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This momentous experimentthe very first chain reactionmarked the beginning of the Atomic Age. The pile was successful. Long before the queasy process had been reduced to an orderly procedure, a gigantic, full-sized plutonium plant had been started at Hanford on the desert near Yakima, Wash. Advantages of the unattractive site: isolation, a good supply of Grand Coulee power and the Columbia River which would carry away the enormous heat generated in the piles.
City of Pluto. The original pile at Chicago had been a ticklish business, but the giant piles at Hanford were studies in unexplored dangers. Theory warned that as soon as they started working, they would generate floods of deadly radiation and produce unknown radioactive elements, most of them fiendishly poisonous: These effects could conceivably be so powerful and so long-lasting that no living thing could approach a pile which had once been in operation.
Accordingly, elaborate devices were developed for operating the piles by remote control from behind thick protective shields. Even so, the deadly unknowns escaped. The cooling water was radioactive. It had to be impounded and exhausted of radioactivity before going back to the river. The wind blowing over the chemical plant picked up another load of peril for the stacks gave off a radioactive gas. The City of Pluto was a place of grim possibilities.
Rigid precautions guarded the health of the workers. They all carried small electroscopes or bits of photographic film for nightly tests to show the amount of radiation to which each had been exposed. A gadget called "Sneezy" measured radioactive dust in the air; "Pluto" watched lab desks and instruments. Clothing was carefully checked. Devices rang an alarm when a radioactive worker came near.
Energy & Poisons. Besides plutonium, the Hanford plant produced two frightening by-product effects. The water which cooled the piles carried off enough energy, derived from the chain reaction, to heat the Columbia River appreciably. No definite figures have been released, but the hints in Dr. Smyth's report are portentous. Some relative of the uranium pile may still prove a power source great enough to run all the world's machines.
The second by-product was pure horror. In the ordinary operation of a large-scale pile, calculated Dr. Smyth, enough radioactive poisons could be produced every day to make "large areas uninhabitable."
Peril in Los Alamos. While the mighty plants were being built and the processes studied to make them run, another team of physicists was colonizing still another desert. In March 1943, a group led by Professor J. R. Oppenheimer of the University of California, gathered at Los Alamos, New Mexico. Their job was to design, assemble and test the atomic bomb itself. The pile constructors had struggled to keep their brain child from blowing up. The bomb men had the more deadly mission of finally blowing up theirs at the time and place that war demanded.