The web of secrets and lies finally comes unraveled in the penultimate episode of “Manhattan” after Reed Akley comes to terms with the realization that a Thin Man bomb would pre-detonate. Akley, who learned about the secret partnership between Frank Winter and Charlie Isaacs in the previous episode, tries to salvage the Thin Man program by offering to protect Charlie from Frank, who “is too busy fighting for his own place in history.”
The twelfth episode opens inside the home of Charlie Isaacs, who is awakened late at night by a sudden knock on the door. It’s Reed Akley, standing on the porch with a rifle slung over his shoulder. “Get dressed,” he tells Charlie, “We are going for a drive.”
After driving into the middle of the New Mexican desert, Akley confronts Charlie about siphoning resources from the Thin Man group to solve implosion. Distraught, Charlie finally admits that Thin Man will pre-detonate because the plutonium from Site X (Oak Ridge) will never be pure enough. What Charlie doesn’t know, however, is that the plutonium for Thin Man will come from Site W, not Site X. “I wasn’t in Washington, D.C. this week,” Akley tells Charlie, “I was in Washington State touring the new reactor that will make the weapons-grade plutonium.”
The new reactor Akley is referring to is the B Reactor in Hanford, Washington. Located on the banks of the Columbia River, the B Reactor was the first full-scale plutonium production reactor in the world. Completed in September 1944, the giant water-cooled reactor could hold over 60,000 elements in its 2,004 process tubes, and could produce up to 250 megawatts of power. The reactor was cooled with some 30,000 gallons of water every minute.
Akley believes the plutonium produced at Site W will be pure enough for Thin Man to work. “Enrico Fermi personally designed the reactor,” he tells Charlie. “I have the fission rates on my desk. It’s as good as cyclotron plutonium. It’s as good as pure.” Charlie, who realizes his blunder, is extremely apologetic. After all, it’s his signature that appears on every requisition and order coopting resources from the Thin Man group for use on implosion.
Back on the Hill, the Los Alamos town council has decided to expand its committee as the town’s population rapidly grows. One of the candidates running is Liza Winter, who is determined to make changes on the Hill. “I don’t believe in keeping secrets anymore,” she says. “Now is the time for someone to explain precisely what rights we have when we live within these fences and what recourse we have if we feel those rights have been abridged.”
The town council was an important part of the Los Alamos community during the Manhattan Project. “Oppenheimer decided that they [the people] needed some representation,” says Rebecca Diven, a chemist at Los Alamos. “He asked people like Ben Diven, as a representative of the dorm, and Jean Baucher, as a representative of housewives, [to be members].” The town council met for the first time in January of 1944 at Oppenheimer’s own home. The council helped improve communication between civilians and the Army and provided a forum for scientists and their families to voice their concerns regarding Army governance.
While Liza is busy stirring up support for her election to the town council, Frank is desperately trying to speed up the shipment of plutonium from Site X. He needs to prove that implosion will work before the Army discovers that he and Charlie have violated compartmentalization. But when he tries to get in touch with Oppenheimer in Washington, D.C., his call cannot be completed because his security clearance has been downgraded. According to Col. Aden Cox, Frank “has pissed on the wrong fire hydrant.”
Running out of options, Frank confronts Charlie about missing a meeting to work on the technical details of implosion. Charlie tells him about the plutonium from Site W, but Frank isn’t buying it. “The only thing that Site W has on Site X is a river view,” he tells Charlie. “They’ll never make plutonium Thin Man can use.”
With Akley and Winter both trying to lure Charlie away from the other, the young physicist must make a decision. With time running out, Charlie tells Akley that he cannot continue on the Project. But Akley needs him; he desperately acknowledges that he can’t “fix” Thin Man without him. Charlie explodes, “You knew Thin Man was going to fail! You knew and you kept it secret!”
Meanwhile, back at the Los Alamos main gate Glenn Babbit and Fritz Fedowitz are rushing to pick up a delivery from Dr. Oppenheimer. It’s the first gram of plutonium from Site X. Theodore Sinclair, the African-American physicist who alerted Charlie to the problems with plutonium at Site X, has brought it with him as courier.
With Thin Man teetering on the brink of collapse, Frank receives a book with a note scrawled inside: “Meet me in the blast zone.” Assuming the note came from Charlie, Frank races to the test site to meet him. But when he gets there, he doesn’t find Charlie. It’s Reed Akley, and he’s desperate for Frank’s help to save Thin Man. Frank refuses: Thin Man is dead; implosion “is the only way” now. Frank convinces Akley to put down his gun and forget about the past. Akley agrees, but just as Frank is about to leave, he hears a gunshot. Akley has committed suicide inside his car.
It is important to emphasize that no scientist ever committed suicide during the Manhattan Project. The rivalry that exists between the two design groups in “Manhattan” never actually existed at Los Alamos, as scientists were encouraged to collaborate and share ideas with one another.
With the collapse of Thin Man coming in what appears to be January or February of 1944, “Manhattan” seems to be getting a little bit ahead of itself. It wasn’t until a few months later, in April 1944, when experiments by physicist Emilo Segre on the newly produced plutonium from Oak Ridge revealed that the material contained impurities and that the rate of spontaneous fission would be too high for a gun-type design. Oppenheimer agreed to abandon the Thin Man design altogether at a meeting in Los Alamos on July 17, 1944. From that point on, almost all the research at the Los Alamos Laboratory was re-directed towards solving the problem of implosion for the Fat Man bomb.
With Thin Man out of the picture, it is now up to Frank and his team to figure out a way to make implosion work. Tune in next Sunday, October 19th at 10pm EST for the season finale! We can’t wait to see how the season ends. Also, “Manhattan” has just been renewed for a second season, so we won’t be surprised if this season ends on a cliffhanger.
For more information about the history of the Manhattan Project, check out our online store, which includes “A Guide to the Manhattan Project in New Mexico” and our bestselling anthology, “The Manhattan Project: The Birth of the Atomic Bomb in the Words of Its Creators, Eyewitnesses, and Historians.”