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The Manhattan Project: Behind the secret mission to build first atomic bomb, Detroit connection

Project led to first use of nuclear weapons in WWII

Construction site for The Manhattan Project.
Construction site for The Manhattan Project. (US Department of Energy)

DETROIT – When the U.S. decided to build the first ever atomic bomb during World War II, the effort needed a code name. That was The Manhattan Project.

The massive project brought together the world’s top scientists, along with the top U.S. military minds to create the controversial atomic bomb, which started in response to fears that Germany was working on a nuclear weapon -- and Hitler was planning to use it.

Much of this information below is from the US Department of Energy. They have a treasure trove of information and photos on the Manhattan Project. Here’s some of the background:

When the existence of this nationwide, secret project was revealed to the American people following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, most were astounded to learn that such a farflung, government-run, top-secret operation existed, with physical properties, payroll, and a labor force comparable to the automotive industry.

Who Me sign in The Manhattan Project.
Who Me sign in The Manhattan Project. (US Department of Energy)

At its peak, the project employed 130,000 workers and, by the end of the war, had spent $2.2 billion.

America enters World War II

In 1939, Albert Einstein (yes, that one) wrote a letter to President Roosevelt, telling him of recent research that showed that a chain reaction in a large mass of uranium could generate vast amounts of power. This could conceivably lead, Einstein wrote, to the construction of “extremely powerful bombs.” A single bomb, the physicist warned, potentially could destroy an entire seaport, according to US Department of Energy.

Einstein called for government support of uranium research, noting darkly that Germany had stopped the sale of uranium and German physicists were engaged in uranium research.

President Roosevelt and his administration reacted cautiously to the Einstein letter, providing only limited initial federal funding for isotope separation and chain reaction research. Many remained skeptical that the atomic bomb was even possible.

Then, around the same time, researchers studying uranium fission products at the Radiation Laboratory at the University of California in Berkeley discovered another product, a new transuranium, man–made element, named neptunium, with an atomic number of 93, created when uranium–238 captured a neutron and decayed.

The discovery suggested the possibility of producing large amounts of the fissionable plutonium in a uranium pile, or reactor, using plentiful uranium–238 and then separating it chemically. This might be less expensive and simpler than building isotope separation plants.

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It wasn’t until the 1942 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which pushed the U.S. into World War II, that the U.S. decided to proceed with a full-scale program to build the bomb.

The Manhattan Project begins

More background from US Department of Energy:

Security requirements suggested placing the atomic bomb project under the Army Corps of Engineers.

The Corps set up the Manhattan Engineer District commanded by Brigadier General Leslie R. Groves. The Manhattan Engineer District operated like a large construction company, but on a massive scale and with an extreme sense of urgency. Unique as well was the investment of hundreds of millions of dollars in unproven processes.

By the end of the war, Groves and his staff expended approximately $2.2 billion on production facilities, towns, and research laboratories scattered across the nation. Secrecy and fear of a major accident dictated that the production facilities be located at remote sites.

One of the three pile areas at the Hanford Engineer Works. This is the manufacturing areas where plutonium is made.
One of the three pile areas at the Hanford Engineer Works. This is the manufacturing areas where plutonium is made. (US Department of Energy)

Due to ongoing uncertainties as to which processes would work, two distinct paths were chosen to obtain a bomb. One involved isotope separation of uranium–235. Groves located the production facilities for isotope separation at the Clinton Engineer Works, a ninety–square–mile 4 parcel carved out of the Tennessee hills just west of Knoxville. (The name Oak Ridge did not come into widespread usage for the Clinton reservation until after the war.)

Groves placed two methods into production: 1) gaseous diffusion, based on the principle that molecules of the lighter isotope, uranium–235, would pass more readily through a porous barrier; and 2) electromagnetic, based on the principle that charged particles of the lighter isotope would be deflected more when passing through a magnetic field.

Later, in 1944, Groves approved a production plant using a third method, liquid thermal diffusion, in which the lighter isotope concentrated near a heat source passing through the center of a tall column. Convection, over time, carried the lighter isotope to the top of the column. The second path chosen to build the bomb focused on producing large amounts of fissionable plutonium in a uranium pile.

Switch House Construction. c. 1945
Switch House Construction. c. 1945 (US Department of Energy)

On December 2, 1942, on a racket court under the west grandstand at Stagg Field of the University of Chicago, researchers headed by the Italian-émigré physicist Enrico Fermi achieved the first self–sustaining chain reaction in a graphite and uranium pile. Groves built a pilot pile and plutonium separation facility at the X–10 area of Clinton.

Space and power generating limitations, however, precluded building the full–scale production facilities at the site. Groves chose an alternate site near Hanford, Washington, on the Columbia River, because of its isolation, long construction season, and access to hydroelectric power. Three water– cooled reactors, designated by the letters B, D, and F, and corresponding separation facilities were built at the Hanford Engineer Works.

A view of Richland, a model city of 17,000 built for administration purposes and for the new housing of operations personnel, at the Hanford Engineer Works. This view shows a few of the homes stretched along the Columbia River. c. 1944
A view of Richland, a model city of 17,000 built for administration purposes and for the new housing of operations personnel, at the Hanford Engineer Works. This view shows a few of the homes stretched along the Columbia River. c. 1944 (US Department of Energy)

Much of the research work on producing plutonium, including design of the piles, took place at the Metallurgical Laboratory (Met Lab) in Chicago. Design and fabrication of the first atomic bombs were the responsibility of the newly established Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, located at a virtually inaccessible site high on a mesa in northern New Mexico. The laboratory, headed by J. Robert Oppenheimer, attracted a remarkable array of scientists from universities across the United States.

The Trinity Test, use of atomic bomb

More background from US Department of Energy:

The test shot, named the Trinity by Oppenheimer, was the most violent man–made explosion in history to that date. Detonated from a platform on top of a 100-foot high steel tower, the Trinity device used about 13½ pounds of plutonium. The Trinity test also posed the most significant hazard of the entire Manhattan Project.

Planners chose a flat, desert scrub region in the northwest corner of the isolated Alamogordo Bombing Range in southern New Mexico for the test.

The site was several hundred miles from Los Alamos, and the nearest offsite habitation was twenty miles away. Scientists, workers, and other observers, during the test, would be withdrawn almost six miles and sheltered behind barricades. Some apprehension existed that there would be a large– scale catastrophe.

Los Alamos scientists discussed the possibility that the atmosphere might be ignited and the entire earth annihilated but dismissed this as extremely remote. Dangers from blast, fragments, heat, and light, once one was sufficiently removed from ground zero, evoked little concern.

On July 16, 1945, the Trinity device detonated over the New Mexico desert and released approximately 21 kilotons of explosive yield. The predawn blast, which temporarily blinded the nearest observers 10,000 yards away, created an orange and yellow fireball about 2,000 feet in diameter from which emerged a narrow column that rose and flattened into a mushroom shape.

The Trinity test of the Manhattan Project was the first detonation of a nuclear weapon.
The Trinity test of the Manhattan Project was the first detonation of a nuclear weapon. (US Department of Energy)

Several ranch families, missed by the Army survey, received significant exposures in the two weeks following Trinity. The families, nonetheless, evidenced little external injury. Livestock were not as fortunate, suffering skin burns, bleeding, and loss of hair.

The test, as Stafford Warren, the Manhattan District’s chief medical officer, informed Groves, had been something of a near thing.

“While no house area investigated received a dangerous amount,” he noted, “the dust outfall from the various portions of the cloud was potentially a very dangerous hazard over a band almost 30 miles wide extending almost 90 miles northeast of the site.”

The Alamogordo site, Warren concluded, was “too small for a repetition of a similar test of this magnitude except under very special conditions.” For any future test, he proposed finding a larger site, “preferably with a radius of at least 150 miles without population.

Three weeks after the Trinity test, on August 6, 1945, Little Boy, the untested uranium bomb, was dropped at Hiroshima, Japan. The plutonium weapon, Fat Man, followed at Nagasaki on August 9.

Little Boy explodes over Hiroshima, Japan, 6 August 1945 (left); Fat Man explodes over Nagasaki, Japan, 9 August 1945 (right).
Little Boy explodes over Hiroshima, Japan, 6 August 1945 (left); Fat Man explodes over Nagasaki, Japan, 9 August 1945 (right). (US Department of Energy)
The Knoxville News-Sentinel headlines. c. August 6, 1945
The Knoxville News-Sentinel headlines. c. August 6, 1945 (US Department of Energy)

The two bombs combined killed more than 100,000 people and leveled the two Japanese cities to the ground.

What happened to the Manhattan Project?

The actual Manhattan Project ended in 1946, but the U.S. was only beginning with nuclear weapons.

Following the end of the war, the United States formed the Atomic Energy Commission to oversee research efforts designed to apply the technologies developed under the Manhattan Project to other fields.

In 1964, then-President Lyndon B. Johnson put an end to the U.S. government’s effective monopoly over nuclear energy by allowing for private ownership over nuclear materials.

Sources: US Department of Energy, History, US Army

Detroit connection to The Manhattan Project

There are a couple of major Detroit connections to The Manhattan Project. One of them had to do with Chrysler.

Here’s some background from the Atomic Heritage Foundation:

A little known Manhattan Project site took place at the Chrysler Corporation in Detroit, Michigan. When the K-25 plant at Oak Ridge, Tennessee was established to produce enriched uranium using the gaseous diffusion process, engineers had to construct thousands of large, cylindrical metal containers, or diffusers, to enclose the barrier material that separated the uranium isotopes. To build the diffusers, Manhattan Project leader General Leslie Groves turned to Chrysler, awarding them a $75 million contract in 1943.

Chrysler established offices at 1525 Woodward Avenue in downtown Detroit to oversee the top-secret “Project X-100.” Requiring more than 500,000 square feet to assemble and plate the diffusers, Chrysler revamped its entire Lynch Road factory in Detroit, which included installing a special air-conditioning and air filtration system to ensure that other materials did not contaminate the nickel.

Chrysler was initially charged with using solid nickel, a metal that uranium hexafluoride does not corrode, for the diffusers at K-25. Despite its relative abundancy, this would have exhausted the entire U.S. nickel supply. As General Kenneth Nichols, District Engineer of the Manhattan Engineer District, recalled, “We would have had to end the project if it had been solid nickel… There was not enough nickel in the world.”

Instead, Chrysler proposed to use thin, electroplated nickel on steel, which would use approximately 1,000 times less nickel. Despite opposition from the Kellex Corporation of the M. W. Kellogg Company, responsible for building K-25, and the Columbia University scientists that had developed gaseous diffusion, Chrysler went ahead and was able to produce corrosion-resistant plating within two months.

Chrysler President K. T. Keller described Chrysler’s task at Lynch Road: “Take the raw cylinders, machine them, plate them, put in the heads, put in the barrier tubes, seal them tight on the ends, put in the end pieces, weld it all together, test it for leaks.” This process employed several thousand workers and required exacting detail, including the precise drilling of some 50 million holes on the end pieces.

By the end of the war, the company had delivered a thousand carloads, and more than 3,500 diffusers, to Oak Ridge. These diffusers would successfully operate at K-25 until the 1980s. In a letter of thanks to President Keller, General Groves asserted, “No one outside the K-25 portion of the project can ever know how much we depended on you and how well you performed. Those of us who do know will never forget how important your work was and how well you did it.”

Detroit River and uranium

The other is something you may have seen in the news lately -- the Canadian side.

Canada played an important role in the Manhattan Project, especially during the early stages of research and development. Canada was also crucial for another reason: its Northwest Territories provided a rich source of raw uranium needed to produce the bomb’s critical mass.

Revere Copper, which was located along the Detroit River, east of Historic Fort Wayne, was a subcontractor for The Manhattan Project, constructing uranium rods that were used in bomb development.

The plant was closed in 1984 and eventually torn down in 1989. The site was recently leased by Detroit Bulk Storage.

In November 2019, the property’s shoreline collapsed into the Detroit River. The site contained stored uranium and thorium within the soil.

GF Default - Meeting addresses Uranium-tainted site
GF Default - Meeting addresses Uranium-tainted site

The Wall Street Journal listed the Revere Copper site as one of America’s forgotten nuclear legacy “waste lands.” It referenced a 2011 study by the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health of the property which concluded the “potential exists for significant residual radiation.”

Environmental concerns persist as the EPA and state of Michigan continue to clean up the spill and monitor potential impacts.

Local 4′s Karen Drew has been covering this story in-depth since it happened. Catch up on stories here.


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