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No. of Recommendations: 5
“The Apocalypse Factory: Plutonium and the making of the Atomic Age,” by Steve Olson, WW Norton, NY, 2020. This 336-page hard back tells the story of plutonium, the Hanford, WA plant that made it, and the atomic bomb.

Olson begins with a clearly written overview of the nuclear physics involved. The science that led to the atomic bomb began in the 1930s when it was discovered that a cyclotron could bombard chemical elements with particles such as neutrons to form new elements. The new elements were radioactive and decayed over time, sometimes rapidly. In 1939, Germans reported that when bombarded with neutrons, some elements split into smaller elements in a process called fission. They also released neutrons and energy in the process. It was Leo Slizard who realized that an atomic bomb was possible if a material could be found that would release two or more neutrons. At the time, no such material was known. Uranium-235 proved to be the right material. But it was a minor component in the more common uranium-238.

It was Leo Slizard who convinced Albert Einstein to advise President Roosevelt that the Germans might develop an atomic bomb and win the war. On this basis the Manhattan Project was launched to make an American atomic bomb. The story of enrichment of uranium at Oakridge, TN is well known. Enrichment was a massive undertaking that relied on electric power from the Tennessee Valley Authority. The book describes Enrico Fermi’s pile experiment at the University of Chicago which demonstrated that U-235 bombardment did indeed release energy and neutrons as predicted by theory.

General Leslie Groves was put in charge of the Manhattan Project. He created the Met Lab at the University of Chicago where the initial work was done. He also chose Los Alamos, NM for most of the research and Robert Oppenheimer to run it.

Uranium enrichment was so inefficient, it would take years to accumulate enough U-235 for a bomb. Fortunately work at UC Berkley found that bombardment of U-238 produced neptunium which degraded to plutonium, which itself would fission. Glenn Seaborg’s research group is credited with the discovery using the cyclotron at Berkley. He later received a Nobel Prize for his work. Plutonium is named after the planet, pluto. The first visible sample was made using the cyclotron at Washington University in St. Louis. The crude sample was processed at the Met Lab.

Special reactors were envisioned to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. Hanford, WA was selected for the site. It was in desert-like eastern Washington far from populated areas but with abundant cooling water from the Columbia River and electric power from Grand Coulee Dam which opened in 1942. Construction of the plant was a major undertaking. Thousands of workers were needed to build the reactors and the plants to isolate and purify plutonium. The book describes the processes in considerable detail. Originally Stone & Webster, a power plant contractor, was selected for the project, but they were swamped with other wartime work. Finally Dupont agreed to design, build and operate the plant. They were reluctant but eventually were convinced to participate for the war effort provided the government would protect them from any liability. After the war, Dupont resigned and General Electric took over operation of the plant. The plutonium was shipped to Los Alamos where it was fabricated into bombs.

Plutonium had a potential problem that might cause the bomb to fail if a simple cannon design was used (as was used for the U-235 bomb dropped on Hiroshima). Implosion technology was devised instead. The method was demonstrated at Los Alamos and later in the bomb dropped on Nagasaki.

The book includes the discussions in Washington on whether the bomb should be used as a weapon or in a demonstration explosion to produce peace negotiations. Japan’s reluctance to discuss surrender and the fear of many casualties from invasion resulted in a decision to go ahead. Olson devotes a section to the effects of the Nagasaki bomb and the stories of survivors.

After the war, the Cold War with the Soviet Union resulted in a nuclear arms race. The Soviets soon had their own bomb–largely from espionage. They built their own equivalent of Hanford at Maiak. The US built a second facility at Savannah River near Aiken, SC. It used deuterium oxide rather graphite blocks as moderators.

The book briefly describes the Three Mile Island incident and Chernobyl. Graphite blocks used in Chernobyl contributed to the disaster when they caught fire from overheated nuclear fuel. The deuterium oxide design was considered safer. This and other concerns resulted in a decision to shut down the Hanford plant–in stages beginning in 1964. War time operations resulted in numerous tanks of radioactive waste and contaminated soil. Clean up is in process. Encasing the waste in glass bricks for long term storage is described but there are technical problems and a storage site has not been identified.

This is a well written, readable telling of the plutonium story. Olson provides clear descriptions of the technical aspects suitable for the non-technical reader. References. Bibliography. Index. Maps. Photos.
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