Notes from the Mini Museum: Manhattan Project Glass Specimen
"Man's understanding of nature is usually a cumulative and gradual process. Certainly this has been the case throughout the growth of atomic physics. No single stroke of genius delivered up the finished product. Rather, its present state of development derives from the labors of many individuals from many countries, operating in many fields of endeavor, over a span of many years."
Posted August 9th, 2019
The Manhattan Project was the codename for the research and development effort which allowed the United States to rapidly develop a series of atomic breakthroughs during World War II, including the first industrial-scale plutonium production reactor and the first atomic bombs. This enormous project involved over one hundred thousand scientists, engineers, technicians, and construction workers at more than 30 sites across the United States, including well-known locations such as Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, Trinity, and Hanford.
Located in the high desert region of Washington State, the former town of Hanford is the site of the world's first full-scale plutonium production complex. The creation of the site was authorized on January 16, 1943 under the authority of General Leslie Groves. Residents and Native American tribes in the region were relocated and furious construction began. Less than two years later, on Christmas Day 1944, the first irradiated slugs were removed from the B Reactor and sent to the T Plant (221-T) for chemical separation. On February 2, 1945, Los Alamos received its first Plutonium shipment from Hanford. Plutonium processed at Hanford was used in both the Trinity test on July 16, 1945 and in the "Fat Man" atomic bomb used over Nagasaki, Japan on August 9, 1945.
The Hanford, WA facilities encompass 586 square miles of high desert. The Columbia River constitutes about 50 miles of the site's north and east borders.
Hanford's facilities originally had 554 buildings, including several production reactors and the unique chemical processing buildings where Plutonium was extracted from Uranium. These buildings were 800 feet long, 65 feet wide, and about 80 feet high. Standing in one reminded workers of standing in the bottom of a canyon, so the buildings were known as "the canyons."
For decades, the Hanford facilities produced plutonium for America's nuclear weapons programs. The last reactor at Hanford ceased operation in 1987. Soon after, the U.S. Department of Energy, the EPA, and Washington State University's Department of Ecology signed an agreement to clean up the hundreds of billions of gallons of liquid and millions of tons of solid waste stored there.
Today, there are 8,000 employees involved in the deactivation, decommissioning, decontaminating, and demolishing of the site's facilities and structures, except those designated as part of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. Tours of the site are available to the public, government officials, the media, and other interested parties. The tours for the public focus on efforts to decommission and decontaminate buildings and building sites, and the disposal of radioactive and industrial chemical waste.
Two Individual Stories from the Manhattan Project
There are so many personal stories to tell about the Manhattan Project, from the people of the Wanapum tribe and the townspeople of Hanford, White Bluffs, and Richland who were all displaced by the construction, to the thousands upon thousands of people who worked to make it a reality. To bring the human story closer we selected just two: an American physicist named Luis Alvarez, and Nagasaki bombing survivor, Sumiteru Taniguchi.
Over 200,000 people perished in the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Roughly half died on the first day, while others struggled on (sometimes for months) with burns and radiation sickness before succumbing to death. Surviving victims of the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki are referred to as hibakusha (被爆者) or "explosion-affected people".
In 2010, Taniguchi took the stage at the United Nations Headquarters in New York during the Review Conference for the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. He showed the pictures taken during his hospital stay to the delegates:
"When the bomb exploded, I was burned on my entire back by the heat rays of 3,000 to 4,000 degrees Celsius, which could have melted rocks and iron, and exposed to invisible radiation. The next moment I was blown away together with the bike for about 4 meters and smashed to the ground by the bomb blast. I am not a guinea pig. I am not an exhibit. But please look at this again without averting your gaze."
Taniguchi passed away in 2017 at the age of 88 as a result of pancreatic cancer. Shortly after his death, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) won the Nobel Peace Prize. As a part of the Fourth Edition project, a donation has be made to ICAN to help further their mission.
Luis Alvarez was one of the most prolific physicists of his day, winning the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1968 for his work on elementary particle states. Later in life, he worked with his son Walter, a noted geologist in his own right, to author the Alvarez hypothesis. The Alvarez hypothesis was the first theory to suggest that the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event was the direct result of a massive asteroid impact.
During World War II, Alvarez was attached to the Manhattan Project, working first with Enrico Fermi at the University of Chicago before moving to Los Alamos to work with Robert Oppenheimer. On August 6th, 1945, Alvarez was aboard the B-29 bomber, The Great Artiste, which was assigned to monitor the blast over Hiroshima. On the return flight home he wrote the following letter to his son, who was just five years old at the time:
10 miles off the Jap
Coast at 28,000 feet
This is the first grown-up letter I have ever written to you, and it is really for you to read when you are older. During the last few hours I have been thinking of you and your mother and our little sister Jean. It was tough to take off on this flight, not knowing whether I would ever see any of you again. But lots of other fathers have been in the same spot many times before in this war, and I had a job to do, so I can't claim to be any sort of hero.
I wonder if you will remember the time in Albuquerque, when you climbed all through a B-29 Superfortress. Probably you will remember climbing thru the tunnel over the bombbay, as that really impressed you at the time. Well, I have been in this B-29 for eight hours so far, and we won't be back for another five or six.
The story of our mission will probably be well known to everyone by the time you read this, but at the moment only the crews of our three B-29s, and the unfortunate residents of the Hiroshima district in Japan are aware of what has happened to aerial warfare. Last week at the 20th Air Force, stationed in the Marianas Islands, put over the biggest bombing raid in history, with 6000 tons of bombs (about 3000 tons of high explosive). That means that the days of large bombing raids, with several hundred planes, are finished. A single plane disguised as a friendly transport can now wipe out a city. That means to me that nations will have to get along together in a friendly fashion, or suffer the consequences of sudden sneak attacks which can cripple them overnight.
What regrets I have about being a party to killing and maiming thousands of Japanese civilians this morning are tempered with the hope that this terrible weapon we have created may bring the countries of the world together and prevent further wars. Alfred Nobel thought that his invention of high explosives would have that effect, by making wars too terrible, but unfortunately it had just the opposite reaction. Our new destructive force is so many thousands of times worse that it may realize Nobel's dream.
After that little sermon, I'll try to describe what it is like to go into combat for the first time. I had not made up my mind to go on the mission before I left the states, but I was pretty well convinced that I would end up by going. I thought the thing through on at least a dozen nights, while I was trying to go to sleep. I think these mental trips were the worst part of the deal.
When I arrived in the Marianas, I told the commanding officer that I thought I should go. I got cleared after a lot of radio messages to and from Washington. The mission was held up for several days by weather, and this was tough. We would get keyed up and read to go, and then the weather experts would call it off. Finally we got the go-ahead sign and then worked most of the day checking instruments. We had several briefings which were quite exciting. I had attended bombing briefings in England for the RAF, but it is quite different when you are to go on the mission yourself. Data on anti-aircraft batteries and enemy fighters becomes of great personal concern. One of the planes of our squadron had come home with large flack holes in its wings two days before, so we felt some concern in that score. We were told a lot about landing the plane in the ocean. The big worry, of course, was landing on the Empire and being captured by the Japs. They have been particularly savage with ordinary pilots, and I am sure they would have a special reason for disliking us immensely.
We were to take off at 2:45 A.M., and this last waiting was the worst part. We saw a movie until 9:30, and then packed up last minute supplies for the plane. Then we got equipped with our combat flying suits, which weight about seventy or eighty pounds. First comes a survival vest, with fish hooks, drinking water kits, first aid packages, food, and a host of other things useful to a man forced down on the ocean. Over that was our parachute harness, to which could be clipped a chest chute pack, and a one-man liferaft. With this equipment, it is possible to go into the water from a plane, some distance from anyone else, and survive. Over this already bulging mess, we wore our flack suits, to protect our bodies from flying shell fragments. This is a very heavy and clumsy thing, like a suit of armor, but we were glad to put up with the discomfort during our 65 minutes over the Empire. Finally, we wore a cloth helmet with an oxygen mask attached, and over that a flack helmet to protect our heads.
We arrived at the plane an hour and a half early, as there were lots of historic pictures to be taken with the aid of a big batter of lights. It looked just like the opening of a gas station in Hollywood. We had our pictures taken in front of the place which held the big bomb in its bombbay, and then went to our own plane. By this time all my tension had gone away and I haven't felt any since, with the exception of a little tingling sensation when the Japanese shores appeared on the horizon. All of the civilians had thought we would be scared over the empire, but I can say truthfully that I was completely at ease, and so were my two companions. We weren't excited, as we were too busy with our work. After the bomb was dropped we made an accordingly sharp turn to get away from the blast. We got 2 g's, which made our 80 pounds weigh 160.
A few moments after we completed the turn, the plane was hit with the blast wave from the explosion. It gave the ship a couple of good jolts, but only about what we expected. We went to the portholes to see the results of the explosion. It was awe-inspiring. Already the smoke cloud was up to 35 or 50,000 feet. The ground was covered with a layer of smoke so that the city was blotted out from view. I forgot to mention the most spectacular effect of all—the light flash. It was many times brighter than the sun when we were seven miles away. I had looked at it directly, through dark glasses, on the trial shot in New Mexico last month.
Well, here we are over Iwo Jima, and on the home stretch, so I'll stop writing and go up and talk to the pilots. I wanted to tell you about this while it was still fresh in my mind.
With much love from
P.S. When I saw the pilots, they said they saw flack bursting a mile below us. The Japs apparently didn't have their good anti-aircraft in this region.
Creating the Specimen
The specimen in the Mini Museum comes from a leaded glass window installed in the T Plant (221-T) Plutonium Recovery Building, the first and largest of two production bismuth-phosphate chemical separations plants used to extract plutonium from fuel rods irradiated in the Hanford Site's reactors.
The glass was acquired from the window's current owner, Dan Dunn. Mr. Dunn owns several windows from the site which were sold during a government surplus auction in the late 1980s as part of the long (and continuing) decommissioning process. The yellow color of the glass is due to a high concentration of lead-oxide (up to 70%), which blocks blue and near-UV spectral frequencies, and also gives the glass its protective qualities.
The Manhattan Project Glass was a very complex substance to work with from a technical perspective.
In the image below, I was very lucky to get a clean break as the high lead oxide content causes the glass to crumble rather than fracture.
The sound it makes is also very sharp like the ticking of a clock. Multiplied over many weeks, the two factors combine to make for a nerve wracking experience, but also one in which you are very conscious of the fact that the material represents the creation of the most destructive force in human history.
It's difficult to put into words just how challenging this specimen was on an emotional level. I worked on this material off an on for over nine months, all the while juxtaposing the technical acheivement of the Manhattan Project with the cost in human life and the ongoing threat of nuclear anhilation. Probably the best feeling I can provide is to share a video of Sumiteru Taniguchi sharing his experience. I'll warn you in advance that the images are difficult to look at, but as he asked the UN not to turn away I would say the same here.