Thursday, May 17, 2012

Famous, Infamous U.S. Nuclear Sites, Chernobyl and Fukushima

We tend to focus on Chernobyl and now more recently Fukushima, when talking about places that have massive amounts of nuclear radiation, with (possibly) all kinds of harmful effects on living beings. How about firmly adding the U.S. nuclear sites from back in the 1940s to that list?

Make sure the Manhattan Project sites are on your map: Los Alamos, New Mexico; Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Dayton, Ohio; and Hanford, Washington... All these locations in the United States are as radioactive as ever, and currently clean-up efforts are being studied by experts from Japan.

Kyodo reporter Ben Dooley writes:

A group of Japanese scientists, government officials and company representatives visited the sleepy town of Richland, Washington, in February to seek advice on cleaning up the Fukushima nuclear crisis.
They hoped to find answers at the Hanford Site, a complex of decommissioned nuclear reactors and processing facilities that once turned out plutonium for the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
The roughly 1,500-sq.-km desert facility in Benton County, which housed the first large-scale plutonium-making reactor in the world and was involved in the Manhattan Project, is now known as possibly the most heavily contaminated area in the Western Hemisphere.
As a result, one of the largest and most expensive environmental cleanup projects in history is under way to dispose of the billions of liters and millions of tons of toxic waste dumped at the site, now controlled by the U.S. Energy Department.
The process has attracted the interest of Tokyo, which is hoping to apply lessons from Hanford to mop up the radioactive fallout spewed over vast areas by the Fukushima No. 1 plant's crippled reactors last year.
But American experts say there are no easy answers.
"There isn't really a magic bullet," said Wayne Johnson, a division director at the U.S. government's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, where the Japanese delegation met with nuclear cleanup specialists.
"There are many areas of similarity and things that definitely they could learn from (Hanford), but there are also many differences," Johnson said.
One option is to remove tainted soil from the area, and such operations have been running at Hanford 24/7 since 1996. Every few minutes, a truckload of irradiated topsoil from the site is dumped into a massive pit more than six stories deep and covering an area equivalent to 52 football fields.


But hang on,  what about the other U.S. sites? All where part of the highly secretive government project to make atomic bombs, as Germany had similar ideas back in the 1930s and 1940s. What is not usually known is how American corporations like DuPont and Monsanto provided tens of thousands of workers and expertise to the war effort. Chemical companies obviously had the scientists on board that could do the job. Monsanto, in fact, was crucial in the work to produce the plutonium for the Nagasaki atom bomb:

C. H. Thomas of the Monsanto Chemical Company acted as chairman of a committee on the Chemistry and Metallurgy of Plutonium. This committee correlated the activities of the Metallurgical Laboratory with those at Los Alamos (see Chapter XII) and elsewhere. Later the Monsanto Chemical Company did some work on important special problems arising in connection with the Los Alamos work.

Atomic Archive: Chapter VII. The Plutonium Production Problem

Monsanto was also in charge of the dubious work at Dayton, Ohio. And after WW2, Monsanto and Mitsubishi Chemical quickly established links to produce all kinds of synthetic materials, first in 1951, when the name was Mitsubishi Monsanto (J) and then as they started producing PVC plastics in 1952 the joint company was called Mitsubishi Chemical MKV Company. "Good chemistry for tomorrow" is their cheerful logo today, some 60 years later!

No wonder Mitsubishi was one of the early players in Japan when it came to nuclear energy. I think, after last year's disaster, all involved need to think very hard and deeply about their role in this global mess that they created.

Image source: Mitsubishi Monsanto tank.

At Dayton, however, the good people feel they are not getting the recognition other famous U.S. nuclear sites are getting.

Jim DeBrosse at Dayton Daily News reported back in 2004:

Charles Allen Thomas was one of dozens of scientists who lay in the desert sand of Alamogordo, N.M., in the predawn gloom of July 16, 1945, waiting for a frightening new era in human history to begin.
Twenty miles away, atop a 100-foot tower, was the world's first atomic bomb, code-named Trinity and equipped with a polonium trigger designed and developed in Dayton by a team of hundreds of researchers and technicians led by Thomas, research director at Dayton's Monsanto Chemical Company.
If the trigger didn't work, the bomb wouldn't work, and the $2 billion invested in the Manhattan Project, as well as the concentrated efforts of thousands of the nation's best physicists, chemists and mathematicians over the past three years, would have been for nothing.
At 5:29 a.m., the final warning flare was thrown: the A-test was just a minute away. Thomas and the others held plates of smoked glass over their eyes, making the darkness even darker. No one said a word.
"Then all of a sudden there was an intense speck of light," Thomas wrote in a memo 10 days later. "This grew to a giant ball which rose rapidly in the air - it was awful! ... It was literally a sun coming up too close."

(...)

Historians and local officials say they believe that Dayton is not being given its proper due, since the trigger was a crucial part of the bombs and because the pioneering employees at Dayton's Monsanto facilities risked their lives to develop the bombs' triggers with the highly radioactive element polonium.
"The Dayton Project should certainly be part of this park system," said James M. Maroncelli, co-author of The Traveler's Guide to Nuclear Weapons and a Web site (www.AtomicTraveler.com) detailing what's left of the Manhattan Project and the nation's early A-bomb program.
Prior to Dayton's contribution, pure polonium existed only in theory. Here it was produced, purified and harnessed for the first time in a crash program that took place in residential areas of Dayton and Oakwood, where neighbors hadn't a clue of what was happening under their noses.

(...)

If nothing else, proponents of a park site here say, Dayton contributed one of the leading lights to the Manhattan Project - Charles Allen Thomas.
Thomas was among a handful of internationally known scientists who were summoned to Washington in early 1943 and secretly briefed by Brig. Gen. Leslie Groves on the nation's crash program to develop an atomic bomb. Thomas was offered a co-directorship of the project, along with J. Robert Oppenheimer, but declined for family and career reasons since the position would have meant moving to Los Alamos.
Thomas agreed, though, to oversee the development of the polonium trigger in Dayton as well as the chemical research taking place at other Manhattan Project sites. In the end, Thomas was one of just 14 scientists among the thousands involved in the Manhattan Project to be awarded the Medal for Merit, the highest civilian honor for wartime service.
A farm boy who grew up in Scott County, Ky., Thomas' early obsession with chemistry was indulged by his mother, who set up a laboratory for him in the family barn. He went on to attend Berea College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he came to the attention of Dayton's engineering guru Charles F. Kettering. Kettering recruited Thomas to help solve the problem of engine knock, and cheap and efficient leaded gasoline was born.
But the true significance of Dayton's contribution to the Manhattan Project goes to the core of the technical problems in creating a reliable atomic bomb, Maroncelli said. First, the project faced the hurdle of producing enough fissionable radioactive material to reach the critical mass needed for a nuclear chain reaction.
The Hanford site worked on refining plutonium for a bomb, while the Oak Ridge site concentrated on producing enriched uranium. The bomb would work only when a critical mass of uranium or plutonium was crushed together - and only if a few free neutrons were present to kick-start the chain reaction within the few microseconds of highest compression.
Early in their investigations, Los Alamos researchers realized that rapidly mixing polonium with beryllium would release a burst of neutrons that could initiate a chain reaction before the critical mass blew itself apart. But there had never been enough polonium produced to even see it. Dayton scientists worked out the methods for separating sufficient polonium from irradiated bismuth slugs, purifying it, and forming it into the bomb triggers.
Originally, the atomic bombs that were to be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were both "Gun Type" designs, where two subcritical masses would be compacted together to form the critical mass for an explosive nuclear chain reaction.
But in August 1944, scientists discovered that the plutonium to be produced at Hanford would be five times more unstable than they had previously thought and that the risk of "pre-detonation" made the plutonium Gun Type unfeasible. A safer "Implosion Type" bomb was quickly put on the drawing board. In case either design failed, both bomb types were to be built - the Gun Type code-named Little Boy and the Implosion Type code-named Fat Man.
That put the pressure on Dayton, where scientists now needed to design a new type of polonium trigger for Fat Man.
For the less sophisticated Little Boy, Dayton Project scientists had built half-inch-long cylindrical "squabs" made of beryllium and a few milligrams of polonium separated by gold foil. Four Dayton squabs would trigger Little Boy when they were crushed by the uranium in the Gun Type bomb as it fell toward Hiroshima.
For the plutonium Fat Man bombs, scientists now needed to devise ¾-inch-diameter spheres of beryllium and polonium, called "urchins," one of which was tucked into the center of each of the bombs detonated at Alamogordo and Nagasaki.
The Dayton trigger was a key technical hurdle in not only the bombs of World War II, but also in hundreds of atomic bombs produced after the war. The Trinity device was tested at Alamogordo to prove the feasibility of the implosion method. Dayton's urchin passed this test perfectly.

Atomic Heritage Foundation/Dayton Daily News: Preservation at Dayton, OH

Jim DeBrosse at Dayton Daily News also points out that "As for Thomas, his career at the Monsanto Chemical Company continued to rise after the war. He served as president of Monsanto from 1951 to 1960 and as chairman of the board from 1960 to 1965 before retiring from the company in 1970. He died in 1982."

Isn't it ironic that while we today (rightfully so) criticize nations that are being secretive about their nuclear programs, we still have no real clue about what happened in our own back yards in the 1940s. The early pioneers who invented these weapons of mass destruction were part and parcel of the economic growth model that we are now having to deal with. But the ordinary workers and everyone else are left wondering - was it really worth the effort?

Wikipedia has this to add about Charles Allen Thomas:

He was first employed as a General Motors research chemist from 1923 to 1936, helping to create the tetra-ethyl lead compound long used in motor fuels, and at Thomas & Hochwalt Laboratories in Dayton, Ohio, from 1926 to 1936. He also served as vice-president of Dayton Synthetic Chemicals, Inc. from 1930-34, and at Carbosolve Corporation from 1931 to 1936. After Monsanto Company acquired Thomas and Hochwalt Laboratories in 1936 (making it into Monsanto's Central Research Department), he spent the rest of his career at Monsanto until his retirement in 1970, during which time he served as President (1951–60) and Chairman of the Board (1960–65).

In other words, if you were always wondering who put toxic lead in gasoline fuel, now you know. The same guy, from the same company, that is now trying to sell its patented genetically modified Roundup Ready soy and corn to the world.

But I digress.

What I really wanted was to point out that if we stay on the path of using nuclear energy, we can expect a lot more toxic cleanup, like the one ongoing at Hanford, some 70 years later. And, to quote the Traveller's Guide to Nuclear Weapons:

AFTER SPENDING MORE THAN $5.8 TRILLION, the American public is still in the dark. During the last half of the 20th Century, the United States government organized and financed a secret industry that created tens of thousands of nuclear weapons - giving us for the first time in history the capability to destroy all mankind. This period marked a paradigm shift in the way human beings viewed themselves in their world. The unique manufacturing facilities that made these weapons after World War II have continued to operate under a cloak of secrecy until the present day.

Sigh.


1 comment:

Pandabonium said...

May 4, Japan announced a deal with Kazakhstan for nuclear fuel pellets to begin delivery as early as next year. And in yesterday's news Mitsubishi is partnering with France's Areva to go after uranium in Australia together.

Evidently, "someone" is planning to keep the nuclear power plants in Japan humming along into the future. What kind of future will that be???