Showing posts with label Manhattan Project. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Manhattan Project. Show all posts

12 June 2020

Where Have You Gone, Edgar Sengier?

Edgar Sengier was a Belgian engineer who operated a mine in the then-named Belgian Congo at the early 20th century. His employers, the Union Minière du Haut Katanga, initially mined copper, but at some point the firm discovered a vein in a settlement called Shinkolobwe that yielded two substances of astonishing purity. One was radium, a radioactive element which was so infamously used in the dials of wristwatches, with horrifying results. The other? Well, let’s just say that when Sengier’s people informed him how Substance #2 could be used, the world was on the brink of World War II. French scientists wanted Sengier’s ore, but then France was swallowed by Germany. Sengier quietly packed half his stock—about 1,000 tons of this mysterious ore—in barrels and had them shipped to a warehouse in Staten Island, New York. The barrels sat idle for two years. Nine months after Pearl Harbor, Col. Kenneth Nichols—No. 2 in command of the Manhattan Project—paid a visit to Sengier’s New York office, asking if it was true the firm had located ore that could be processed into U-235. The Belgian engineer smiled. “I’ve been waiting a long time for your visit!”

"Where can I get U?" — Actual text message from Col. Kenneth D. Nichols, circa 1940.
(Atomic Energy Commission file image)
That, in a nutshell, is how the US and not Hitler ended up with a critical stockpile that ensured its success in the race for the bomb. Sengier, a man who went down in history simply by waiting for others to catch up to his foresight, popped into my head this week when I interviewed someone about the US’s medical preparedness for our protracted Covid future.

The fellow on the phone was an exec at a major international firm that manufactures medical supplies. (Yes, I am intentionally being vague.) Not ventilators. Not masks or gowns. But nearly everything else a medical office or hospital needs to do its job. By one estimate, this firm produces more than half of a specific medical tool used on the planet.

The corporate headquarters are based in the US, but operates factories over the globe. The execs have been largely quarantined at home for the last three months, but the firm has been running their assembly lines the whole time, tweaking how they do business to keep employees safe and the endless stream of supplies coming. In some cases, they have actually re-routed employees from areas of the business with low demand—making, say, kits for various types of elective surgeries—to areas with high demand.

Moving employees like this is easier said than done. For example, they arranged visas for employees to travel 100 miles from their homes and places of work in one Asian nation to another nation across a border. “ Commuting” was deemed impractical, so the firm is putting these folks up in hotels in the second nation so they can work in shifts. Anything to meet demand.

“First, every hospital in the world needed supplies,” the exec told me. “So we ramped up production to meet that demand. And when we caught up with that, then the federal governments of various countries started contracting with us directly to beef up their national stockpiles. So now we’re doing that.”

For another writing project, ages ago, I interviewed a former military doc who told me that most military stockpiles he’d seen were always in need of upgrading or replacement. Supplies expire and go bad. Medical tech, especially, becomes obsolete or deteriorates sitting unserviced in warehouses, waiting for a use date that never comes. No one wants to have product sitting around in a warehouse. But it’s what you do if you want to be prepared. You rotate in, you rotate out. If you're organized, that is.

But what was troubling our biotech executive the day we talked?

“There’s one country that hasn’t asked us to stock their national stockpile yet,” he told me, his voice dropping. “A big one. Can you guess which one that is?”

I didn’t have to guess. Both of us are Americans, and we both chuckled awkwardly at the same time. And then the naive little man inside me piped up: “Couldn’t you do it on your own? Just make ‘em and store ‘em somewhere?” Even before the words were out of my mouth, I felt stupid. This is why I’ll never be a businessperson; I cling too much to hope.

“Can’t,” the exec said. “We have enough trouble keeping up with demand as it is. And we’re sure as hell not gonna do it for free.”

Duh. Logical me understood that completely. But naive me, writer me, fought against it. And my brain kindly coughed up the name of that Belgian engineer.

To be sure, Sengier’s firm was paid. So far as I’ve been able to determined, they supplied the US with 4,200 tons of uranium, and plutonium as well. (The price for the uranium was $1 a pound. I have not located a price for the plutonium, enriched at Hanford.) After the war, Sengier received the Medal of Merit from the US, its highest civilian honor, and other accolades—Honorary Knight Commander, OBE, from the UK, the Legion of Honour from France, five distinct medals from Belgium alone—from nations grateful that he’d kept that uranium out of the hands of the Nazis.

Sengier (center) receives his medal from Manhattan Project director General Leslie Groves (right).
(Atomic Energy Commission file image)

And yes, we can spend days debating the wisdom of creating those first nuclear weapons. I have had those conversations. My wife spent seven years writing a nonfiction book about the Manhattan Project, and for seven years the faces and voices of the few surviving chemists, engineers, and rank-and-file workers she interviewed were in my mind nearly every day. We can also spend an equal amount of time talking about the exploitation of Africa’s natural resources and its people by centuries of colonizers.


Those bombs, and the ones that followed them, were tools of death, but medical supplies are tools of life. Call me crazy, but US stockpiles have been known to dwindle. And it dismays me to learn that Sengiers are apparently in short supply.

14 November 2018


David Edgerley Gates

I've always had a soft spot for the 1965 war thriller Heroes of Telemark. Directed by Anthony Mann, first off, not to mention I'm a longtime Kirk Douglas fan, it's one of those outnumbered-commandoes-attack-Nazi-stronghold yarns, better than Where Eagles Dare, not quite in the same league as Guns of Navarone.

Telemark is based on a true story, and although they take more than a few liberties, it's reasonably accurate. I was in fact reading The Saboteur, an Andrew Gross novel about the Norsk Hydro raid, exact in its details, when news came that the last surviving Norwegian veteran of the attack had just died. Joachim Rønneberg lived to be 99.

The thing about the Norsk Hydro raid, the real story, is that the fictions actually fall a little short. There's a lack of contrivance, and you have to dramatize a story that's more about endurance and less about blowing shit up. You might even play down how high the stakes were.

In late 1942, there were two trains running. In the U.S., the Manhattan Project, and in the UK, what was known as the Tube Alloys program. What nobody on the Allied teams knew was how far along the Germans were, specifically Werner Heisenberg at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin. Absent hard intelligence, it was thought better safe than sorry, and senior Brit spooks at the Special Operations Executive began mapping out sabotage missions to damage the Uranverein, Nazi atomic weapons research.

In the occupied territories of the Reich, the Norsk Hydro generating plant at Vemork, in Telemark, was the most reliable producer of deuterium oxide, also called 'heavy water,' an essential component in nuclear fission. German experiments relied on heavy water, and Norsk Hydro became a primary target for SOE.

Access was the main issue. The plant was in a gorge, and a night bombing raid was discussed. If the Lancasters could navigate accurately in the dark, could they pinpoint the ordnance and destroy the target? Odds against. The only thing they could be sure of was heavy collateral casualties among Norwegian civilians.

It had to be boots on the ground. SOE mounted Operation Grouse in October 1942. They parachuted in an advance party, local Norwegians, to scout the terrain and set up the approach. A month later, they sent in a combat group to rendezvous with Grouse. Everything went wrong. The two gliders crashed, the men who weren't killed were captured by the Germans, and then executed. The four-man Grouse team hid out on the Hardanger plateau, scrubbing lichen off the rocks to eat. They were holed up for three months.

The follow-up mission was launched in February, 1943. Six more Norwegian commandoes dropped onto the Hardanger and made contact with Grouse. Because of the failed attack the previous November, the Germans knew Vemork was a target. But the garrison was small. It was the geography that protected Norsk Hydro. The river valley narrowed at the Rjukan Falls, and the slopes were near-vertical. The mountains are high enough to block out the sunlight from September to March. The plant was built on a rocky shelf 1,000 feet above the river. Security checkpoints had been established further up, overlooking the plant, and on the bridge across the gorge. The commando team made their assault from below, climbing out of the steep ravine in the icy darkness.

They got inside, they wired the explosives, they blew the containment vessels to smithereens. Then they got out. Amazingly, they all escaped, with upwards of 3,000 troops out beating the bushes for them. A couple made it to Oslo, a couple stayed behind. Rønneberg and four others skiied to Sweden. Skiied. 400 kilometers. The wartime German commander, von Falkenhorst, later called it the "best coup" he'd ever seen.

There's a postscript, in that the Germans reestablished heavy water production not long after, but after daylight bombing raids, decided to ship the inventory they had by ferry and rail back to Germany. Norwegian saboteurs sank the ferry as it crossed Lake Tinn, and German atom research sank with it.

Did the Telemark raid change the outcome of the war? In all honesty, no. There was nothing remotely analogous to the Manhattan Project in the German war effort. Albert Speer, the armaments minister, was never convinced it was a workable goal. There's a whole other story, of course, about Heisenberg in Berlin, but we'll save that for another time.

Meanwhile, let's raise a glass to Joachim Rønneberg, and the memory of men and women like him. We honor the debt we owe them. We hope we deserve the world they gave us.  

08 October 2014

Seeds of Destruction

by David Edgerley Gates

One of the first places I went to, after I moved to Santa Fe, was Los Alamos, and as it happens, Fuller Lodge was open to visitors. Fuller Lodge, for those of you who don't know, was essentially the social center for the people working on the Manhattan Project. Some dancing to 78's on an old turntable, quite a few martinis, a lot of cigarettes. An opportunity to let your hair down. Fuller Lodge anchored what was know as Bathtub Row, back in the day - what was left of the original buildings from the boys' boarding school that was the only fixture on the mesa before the Army Corps of Engineers came. The other barracks and housing were prefabs and Quonset huts, knocked together quick and dirty for incoming personnel. 

Going up to the Hilltop, as Los Alamos is known, locally, isn't any different from driving into any other town of about 12,000 people. The national lab is the biggest employer, admittedly, and Los Alamos county has the highest per capita income of any county in New Mexico, but there are supermarkets and coffee shops and laundromats and chain stores, which gives it an air of generic normalcy, like Belmont, Massachusetts, or Ashland, Oregon. The difference being that Los Alamos is a complete invention, sprung full blown from the brow of Zeus, or more accurately, from the imagination of Gen. Leslie Groves, the guy who built the Pentagon. Los Alamos was designed for one purpose only, to beat Hitler to the atom bomb.

I was fascinated by the place. Under that placid surface, its air of normalcy, and hiding in plain sight, there was a huge and dangerous secret. I picked up a book called ATOMIC SPACES, which wasn't so much about the Manhattan Project per se as it was about the day-to-day, the homely and domestic - the wives and kids, the local Hispanics recruited as maids or gardeners, the segregated black units off on the periphery - the detail that falls through the cracks of history. And the first story I wrote, in New Mexico, was about that stuff. It was called "The Navarro Sisters," and it introduced Rio Arriba sheriff Benny Salvador. Groves himself was a character, too - he shows up as a cameo in a later Benny story, "Old Man Gloom" - and the story hinged in part on the gaps in his security.

Groves was obsessed with keeping the whole thing under wraps,
and for good reason. Werner Heisenberg, in Berlin, was researching the same physics, and nobody knew how close he was. (It turned out later that Heisenberg might well have been dragging his feet, but that's a tale for another time.) Groves, in fact, wanted the separate disciplines compartmentalized, so his science guys couldn't compare notes. He even suggested they be commissioned as officers, and subject to military punishment if they broke silence.

Groves had brought Robert Oppenheimer on board to run the program, and Oppenheimer said no. That's not how it works. They need to rub up against each other, they need to set off sparks, like static electricity. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. You could perhaps see this as a larger metaphor. The bomb was greater than the sum of its parts. And what Oppenheimer understood was that success depended on cross-fertilization. The metallurgists and the physicists, the mathematicians and the engineers, they couldn't operate in isolation, or opposition. They weren't competing. It was all about comparing notes.

Like any good partnership, the tensions between Groves and Oppenheimer produced the result, in the end. A fission device. They set up the test shot. Waiting in the bunker, Edward Teller was taking bets they might set the entire atmosphere on fire. They pulled the trigger, and the bomb lit up the pre-dawn horizon over White Sands. The ground beneath it was fused into glass. Oppenheimer was overheard to say, "I am become Death."

He opposed the actual use of the bomb, against Japan. It was too terrible a weapon. Could they demonstrate it, instead? He was shrugged off. Military necessity. An invasion of the Home Islands would cost a million American lives. They had the means to end the war. It was the only possible choice.

Groves and Teller both later turned against Oppenheimer, each for their own reasons. He was stripped of his security clearance by the Red-hunters, and sidelined. It was a shabby business, all around. Oppenheimer wasn't Faust. He didn't trade his soul for knowledge, or offer to burn his books. He never expressed regret for his part in building the bomb. Morally and practically, it was a necessary effort. He may have flirted with Communism, when he was younger. (His wife Kitty did more than flirt - she was an acknowledged member of the Party.) It's too easy to lose sight of the climate of the 1930's, and the war, the coming of the Red Scare afterwards. Desperate times, desperate measures. Oppenheimer was a product of that age, greater than the sum of his parts. He was both the New Adam, and the Old, with a foot in each camp. He became the destroyer of worlds.