B Reactor Control Console, Source of Nagasaki Bomb Plutonium, Hanford Nuclear Reservation, WA 1944
“It is an enduring paradox and essential human tragedy that so much selfless devotion to a cause, so much creative intellectual energy, and so many good intentions gave birth to such a monstrous reality.” These are the words of photographer Martin Miller uses to describe the Manhattan Project, the United States government program that ran from 1942 to 1945 and resulted in the world’s first nuclear weapons. Miller explored two of the facilities that were central to this program, and which were top secret in their time, taking the pictures featured here. It’s amazing to think that within these walls, work was undertaken that would end the lives of thousands – and change the face of the world forever.
River Pump House Pumps and Motors, Hanford Nuclear Reservation, WA 1944
To the layperson, the machines in these pictures might look benign – as though they may have been used to make industrial chemicals, perhaps, or to generate electricity. We imagine them surrounded by men in overalls or with clipboards in their hands going about their business as they do in factories the world over.
Alpha Calutrons Pump Side, 1st-Stage Source of Hiroshima Bomb Uranium, Oak Ridge, TN 1943
And in fact, these now bare and echoing facilities were once just such hives of activity. Except the business they were involved in was the production of nuclear weapons – bombs which, once unleashed, would kill between 150,000 and 246,000 human beings. Not that the vast majority of those who worked here knew it at the time. As Brigadier General Groves, who oversaw the Manhattan Project, was later to write, “We made certain that each member of the project thoroughly understood his part in the total effort; that, and nothing more.”
X-10 Reactor, Pilot Plant for Production of Nagasaki Bomb Plutonium, Oak Ridge, TN 1943
“One cannot see the nuclear-explosives production facilities built during the Manhattan Project without experiencing a sense of awe at what was accomplished,” says Miller of the place whose haunting corridors he trod. “The scientific, engineering, managerial, labor, and logistical challenges that were met and overcome are separately impressive but, taken together, simply astonishing.”
Railroad Tracks and B Reactor, Source of Nagasaki Bomb Plutonium, Hanford Nuclear Reservation, WA 1944
The Manhattan Project was officially launched in August 1942. It was prompted largely by the fear of Germany developing its own nuclear bomb before the focus switched to Japan in the wake of the Nazis’ defeat. The program was formally named the Manhattan Engineer District (MED), later to become The Manhattan Project, because its headquarters, as well as many of its early sites, were set up on the island borough of the same name in New York City. Incredibly, nine out of ten of the Manhattan sites are still standing today, most of them unrecognized for what they once were.
Emergency Air Sphere, K-31 and K-33 Gaseous Diffusion Uranium Enrichment Plants, Oak Ridge, TN 1951 & 1954
The man put in charge of the project to build the first atomic weapon was Brigadier General Leslie Richard Groves, who had previously overseen the construction of the Pentagon. Under Groves’s military command, three major sites were chosen as research and production facilities. These were Los Alamos in New Mexico, Oak Ridge in Tennessee (pictured here), and Hanford in Washington (also pictured here).
Control Console, X-10 Pilot Plant for Production of Nagasaki Bomb Plutonium, Oak Ridge, TN 1943
That the Manhattan Project ever took off at all was largely down to the exceptional management abilities of Brigadier General Groves. He resolved lingering issues that had been holding the program back almost as soon as he took charge. In October of 1942, Groves hired theoretical physicist Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer to head the research and design of the proposed atomic weapons, and the two of them, along with physicist Enrico Fermi and countless other project workers, pressed ahead with their world-changing assignment.
K-25 North Building, Gaseous Diffusion Plant for Hiroshima-Bomb Uranium Enrichment, Oak Ridge, TN 1945
Brigadier General Groves inspected the proposed Oak Ridge site only a day after taking charge of the project. The area appealed to him for several reasons. It was reachable by highway and rail and had essential utilities like electricity and water on hand despite having a low population – another plus. Possibly one of the best features about the site was that it was located in a valley that was divided up by ridges. These natural barriers would help prevent a domino effect in the event of an accident occurring at any one of the major plants to be located here.
Switchyard and K-27 Gaseous Diffusion Plant for Uranium Enrichment, Oak Ridge, TN 1945-46
When Brigadier General Groves first examined the Oak Ridge site, there were only 3,000 people living in the area. However, once the Manhattan Project had set itself up there, in three years this figure rose to around 75,000. A whole settlement had to be built to accommodate all the employees. Architect John O. Merrill came in to create a workers’ town consisting largely of prefabricated accommodation, much of which was made using cement and asbestos panels. Schools, stores, sports facilities, restaurants, theaters and a library were among the amenities also provided.
Alpha Calutrons, 1st-Stage Source of Hiroshima Bomb Uranium, Oak Ridge, TN 1943
For the actual work of producing the enriched uranium needed for the atomic weapons, three large plants were built at Oak Ridge – the K-25, S-50 and Y-12 sites. The K-25 alone took up 44 acres (0.178 km2). The function of these plants was to separate the fissile isotope uranium-235 from its natural companion, the far more plentiful uranium-238. Three methods were employed to achieve this: the electromagnetic process, the diffusion process and the thermal diffusion process. Each of these was used at Oak Ridge.
K-25 West Leg, Gaseous Diffusion Plant for Hiroshima-Bomb Uranium Enrichment, Oak Ridge, TN 1945
The magnets needed for the electromagnetic separation of uranium at Oak Ridge’s Y-12 plant were so large that, as they were being built, 14,700 tons of silver bullion had to be borrowed from the United States Treasury. This was used for the electromagnet coil’s electrical conductors. Normally these would have been made of copper, but a scarcity of copper at the time meant it needed to be substituted with the costlier metal.
K-31 Cell Floor, Gaseous Diffusion Uranium Enrichment Plant, Oak Ridge, TN 1951
Over at the X-10 site, a pilot plant was built in 1943 to produce another material, plutonium, using what was to become known as the ‘Graphite Reactor’. This plant, now the location of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, was the first to utilize the method that resulted in plutonium-239, as opposed to the enriched uranium produced by the other plants. The graphite reactor took just 11 months to build, and within four months was producing the first significant quantities of the desired plutonium, which it continued to do up until 1963.
B Reactor, Source of Nagasaki Bomb Plutonium, Hanford Nuclear Reservation, WA 1944
Once the feasibility of plutonium production was proven at Oak Ridge, larger scale reactors were built at another site in Washington. This area was discovered by the chemical company DuPont, which had been appointed by Brigadier General Groves as the main contractor for building the plutonium-making plant. The site was located on an isolated part of the Columbia River and was spread over 1,000 square miles (2,600 km2).
B Reactor Front Face, Source of Nagasaki Bomb Plutonium, Hanford Nuclear Reservation, WA 1944
The Washington site, dubbed the Hanford Engineer Works, and codenamed ‘Site W’, was selected for several reasons. These included its remote location and the lack of a highway or railroad within 10 miles (16 km) of the “hazardous manufacturing area” – which itself needed to be a minimum of 12 by 16 miles (19 by 26 km) in size. The site also had access to a plentiful supply of power and water, and the ground could withstand the heavy loads that would be placed upon it.
B Reactor Valve Pit Controlling Cooling Water, Hanford Nuclear Reservation, WA 1944
One drawback of the Hanford site was that there were two farming towns in the vicinity, Hanford and White Bluffs, whose inhabitants needed to be relocated. And this they duly were after the government obtained the land in an eminent domain action. Some 1,500 people living in the aforementioned towns and their neighboring settlements – along with members of Native American tribes living in the area – were all moved away. Yet the locals were soon replaced by the almost 50,000 workers needed for the project who were housed close by.
Electrical Substation and B Reactor, Hanford Nuclear Reservation, WA 1944
On September 26, 1944, the first full-scale plutonium reactor at Hanford – indeed, the first in the world – was filled with uranium, ready to be started up. The device, known as the B-Reactor or B pile, was massive. It contained 200 tons of uranium slugs, a 1,200-ton graphite box, and required 5 cubic meters of water per second to keep it cool. All this to produce around 6 kilos (212 oz) of plutonium a month.
Gable Mountain Plutonium Vaults, Hanford Nuclear Reservation, WA 1944
The B pile did not run smoothly at first. After only a few hours of operation on its first day, the reactor, under the supervision of Enrico Fermi, shut down. The next day it started up again of its own accord. After some investigation, it was discovered that the cause of this odd behavior was a product of the radioactive fission, called Xenon-135, which was absorbing neutrons and disrupting the process. The B-reactor and others being built were modified to correct this problem, with more reactivity added.
Hot Reactor-Product Rail Cars and Storage Bldg, Hanford Nuclear Reservation, WA 1944
In 1944 and 1945, respectively, two more reactors began production at the Hanford site. By July 1945, enough plutonium had been produced to create the first nuclear test explosion and, less than a month later, the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The test explosion, called Trinity, took place in the aptly named Jornada del Muerto (“Journey of the Dead Man”) desert in New Mexico on July 16. Reflecting on the Trinity test, Oppenheimer later recited a now famous passage from the Bhagavad Gita, including the words, “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
B Plant Entrance No. 15, Hanford Nuclear Reservation, WA 1944
On August 6, 1945, at approximately 8.15 am, an atomic weapon that drew its explosive power from the nuclear fission of uranium enriched at Oak Ridge, TN was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan’s seventh largest city. Thousands died instantly in the blast created by the bomb codenamed "Little Boy”, while many more would succumb to the effects of radiation poisoning. Of the city’s 90,000 buildings, only 30,000 were left standing. Because of the secrecy surrounding the Manhattan Project, the news of this explosion was the first time most of the employees at Oak Ridge realized what it was they had been working towards.
B Plant for Chemically Separating Plutonium from Reactor Products, Hanford Nuclear Reservation, WA 1944
Three days after the Hiroshima explosion, at 11.01 am on August 9, 1945, a second bomb, using plutonium manufactured at the Hanford site, was dropped on the industrial city of Nagasaki. The bomb, codenamed "Fat Man", exploded around 1,800 feet above the city, with flash burns, infernos, firestorms and flying debris killing 42,000 people and injuring a further 40,000. The fallout from the nuclear blast caused thousands of cases of radiation sickness. Like the workers at Oak Ridge, most of the people at Hanford had no idea they’d been working on the production of a nuclear weapon until they heard about the events of that day.
Gable Mountain Plutonium Vault, Hanford Nuclear Reservation, WA 1944
The decision to drop nuclear weapons on highly populated cities is, unsurprisingly, one of the most controversial issues of our times. The thinking behind the bombing was that the US needed to strike a decisive blow, ending the war once and for all and potentially saving the lives of an estimated 500,000 American soldiers.
Beta Calutrons, 2nd-Stage Source of Hiroshima Bomb Uranium, Oak Ridge, TN 1943
Nevertheless, many modern historians now question the justification that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki curtailed the war and saved American lives. Other factors would have led to Japan surrendering, they say. It may also be noted that at the time of the bombings the only territory Japanese forces held was Japan itself. The debate rages on. What is certain, however, is that the world was never the same after it witnessed the devastation wreaked by atomic weapons – the weapons produced with such industry and secrecy at these innocuous looking locations.