William Lowe: I was born in Bartlesville, Oklahoma in the year 1920. Within a few years, my parents had moved to Westfield, New Jersey, where I grew up. But upon reaching 18, I went to college at Purdue University. It was 700 miles from home. By train, it took a day.
I would say that my 93 years have been dominated by atomic bombs, war, in particular World War II, and later by peaceful uses of atomic energy. What I will do is try to convey, more or less chronologically, what happened.
First of all, I arrived at Purdue on 7 September 1939. And on the first of September, Germany had invaded Poland. The next day, Britain and France declared war on Germany. And it went on from there into affairs—military, which affected the whole course of my life later on.
The thing I remember particularly was that in June of 1940, Paris fell to the Germans. And then in August and September of that year, the battle for the control of air over Britain peaked. Those sorts of situations made it very hard for me to concentrate on studies, although I did fairly well on the first semester and second semester.
Then in the summer it was time to do some experiments that I wanted to do on my own. One of them was to measure the effect on the growth rate of bacteria in Petri dishes as a function of pressure, air pressure. To do that, I needed to sterilize the Petri dishes and air that the yeast would grow on. So I bought a pressure cooker. It was just a vessel, a pan with a top on it that you could wax down. It had a relief valve on the top.
I was then living with a landlady as a tenant of hers. And I would use her stove to heat the water in the vessel—until doing it one time, the pressure relief valve, which sat right in the middle of the top lid, for some reason failed and rose rapidly like a shot to the top of the ceiling and stuck in her ceiling. After that, she was no longer tolerant of my being in her house. So I had to find other quarters. But it was a beginning of an interest. In fact, it was not—it was a continuation of an interest in finding things out.
I then was making part of the money by tuning pianos, which I seemed to have some tools for, and maybe a talent little for. But you could get your piano tuned for 25 cents. So that went on until—as I might say, at Purdue, I was studying chemical and metallurgical engineering.
However, when the next semester started, I could not concentrate on academics. There was too much going on in the world outside. So my parents arranged for me to go to Colgate College, which I did. There are only three things I remember about Colgate. One is, in the basement of the anatomy building, there were body parts in formaldehyde. And I remember the smell of formaldehyde.
The second thing that happened while I was there was, one of my classmates asked me to deliver a present for his girlfriend, who lived in a sorority house. So I set out to do that. It was a nice afternoon. I walked up to the sorority house, knocked on the door, when a pheasant flew over my right shoulder and dropped dead at my feet. When the house mother opened the door—all those girls had housemothers, and it is a good thing. I handed her the present and the pheasant and fled. Now if that pheasant had been an eagle that flew over my right shoulder and dropped dead, I would have been the Emperor of Rome, and Berlusconi would have been executed. The poor Italians had to suffer under his rule for some time.
While I was at Colgate, I still could not concentrate on studies. I went to Boston to join the Royal Air Force. And to do that there was quite a procedure. But I did not make it. But about twenty thousand boys from the United States did. They joined either the Royal Air Force or the Royal Canadian Air Force and fought for Britain.
The reason I went was because the British had lost so many pilots in the Battle over Britain, which the British prevailed. Therefore, Germany, not controlling the skies, could not invade, which was a big win for the British, but at a great cost for the young men.
After failing at that, my mother said, “You come home for Christmas. And then you better get back to school.”
My father was wiser in his knowledge of boys. He said, “You are going to go to work.” So I went to Texas and worked in oil fields in Texas, and also got a job teaching at night at the Tyler Junior College. It is now Tyler University. I was teaching mechanical drawings. There were not many girls – I do not think there were any girls in the classes that I taught. But I can testify that the girls at Tyler Junior College were worth it. However, if I messed around with them as a teacher, I would lose my job or I would have to get married or some other dire consequence.
Well then after spending four or five months doing that, I went back to Purdue in 1941 and registered with them in 1941. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese destroyed the U.S. Fleet in Hawaii. And within a month and a half or two, I volunteered for service in the Army. They put me in a reserve unit and said, “Stay in school,” which I did.
Things got pretty intense then. All the big schools went on fast-track teaching, continuous. It was very intense work. And I was completely absorbed in technical subjects, like chemistry and physics and so on.
Then there was a lot of complaining about college kids not doing their duties. So the President, in May of 1943, just a month before I was to graduate, they activated my unit and sent us all to Fort Bragg, North Carolina for sixteen weeks of training for combat in North Africa.
Things were very rough in North Africa at that time. They needed reinforcements. And so we assumed we were headed that way. By the way, there were no girls. There were 100,000 soldiers at Fort Bragg and no girls, which was probably a good thing.
Then when we finished that training, four of us were pulled out and sent to Clemson College. I think it is in South Carolina: Ed Sinsarion, Hank Weidman, me, and Bill Ford. And they offered us appointments to West Point.
Well, I had almost finished college. And if you got the appointment, you were committed after graduation from West Point for another four years of service. That did not sound like the best way to use my talents. At least, that is how I viewed it.
Ford accepted the appointment. The other three of us, Sinsarion, Weidman, and me, stayed at Clemson. We thought, “Good. They lost track of us. They do not know where we are.” But anyway, they did know where we were. And I was taken out of order to go to the University of Pennsylvania for further courses in various things, but mainly chemical, metallurgical engineering. And I felt by then I was getting a really solid grounding in those subjects.
We were then called out of the University of Pennsylvania. I had the grand rights of a Private First Class. And I was given sealed orders that I was to be put on a train. I was in charge of seventeen soldiers that were all engineers. And I was to take them to the place that my sealed orders would tell me to take them after we got on the train, got going, and hit a certain place on the route. The train was one that was going to St. Louis.
Before we got to St. Louis, the train went into some sort of a marshalling yard, where they rearranged the cars because some of them were going to different places. Some of my seventeen soldiers were on one of the cars, which was disconnected and taken away from me, who was supposed to be in charge. I had the tickets too.
So I went up to the conductor and said, “If you do not get those boys back, and get them back now, I am going to call Army Intelligence,” which was a complete bluff. I did not know how to do that.
He said, “Do not worry, sonny boy.” He said, “They will appear.” And they did.
Then we went into St. Louis and stayed a couple hours, I guess. And then we changed frames to—I think it was the Santa Fe Chief train that went all the way to Los Angeles. My orders were to get off at Lamy, New Mexico. I had no idea. When I first read it, I thought it said “Mexico.” I wondered, “Why are we going to Mexico?” But still double-checking, I found it was New Mexico.
We got off there. There was a bus expecting us. We got on one of those Army green buses. And they took us down to 109 East Palace Street in Santa Fe, which is now a famous historical place. And Oppenheimer’s secretary or one of her deputies, I am not sure, met us. We counted off. I counted off my guys. They were all there. So they took us on a bus up to Los Alamos. We arrived in Los Alamos near midnight. I know it was dark when we got to Lamy. They took us and they put us in the standard Army eight-man shack, we call them. They had two bunks on each side. There would be four sides. And so we got some sleep.
When I woke at first light, I was in upper bunk. My clothes were down below. I had nothing on but my underwear or my undershorts. And I peeked out of one eye. And there was this creature combing very long hair and putting some sort of restraint around it in the back. I thought, “I am in the wrong place. This must be a women’s hut.” Well, it turns out it was not. The man was an Indian, an American Indian. And he worked up on the Hill as a janitor.
At about 6:00, they took us to breakfast. And interviews started at 7:00. By the way, all along—we didn’t quite appreciate it—we were part of the Special Engineer Detachment sent by the Army to give some support to the scientists, because scientists do not necessarily know much about engineering. Anyway, they needed people to help them with their work.
So my first interview was with Fredrick Helmholtz. He had the problem of figuring out whether if we set off an atomic bomb in the atmosphere of the area, would the nitrogen and the oxygen in the atmosphere go into a chain reaction and burn up the earth’s atmosphere. Air is about 21 percent, average, in oxygen. And the rest of it is nitrogen with a few odd gases in it.
He asked me one question. “How many combinations of nitrogen and oxygen as molecules are there?” I named about six or seven. He said, “There is something like 14, good-bye.” I had flunked.
So next interview was with Arthur Charles Wahl about whom I will say more in a minute or so. Art Wahl asked me two questions. One was, how would I separate heavy elements if I were given the job to do it? Fortunately, thanks to the Carnegie Library at Westfield, New Jersey, I used to read Physics Review from the time I was a sophomore in high school. So I said confidently, “Oh, I would use the hot water method.” And all I knew about it was the name of it.
Then he asked me who my quantitative analysis professor at Purdue was. And believe it or not, his name was Andrew Carnegie, not the man who founded the library because of his steel fortune. Art said, “All right. You go over to that man who is standing in the lab.” And he said, “You help him with what he was doing.” That man was Donald Mastick, who was in civy [civilian clothes], but he was a Navy lieutenant.
We did not have much plutonium then. Wahl was running the Plutonium Chemistry group. So Mastick and I did a number of different things. We were joined by a fellow named Jim Jergen, who was also an SED, that is, Special Engineering Detachment. And we were helping Art Wahl with some experiments.
Art Wahl, by the way, was the person who was actually the one who physically found plutonium by doing chemistry on irradiated uranium that had been bombarded at the 60-inch cyclotron at Berkeley, California, the University of California, Berkeley.
Well, Wahl decided that I would run the radioassay lab. That is, we would take radioactive materials. And we were looking to measure plutonium. And we would make the samples and send them to the counters, the people who counted how much was there by measuring the alpha radiation from plutonium. And that I did.
I ran the radioassay lab after learning a lot from Wahl about ultramicrochemistry. That is where you are working with micrograms of plutonium. Microchemistry was milligrams to gram level, eventually.
But when we started, we had nothing but micrograms there to work out chemical methods to purify it. Wahl’s assignment was to purify plutonium chemically so that there were no white elements in, which if they were hit by an alpha particle would make neutrons and cause a—free that nation of a nuclear weapon made of plutonium.
Then Wahl decided that I would go and help develop equipment to do the processes that he was specifying the chemistry for. And Liz Maxwell, Dr. Elizabeth Maxwell, took over radioassay lab. And I went and worked with a man named Dave Kerret from MIT and Jim Jergen, an SED chemist, and there was someone else there too. I do not even remember the name.
We were tasked with developing a benchtop device to use the chemistry, which was complicated, to purify the plutonium sufficiently so it would work in a nuclear weapon. So we fussed with that for probably a good month when Wahl said, “Okay, you have done enough of that small stuff. Now Lowe, you are in charge of designing and building” what he later called the Wahl-Lowe Device, which was a quite complicated set of condenser, valves, pots, and other things to move liquids around. And the process specified was pretty difficult. It involved oxidation-reduction reactions using such things as oxalic acid, acidic acids. They are pretty mild stuff.
But sodium bromate, which is a very strong oxidizing agent, hydraulic acid was a very strong reducing agent, and diethyl ether, which is highly flammable and explosive. It used to be used as an anesthetic, but they stopped using it in hospitals because it was so dangerous. And also ammonium nitrate. That molecule is made up of ammonium, which is a strong reducing agent and nitrogen oxide, which is a very strong oxidizing agent. And therefore, when it gets dry, it tends to also detonate, which has recently happened somewhere in the United States because they forget that you have to be very careful with that stuff. And of course, it is the favorite explosive material for terrorists now.
At any rate, we kept that in a bunker with heavy concrete walls and dirt over it so that if it blew up, it would not blow up the building we were working in. And we would only use relatively small amounts each time.
One of the challenges in this job I was given to develop what later became the Wahl-Lowe device: we had to find materials which would not contaminate the stuff we were trying to purify. As a result of that, all of us, Jergen and I and others, had rudimentary skills in glassblowing to make simple condensers and other things. We had to use pure silicone dioxide, which is the fundamental component of glass. And we did not know how to do that.
I told the Army, “We do not know how to do that. We have got to get somebody that knows how to do it.” And typical of the X priority exercised by the Army and the compliments of the Army procurement people, within a week or maybe ten days, they brought in four Hungarian glassblowers. They did not speak English. I had to communicate with them through drawings and sign language. They were very eager to do it right. And they learned how to make these. The bigger pots were a challenge. There were two of them in the purification apparatus. They were about 10 to 12 inches in diameter with a hemispherical bottom. And then they had a lid that went on top. So that problem was solved.
We had done an enormous number of corrosion tests to find out what materials would work with these aggressive chemicals we were going to use. And so the next problem was how to make the lid on the top of these pots. And the only material that we could find was tantalum. People did not know much about tantalum.
There was a professor at Washington University in St. Louis who had a side operation where he made stuff like tantalum. The Army went in and beefed up the capability of his factory. Within two weeks, I had an ingot of tantalum, which we could use to measure the chemical and physical properties of that we needed to know. I had that little ingot for years. It was about an inch in diameter and maybe an inch thick.
There were other things. We were a very small but not unimportant part of Manhattan District effort, which was huge. I later came to admire General Groves’ executive capability for that and other reasons. We knew what material had to be used. And we knew how to get the machine shop and the glassblowers to make the stuff.
We were having trouble with flexible hoses, or small hoses about a quarter inch in max of the internal diameter. And at Columbia University, they had just discovered trichloroethylene as an almost inert material for everything. And it was flexible. So we got some. And it worked. It was not trichloroethylene. It was tetrachloroehtylene. Later on that stuff as a slightly different compound, trichloroethylene, is the stuff that is on your frying pan that is inert and resistant to cutting and so forth.
At any rate, by October—Wahl hired me in March. And by October, we had a full scale-operating thing that we could do dry runs on operating the device. We had, by the way, more important parts in it than there are letters in the alphabet.
When Wahl hired me, I was 23 and he was 25. And he was the co-discoverer of plutonium. And Seaborg was his teacher in graduate school, Glenn Seaborg, who got many Nobel Prizes for transuranium element discoveries.
I will divert for a moment. Seaborg gave Wahl a copy of a book that Seaborg wrote. He was very meticulous about keeping records. And he wrote a book called “Plutonium.” It is a coffee table book. It is probably 8 ½ x 11, but about 4 inches thick. And Seaborg wrote in the flyleaf of that book. It said, “To my first and best graduate student, Dr. Wahl.”
And later, years later, Wahl said, “Here, I want you to have this book.”
I said, “No. I will get one. But you have a son. And you should give it to him.” Maybe Art Wahl did that.
At any rate, we went through a lot of development, dry runs and so forth, to make sure equipment worked. And then Wahl said to me, “You are responsible for receiving and purifying all of the material we receive from the Hanford Works, which is the only source of plutonium of any amount at that time.” And so I was put in charge of that group, which might have been 15 or 20 people, and it required training, organization, dry runs, and making sure people knew what they were doing.
And we had been very careful in designing to try to avoid accidents by using explosive mine safety appliance, explosion detection equipment, explosion-proof electric motors, and so forth. And controlling the air flow so the operators would not breathe plutonium because the medical group—one of the temple men had set one microgram, that is one-millionth of a gram of plutonium, as the upper limit of body burden for a 70-kilo man. It did not mention women. But it applied to everybody. That was our target.
We had to stay below one microgram by ingestion or inhalation to the inside of any of the workers. And one of the tricks was to have control of air flow around the equipment so that all the air was flowing away from the operators. And then the operators wore coveralls, boots, rubber gloves, eye goggles, hair covers, and other things. The health group developed a way to clean their hands with citric acid, which is the basic component of citrus fruits. It seemed to work pretty well in cleaning up your hands and what might have been contaminated. So we worked on to produce to the plutonium.
At any rate, we went on processing and producing probably what was the world’s most pure substance ever produced. That is, a plutonium oxalate that was given to the metallurgists to turn into metal. And it was pretty intensive. It was around the clock every day, seven days a week. And we had to have procedures that avoided putting together enough plutonium so that it would go critical, because it would issue a burst of radiation that would kill people. As a matter of fact, that happened to a man named Cecil Kelley who worked for me, not in my operation, but in a related one after the war.
But we went on and produced the plutonium for the Trinity task on, I think, July 14, 1945, and for combat number one and combat number two. I think we were working on combat number three when the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. And Japan surrendered after a revolt by officers who wanted to continue the war. The Japanese officers wanted to continue the war. And the Americans moved in first to Japan. And therefore, the Russians were not quite ready to do that. And the U.S. took over all of Japan.
If the bomb had not been dropped, the Russians probably would have taken the upper half of Japan, the northern half. And it might well have turned into another North Korea, which is a rogue state. So there were big issues that were resolved in the U.S. favor by the bomb itself. I know Churchill said to invade Japan would have cost about a million U.S. lives and half that many of British. And the Japanese were tough. They were not about to surrender.
Meanwhile, at the personal level, I had two brothers in the Pacific. One went to Brown University under the V-12 program, which was to produce Naval officers after they had finished their academics. He had graduated summa cum laude from Brown. He was captain of the football team. And he went with his newly measured fellows to fly out to the Pacific. But first, they stopped in San Francisco. And they went to the top of the Mark Hopkins Hotel, which was the place to go then. And they were going to have a beer. And my brother’s companions got their beer. But the waitress asked my brother for his identification papers. And he was not yet 21.So they would not serve him. And yet here he was going off to fight a war in Japan in the Pacific. And they would not let him drink beer.
And in the process, his job over there, he was stabbed in the stomach by the people who were under him, probably by mistake. They were into a knife fight, and down in the hole there was a ship full of explosives. And he went down in the cargo to stop the fight. And he thinks it was an accident. They were not after him. But who knows?
On Christmas Eve, after the war was over, he was on a little island in Japan, and he and some buddies went out to have a beer. And meanwhile, riots had broken out. The court martial system, all guys capable of running a court martial system had left. And a riot broke out where people were shooting at each other. And he got wind. He got hit in the front right near an artery, but it missed. And of course those bullets were designed to expand, which they did. So he had a big thing on his back. But he got that fixed.
Meanwhile, my kid brother was a sergeant in the Army on a Philippine island. And a Marine pilot flew in and across there without putting his wheels down, on purpose he did it, I guess. And he slid to a stop, jumped out, and said, “The war is over, the war is over.”
And my brother said, “Oh yeah, we have heard that one before.” Well, the war was over. They did not believe it for three days where he was. Finally, he said there was a little notice, hardly bigger than a small newsprint, that the Japanese had surrendered. Also, at the time it had come in by radio, and the time Marine pilots bellied in there.
However, there were 125,000 Japanese in Korea. And my brother’s outfit made a combat landing, fully armed, and ready to shoot, not knowing if the Japanese on the island had gotten the word. Well it turns out they had. The Japanese Army was pretty well disciplined.
Well, let me see. That is sort of the Las Alamos story. After that I went to Hanford, Washington as part of my responsibility for three new reactors and the new laboratory that was to be built there.
And typical of accomplishment by innocence, Gordon Dean, the newly appointed chairman of the AEC, which I worked for there, came in. And I was escorting him around. I said, “Mr. Dean, where do you work?” And fortunately, he was a diplomat. He said, “I work in Washington," not "I am your boss.”
There are a lot of stories about Hanford. But I will try to shortcut them. One is that in the reactors that were operating, the graphite pile in them through which the tubes went that carried the fuel was reactive to make the plutonium that was sent to us, were swelling. That was not good because the control rods dropped like gravity. And their pathways were obstructed by bends in the pathway. That could be pretty serious, although they had backup systems beyond that to stop the reaction.
One of the guys from the University of Washington, a professor, said, “Why do we not put some carbon dioxide into the nitrogen blanket?” The nitrogen gas blanket that covered the reactor inside of its containment. And so that was done and it worked. But atoms which had been knocked out of their lattice by the radiation that was going on in the reactor jumped back into place in the graphite tube. About 20 foot by 20 foot by 20 foot cube contracted back to where it was supposed to be.
And some of us said, “Hey, what about what is happening to the earth’s atmosphere?”
And he said, “Well is it going to heat up.” This was 1950. Yeah, it is probably going to heat up.
So one of the guys, an assistant professor at the University of Washington who was working with us, every month, he put out a thing called “The CO2 News.” And that was the beginning of my concern and a few others about global warming, and what effect it would be.
Then Healy went out, another man focused on measuring what was in the atmosphere, went out on Mauna Loa in Hawaii and he measured, among other things, carbon dioxide concentration. And then he did that for several years. And then he said, “The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is rising.” And that was a real yellow flag. But still, only a few people believed it, just a few.
Some at Oak Ridge, which was a Manhattan generated laboratory—Manhattan District generated laboratory. Some at the University of Washington. Here and there, people began to really worry, including me. Not that there was anything done about it.
Another story about the Hanford situation: a man, a tough character—he was probably 30 years older than I was, had been building dams out west. He was brought in to head construction at Hanford. And I was assigned to him. His name was John I. Thomas. We had a big construction program, which I had programmatic responsibility for three new reactors and new labs. And he walked out to the site and spent the day there. And he found people sleeping and without any plans for what they were going to do tomorrow. He came back and he shut down the whole site, six thousand people. He said, “Those busses are not going to go out until every man or woman has their name on their hat with a hat colored for their craft and with a day plan to know what they are going to do the next day.” Then he went out and checked that they had done that. And it transformed the whole operation, a huge operation out there. It was a lesson in manners. Firmly, it was the answer.
After Hanford, I decided I wanted to do something else, and I applied for jobs around the country. And I found that my boss, Dave Shaw, or he was my boss one level up, two levels up, had put out the word that nobody was to hire me. They wanted me to stay there. The only person who responded was a fellow named John Newell in Maine, who ran what was called the Bath Iron Works.
Bath Iron Works built the best destroyer ships ever built by the U.S. Navy probably during World War II. And he wanted to know. So he paid my way back to Bath, Maine. And he said, “So we make a nuclear destroyer.” And I sat down and did back of the envelope stuff and said yes.
It was not a small ship. The destroyers were two thousand-ton ships. So he hired me. I went back to Bath Iron Works. It was almost as far as you could get away from the State of Washington where I had been in the United States. I began working with George Cary, who was the naval architect there.
We fussed around with trying to make the nuclear power plant wiser. And I worked with GE on the nuclear power plant part for a destroyer. But the ship got heavier and heavier. And it finally got up to six thousand tons because of the shield we required. I made a gross underestimate of what the ship might weigh.
So we wanted to make a ship that was fast enough to catch a submarine. And a ship has difficulty doing that because it makes waves, whereas a submarine does not lose energy making waves. It does lose energy by resistance through the water. But there was an experimental submarine called the Albacore at that time.
Anyway, George Cary and I finally settled. We went through the ship trials. We had access to all the ship trials data. Those are the trials run on ships to find out how fast they will go, how much fuel they burn, and all that stuff just after they had been developed.
We picked the Cruiser Atlanta, the six thousand-ton ship. And George Cary says, “I do not think we could launch this ship in the Kennebec River.” It was too big. Anyway, we went down to see Admiral [John J.] Mumaw, who was the chief of the Bureau of Ships. We were proposing to build this ship and use a GE engine in it. And Admiral Mumaw brought in Commander Rickover, our then-commander. And Rickover literally came in ranting and raving and literally foaming at the mouth. He was just raising hell: we did not know anything about ships. We did not know how to build them. We did not know anything about nuclear power plants or ships, which was the latter part of the truth. He was right.
Fortunately, we did not get any job at Bath to build a nuclear ship. Bethlehem Shipyard did and they went broke building the first one, that turned into the Cruiser of Long Beach.
While I was at Hanford, one of the things I had responsibility for was a new plutonium purification facility, that was, programmatic responsibility to build it. And we were three percent over budget. And so Washington office sent out a man named James K. Pickard and a lawyer named Harold Greene. And they investigated things and said, “It is in pretty good shape.”
James K. Pickard later became my partner. Harold Greene later became a judge who broke up the AT&T Monopoly. So we were all growing up, I guess.
After that, I decided to go in the peaceful applications of nuclear power, although things were still dominated by nuclear weapons. As Churchill put it in March of 1946 in his speech at Fulton, Missouri, an iron curtain has descended from—no, the other way—from Stetten in the Baltic to Trieste on the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended, behind which are all the old capitals of Europe. And if we stand together, we have nothing to fear. Stand together became NATO. The iron curtain was what the Russians put up.
At any rate, there was still a cold war going when—all the time that I was working on peaceful applications. And I did personally work on one-third—no, one-quarter of all the hurry for nuclear units built in the United States. And most of those are still operating way beyond their design lives. They have programs to keep them in shape.
We were asked by the State Department to help the Germans build a nuclear reactor. So we said, “We will build a small one, start small, teach people with it,” and we picked one. It was a General Electric plan.
The guy running the German program was named Henry Mangold. He later became the chief executive officer of the Rhein-West power company [Rheinisch-Westfälisches Elektrizitätswerk AG], the biggest one in Germany. But at that time, he was just a kid. Well, he was probably 30. He was going to get married. So we bought him a standing lamp. That is what we wanted. So we bought him a standing lamp. And that was the first piece of furniture he had for his marriage.
Anyway, that was not why we got the job. But in the process of working with the Germans, they sent two Germans to the United States. And I decided the thing to do was take them out to lunch at the German-American restaurant in Washington. And we had some beer. We were feeling pretty good, or sort of for mature people. One of them started describing his job during the war, how he took firing angles on U.S. ships. I thought, “Those are our ships he is talking about!” He was a German U-boat commander, not many of them survived. But he was one of them. The other guy was a physicist.
I spent many months in Germany after the war, but mostly in the United States working on setting the general parameters for construction of the nuclear power plants, which were designed and built by Babcock and Wilcox with General Electric or Westinghouse.
Then there was a TMI [Three Mile Island] accident. I got a call. The General Public Utilities owned it. One of their chief engineers called me and said, “Well something is going on at Unit Two. We do not know what it is. But we are really one-one thousandth of a rank in radiation level at the guard shack, which should not happen.”
So I went up. They had a big meeting. There were probably 20 people in the meeting. And the topic was restart of Unit Two. They were there to get the place restarted. But at the end of the meeting, a fellow named George Kudrow, who was the technical support director, came up to me. And he had been up for 36 hours trying to—38 hours trying to figure out what was happening at the plant. He gave me what you would call a verbal data dump, just continuous talking. He could not stop talking. He was telling me everything he knew, what he did not know, why they could not figure things out. It was entirely different from what the restart, my group, was supposed to do. I thought, “That does not sound right to me. They do not understand what is going on.”
So when Jack Urbine, the Vice-President for Nuclear Matters for General Public Utilities went to call the Governor, I got a hold of him and said, “The problem is not the restart. It is to stabilize the unit. And some of us better get up to the control room and try to figure out what is happening.”
Jack, came storming back into the room. He was a naval type. He came storming back into the room with all these guys. And he said, “I want some of you to go to the control room and find out what is happening.” And since I had suggested it, I could not gracefully back out of it.
Tom Clemens, who was a graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine School, USMM School, he volunteered. There were two of us. We went to the control room. And it was strange. The machine was not behaving in a way that it ought to behave. And I will not go into the details, but it was unstable. And the operators could not get on top of it. They did not know what was going on.
A young guy came up to me named Richard William Bensel, B-E-N-S-E-L. And he showed me a trace of containment building pressure. Now first of all, containment building is about 30 to 40 feet in diameter and about 150 feet high, very strong reinforced concrete. Inside the equipment is the pressure vessel, where the fuel is. It is about 20 feet in diameter. No, maybe 15 and about 30 feet tall with a 2 to 3 inch seal boundaries.
At any rate, they could not get control of the water level in the primary system. And it kept bouncing around. And when Bensel showed me this diagram, there was a big spike in pressure in the containment. And then it dropped fast. At the same time that it spiked, when it hit the top, the huge sprays at the top sprayed and knocked the pressure back down. And all the sudden, all of what George Kudrow had told me and what I was seeing on that diagram and had learned by being in the control room, coalesced almost instantaneously. And I said to Clemens, “We got a pot full of hydrogen. There has been huge damage to the core. We got to find out how much hydrogen is there.”
And some youngster was on the telephone to the BMW designers in Lynchburg, Virginia. I just commandeered the telephone. And I said, “Who is this?”
He says, “Well this is Taylor Anissi. We are sitting here. What is going on?”
I said, “We got a problem. We have got a pot full of hydrogen. We do not know how big it is. So stay on the line.” I knew them both. They were good guys.
Some of them said, sort of facetiously, “You mean we are not going to sleep?” I said no. Meanwhile I was an outsider. I was just a consultant to the power company. I said, “I want you to give me the free volume within the primary system up to the main nozzles,” which were near the top of the pressure vessel, “and fast.” So they came back in about five minutes. And they probably already pulled out a drawing, or had it. And we got that. And I called—I think I was talking to the president of the GPU. No, I was not. There was a vice-president for—Bob Arnold for nuclear stuff. I said, “Get the best man you have got over here! We need some help.”
He sent over a guy named Jim Moore. I said, “Jim, we got to find out how big that bubble is.” It is still a hypothetical bubble. And it seemed like a long time, but it was probably only a couple of minutes.
He said, “Boyle’s Law ought to work.”
And before he even finished the sentence, I said, “We have a piston to change the pressure.”
Boyle’s Law says, everything else being perfect that the volume of a gas is directly proportional to the pressure on it. And so I said—I called over to Joe Logan, who was the unit superintendent of the Navy Nuclear Ship Commander. I said, Joe – no, it was not Logan. It was Bensel. I said, “See that trace? Get me a confirmation that there is other evidence that that trace is right.”
He says, “It is right on the same sheet. They are two different instruments. One was a big range and one was a small range.”
And so I called. I went up and got Joe Logan and brought him back to the back of the control room. I said, “I would like for you to change—there was an 800-pound per square inch internal pressure. I want you to change the pressure 100 pounds per square inch up or down, and read me the change in volume that you get.” And he was puzzled. And I said, “Look Joe, I do not know how to work the knobs and buttons on the control board. Your guys got to do that. But that is what we need to do.”
And I said, “Do you agree to that?” He sort of mumbled. I said, “Do you agree to that?” And we shook hands.
So then Bensel says, “We already have that data. I mean, that was done yesterday. We changed it about 100 pounds and we measured the change in volume.” Actually, the volume change was the level in the pressurizer. And the level of water in the pressurizer. So then Clemons and I had been taught—“Wait a minute, under stress you tend to lock into a solution to something that may be wrong. So let us sit down and talk about it.” So we did for maybe five minutes or so.
And we figured, yeah, it sounds like it. I said to Moore, “Now you calculate the volume of the bubble under Boyle’s Law, and I will do the same independently to see if we get the same answer.” So we got more or less the same answer.
At that point, a lot of people began calling the control room wanting to know what happened. And I talked to a few of them, not many. I thought about calling Joe Henry, who was a very good scientist. And he was the head of Atomic Energy Commission [Nuclear Regulatory Commission]. And Jimmy Carter was all over him to get some answers. I thought, “No, I am not going to call Joe Hendrie, because if I do, all hell is going to break loose. They will send people in here. And we will not be able to work.” So I did not call him.
He said afterwards, “It sure would have made life easier if you had.” But it would have made ours impossible.
At any rate, we kept working on the problem. My calculations of the amount of the core destroyed, and got an answer of 20.0 No, about 11:00 PM I made a calculation to estimate the amount of the core destroyed, and got 200 percent of it had been destroyed. Well, that did not work. But it was enough to say, there is a major problem. And so we went on. And at 4:00 AM, by that time the calculation corrected for several errors I had made in the original one, and came out with 50 percent. It turned out a year later when we got in there, essentially all of it had been destroyed. And out of the 100 tons of fuel in there, about 30 tons had gone to the bottom of the reactor vessel.
Twelve days before that, Jane Fonda had put out a movie called “The China Syndrome.” And it was a lousy from a technical point of view. It was a real fiction. However, my wife, Sylvia, called one of my guys in Washington and said, “What is going on, Tom?”
He said, “We are waiting for a statement from Jane Fonda.”
So much for TMI [Three Mile Island], or too much for it.
I suppose that is about the end of it. Well there is one other thing. Jim Pickard, Fred Warren, and I and our outfit called Pickard, Warren, and Lowe decided to set up a separate operation to become much larger. We wanted to stay small. But we would own the separate operation. It was called the Nuclear Utilities Services. And we brought in people to run that. And I was on the board of it. And on that board was a man who probably did more to get the U.S. Navy up to date after the war than—Admiral Charles Burke. Arleigh Burke. He was on the board. And he was the guy who transformed Destroyer tactics during World War II almost singlehandedly. And then after that brought the Navy up very much in terms of its technology and all of that.
Joe Williams was a pistol. He was a guy who did not go to Annapolis. He did not wear the ring. But he came up through the ranks and was an extremely good officer both now and at Broadway. Anyway, he went to work with me after the war. And I was asked after TMI to go to Spain and help them get their two reactors in northern Spain started. They had been attacked by terrorists, and they killed a couple guys. And so I said to Joe Williams, “You go with me. And we will go over there and see what we can do.” So we did.
We got them pretty well organized and ready to go. Then the ETA, the terrorist organization, took the manager of the plant, named [José María] Ryan, prisoner. And they said, “If you do not tear the plant down in 24 hours, we are going to kill him.”
“You cannot do that.”
And so they did. They killed him and threw his body out on the street.
So then we regrouped and I got a guy named Chuck Buelles to help, who knew some politics and stuff applicable to northern Spain. The chief economic minister from the Basque provinces said he took a year and went out to all of his political clubs and got them to agree to get the big bank of Spain, Santander, to buy the nuclear power plants.
They thought the problem was, a number of the old directors of the power company which owned those plants were Franco’s men, the dictator of Spain. And so they thought if they set up a different structure, that would work. So that was done. And we went back to Spain to try to get it started. And it looked like that was going to be restarted. We had a new plant manager then. And guess what? The ETA chapter’s new plant made the same demands, killed that guy, and threw him out on the street. So the plant never restarted. And Spain had to buy its power in north Spain from France. I think that should be the end of my story.
Cindy Kelly: Wow! That was quite a dramatic ending. Oh my goodness.
Lowe: I remember an incident just after the war when I was sitting outside—at my desk outside the door to Art Wahl’s little office. And Seaborg came down to Los Alamos and met with Art Wahl. I was sitting there and Wahl was in his office. And I did not hear what they said to each other. But after that was all over, and I do not recall exactly when, Art said that Glenn Seaborg had come down and proposed that he, Seaborg, and Wahl be designated the discoverers of the element plutonium. And Wahl said that he would add two more names to that. He implied he was insistent that two other names be added.
One was Joe Kennedy, who had built the instruments that made the measurements possible that demonstrated the discovery of plutonium. And Emilio Segre, who already had a Nobel Prize for discovering technetium, be included also. That the four of them be included as the discoverers, and since they basically owned the rights to the element plutonium because they worked for Berkeley. But Berkeley did not have the modern type of policy where the school kept a patent. That that group of four be the discoverer, from whom the U.S. Government was to buy the rights to the element plutonium.
And as a result of that, I believe, and it is probably in a record somewhere, but the number I remember is that each of them was paid $100,000. And the U.S. Government then essentially owned the rights to plutonium, which was important because of the nature of the use of plutonium in atomic weapons.
Kelly: So while you were at Los Alamos, Art Wahl reported directly to Joe Kennedy, as the director of the chemical division?
Lowe: Well Kennedy was—I am not quite sure of the scope of his job. There were people above him. It was not a highly hierarchal organization. But Eric Jette was above him, because the division that Jetty ran also included the metallurgists, such as Ed Hammel. And the metallurgists were an extremely talented group. In any event, that is how I remember it.
Kelly: And what do you recall of Joe Kennedy?
Lowe: Tall, thin, sort of relaxed—appeared to be, very quick of mind though.
I do remember one embarrassing incident. When I first got there, Art Wahl asked me to make up a sample to send to the counters that Kennedy had devised. And I miscalculated and sent too much. And all Wahl said to me was, “You ruined one of the counters,” and off he went. But Kennedy was—it took him about half a day to get another one built with all the support they had from the machine shop.
Kelly: So it did ruin the counter. At least it was not enough to create a criticality.
Lowe: Oh, criticality was a very important safety problem. And one of the issues was to decide how much you could put together safely. And the general rule was, you could put two of them together and they would not go critical in water solutions.
And the person who estimated at one point what the criticality inflow issue would be of plutonium, I think the answer was about 500 grams in water solution in the right geometry, was calculated by Klaus Fuchs, who turned out to be giving the Russians all the information about how to build an atomic bomb. And later on, I understand he also gave it to the Chinese for levy in equal rights I suppose, or something. And apparently, he did not do it for money.
But I went to him at one point to ask him what would happen if a solution went critical, because my guys were in danger if it did. He said, “Well, the water would boil.” And that is right. The water would boil. It would also kill a couple people, as it did with Cecil Kelley.
Kelly: So did you have any inkling that Klaus Fuchs was a spy?
Lowe: No, no. That really drove a wedge between British intelligence and U.S. intelligence. He got 15 years in the penitentiary. And if he had been in the United States, he would have been hung. I mean, if the United States had had him and caught him.
Kelly: Did you know David Greenglass?
Lowe: Yeah, I think he was a machinist. I am not sure. But I knew later about him. I did not know him personally. Of course, the Russians also had a spy group in Canada. There was a Canadian Parliamentarian, I believe his name was Rose, who was sending them up-to-date information on the status of things at the Hanford reactors. And I once got a copy of some kind of transmission that was introduced into evidence, describing how many grams of plutonium would be made per male that day in a reactor.
Of the xenon problem: that was a problem that was not understood at first, that was the growth of xenon from fission, that would tend to shut the reactor down. And the solution to that was to learn how to override the xenon until it came—to keep the reactors going until the xenon came into equilibrium. I think the Rose group told them all about the xenon problem.
He [J. Robert Oppenheimer] was in that in that book by Jennet Conant, the granddaughter of James Bryant Conant. It describes him—well I knew him, but more importantly others who knew him well said it was a very good description of him. And one of Groves’ many capabilities was that he picked Oppenheimer.
Oppenheimer was a third-level physicist. But he knew the business. And somehow he was able to get others to do their thing. I went to almost every colloquium I could get to, to listen to the seniors hammer on problems. And Oppenheimer never ended a sentence. He would start talking. And he would go into dependent clause after dependent clause, and finally come back to the main track. And then after quite a while, he would shut up. And the other guys would start arguing about how to do this or that.
Kelly: So how effective were those gatherings, those colloquium?
Lowe: I think they were very effective. For example, solutions for some major problems were proposed by people not working on the problem, or maybe not even skilled in the work. The example of that—I think it is an example of that—was when the man from Stanford, maybe it was [Robert] Christy, said, “Well you cannot make a gun-type weapon out of plutonium. It is too slow assembly. What you have to do is an implosion weapon.” Whereupon they brought Kistiakowsky down from Harvard. He was the only one that really knew about how to make explosive lenses in an innovative way. And they got other guys that knew how to coordinate the absolutely accurate timing of setting off the lenses so that the explosion wave arrived and that compression of the little sphere, the center of the bomb, were at the same time, so it would squeeze it instead of blowing it apart. That was an awfully difficult problem to solve.
But by the way, the purification process in the official history—the purification process that Art Wahl devised and I was supposed to devise the equipment to do it—was the most difficult – second most difficult problem at Los Alamos. The first most difficult was the implosion.
Kelly: You are talking about having to take what was produced in the reactor at Hanford and trying to remove some of the impurities?
Lowe: They removed essentially all of the fission products. And when Los Alamos asked them to, they finally got rid of most of the uranium that was with the plutonium. So those huge “canyons,” we called them [the T Plants], which were at least 400 yards long, all automatic, all of remote-controlled equipment designed by DuPont. It was an amazing engineering accomplishment. They did most of the purification. We did the final stuff, which was more difficult chemically than what they did.
In fact, when I was at Hanford, it occurred to me that they could actually, from a criticality point of view, raise the vat size that they processed without a risk of criticality. And I knew that because I knew about the water boiler experiments that had been done to set the criticality limits. So I proposed that it be investigated to see if they could raise the amount of plutonium in each batch that they processed. And in all innocence of everything, I asked Los Alamos to send Teller, Fermi, and Christy, the three preeminent guards, to be on a committee to decide whether I was right about it. And I was the secretary of the committee.
Well after the first meeting, Los Alamos sent a less prestigious but very competent physicist to monitor the experiments that were done to confirm what I had hypothesized. So it essentially doubled the throughput of the canyons.