The Nuclear Hydra – Proliferation

The nuclear dawn’s light powered-up the ethics banks of the self-assembling supercomputers

Alumni of the Met Lab pose on the steps of Eckhart Hall on the campus of the University of Chicago on December 2, 1946 (the fourth anniversary of CP-1 first going critical).  Front row, left to right: Enrico Fermi, Walter Zinn, Albert Wattenberg, and Herbert Anderson.  Middle row, left to right: Harold Agnew, William Sturm, Harold Lichtenberger, Leona W. Marshall, and Leo Szilard.  Back row, left to right: Norman Hilberry, Samuel Allison, Thomas Brill, Robert Nobles, Warren Nyer, and Marvin Wilkening. The photograph is courtesy the Argonne National Laboratory.

Alumni of the Met Lab pose on the steps of Eckhart Hall on the campus of the University of Chicago on December 2, 1946 (the fourth anniversary of CP-1 first going critical). Front row, left to right: Enrico Fermi, Walter Zinn, Albert Wattenberg, and Herbert Anderson. Middle row, left to right: Harold Agnew, William Sturm, Harold Lichtenberger, Leona W. Marshall, and Leo Szilard. Back row, left to right: Norman Hilberry, Samuel Allison, Thomas Brill, Robert Nobles, Warren Nyer, and Marvin Wilkening. The photograph is courtesy the Argonne National Laboratory.

within the Manhattan Project scientists’ brains.  The scientists that rode the Manhattan Project from the laying of the first brick in 1941 to Trinity’s detonation in 1945 were arguably the single largest aggregation of brilliance the world has ever seen.  These were the foundering brothers who built the atomic bomb.  They also realized the raw power they had unleashed would never be controlled by them.  Many members of the founding brothers awakened during the final stages of the bomb’s development.  The amoral need to find the answer just because it needed finding morphed into the question of ‘what have we done?’.  The awakening began a quest to neutralize the power of their scientific discoveries and the quest was at odds with the political and military objectives of the day.  They were heroes, physics and chemistry’s answer to Hercules, fighting for the survival of the human race bound in the chains of secrecy.  Although this group of scientists embodied the idea the Greeks called pathos, the experience of virtuous struggle and suffering, they would find the promised reward of fame and immortality a dubious honor.

The first controlled nuclear fission reaction of Enrico Fermi’s pile on December 2, 1942 marked a major milestone in the laboratory underneath the bleachers of the abandoned Stagg Stadium in Chicago. Scientists from the left and right American coasts were assembled in the middle to kick-off the Manhattan Project under the guise of a new “Metallurgical Laboratory”[1] at the University of Chicago.  Most of the scientists and technicians just referred to it as the Met Lab with a wink

Stagg Field (named for coach Amos Alonzo Stagg)

Stagg Field (named for coach Amos Alonzo Stagg)

and a nod as they tore into meeting its three simple objectives with a religious fervor; 1) develop chain-reacting “piles” for plutonium production, 2) devise a method for extracting plutonium from irradiated uranium, and 3) to design a weapon.  They did that.  Not a bad achievement considering that President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s approval for the Atom Bomb’s development had been given a little over a year earlier on October 9, 1941.[2]

The Met Lab successes spurred the design and construction phases into overdrive.  Ordinary citizens, whole communities, farmers and ranchers by the dozens were removed from several tens of thousands of acres of land across the country by a government hungry for nuclearX10Complex1 facilities supported by a congress vying for the economic windfalls such sites would produce, and a population terrified and driven by a terrible war.  Nuclear sites sprouted; Oak Ridge in Tennessee, Hanford in Washington, and Los Alamos in New Mexico became working sites. The Met Lab, the mother lab, diversified and became the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory.

The successful detonation of the Los Alamos’ Trinity test on July 16, 1945 changed the world forever.   Meanwhile back at the Met Lab, six star-studded committees had already been

The Trinity Test It was 5:30 am on the 16th July 1945

The Trinity Test It was 5:30 am on the 16th July 1945

formed and were plotting regularly on how to best influence future nuclear policy.  James Franck, who along with his partner, Gustav Ludwig Hertz, won the 1925 Nobel Prize in Physics for their work in 1912–1914 supporting the Bohr model of the atom, headed the Committee on Social and Political Implications, one of the six committees.  Other Met Lab Social and Political Implications Committee members included:

    • Glenn T. Seaborg who together with Edwin Mattison won the 1951 Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for their discoveries in the chemistry of the transuranium elements”.[3]
    • Donald Hughes who specialized in neutron physics.[4]
    • James J. Nickson who influenced the handling and management of radioactive waste at Met Lab.[5]
    • Eugene Rabinowitch a Russian born American biophysicist who went on to become a founder and editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.[6]
    • Joyce C. Stearns who was the Met Lab Director between November 1944 and July 1945.[7]
    • Leo Szilard, one of the physicists who along with Einstein petitioned FDR to begin the search for the Atom Bomb, was adamant that the A-Bomb should not be used.[8]   

The only two with whom I ever crossed paths were Glenn Seaborg and Joyce Stearns; the others were the stuff of legends and dreams. According to Seaborg, once the ideas crystallized Franck,James_Autogramm_1952.the report was molded by Szilard and Rabinowitch provided drafting support.  The quest of the Met Lab 7 reverberates today in arms control treaty talks. The sixteen page Franck Report[9] dated 12 June 1945, opened national and international dialogs as opposing sides butted heads with prevailing thought and politics.  In the report’s Preamble, the scientists’ concern are clearly stated:

“…The only reason to treat nuclear power differently from all the other developments in the field of physics is its staggering possibilities as a means of political pressure in peace and sudden destruction in war. All present plans for the organization of research, scientific and industrial development, and publication in the field of nucleonics are conditioned by the political and military climate in which one expects those plans to be carried out. Therefore, in making suggestions for the postwar organization of nucleonics, a discussion of political problems cannot be avoided. The scientists on this Project do not presume to speak authoritatively on problems of national and international policy. However, we found ourselves, by the force of events, [in] the last five years in the position of a small group of citizens cognizant of a grave danger for the safety of this country as well as for the future of all the other nations, of which the rest of mankind is unaware. We therefore felt it our duty to urge that the political problems, arising from the mastering of nuclear power, be recognized in all their gravity, and that appropriate steps be taken for their study and the preparation of necessary decisions. We hope that the creation of the [Interim Advisory] Committee by the Secretary of War to deal with all aspects of nucleonics, indicates that these implications have been recognized by the government. We feel that our acquaintance with the scientific elements of the situation and prolonged preoccupation with its world-wide political implications, imposes on us the obligation to offer to the Committee some suggestions as to the possible solution of these grave problems. ××× Scientists have often before been accused of providing new weapons for the mutual destruction of nations, instead of improving their well-being. It is undoubtedly true that the discovery of flying, for example, has so far brought much more misery than enjoyment and profit to humanity. However, in the past, scientists could disclaim direct responsibility for the use to which mankind had put their disinterested discoveries. We cannot take the same attitude now because the success which we have achieved in the development of nuclear power is fraught with infinitely greater dangers than were all the inventions of the past. All of us, familiar with the present state of nucleonics, live with the vision before our eyes of sudden destruction visited on our own country, of [a] Pearl Harbor disaster, repeated in thousand fold magnification, in every one of our major cities….”

The Franck Report went on to make three basic recommendations:

      1. The United States could not use secrecy to avoid a nuclear arms race (secrets get out);
      2. International control of atomic energy offered the best hope for avoiding both national and international consequences of the bomb (the world would be safer if the technology was controlled internationally); and
      3. Using the bomb against Japan would be a bad idea because the U.S. would “sacrifice international support, precipitate the race for armaments, and prejudice the possibility of reaching an international agreement on the future control of weapons.”

The Franck Report offered an alternative recommendation. The bomb could be demonstrated

Glenn T. Seaborg

Glenn T. Seaborg

in an uninhabited “desert or on a barren island”.  The State Department’s expert on Soviet relations, George F. Kennan, forcefully argued against the policy ideas presented in the Franck Report and the science wonks lost.  In the forward of Jonathan Weisgall’s book, Operation Crossroads, Seaborg writes:

“…For various reasons our recommendation was not accepted. I have mixed feelings about this because the use of the atomic bomb did bring an abrupt end to World War II, sparing many American and Japanese lives.  On the other hand, a world in which the atomic bomb had never been used in warfare might have offered a more fertile field for successful international control of this fearsome power….”

In 1946, immediately following World War II, there appeared some hope in the guise of the Baruch Plan.[10]  Perhaps some of the policy ideas presented in the Franck Report had taken some root on the rocky ground of international diplomacy.  Early in 1946, the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission (UNAEC) was established specifically to prevent nuclear weapon

Bernard Baruch (1870-1965)

Bernard Baruch (1870-1965)

proliferation.  The UNAEC was a U.S. brainchild and Bernard Baruch prepared and presented the diplomatic foundation for the Commission.  Baruch had been knocking about the federal system for several decades and was a trusted advisor to several presidents.  He liked the international approach contained in the Franck Report.

The Baruch Plan offered to stop the manufacture of all nuclear weapons, destroy all existing stockpiles of weapons, and transfer all nuclear materials to international authority for peaceful application.  The plan also included rigid controls and penalties for failure to comply.  The Soviets didn’t like it.

The Soviets did not like the intrusive inspection process, or that the U.S. monopoly on atomic expertise would be left intact, or having the Soviet atomic capability stunted, or that the U.S. would have a grand old time with the propaganda machine.  Andrei Gromyko brought the Soviet plan to the UNEC table, which primarily modified the timing of the process.  The U.S. didn’t like it.

Many years of diplomatic energy were spent trying to bridge the gaps between the U.S. and Soviet proposals without much progress.  As Lenin’s rule yielded to Stalin’s rule of the Soviet Union, the Truman administration transitioned to the Eisenhower administration in the U.S. and the Korean War wound down, hope for a bridge across the atomic diplomatic divide began to grow.  It seemed to many that Eisenhower and Stalin were more flexible regarding disarmament.

The BRAVO Test, Bikini Atoll

The BRAVO Test, Bikini Atoll

And then, on March 1, 1954, the U.S. detonated the Bravo test on Bikini Atoll, which over-yielded by at least a factor of two.  Bravo remains the U.S.’s biggest nuclear event.  The fat was in the fire so to speak.  Wind conditions spread the fallout in an unpredictable way and several atolls were contaminated along with a shipload of sailors on a Japanese fishing trawler.  The Japanese fishermen became extremely ill with radiation sickness and one was reported to have died.  Furthermore, contaminated fish were found in Japanese markets (An interesting note: The public went nuts when the contaminated fish reach Japanese markets 1954 but the world’s response is pretty much ho-hum as the Fukushima contaminated fish are being sold in today’s marketplace).  The hue and cry to end testing became deafening.  Pope Pius XII, India’s Prime Minister Nehru, Albert Schweitzer, and Albert Einstein added their voices to test ban call.

The way of treaties and diplomacy is long and winding, however.  The U.S. and the Soviet Union positions remained unchanged and, for the most part, unyielding.  Finally in 1958, a semblance of a nuclear test ban between the U.S. and the Soviets was finally put into place.  Nikita Khrushchev had long since won his power struggle to rule the Soviet Union following Stalin’s death as the Eisenhower administration moved over to make way for the Kennedy administration.  The 1958 test ban still in play when Kennedy became president and this time it was the Soviet’s turn to break faith.  On September 1, 1961 the Soviet Union surprised the world when it detonated a 150 kiloton devise as the opening shot of a series of atmospheric tests.  The game was on and, in 1962, the U.S. geared up to show the world it still had what it took to win the nuclear arms race.

After all the sabers had rattled, an historic grueling, twelve non-stop work days in Moscow gave the world its first Limited Test Ban Treaty negotiated by W. Averell Harriman and Andrei Gromyko in July of 1963.  The Limited Test Ban Treaty eliminated atmospheric tests and drove them underground.  Seaborg, an ardent test ban supporter and Chairman of the AEC, attended the signing ceremony on *August 5, 1963.  Finally a Met Lab alumni saw progress in action.  It was not as much test ban as he wanted but something significant nonetheless.  In 1974, President Richard M. Nixon and Soviet Chairman Leonid Brezhnev signed a follow-on treaty, Threshold Test Ban Treaty, which limited underground nuclear test yields to 150 kilotons.  While both sides began honoring the treaty in 1976, it was not ratified by the U.S. Senate until 1989.  In 1992, President Bill Clinton and Congress shut down all nuclear testing in the U.S. and the French, the British and Russia followed suit.  China and Korea not so much.

Back in the days of the Manhattan Project the men and women at the Met Lab were the 20th Century’s answer to the Greek pantheon atop Mount Olympus.  They were brilliant, larger than life, naïve, and filled with all of the foibles of the common man.  They changed the world once with their atomic ‘Gadget’ and many lived to see nuclear weapons of the Superpowers brought under leash.  Still they failed in their mission to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons.  The Nuclear Hydra lives. Today more than 24 countries have nuclear weapons and many of those regimes are unstable.

I have heard convincing arguments that Hera, Zeus’ wife, alternatively loved Hercules and that she hated Hercules.  What is not in dispute is that she made Hercules life a living hell

Hercules fighting the Hydra

Hercules fighting the Hydra

culminating when she drove Hercules to kill his wife and children.  In his dazed grief, Hercules asked Apollo’s oracle for guidance.  His penance for the murders was to serve Eurystheus, the king of Tiryns and Mycenae, for twelve years and perform twelve super-human Labors.  The second of the Labors required slaying the Hydra, the nine-headed dragon.  The task rose to ‘Labor’ difficulty level because each Hydra head lopped off resulted in two replacement heads growing back; voilà, the simple task becomes immense.  In very many ways, the tale of nuclear weapons from inception through today parallels the ancient Greek myth of Hercules.

While the boys and girls at the Met Lab agonized over how they might stuff the atomic genie back in the lantern, others began work on biological and chemical weapons; a class of weapon that makes a good old-fashioned nuke look pretty belt-and-suspenders average.  The beating of war drums and the making of the ‘ultimate’ weapon appears to be a never-ending continuum on the treadmill of power.



[1] Argonne National Laboratory; Nuclear Engineering Division; Met Lab and Argonne’s Early History; http://www.ne.anl.gov/About/early-history-of-argonne/

[2] American History Timeline; The Manhattan Project; http://americanhistory.about.com/library/timelines/bltimelinemanhat.htm

[3] “The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1951”. Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2013. Web. 26 Feb 2014; http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/chemistry/laureates/1951/

[4]Science Magazine; 27 May 1960; Palevsky, 131 (3413): 1590-1592; Donald J. Hughes, Nuclear Physicist; http://www.sciencemag.org/content/131/3413/1590.extract

[7] Physics Now; The Manhattan Project and Predecessor Organizations; Chicago Metallurgical Project, 1943-1946; http://physicsnow.org/history/acap/institutions/manhattan.jsp

[9] Fissile Materials.Org; The Franck Report – International Panel on Fissile Materials; The original sixteen-page report attached to Arthur H. Compton’s introductory synopsis for the Secretary of War dated 12 June 1945, is located at the U.S. National Archives, Washington D.C.: Record Group 77, Manhattan Engineer District Records, Harrison-Bundy File, folder no. 76. The link is to the transcription. http://fissilematerials.org/library/fra45.pdf

[10] This Day in History; June 15, 1946; The United States Presents the Baruch Plan; http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/the-united-states-presents-the-baruch-plan

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