The Manhattan Project

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Richard Malenfant's Interview

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Richard Malenfant's Interview

Richard Malenfant worked for the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) for many years. He discusses the Louis Slotin accident and the measures that LANL has taken to ensure worker safety. He also explains the importance of preserving the historic sites at Los Alamos for future generations, including the Pond Cabin, the Slotin Building, and other key buildings. Malenfant also reviews the innovative work of the laboratory over the years.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
November 16, 2005
Location of the Interview: 
Los Alamos
Transcript: 

Richard Malenfant: I go by Richard Malenfant. That’s M-A-L-E-N-F, as in Frank-A-N-T, as in Tom, although I’m more comfortable going by my nickname Dick.

Cindy Kelly: Great, terrific. Now I wish I could ask you about Tahiti. Just remembered that you just got back from there! But let’s stick to the topic and ask you to tell us a little bit about who you were, I mean, what you’ve been doing, and then we can start with, let’s say, the Pond Cabin.

Malenfant: Okay. Well, I joined the lab in late 1960 at Technical Area 18 [TA-18].  My background included a year at Oak Ridge prior to that at Building 9213, which was their critical experiments facility, and about three and a half years in the Air Force before I jointed TA-18.

Of course, that was several years after the death of [Louis] Slotin. The division leader that was the N Division leader at that time was Raemer Schreiber, and, shortly after that, I became very interested in all aspects of criticality safety, which were affected very strongly by the results of the Slotin accident. Schreib was one of the people who was present at that accident. 

Coming back to your first comment about the Pond Cabin, Pond Cabin was built prior to 1920, when Ashley Pond set up an attempt at a guest ranch for high rollers and set up a little cabin adjacent to it. Technical Area 18, Building 30 was actually built on the site of that original ranch house that he built. The Pond Cabin stayed there.

At any rate, during the war, 1945—actually 194-, yes, 1945—the critical experiments were moved from the floor of Los Alamos Canyon to Technical Area 18, Pajarito Site.  Every site at the laboratory has three designations. One is the group which occupies it—in this case it was N2, at that time W2; a descriptive name, Pajarito Site, since it was in Pajarito Canyon; and the third is the type of activity which is engaged in there, the critical experiments facility. And so it was known as the Pajarito laboratory. 

Some of the early people that conducted experiments down at TA-18 made use of the Pond Cabin. In fact, one of the staff actually lived down at Pajarito site for some time. He was a bachelor, and so he lived in the Pond Cabin in between times that he was working at Pajarito Site. At that time much of the activity was done essentially on an around-the-clock basis.

The original activity at Technical Area 18 was a high explosives testing site. And so it was converted to the use of critical experiments in the neighborhood of December of 1945, which is admittedly after the war.

At any rate, the Pond Cabin was used not only to house some of the experiments that were done at that time, house the experimenters, but also, as I mentioned, in 1965 the laboratory had an open house. And the residents, the staff down at TA-18, made use of the Pond Cabin by providing soft drinks and cookies to the visitors that came down to see the activities at TA-18 at that time.

TA is Technical Area 18, which is, of course, the third designation of each of the sites at the laboratory. And it was, I’ll say, quite an honor to be associated with it.

I’ve got a couple of documents that—if I can put my head down without getting too much difficulty—which gives a history of Pajarito Site. Are you familiar with the two histories?

Kelly: No.

Malenfant: On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of operations at TA-18, a group leader, Hugh Paxton, wrote a twenty-five year history of Pajarito Site, which starts off with a photograph of the original ranch school that was built by Ashley Pond and a photograph of the Pond Cabin, with a description of the fact that it’s mentioned in the frontispiece of Peggy Pond Church’s book, The House at Otowi Bridge. At any rate, that document describes many of the early experiments that were conducted at Technical Area 18, which filled a tremendous need for basic nuclear data.

You have a copy of the book. And ten years later a second one was written, which brought it up to date. It’s about time to have another book written because of the extremely important experiments that have been conducted at Technical Area 18 over the course of its history. It is the only of the critical experimental facilities that have used distance for shielding. 

The Slotin accident occurred on May 21, 1946. Following that accident, Raemer Schreiber, who was present, one of the eight people involved, wrote a memo to Darol Froman in which he made several observations on that accident and several recommendations. To a large extent, those recommendations make the basis of nuclear criticality safety to this day.

The first observation that he made I think was an extremely important one. It is, Slotin was by no means careless. And that may dispel some of the myths about it.

Incidentally, that experiment was not “tickling the tail of the dragon.” The “dragon machine” was built in January of 1945 by Otto Frisch, Philip Morrison, and involved work by Louis Slotin, Harry Daghlian, and others. The experiments were conducted in Los Alamos Canyon, January of 1945, over a period of about two weeks. At any rate, Slotin was one of the principal experimenters involved in that activity, as was Harry Daghlian. 

Daghlian was involved in an accident on August 21, 1945, shortly after the war ended.  He was working alone at night and, after the accident occurred, he disassembled the apparatus, so that there were no real witnesses and it was impossible to reconstruct what had taken place.

The group leader was Louis Slotin, who, the day following the accident, interviewed Daghlian. And as a result of that interview, which you have a copy of also, the evaluation of the results of that incident, which, although it was published as an LA report, has never been distributed, which is a rather interesting commentary.

Slotin then requested that photographs be made to reconstruct the Daghlian accident. I have a copy of the photographic request form signed by Louis Slotin. The point of this is that, in the accident that subsequently took place, I believe that Slotin knew what he was doing, and that it indeed was an accident in the classical sense of an accident of, something was different from when that experiment had been done before. And I can elaborate upon that at some other time.

The results of Schreiber’s presentation, however, are very enlightening. I’ve assembled those and prepared them, distributed them, and they have been published, among other places, by the American Nuclear Society, as a commentary on criticality safety. One of the interesting observations made in Schreiber’s recommendations is that, when a person becomes sufficiently familiar with the activities in which he was engaged to lose respect, his job should be changed. And I believe that that is a characteristic to this day, that when familiarity leads to a lack of respect, it’s time to change jobs when you’re dealing with something that is inherently a bit dangerous.

The accident on May 21, 1946 occurred in the afternoon. Slotin was designated to become the armorer out at Bikini Atoll, the tests in the Pacific. His place here was going to be taken by Al Graves, so Al Graves asked for a demonstration of the measurement of the crit. [criticality], which is the experiment that was being done.

It was a pickup experiment without a great deal of consideration. Indications are that it had been performed previously, and Slotin perhaps had his thumb in the central hole of the upper beryllium hemi-shell, a little further than it had ever been done before. I can say that with some confidence because that experiment was repeated remotely on April 12, 1947, in which it was assembled remotely, and it did not result in an excursion.

Building 1 was a very, very simple structure. Essentially, it was just a box. It did have a crane on the outside to bring things in. It was not the original control room. Of course, it predated the original control room, but it was literally just a box, a room.

At the time of the accident, there were actually three activities being conducted therein by the people that were involved. The security guard was Patrick Cleary. Schreiber was involved in work with some initiators at a bench and actually had his back to the accident when it occurred.

It was quite simply a room in which there was a table, a number of palettes with

various material on them scattered about. And the material that was used was a lower beryllium hemi-shell, which was placed on a table. The plutonium sphere, two hemispheres, was placed in the cavity in the beryllium hemi-shells. And then the upper beryllium hemi-shell had a hole at the pole so that the process of the experiment in this very simple building was to place wedges underneath the parting plane of the beryllium shells and then lift it up, move the wedges, and then allow the hemi-shell to come back down so that the count rate would stabilize. There is no indication that they were doing what is known as a reciprocal multiplication plot, by which one can extrapolate to a critical configuration.

At any rate, Slotin had his hand, his left hand, in the upper beryllium hemi-shell, with his thumb well down into the polar hole so that he could, by just rotating his wrist, rotate the shell back, move the wedges, and then allow it to come back into configuration to allow it to reach equilibrium.

Indications are that, quote, “The screwdriver slipped.” I’ve never been able to find any documentation that the screwdriver actually slipped, as much as the last wedge was removed and the upper hemi-shell was allowed to come down flat so that the parting plane was closed. At that point Slotin’s hand and thumb was still in the polar hole.

According to the report, he rotated his hand back and threw the upper hemi-shell on the floor, and then everyone evacuated the building. It’s my belief that the thumb in the polar hole was a significant factor in the difference of what made that a fatal accident and just an experiment that otherwise could have been conducted relatively safely.

Following the accident, Slotin and people left the room. Slotin had people remove the coins from their pockets, where they were surveyed to get a rough indication, from the activation of silver, of the relative exposure. He also measured the activity of the fillings in their mouth, which, again, are silver or gold, both of which activate very nicely. And he also took a rough indication of blood sodium activation by measuring the activity of the blood with a Geiger counter, which can be done very easily just by placing the probe of the Geiger counter in the armpit. It gives a measure of the relative amount of the whole body exposure.

He then had Schreiber go back in and make measurements of the radiation levels, and this, of course, is all documented in Schreib’s report.  They then went to the hospital, all except Schreiber, and Schreiber went home first to tell his wife that he was going to the hospital.

The information that I have managed to put together on this comes not only from the documentary photographs which were made, but from talking with Raemer Schreiber, who was a very, very great man. He was also involved in the assembly of material on Tinian and accompanied the material to Tinian.

The myths that have been built up around the accidents have been rather interesting. There is a fictionalized version; the book is entitled The Accident. It was written by Dexter Masters, and it was kind of interesting. There are two copies in the Los Alamos library, one of which someone has very carefully gone through and, in the borders of every page, identified the fictional names with the real names of the people involved. So if you have a chance to go to the library, you can find that particular documentary. It’s kind of fun.

Ten or fifteen years ago the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books prepared a book, a condensation of a book, on the Slotin accident, and I got a telephone call from the editor of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books and he asked me for a photograph of the machine that was involved in the accident. I told him there was no machine involved. I said it was just simply the material was placed on a table. He said, “Well, the author of the book said there was a machine involved, so we have to have a picture of a machine to illustrate the book.” So I sent him a photograph of one of the critical assembly machines that existed at Technical Area 18, and so he, very dutifully, published that in the condensation of the book in the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books.

The machine that I sent him has a rather interesting history also, and this gets down to more of a history of Technical Area 18, or Pajarito Site. One of the first machines that was used was a general purpose vertical lift machine, in which half of the assembly would be built up on a stationary platform. The other half would be built on a platform that could be gradually lifted into position. The person who built it was Jano Haley and hence the machine was called “comet,” Haley’s comet. 

This gave rise to a terminology that all vertical lift machines that are in use, to this day, at Los Alamos at least, have names from the solar system. There’s Planet, and Mars, and Venus, and so on. And so that’s where the names came from. But, at any rate, it’s the “comet” critical assembly machine that I made available to the editors of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books.

There’s just so much history at Los Alamos and it’s being lost as time goes on in the interest of attempting to make use of what little land there is available. Sounds strange when there’s 119 square miles in Los Alamos County and forty-five square miles in the laboratory area, but there are so many buildings that are historical.

The original experiments on the early reactors. The first reactor that was built was at Stagg Stadium in Chicago. The second one was the reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Ask anybody in the industry today where the third reactor was built and what it was, and you’ll get a stunned silence. Very few realize that it was built at Los Alamos as the water boiler.

The water boiler is the third of the nuclear reactors that was built, and it existed up until well into the ‘60s and ‘70s, in three different forms, incidentally. Los Alamos was also involved in several experiments with, I’ll say, civilian nuclear power, a device called UHTREX, Ultra High Temperature Reactor Experiment.

The uranium graphite core, helium-cooled, of a very innovative design, operated at eight megawatts. It no longer exists. It’s been bulldozed away, as has much of the activity down in Los Alamos Canyon where the water boiler was located and where the dragon experiments were conducted. TA-18 has its own share. Building 1 was the site of the hand assemblies.

Following that, the first remote assembly was conducted, as I indicated, on April 12, 1947, and in a facility which was then known as Kiva 1. Kiva was not meant in a derogatory sense, but rather out of a sense of awe and wonder that went along with the activities that were being conducted there.

Some of the experiments conducted in Kiva 1 were of extreme importance for, not only military, but also for the civilian applications. Kiva 1 still exists. It’s not due to exist a whole lot longer, although it’s a nice clean building, simple concrete structure. It very quickly became used to such an extent that a second facility had to be built, known as Kiva 2, but in a separate canyon from Kiva 1.

But a litany of the experiments that were conducted there and the basic nuclear data that has been made available to the industry to date, not only military applications but the civilian applications. At Technical Area 18, experiments had been conducted with all fissionable species: uranium-235, plutonium-239, neptunium-237, and so on. In all physical forms, solids, liquids, and indeed gases, and, as well, in almost all physical compositions, in addition to the metal experiments and evaluations of the nitrate, the carbide, the oxide, all chemical compositions. And it’s a remarkable history for a site that is now, in effect, being dismantled.

It would be lost irretrievably. It was designated a National Nuclear Historic Landmark by the American Nuclear Society, one of two at Los Alamos at the present time. The other one was the Omega West Reactor. Still a consultant to Sandia and I was in a meeting with him yesterday. And at that time we managed to get a number of people on site.

A few years ago we invited a writer for the Los Alamos Monitor to come on site and see what we were doing. And before that we invited a newscaster from Channel 4 to come up, and took pictures of him literally working and manipulating the controls on the console. That was when we were in a much easier time to conduct experiments.

There’s one anecdote. I don’t know if you’re running or not but I’ll give the anecdote anyway. 1965, when we had the first open house, one of the critical assembly machines was set up such that it could be operated from the console by people, under supervision of course, but with no training. Very simple operation, moving control rods very slowly. The system was known as flattop. Flattop core consisted of a sphere of plutonium, and surrounded with a metal reflector of natural uranium metal, about a ton of it. 

At any rate, this was shortly following Three Mile Island, and one of the people, the ladies, we brought in and allowed to operate it, exclaimed with great glee, “I’ve done it!  I’ve done it! I’ve actually operated a reactor.” She was from Pennsylvania.

The point of this is that the work at Los Alamos, at TA-18, has been done safely and well for the better part of half a century, following the Slotin accident. The major events that have occurred, because of the separation of the quarter of a mile between the control room and the facilities, is that it is a very safe place to work.

Oh yes, there have been some accidents. We had a fractured wrist on the volleyball court and a fractured hip slipping on the ice. But, other than that, it’s been a very, very comfortable place to work for about fifty years, and in danger of being lost.

Kelly: Since we’re on these things primarily for this run on the Manhattan Project, can you think of any Manhattan Project properties that have been lost or may well be lost that you could make a similar statement about?

Malenfant: That are still in existence or lost?

Kelly: Either way.

Malenfant: I think it would have been very important for future generations to have preserved the facilities in Pajarito Canyon, or in Los Alamos Canyon, the site of Omega West, the dragon experiments, the molten plutonium experiments that were conducted with things called LAMPRE, Los Alamos Molten Plutonium Reactor. As far as I know, even the Russians haven’t run a molten plutonium reactor. We did.

And, of course, all of the areas at S-Site. It would be even better if they would be opened up so that people could get closer to them than having to look at them from the road. Perhaps when they’re no longer in active use they can be made available. I think that it would be an ideal location for something like the Bradbury Science Museum to be in one of the historic buildings. That’s a personal opinion, of course, you can cut that part out.

Other interviewer: Why do you wish they were still here? What do we lose when we lose those buildings, beyond the physical structure?

Malenfant: We lose the touch of history. Today, in the Washington, DC, area, except for the construction that occurs because of housing, you can visit Antietam and Bull Run. You can visit Gettysburg and Ball’s Bluff and all of the sites of the Civil War. Why that particular location? Why a site in Pennsylvania is historic?

You can visit Gettysburg. You can go to so many places, and it’s just being there and seeing what was done. The buildings are so very simple. You made the point earlier on that Building 1, that TA-18, was a simple box, and yet the amazing work that was done with that simple box.

I’ve showed you the pictures of the dragon machine. And yet with dragon, the measurements that were made and the evaluations that were undertaken with these first super prompt critical experiments are just absolutely remarkable.

I think that it’s kind of fun—in fact, I do this even now—I go to the new staff and I say, “Here are the results that were measured with the dragon machine. Can you duplicate them and analyze them?” And they turn to a computer. Slotin didn’t have a computer. Otto Frisch didn’t have a computer. And yet they did such a beautiful bit of analysis on it.

And that’s something that I think is being lost. That’s why I think that it is important, to this day, to maintain this heritage, a word in your name, the Atomic Heritage Foundation, because it is part of our history, and a very important part.

When you consider the fantastic amount of work that was done during the Manhattan Project—where are we going? We don’t quite know. Well, how will you know when you get there? Well, it’ll be obvious when we get there that we’re there. But we don’t know where we’re going and we don’t know exactly how to go about it. We know what the end result is, but we don’t know the path to achieve it.

In the document that you sent me, you referred to three different techniques for enrichment of uranium at Oak Ridge. I know two. I don’t know the third one. Electromagnetic separation and gaseous diffusion to enrich uranium. The third process, of course, was the production of plutonium at the reactors at Richland, Washington. But that was a different process completely, so I think there are only two.

Kelly: Well, there was thermal diffusion and the reason you don’t know it is because they destroyed the building right after the war. So there was no tangible memory. You were just about to say that, right? [Laughter.]

Malenfant: The third reason, of course, was the thermal diffusion. [Laughter.] Thank you. I didn’t know that. But that’s why it’s important to preserve this history and this heritage.

Another one is the old saw that “he who fails to learn the lessons of history is doomed to repeat them,” and we come into that over and over again. I spent much of my career working in areas of propulsion, nuclear rocket propulsion particularly. Now we’re looking again to going to Mars, a manned mission to Mars, and a good way to go is to use nuclear propulsion, either nuclear thermal propulsion, or the rocket, or nuclear electrostatic propulsion, or iron propulsion, or some means.

How about establishing a moon base? Great. We can use solar energy for fourteen days out of twenty-eight. The other fourteen days you’ve either got to rely on batteries or some other form to provide for the heat and energy because the moon goes dark for fourteen days out of every twenty-eight. And so the powers that be are looking again to a nuclear base for the moon. Nuclear is very, very safe when handled carefully, and I’m a proponent of that as well.

Other interviewer: Do you have children?

Malenfant: Oh yes, I’ve got four children. I have eight grandchildren.

Other interviewer: Have you taken any of them out to any of the places that we’ve talked of?

Malenfant: Oh yes. [Laughter.]

Other interviewer: And what does it mean when you can take them out and show them these places with your stories, as opposed to just telling them?

Malenfant: My oldest daughter went to the University of California at Davis, and Davis, of course, is a very conservative institution. So the first letters that I started getting back from her had the return address GID Malenfant. And so I called her and said, “What’s the GID mean?”

She said, “It means glow in the dark.” [Laughter.]

At any rate, following her degree she went down and became a communicator for the power plant at San Louis Obispo, Diablo Canyon, and now she is still working in some areas of activity. She’s with the National Nuclear Renewable Energy Laboratory up outside of Boulder, Colorado.

My son spent two summers working at the laboratory. One summer, we were in Washington while he was here on a summer assignment, and he sent me a letter and he said, “Gee, Dad, I’m working on the hot dry rock geothermal program. I get to camp out in the mountains and get paid for it.”

The hot dry rock geothermal project was up at Jemez Mountains and he, being the youngest person in the group, drew the night shift of sitting by the pumps and so on to observe the equipment and the safety of it. He’s now working in Boston.

But one of the interesting characteristics of Los Alamos is that young people growing up here, at the time they get out of high school, say, “Gee, there’s nothing to do.” And so they leave town.

Look at the number of second generation people that there are here now. It grows on you, and so they come back. There are a large number of people working at the lab now that were here as children, and who can remember it.

You’ve talked to Nancy Bartlit. I suggest you give a call to Georgia Strickfadden. Have you contacted Georgia? 

Kelly: No.

Malenfant: She has marvelous stories to tell. She grew up here as a child and came back, but she’s one of those that did, and many of them are proud of their association, as evidenced by my daughter putting “GID Malenfant” as a return address.

But yes, I’ve taken all of my children out to the site that I worked at for so long, when I could. I can’t do that anymore. In fact, I can’t even take them on Pajarito Road anymore, although I understand you’re going to be going on Pajarito Road tomorrow.

Another anecdote that I enjoy is, there’s a great deal of concern about the potential exposure to radioactivity and the effect it has on people’s lives. I worked with it for nearly half a century. It’s been my privilege to play poker every couple of weeks with a group of people from Pajarito site. And the oldest one died at age ninety-two, just a year or so ago.

Another one spent some time in a nursing home. So one day we packed up all the poker chips and the beer and we went over and we played poker in the nursing home. He was present at Trinity site in July of 1945. In fact, his Jeep broke down on the desert at night.

My point of all of this is, as observed by my wife, is, gee, those people have aged well past the average age of individuals and that they spent their life working at a place like Pajarito Laboratory. Now, I don’t know, that may not be politically correct in today—but I don’t care. 

Kelly: That’s okay.

Malenfant: I’m seventy-two, incidentally.

I’ve got one for you. I got a call two, three, four months ago from a guy up in Canada. And he said he was on the ship that made the first entry into Nagasaki, could I give him his dose because he’d developed leukemia. I said, “How old are you?” 

He said, “Eighty-nine.” [Laughter.]

The point of it is that we’re all mortal, and I don’t mean to be glib, and I hope I didn’t come across as glib, but just as matter of fact. It’s like the safety meeting that I went to yesterday down at Sandia, where concern was expressed for the generation of ozone in a gamma irradiation facility. Every time you’re near a motor, you’re exposed to ozone. Every time you hear lightening strike, you’re exposed to ozone. And yet the great concern from an occupational exposure to ozone just completely blew my mind.  Things are getting out of perspective.