees, damage awards and the burden of nuclear weapons themselves.
As the Cold War ended, public attention came to bear on health risks to workers at Los Alamos and other sites; the accumulation of toxic waste, documented or not; poor management; and a culture of secrecy.
The worst example, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, is what remains of the dirty work of bombmaking: 586 square miles that include nine decommissioned reactors that produced weapons-grade plutonium and a “staggering” amount of radioactive waste, according to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.
About 53 million gallons of chemicals used to separate plutonium from uranium remains stored in 177 underground tanks, of which 70 are leaking and sending a radioactive plume toward the nearby Columbia River, according to the council. The site, one of the most dangerous and polluted in the U.S., includes 1,700 individual waste sites and about 500 contaminated buildings.
At Los Alamos, self-appointed watchdog Greg Mello, founder of the Los Alamos Study Group, has documented decades of worker health problems, industrial accidents and toxic waste. He also campaigns against a program underway to expand the lab to make plutonium pits for a new generation of nuclear warheads.
“There’s been a pretty high cost across the warhead complex for pursuing the nuclear arms race,” Mello said by phone July 28.
Drawing on reports from the Department of Labor and by investigative journalists, he estimates the federal government has paid out billions for 1,599 death claims at Los Alamos alone from its beginnings through June 2016.
“This is a technology that has had horrible effects,” Mello said. “Direct health effects, as well as, I would say, effects on world politics and on the shape of American democracy have been even worse.”
Although a government program enacted in 2000 has paid thousands of claims by workers across the nuclear weapons complex for work-related illnesses, the link to some of those illnesses with weapons work is disputed by some as tenuous, at best.
However, some problems with the labs are indisputable. An era of mismanagement at Los Alamos gave rise in 2000 to the National Nuclear Security Administration, the new overseer within the Energy Department. The state of New Mexico has issued Los Alamos lab several cleanup decrees and federal audits have found mishandled or missing materials.
A 2018 report by the Energy Department inspector general, for example, found discrepancies in the way the Los Alamos lab handled beryllium, a toxic metallic element used in nuclear reactors.
“Los Alamos sometimes has problems accounting for nuclear materials,” Aftergood said. He directs the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy. “Every now and then there’s either an espionage case or an episode of misplaced classified records.”
Stockpile stewardship The worldwide nuclear stockpile peaked at more than 70,000 warheads around 1987, most of them held by the former Soviet Union, according to the federation. Today that arsenal is less than 20,000 warheads, including those held by China, Pakistan, India, North Korea, the U.K., France and Israel.
Part of the mission at weapons labs is “stockpile stewardship,” ensuring in an age of nuclear and thermonuclear test bans that aging weapons will work if deployed.
Tests above ground, underwater and in space were outlawed in 1963. The last U.S. nuclear test took place underground on Sept. 23, 1992. The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty has been awaiting Senate ratification since 1997.
The U.S. instead tests its weapons using supercomputer simulations fed by data collected from the real things.
“I understand fully why we have atomic weapons, nuclear weapons. This is not a mystery to me,” said Rosner, who is also a member of The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, another group that sprang from the original Manhattan Project scientists, and chairs its Science and Security Board. “And if you’d asked me was it a good idea that we had the Manhattan Project my answer is: Hell, yes.”
Discoveries in nuclear physics made the bomb inevitable, he said. “It’s one of those things; the genie’s out of the bottle and here we are.”
Unlike anti-weapons advocates, Rosner said he believes the U.S. will always have atomic weapons if potential adversaries have them, too. However, he’s against actual atomic testing, a move that would permit China, Russia and other nuclear powers to catch up with the U.S. hedge in testing data.
He also believes in adhering to and renewing existing nuclear nonproliferation treaties.
“What has happened over the last five years? We’re at the point of almost undoing everything that was done, something that took decades, you know, to put in place is basically now almost completely gone,” he said.
Mello, an advocate for nuclear disarmament, agrees the U.S. seeking advantage by abrogating longstanding treaties “is a terrible idea, is stupid.”
He said nuclear weapons are a national burden, and not just in terms of the health effects, toxic waste and expense surrounding them, he said.
“We never became the kind of country that we might have become, given since we devoted and still devote a majority of our discretionary income to military affairs,” Mello said, “and the acme of violence of this is nuclear weapons.”