My nuclear family: The legacy of the Manhattan Project

My father helped build the bomb, which meant I was embedded in the secretive world of atomic scientists

Published September 30, 2018 10:00AM (EDT)

"Raised in the Shadow of the Bomb: Children of the Manhattan Project" by Deborah Leah Steinberg (AP/HO/Deborah Leah Steinberg)
"Raised in the Shadow of the Bomb: Children of the Manhattan Project" by Deborah Leah Steinberg (AP/HO/Deborah Leah Steinberg)

This essay is adapted from the book "Raised in the Shadow of the Bomb: Children of the Manhattan Project."

A map drawn with invisible ink stretched across the United States, from the South up to the Midwest, down to the Southwest, out to the West, and up the coast to the Northwest. The locations were Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Los Alamos, New Mexico; and Hanford, Washington; along with laboratories on the University of Chicago and University of California Berkeley campuses. To anyone who did not work with the Manhattan Project, those places did not officially exist.

The lines of the map were connected by the collaboration of brilliant minds, from graduate students to the top physicists and chemists they were studying under. From California, across the United States to Europe, the miles between top scientists and laboratories disappeared in the common goal of exploring the unseen world of the atom and the looming political reality of stopping Hitler. Some had escaped Nazi Germany, and some American Jewish scientists had relatives in concentration camps. The goal of the atomic bomb project was clear and in many cases personal: A horror, with its ovens of death hidden in the barren stretches of Germany, Poland, Austria, Latvia, Ukraine, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, and France.

When my father was a twenty-three-year-old graduate student in chemistry at the University of Chicago, a friend commented matter-of-factly that he believed talking to Dr. Charles D. Coryell at the New Chemistry Building would be of interest to him. Curious about what he would discover, my father took off, wondering what fascinating concepts would unfold in that mysterious but undistinguished building on the other side of campus. He did not know that he had already been picked to be on the Project.

Years later, my father wrote in the Journal of Chemical Education: “I arrived at New Chem on an interview visit and saw a number of my former classmates and graduate assistants from the University of Chicago walking past the guard through the entrance. One of them [William (Buck) Rubinson] came out of a brief interview and then escorted me in to meet Charles Coryell in his narrow office. In his typical rapid-fire style Coryell gave the whole story of fission, radioactivity, chain-reaction piles, the scope of the project, and the race to get ‘the bomb’ before the Germans did. All this in less than about twenty minutes! During this tutorial outburst his shirttail was flapping out behind him, and he alternated between a perch on an overturned wastebasket and the blackboard to illustrate each point. Needless to say I was overwhelmed, but so caught up in his obvious deep commitment to the job and his fervor, that all I wanted to do was grab a pipet, a test tube, and a solution of bombarded uranium and get to work.”

My father’s career took shape in less than half an hour after he walked through Coryell’s office and a door that didn’t officially exist and into the future. The principles of the unseen that he heard described in those few minutes would in a few years collide with the political realities of the world casting a global shadow over his and all our futures.

* * *

My father was often in his own world, a world I barely scratched the surface of while he was alive. He had always carpooled to work at Argonne National Laboratory — “the Lab” as it was fondly referred to by the scientists — with his coworkers: fellow physicists, chemists, and engineers, some of whom had also moved to the suburbs in the fifties after working with him on the Manhattan Project. Argonne was formally chartered on July 1, 1946 to carry on the work on the Manhattan Project begun at the University of Chicago and code-named “Metallurgical Lab.”

This was the 1950s and ’60s, long before carpools became ecologically and financially popular. I believe they carpooled for the time they spent together in scientific collaboration and male company, as much as being able to share the car the other days with their wives.

At home, my father was distant. I knew he was thinking important thoughts, his hazel eyes with their perfect eyesight intense and engaged in his secret world. I would tiptoe around the living room and down the hallway, my eyes darting to his books, papers, and journals; but he was miles and years away — in the future or the past — but surely not there with me.

Sometimes he traveled to meetings in Geneva, Switzerland; Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Berkeley, California; or Los Alamos, New Mexico.

Occasionally we would go to the cyclotron at Argonne. I would try to imagine the atoms splitting. Where would they go? I wondered. I seemed to experience the power of their gigantic circles of energy within me.

I vividly remember the twelve-foot tall radiation-detection machine near the exit of the Lab that reminded me of scales in a meat-packing plant. There were two large footprints with vertical silver stripes that dwarfed our children’s feet and two caverns for the hands that sucked ours in as far as our elbows to press the detector strip. Just above our heads was a huge dial indicating our radiation levels. Watching the green light come on and wondering if it was going to turn red is one of my most enduring memories of Argonne.

Once a year my family would attend the Lab picnic on the edge of Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve, which completely surrounds Argonne. There were games for the children, and the air vibrated with fun, freedom, and intellectual energy. We attended the yearly Lab musical, too, where my dad played the clarinet. I learned all the words and tunes to Guys and Dolls, Damn Yankees, and South Pacific. Sometimes we’d stay at the Lab motel in the summer and go swimming and lie in the sun. We’d look for the white fallow deer (Dama dama) that roam freely inside the forest preserve on Lab property. I felt blessed each time we were lucky enough to see them.

* * *

On December 2, 1942 the Chicago Pile, constructed from graphite blocks with lumps of natural uranium, was used to create the first self-sustained nuclear chain-reaction under the west stands of the University of Chicago’s football stadium. I have an illustration given to my father showing the Pile and the scientists who were gathered there that was drawn using the graphite left over from that reaction. Inscription under the drawing: “On December 2, 1942, man achieved the first self-sustaining controlled nuclear chain reaction in Chicago PileNumber 1 (CP-1) at the University of Chicago. This lithograph of the event is printed with ink made from graphite used in CP-1."

In the winter of 1940-41, scientists at the University of California Berkeley discovered a second fissionable material, plutonium (Pu). It was not then known to occur naturally — though trace amounts would later be found in nature — and was formed by the capture of a neutron by U-238. Plutonium was first synthesized in 1940 by a team led by Glenn T. Seaborg and Edwin McMillan at the Berkeley laboratory by bombarding U-238 with deuterons — the nuclei of deuterium atoms, consisting of a proton and a neutron. This quickly became their lab’s focus, since producing plutonium in useful quantities was essential to the Project.

The industrial production chapter of plutonium began on a small scale in 1943 and soon expanded to Hanford, Washington. The Manhattan Project continued to expand, clothed in a secrecy that extended not only to the public, but to the words its participants were allowed to use with each other. Coded alphabetic and alphanumeric names identified sites of research and development of the bomb. Scattered across the United States were places simply called B, C-P1, D, F, K-25, W, X, X-10, Y, and Y-12. Site W was Hanford, Washington; Site X, Oak Ridge, Tennessee; and Project Y, Los Alamos, New Mexico.

The “town” of Los Alamos was not to be named aloud but was only referred to as The Hill. New recruits were to report to the same place where friends and families wrote to them, a nondescript post office box in Santa Fe. The upwards of three hundred thirty children who were born on The Hill during World War II had only P.O. Box 1663, Santa Fe, New Mexico listed on their birth certificates as their place of birth. Many had problems later, especially when applying for official documents. Like actors in a high-budget, reputations-at-stake project with an unfinished script, the players were under strict orders not to speak of the play or their roles. The props, the radioactive isotopes and elements, were U (uranium), U-235, U-238, and Pu (plutonium). The script itself had one plot line with one successful resolution.

Since it was not known which uranium isotope separation technique — gaseous diffusion, calutron, or centrifuge — would be the most successful, General Leslie Groves insisted that all techniques be pursued simultaneously. Though not the most cost-effective strategy, it was guaranteed to result in the most rapid accumulation of U-235.

B, D, and F at Hanford were water-cooled piles six miles apart on the south bank of the Columbia River. Four separation plants, built in pairs at two sites around ten miles south of the piles, separated natural uranium (U-238) from the plutonium that was produced in the reactors.

At Los Alamos the mission was to perform research, develop technology, and produce the atomic bomb for use in the war against Germany. When work began there in 1943, construction of the site at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, had not begun, and the methods for producing a fissionable material were still theoretical. Developing these methods was a critical step.

In 1943, a separation plant based on different diffusion rates was built to produce U-235 in greater quantities than occur naturally. During the project enriched uranium had the code name “Oralloy,” a shortened version of “Oak Ridge alloy.”

As time went on, the military, which was in charge of the Project, interfered with the communication among the sites and among the scientists, especially between Chicago and Los Alamos. Their style of top-down, need-to-know communication did not work well with scientists. It disrupted the free flow of ideas that was critical to the success of the Project. Robert Oppenheimer, who had access to everything to do with the Project — except what the military didn’t want him to know — held weekly open meetings at Los Alamos to discuss ideas, successes, and failures. But the military wanted him at the top of the pyramid with the other scientists relegated to specific assignments, so they wouldn’t see the whole picture. Oppenheimer became more and more uncomfortable with the military ways.

Trinity — the site where the first atomic bomb was tested — is just outside Alamogordo, New Mexico. A pyramidal obelisk there marks Ground Zero, where the world entered the Atomic Age with the final act, testing “the gadget” — the first atomic bomb — on July 16, 1945.

The encores were Little Boy, dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, and Fat Man, dropped over Nagasaki on August 9.

The aftermath: Silence.

Many roads led out of Trinity — some to the research and production of weapons that would keep the United States at the forefront of the Cold War and others to developments in peaceful uses of technology and nuclear medicine.

The advances in physics and chemistry that emerged from the successful testing of the first A-bomb opened a door not only to the secrets of the universe, but also to the problems associated with the uses of nuclear energy and the waste it produces. The confluence of human error and natural disaster have already led to disastrous accidents at nuclear power plants — Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986, and Fukushima in 2011. Accidents killed many workers during the Project.

After accomplishing what the government and military asked of them, those tireless scientists and technicians who survived were rewarded with a thank you from the FBI of ongoing surveillance. Some were watched and followed for decades. One known to everyone — Oppenheimer — was virtually destroyed. He lost his security clearance and career due to the Red Scare and the Joseph McCarthy hearings and died of throat cancer at the age of sixty-two.

The Manhattan Project was ultimately a frightening success. The scientists’ achievements were so overwhelming that members of the government and military who had desperately wanted them to succeed became afraid of them. This left some scientists appalled at what they had created and incensed at the very powers that had encouraged and supported the Project.

During the war scientists were excited to be searching for the secrets to the universe while at the same time finding a way to stop Hitler. They were instrumental in eventually ending the Second World War. But the failure of that success haunts our world to this day.

# # #

Adapted from "Raised in the Shadow of the Bomb: Children of the Manhattan Project."


By D. Leah Steinberg

D. Leah Steinberg is the daughter and niece of scientists who worked at the University of Chicago Metallurgical (Met) Lab, a branch of the Manhattan Project during WWII, the secret project that researched and developed the first atomic weapons.

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Atomic Bomb Book Excerpts History Los Alamos Manhattan Project Robert Oppenheimer