The task of building the world’s first atomic bomb might never have succeeded without the help of some of America’s foremost corporations. Although most US companies were already tasked with critical wartime contracts, most rose to the occasion if the President asked them. Nazi Germany quickly conquered most of Europe and nothing less than the future of the free world was at stake.
American industry was being asked to design and manufacture equipment that went way beyond the tolerances that anyone had previously thought possible. From magnets to vacuum pumps, from welding seams to sterile operating conditions, every new production operation demanded new technology. Thus, many of the production processes that are prevalent today had their origins in the Manhattan Project.
One of the most important companies involved in the Manhattan Project was the E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company. Founded by Eleuthère Irénée du Pont in 1802, the DuPont Company was a major chemical and munitions manufacturer with an impressive track record of innovation and success.
The Experimental Station
In 1903, the company established the Experimental Station, an industrial research center initiated to apply scientific knowledge and methods to improve its gunpowder technologies. “The Experimental Station was built in an old powder mill,” recalls Irénée du Pont, Jr., the great-great grandson of Eleuthère. “The purpose was to improve the quality of the gunpowder, being almost the only product that the DuPont Company made.”
Shortly thereafter, researchers at DuPont developed smokeless gunpowder, a remarkable improvement over the centuries-old black powder. This new type of powder allowed for the development of semi- and fully automatic firearms and lighter breeches and barrels for artillery. DuPont would become the world’s largest producer of the explosive during World War I, providing 40% of the gunpowder used by the Allies, or 1.5 billion pounds.
In the late 1930s, DuPont continued its innovative trend by introducing nylon, the world’s first synthetic polymer. Nylon dresses, stockings and other goods swept the fashion industry. “It started as an elegant piece of research in polymer chemistry,” says Irénée, “and came out as the biggest moneymaker the DuPont Company has ever seen or ever thought of.” Behind DuPont’s success was a new technique for continuous operations with the ingredients at one end and the product at the other. The process was revolutionary, a vast improvement over earlier batch or step-by-step approaches.
DuPont and the Manhattan Project
General Leslie R. Groves, who was appointed Director of the Manhattan Engineer District in 1942, was convinced that DuPont could apply the same ingenuity to the plutonium production process needed for the development of an atomic bomb. In September, Groves met with DuPont’s Executive Committee to convince them to undertake the construction and operation of the pilot plutonium separation plant to be built in Tennessee. DuPont’s directors were wary. “We were asked to take on a job about equivalent to perpetual motion,” admitted DuPont President Walter S. Carpenter, Jr. “Recovering the power of the atom just seemed to be one of those things beyond all conceivable reach.”
Other concerns loomed large. DuPont did not want to be branded as “war profiteers” as they had been after World War I for supplying the Allies with gunpowder for handsome profits. “We had been severely criticized on the basis that we endeavored to incite the war in order to ignite profit by the manufacturer of materials,” recalled Carpenter. “The whole claim was without substance at all, but nevertheless that didn't mean that we wouldn't be subject to it again.”
There was also the very real possibility that the project would not succeed. “There was no assurance that any of these elements would operate,” admitted Crawford Greenewalt, then a chemical engineer for DuPont. “There was no assurance that you could make a reactor run at the high power levels that were required to produce plutonium. There was no assurance that the plutonium, if produced, could be separated. There certainly was no assurance at that time that an atomic bomb could be made, even given the plutonium.”
And then there were safety concerns. “The losses conceivable in connection with this thing were just appalling—cataclysmic,” conceded Carpenter. “No one was quite sure that this might not get out of hand. And, if it did, it might devastate that entire area.”
By November 1942, DuPont was still reluctant to take on the massive project. In a last ditch effort, General Groves appealed to patriotism. He told the company that the atomic bomb project was essential to the defense of the United States and that a successful effort could affect the outcome of the war. “Groves laid it on the table, and he insisted that it was a matter that the President and the President's advisors wished to go ahead with…it was for us to come through and do our part,” recalled Carpenter.
“With that assurance from the President,” declared Greenewalt, “it became a question of patriotic duty to do it, so we did.” This time, DuPont insisted that its fee for the project would only be one dollar.
A Massive Undertaking
DuPont’s managers knew that mass-producing plutonium was to be unlike any other challenge. Once again, the company turned to its Experimental Station to recruit the chemists and engineers needed to design and build the massive separations facilities. The Experimental Station had grown tremendously after the commercialization of nylon. “It was a busy place full of capable scientists and a gold mine for the kind of people that could be trained to consider making plutonium,” recalls Irénée. “It was a great hiring ground for the Manhattan Project.”
Before DuPont could begin construction in Tennessee, the company needed proof that Enrico Fermi’s experimental nuclear pile would work. Constructed in a squash court underneath the football stands at the University of Chicago’s Stagg Field, Chicago Pile-1 (CP-1) was a lattice of uranium fuel elements and graphite blocks which would act as moderators. Its purpose was to test whether or not an artificial nuclear chain reaction could be produced.
Greenewalt happened to be passing through Chicago after visiting Ernest O. Lawrence at the University of California, Berkeley. The Met Lab’s Director, Arthur H. Compton, invited him to witness Fermi’s experiment on December 2, 1942. “Compton told us that they would make an attempt to start the chain reaction,” recalled Greenewalt.
Proving that a nuclear chain reaction could be sustained (and controlled) was an important first step towards building an atomic bomb. For Greenewalt, the test was just another experiment. “It was interesting, but I did not consider it as critical in determining whether or not the project fell flat or whether it went on,” he explained. “I am quite sure that if it had not worked, if the experiment had failed for some reason or other, they would have found some way of trying again.”
But it did work. The next step was to build a pilot reactor that could actually produce plutonium, a potential ingredient for an atomic weapon. DuPont engineers faced a new challenge: translating what Fermi’s pile had proved in theory into a fully functioning production reactor. “At that time, plutonium had never been produced,” recalled Carpenter. “It’s amazing that our engineering department was able to convert the theoretical ideas of the physicists into an actual operating plant.”
From Theory to Practice
In 1943, DuPont selected the talented Crawford Greenewalt to act as liaison between the physicists at Chicago and the company's engineers in Wilmington, Delaware. “My responsibility was to take the information from the scientific effort in Chicago and translate it into terms that our engineering and technical people could use to design and build a plant,” recalled Greenewalt. “This is the important thing, because the people in Chicago had not the remotest concept of what was involved in building a plant of this sort.”
If there was anyone at DuPont with the knowledge and patience to translate the physicist’s ideas into workable blueprints, it was Greenewalt. “Crawford had the ability to listen to whoever he sat down with,” remembers Irénée, Crawford’s brother-in-law. “He would find out all about them and get them to tell their story to him, and he learned a lot that way.”
Greenewalt, who graduated from MIT in 1923 with a Master’s degree in chemical engineering, had no trouble understanding the physicist’s demands. “The reason he was able to put those two groups together,” says Irénée, “was because he had this gift of being both a thorough theoretical man as well as a hands-on, fix-it engineer.”
Construction on the X-10 Graphite Reactor began in February 1943 in Oak Ridge, Tennessee and was completed just ten months later. The air-cooled reactor was a twenty-four foot graphite cube containing 1,248 channels for uranium-metal slugs. Once irradiated in the reactor core, the slugs were removed and the plutonium was extracted in a state-of-the-art remote-controlled separations plant.
While X-10 was still under construction, DuPont was already moving forward with its plan to build the first full-scale nuclear production reactor in Hanford, Washington. The project required a massive scale-up from the pilot plant at Oak Ridge. The levels of radioactive uranium and plutonium that the new reactor was expected to produce presented a number of new challenges for the company. Workers would be handling a variety of toxic chemicals and using hazardous liquids and gases under high pressures to separate plutonium from irradiated uranium.
DuPont and Safety
By that time, the DuPont Company already had a reputation as one of the safest companies in the chemical industry. Its commitment to safety stemmed back to the late eighteenth century. In 1774, King Louis XVI of France hired renowned chemist Antoine Lavoisier to be the director of a new gunpowder plant being built by the French Government outside of Paris. To be sure that the plant would be safe, King Louis demanded that Lavoisier build his family house inside the plant grounds.
Not long after, a young boy named Éleuthère Irénée du Pont joined Lavoisier as an apprentice. “This young kid did all of the experimenting and recording, keeping data,” says Irénée. Four years later, after careful testing and hundreds of experiments, the gunpowder plant at Essonne was one of the safest and most successful plants in the world.
“The DuPont Company followed that procedure,” says Irénée. “When Éleuthère du Pont came to America and built his powder plant, he built his residence on the little hill overlooking the machinery that was making gunpowder just a few hundred yards away.” The company has remained committed to safety ever since.
When Irénée’s father, Irénée du Pont Sr., became president of the company in 1918, he made safety his number one priority. “They worked out a program that would get every employee excited about safety and believing in it,” recalls Irénée. “It worked and it made safety records far better than any other industry.”
The B Reactor
Construction on the Hanford B Reactor began in October 1943. To complete the task, DuPont had to hire more than 50,000 workers from around the country. Once completed, 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. DuPont also designed the revolutionary chemical separations facility, known as T-Plant, used to separate plutonium from irradiated uranium. The entire project was completed without a single major accident.
The DuPont Company played a critical role in one of the largest scientific and technical undertakings in modern history. The company’s accomplishments at Hanford reflect the extraordinary determination, ingenuity and resourcefulness that are hallmarks of the Manhattan Project.