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If you like Glenn Seaborg's story, you might also like:
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Glenn Seaborg
Glenn Seaborg
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Glenn Seaborg Interview

Discoverer of Plutonium

September 21, 1990
Berkeley, California

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  Glenn Seaborg

We want to talk about the moment of discovery. When you discovered plutonium, did you know what you were trying to accomplish?

Glenn Seaborg Interview Photo
Glenn Seaborg: Yes. Ed McMillan had started it, but he was called away for war work on radar at MIT. After I asked my graduate student, Arthur Wahl, to become very expert in the chemistry of element 93, which had been discovered by McMillan and Abelson but which work had not led to the discovery of element 94, we made our first deuteron bombardment of uranium on December 14, 1940, and then the chemical separations were made and an alpha particle emitting daughter of element 93 was found. We suspected that was due to element 94, and on February 23, 1941 we were able to prove through chemical techniques that the alpha emitter was due to the new element with the atomic number 94.

Could you tell us about the night you discovered plutonium?

Glenn Seaborg: Well, it was in Gilman Hall, Room 307. It was a stormy night. Art Wahl, my first graduate student, was performing the oxidation experiment and it was just clear that we were able to oxidize this new alpha particle emitter for the first time under conditions that no other element would be oxidized in that way. So that this led to the discovery and that was exciting. Perhaps another exciting point of my career was when I finally realized that the elements should fit in the periodic table as actinide elements. The actinide concept. I remember that I was preparing a report for a visiting committee to come on the following Monday and I dictated this report to one of the women in the laboratory, a chemist, but who was also able to take shorthand, and by the way who had been a classmate of mine at UCLA, and it was while I was dictating that report that this idea really crystallized. I said, "Oh, it must be this way." I dictated that concept, and that report -- just as it was dictated on that day in July of 1944 -- has been published in what is called the National Nuclear Energy Series, the Plutonium Project Record. That was certainly one of the most exciting moments of my life, when I just got this concept that this is the way the periodic table should be rearranged.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

Did you have the sense that these things were like stones lying under your feet, waiting to be found?

Glenn Seaborg: Yes, that was kind of it. That was it. I was just dictating this report and said, "Hey, this is the way this should fit together." The actual working of how I dictated that report is in the Plutonium Project Record.

Plutonium was something that had such a huge impact on the world and on your work for years to come. You knew what you were looking for, you were just trying to figure out a way to do it. What was the feeling when you realized that you had reached it?

Glenn Seaborg: I would say just one of satisfaction.

I think that where we first knew it was when we were trying to identify the atomic number of the next two elements, those with the atomic number 95 and 96 -- remember neptunium was 93, plutonium was 94 -- and were not succeeding. Then I got this idea of the actinide concept. We applied those new chemical concepts then, and then we began to detect the isotopes of the next two elements. That was a moment of excitement. That was probably one of the most exciting moments of my life.

At the time, did you turn around and shake hands with people? Did you decide to go out and have a drink? Did you jump up and down?

Glenn Seaborg Interview Photo
Glenn Seaborg: No, nothing like that. Of course it doesn't happen in the course of a few minutes. It's sort of a will-o-the-wisp thing. We saw it and then it disappeared. Then we saw it again and then it disappeared and then finally we saw it and we could confirm it. It went on for many days so there was never one moment where you would stop and celebrate that way.

Just like being on a rabbit hunt?

Glenn Seaborg: Yes, it was kind of like that. But it was exciting to have this concept verified this way, and for the first time to see these alpha particles in the chemical fraction that you would predict would contain them on the basis of the actinide concept. You make the chemical separation, then you put the final fraction on a little plate -- usually a platinum plate -- and then you put that into a counter. Then you hear the clicks of the counter as the counts come in, or see them on an oscillograph or something like that. That's what I mean by seeing it. The actual observation of the radioactive decay. Of course you don't see anything. We just talk that way. You don't see the alpha particles but you see their effect on an instrument and then you just say loosely, "We saw them."

You see the signature?

Glenn Seaborg: You see the signature. That's a good way of putting it. Yes.

You once said that medieval alchemists had often tried to change one element into another and never quite made it. Did you have a sense in this period that you had finally succeeded where the alchemists had failed?

Glenn Seaborg: I can't say that I ever really sat down and said, "Oh look, I have succeeded where alchemists have failed." It just was everyday life. You'd come to the laboratory, you'd do your experiments, you'd record it, you'd make your interpretation, and I don't think we ever stopped to think in those kind of terms. I know we didn't explicitly think in terms of "Wow, what a discovery we've made and what an effect this will have on the world!" This was our research. This is what we were looking for. We'd found it. That's great. We felt very happy about that, but we never stopped to congratulate ourselves and say what a wonderful thing this is. When we measured the fissionability of the other isotope of plutonium that we found after the first one -- the one that we identified on February 23, when we produced large amounts, half a microgram of the daughter of the isotope 93-239, which is 94-239. 93-239 is the McMillan and Abelson isotope. When we produced 94-239 in large enough quantity to identify its alpha particle and measure its fissionability and found that it was fissionable with slow neutrons, just like uranium 235, we began to realize then that it had the potential to be the explosive ingredient for an atomic bomb. I should say that we were doing this as our own research. We kept it secret voluntarily and when we reported this to the people in Washington, this really became the basis for the plutonium part of the Manhattan Project, the atomic bomb project.

Was there a fear at that time that it would take years to produce the amount of fuel that you would need?

Glenn Seaborg: Yes, there certainly were doubts that we could ever produce it in time.

After we moved to Chicago, immediately, in April of 1942 -- April 19th, by the way. I arrived there on my 30th birthday, April 19th, 1942 -- I got the idea that we could probably produce weighable amounts of plutonium by bombarding huge amounts of uranium, hundreds of pounds, for long periods of time, weeks or even months. Then, knowing the chemical properties, we could extract it so that we would have enough to measure its -- what we call macroscopic properties. Up until now we were just working on the radioactive properties -- unweighable amounts. I had this idea that we could produce it in large enough amounts that we could have it in actual ponderable amounts, weighable amounts. There were a lot of people that thought that this would not be possible but I thought it would. I hired a couple of ultra-micro chemists, Burris Cunningham and Louis Werner here from Berkeley, and Michael Cefola from New York University, and brought them to Chicago. They took these microgram amounts -- a microgram is about a 30 millionth of an ounce. They could do chemical investigations with the actual element itself -- weighable amounts, ponderable amounts, macroscopic quantities -- and that was the key to working out the separation process for the plutonium that would be produced in the chain reacting piles, as they call them, at Hanford, Washington.

Thirty millionths of an ounce?

Glenn Seaborg Interview Photo
Glenn Seaborg: Yes. As I say there were a number of people that thought that we couldn't produce that much. That was a lot. Nobody had been producing weighable amounts by transmutation experiments, with cyclotrons and so forth. These 100 pounds (of uranium) were radiated with neutrons at cyclotrons, one at St. Louis and one at Berkeley. There were people who thought that wouldn't be possible. There were others who thought that even if you did, you wouldn't be able to do meaningful chemical experiments with that small of an amount of material. I had the idea and the confidence that perhaps this could be done, and we did that during the summer and fall of 1942 at the wartime Metallurgical Laboratory. This then, went on to the working out of the chemical separation process. One of the colleagues, Stanley G. Thompson, was a classmate at UCLA. In order to assemble the chemists I needed at the wartime Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago, I had to draw on just about everybody I knew, including a number of my classmates at UCLA. Stan Thompson got the idea for the separation process. This was called bismuth phosphate process -- by which it was finally possible to separate the plutonium at Hanford, Washington from the uranium and radioactive fission products. There were tremendous amounts of radioactivity produced so it had to be a process that worked by remote control -- behind large shieldings of water tanks, of lead, and so forth.

Did you sense that what you were really doing was uncovering the secrets of nature?

Glenn Seaborg: Yes, it was, in what we perceived to be a life or death race with Adolf Hitler's scientists in Germany. Because two German chemists had discovered fission and we had certain indications. They bombed out the heavy water plant in Norway. That's one way of producing plutonium. Lots of signs made us think that we were in a losing race with Hitler's scientists, and we had understood full well what it would have meant if Adolf Hitler had got the atomic bomb before the Allies did.

It would have meant world domination.

Glenn Seaborg: I think it would have meant world domination for Adolf Hitler.

That's a pretty scary thought.

Glenn Seaborg: It was. We were running scared. That's why we worked six days a week and had meetings five nights a week. It was a scary time but also obviously a very interesting time. I rate it as the most exciting time of my life.

The Manhattan Project was such a massive scientific effort. What was your sense of what was going on? Did you know how big the scientific effort was?

Glenn Seaborg: Yes, I knew how big a scientific effort the Manhattan Project was, but it was compartmentalized and there were many laboratories. We had the laboratory at the University of Chicago, the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago. The Metallurgical Laboratory that worked out the chain reaction. Enrico Fermi did that for the production of plutonium. And then the methods for this chemical separation after its productions, I was in charge of that. They had the pilot plant at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where they ran a low level reactor to make smaller amounts of plutonium and tested the chemical separation process. Then they had the production plant at Hanford, Washington, the southeast part of the state of Washington. At the peak they had 50,000 workers building the reactors and the chemical plants, and then the method that Enrico Fermi had worked out for the reactors and the method I had worked out with my people for the chemical separation of the plutonium produced in the so-called reactors or piles, came to fruition at Hanford. There they produced the plutonium 239, which was chemically separated by our process. Thank God it worked. As soon as it was separated in the spring of 1945, it was shipped to Los Alamos, where Robert Oppenheimer was in charge of the weapons laboratory, and his scientists, chemists and so forth, fabricated it into an atomic bomb. I've only told you about the plutonium part. There was another equally massive effort, involving thousands of people, producing uranium 235, the fissionable isotope of natural uranium, and that was put together as an atomic bomb at Los Alamos. Then the plutonium was tested as the atomic bomb at Alamogordo on July 16, 1945, and used in Japan early in August. The U-235 bomb, a bomb made from U-235 that didn't need to be tested for certain reasons, was then used on Hiroshima on August 6, and the plutonium bomb was used on Nagasaki on August 9, and that brought an end to the war. That's a very brief discussion of the Manhattan Project.

There were thousands of people. I had about 100 chemists working for me to work out the chemical separation processes, the purification process and so forth at the Metallurgical Laboratory. Not always the same 100, because then I had to have these chemists go to Oak Ridge and man that laboratory and others go to Hanford, Washington to man that laboratory. I should say there were some women involved too. I'm using the term loosely. As I say, at the peak, there were about 100 professional scientists, bachelors and Ph.D.'s and, of course, maybe another 50 to 100 laboratory technicians and so forth. But throughout the Project, thousands of people were working.

That must have required an incredible amount of coordination.

Glenn Seaborg: There was a great deal of coordination required in the work of my section, as they called it. That had as many as one hundred scientists working at a time. I met with them in group meetings, as I've told, practically every night. I kept in very close touch. I interviewed every scientist who came into my section. I did not ever delegate that, so I had some feeling for whether he would fit, and I met in a number of these meetings with the group leaders regularly. I organized it also into a very tightly organized organization. I was what they called a section chief. I had an assistant section chief, and there were three group leaders under him with their groups; another assistant section chief, and he had three groups under him; and another assistant section chief, and I believe four groups there. We met regularly with these group leaders as well. And then the subsections, as we called them, met regularly, and I was conversant with -- I believe -- everything that each of the one hundred scientists was involved with. It was a great organization effort, and if I may say so myself, I think that may have been the key to the success of the work -- the fact that I was really in there and on top of all of it. I think if you talk to any of the people who worked with me in this Chicago section, they would bear this out.

Is that what made it possible to accomplish so much in such a short period of time?

Glenn Seaborg: Yes, absolutely. We certainly did in one year what you almost couldn't do today. It was an amazing effort, and an amazing performance, if I do say so myself. Not only my section but the others. I don't think there's been anything like it since.

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