George Cowan: It's weighted so heavily in favor—not in favor of—but the emphasis on number one Los Alamos, and then Oak Ridge, and then Hanford, as the three secret cities or something. But the fact is the Met Lab at Chicago was enormously important. The Stagg Field reactor was historic in ’42, and its sort of dismissed.
[Interviewed by Cynthia Kelly and Tom Zannes.]
Tell us your name.
Steve Buckingham: Steve. S-T-E-V-E. Buckingham. B-U-C-K-I-N-G-H-A-M. (Question off camera)
Located in a bucolic setting surrounded by tall pines, these humble wooden and asbestos-shingled buildings were where the world's first atomic device was assembled. Here scientists, engineers, and explosives experts worked around the clock on the "Gadget," the first plutonium-based atomic explosive.
In early 1944, DuPont, the operating contractor at Hanford, foresaw the need for four chemical separation facilities. These facilities, designated the T and U plants at location 200-West and the B and C plants at location 200-East (the C plant was never built), would be located approximately ten miles south of the reactors.
The B Reactor at Hanford was built and operated by DuPont and was the world's first production-scale nuclear reactor. B Reactor was the first of three plutonium reactors constructed in the 100 area during the Manhattan Project.
Joe Dykstra: My name is Joe Dykstra, that’s spelled D-Y-K-S-T-R-A.
Cynthia Kelly: Ok, now you can talk about—
Dykstra: I finished school with a degree in chemistry in May of ’43. I was in Iowa. During that year, I’d filled out an application for a defense job with Hooker Electrochemical Company in Niagara Falls. I didn’t know what I was going to be doing, except it was defense.
The "Rad Lab" was the short name for the Radiological Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley. Its director was Nobel laureate Ernest O. Lawrence. He gained recognition for his 60" cyclotron, a type of particle accelerator first invented in the early 1930s. Known as “atom smashers,” cyclotrons accelerate atoms through a vaccuum and use electromagnets to induce collisions at speeds up to 25,000 miles per second.
The Y-12 Plant in Oak Ridge used the electromagnetic separation method, developed by Ernest Lawrence at University of California-Berkeley, to separate uranium isotopes.
The K-25 Plant in Oak Ridge used the gaseous diffusion process to enrich uranium.
Gaseous Diffusion Process
The K-25 plant was an enormously ambitious and risky undertaking. A mile-long, U-shaped building, the K-25 plant was the world’s largest roofed building at the time. British scientists working on the “tube alloy,” code for the atomic bomb project, first advocated the gaseous diffusion method in March 1941. Because of the Nazi bombing of England, any production plants had to be located elsewhere.
One of the most important branches of the Manhattan Project was the Metallurgical Laboratory (Met Lab) in Chicago. Using the name "Metallurgical Laboratory" as cover at the University of Chicago, scientists from the east and west coasts were brought together to this central location to develop chain-reacting "piles" for plutonium production, to devise methods for extracting plutonium from the irradiated uranium, and to design a weapon. In all, four methods of plutonium separation were considered, with the bismuth phosphate process displaying the most promise.