[ExI] uncle spike's history lesson: clinton laboratories

spike spike66 at att.net
Sun Sep 11 01:18:21 UTC 2016


HAH fooled ya.  You thought the title referred to some current politician, but the one you may have been thinking of was not yet born when this history lesson took place and the setting for a flight of fancy in the spirit of Asimov.  Richard Feynman talks about it in his book.


When the Los Alamos group was doing its calculations, the physics realized they could do uranium bombs, but they were already thinking plutonium for plenty of practical reasons.  They realized they could react enriched uranium and form plutonium in the spent fuel, which could then be extracted by chemical means, rather than the much more difficult and impractical method of extracting U235 from chemically-indistinguishable U238. So they set up what we would now call a breeder reactor at the Clinton Laboratories near the town of Oak Ridge Tennessee.  


The army’s experimental mission at the Clinton lab had to be protected with utmost secrecy, even from the commander assigned to manage the project, but it was difficult to hide that there was metal involved.  1943 was before anyone far outside Los Alamos knew of radiation, nuclear power, any of it, but the US Army was clearly serious about this project for reasons they couldn’t talk about and determined to see it go.


As the plutonium was extracted, Feynman (who was a 25 yr old physics PhD) went to the Oak Ridge commander, Major General Wilhelm Styer, to explain safe handling of the material, but without revealing anything about nuclear bombs, which were classified way beyond where even MGen Styer was cleared.  I needn’t explain to this crowd why the plutonium couldn’t be stored all in the same place or in too close proximity, but Feynman needed to communicate that to the base commander without revealing anything.  Think about that: it must have been a crazy difficult job for a young PhD talking to a Major General who already had led troops into battle in WW1 by the time Feynman was born.


In wartime, there is often the need to have cover stories that sound plausible enough and are usually technically true, but deflect inquiry.  For Oak Ridge, they told the local press that they were doing metallurgy research (which is technically true, for creating plutonium from uranium was in the general bucket of metallurgy.)  With General Styer, they chose to give him the technically correct briefing even if they didn’t tell him what they had in mind for the plutonium (dropping a supercritical wad of it on Herr Hitler head.)


General Styer likely interpreted their briefing as a cover story, but Feynman tells it as their best attempt at making sure the soldiers didn’t accidentally assemble a critical mass and nuke Knoxville.  Had they done that, you know the neighbors would still be gossiping about it.


That part was all non-fiction, but we are allowed a flight of fancy in the spirit of Asimov and ask, what if… General Styer had decided that whole briefing was nonsense?  It would have been pretty easy to do, for he was not trained in the sciences, having graduated with a civil engineering degree in 1922, several years before the neutron was discovered.


In accordance with young Dr. Feynman’s scientific cover-story-free briefing, Major General Styer kept the plutonium carefully separated and all was well.  But what if he had decided that whole thing was a cover story, or was part of a deflection, or for whatever reason decided the whole notion was a bunch of nonsense?  He knew well that the material was extremely valuable, that it needed to be carefully guarded, that there was danger involved (war stuff is that way.)  But he could have decided that the big walk-in bank vault they had on base right behind his desk there was the right place to store that stuff until the next phase was ready.  So, he might have decided after Feynman left that the egghead scientist gave him a bunch of nonsense, based on clear observations.  Feynman said something about making the general’s radio active, but the seasoned veteran already knew something about radios having used them in actual battle, and knew that his radio never went active until he turned it on.  The scientist had talked about fallout, but the general already knew his troops did not fall out until given the command to do so.  The scientist talked about poisoning, but the general faced poison gas and survived, so he knew a thing or two about poison.  The scientist talked about critical mass and explosions, but the general knew of explosives, handled them all the time in the first war, knew what happened when they detonated a crate of old dynamite so big his strongest guy couldn’t hoist it (now THAT’S critical mass!  (They couldn’t even find pieces of the truck afterwards, heeeeeheheheheee.))


General Styer could have concluded that his science briefing was all a cover story or a bunch of nonsense and that the danger was grossly exaggerated, that he knew danger, had faced danger and never blinked.  He could have disregarded the whole briefing and just done his job: keep this special metal safe, regardless of what the army had in mind for it.  He could have had his men load it all into his private bank vault.  He could have decided that even if the stuff exploded somehow, that bank vault had solid steel walls half an inch thick and could contain any explosion up to and including dynamite, of which he knew a thing or two, and besides, there is no way that bank vault could catch fire to detonate anything, no way.  That bank vault was the safest place around for storing metal.


Had that happened we might have a huge smoking still-radioactive hole in the ground ten miles west (upwind most of the time) of Knoxville Tennessee, today a metropolis of nearly a million people.  Had Major General Styer been an arrogant bastard and done it his own way, Knoxville would be likely a most eerie ghost town to this day, perhaps not all that different from Chernobyl Ukraine today.


Fortunately for Knoxville, General Styer was not an arrogant know-it-all.  He accepted the briefing even if he didn’t believe it or understand why he was being asked to do such an odd thing.  He kept the plutonium separated, never lost a gram of the stuff and didn’t have any radiation sickness reported on his watch.  He delivered the metal on time, safely to Los Alamos.  


That is today’s history lesson.




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