This is interesting stuff. For one thing, it does a good job of showing the extreme lengths that you must go to to obtain even tiny amounts of plutonium.
There’s a story Richard Feynman told about the spare plutonium core they had at Los Alamos. It sat in a room by itself, unguarded because nobody who knew anything about it would dream of trying to steal it. Mostly, it was for “show and tell” to VIPs – you could walk over and touch it and it was slightly warm to the touch. Enough plutonium to wipe out a city, if it was merely compressed enough around an initiator of Beryllium-9 and Polonium-210.[wik] Feynman said that the door-stop to the room was appropriate: it was a 3″ hemisphere of yellow metal heavier than lead: solid gold. Nobody would steal the gold, either because it was worthless compared to the plutonium. Feyman was a great story-teller and I suspect the tale is embellished, though the Manhattan Project did requisition huge amounts of precious metals including tons of metallic silver to use for something or other to do with separation of uranium isotopes using the early “calutron” electro-magnetic separators that were invented before gas centrifuging came along. (Little birds say that nowadays all the cool kids sort their fissionable molecules using lasers) Anyhow, it is not outside the realm of possibility that some of the Los Alamos eggheads would do something like that, thinking it funny.
It’s kind of sad to see the folks in the video keep emphasizing how great it would be if the plutonium they are making finds its way onto a spacecraft for NASA. Instead of, you know, into the core pit of a city-killer, which is what most of it is destined for. Notice the size of their production line: you don’t need that kind of production line if you’re just making the occasional battery for a satellite.
And: fuck those assholes for trying to pretend that Oak Ridge National Labs is a bunch of scientists that love spacecraft and NASA. Those people know exactly what they are making, and what it means.
I read somewhere that a tiny particle of plutonium in a lung is a death sentence unless you catch the cancer soon enough. They probably hadn’t really figured that stuff out during the Manhattan Project days. There was a lot that was not understood. Feynman also told some stories about doing safety-checks on the plant at Hanford – which, apparently, was not anywhere near as safe as it needed to be. Nowadays that would all be considered very primitive stuff.
During the heyday of the nuclear arms race, the US devoted something like 3% of its economic output to nuclear weapons. Huge programs were put in place for the nukes, and buried under other reasoning. For example the Tennessee Valley Authority and all its massive hydro-electric dams: that was to power Y-12 at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. When I was a teenager, still impressed by nuclear weapons and their awesome power, I did not realize that they represented a decision on the part of the government to produce tools of death and to spend vast resources on something that – in theory – they never wanted to use. Exactly the opposite of what most people think government is supposed to do.
That is one of the calutrons at Y-12. These were electromagnetic separators that worked by taking uranium and spinning it using current like a particle accelerator does. By carefully tuning the speed at which the isotopes spun, the 235- isotope could be made to go through one slit into a collector, or another. That’s one calutron from a bank of, I believe, 32. There was another bank that was tuned differently for other stuff.
American Scientist has some stuff about the government silver that was used in the calutrons: [as] It turns out I was slightly wrong about how it was used: they used 6,000 tons of silver so that it would not interfere with the necessary war-material supply of copper. It was believed at the time that the enemy might figure “something was up” if thousands of tons of the copper supply were diverted, but the silver supply was already diverted and secured and the public had no idea how much was where.
Construction of Y-12 was an enormous undertaking, requiring 67 million hours of labor by a workforce that peaked at about 20,000. The complex included more than 200 support buildings and required some 5,000 operating and maintenance personnel.
*Cough* new deal.
When I worked at Trusted Information Systems in 1992, one of my co-workers, Keith K., mentioned that he had worked at Oak Ridge. I immediately asked him what he could tell me about his experiences there and he thought for a while and then said, “basically – nothing.” Then “oh, wait! I got sent home in a paper suit twice. That’s why I am here. I was not allowed to get any more radiation for the rest of my life.” It turned out that if you got a bad dose of radiation they’d give you the various rad-washes and send you home in a disposable suit made of cellulose fiber – basically gray kraft paper. Your clothes wound up in a concrete coffin somewhere. He said that his accident happened when there was “a bucket of something” on a chain-fall with a motor to move it from one room to another, because the bucket was solid lead, and it jammed. So Keith clambered up onto the gantry and pried the jam with a pry-bar, when a supervisor came running into the room and started shrieking at him to get down from there right this minute! He was directly over the open end of the bucket, and could see down into it; it was full of grey stuff, nothing interesting. Uh, yeah. Keith was an older guy; this would have happened in the late 1950s. When they closed Y-12 the new plants are entirely robotic and – well, if you watch the video you can see what they look like.