was to be directed from the Universityof Chicago by Arthur H. Comptonunder the classiﬁed wartime name of the Plutonium Project. In January1942, Compton consolidated the effortby moving many of the separate re-search projects to the University of Chicago under the cryptic title of theMetallurgical Laboratory. The MetLab’s goals were to demonstrate a nu-clear chain reaction using natural urani-um and to develop chemical proceduresfor isolating the plutonium that wouldbe produced in the reactor fuel. Fromthe group of scientists at Berkeley whohad worked to discover plutonium (see“The Making of Plutonium-239”),Glenn Seaborg moved from Berkeley toChicago in April 1942 to head the plu-tonium chemical-separation effort.Joseph Kennedy, Arthur Wahl, andEmilio Segrè continued their researchon the chemistry and nuclear propertiesof plutonium at Berkeley and thentransferred to the Site Y Laboratory atLos Alamos in early 1943. Their col-league, Ed McMillan, was alreadythere, having helped set up the newLaboratory.
The Manhattan Project.
As theweapon programs grew in size andcomplexity, it was decided that the mil-itary should coordinate the effort, in-cluding spearheading the huge construc-tion projects needed to supply the rawweapons materials. In August 1942,the Army Corps of Engineers formedthe Manhattan Engineer District, orManhattan Project, and took over con-trol of all research on atomic weapons.In September, General Leslie R. Groveswas assigned to direct the Project.At that time, even before the demon-stration of a chain reaction at Chicago,plans were already being made for con-struction of larger reactors to produceplutonium in the kilogram quantitiesneeded for weapons. A pilot reactorwould be built in Clinton, Tennessee,and production reactors would be builtat the Hanford Engineer Works, a sitein southern Washington adjacent to theColumbia River. The Clinton and Han-ford facilities would also perform chem-ical separation of “product” (plutonium)from the reactor fuel pellets; Clintonwould develop the process, Hanfordwould use it on a large scale with auto-mated state-of-the-art facilities.Right from the start, plutonium was asecret topic, and the Manhattan Projectused the code words “product” or “49”to refer to plutonium (“49” was arrivedat by taking the ﬁnal digits in the atom-ic number, 94, and the atomic mass,239). During the period from 1941through 1944, documents discussing“product” were classiﬁed Secret Limit-ed. Only personnel with authorizationto know were permitted knowledge of plutonium.In March 1943, the Los Alamos Projectbecame operational under the directionof J. Robert Oppenheimer. The respon-sibility of this laboratory was the de-sign of the uranium-235 and plutonium-239 weapons. Two months later, LosAlamos was also assigned responsibilityfor the ﬁnal puriﬁcation of plutoniumand its reduction to metal.
To protect thethousands of workers at the varioussites who would soon be working toproduce kilogram amounts of this newelement, a Health Division at Chicagowas authorized in July 1942, and a teamof personnel knowledgeable about theThe Human Plutonium Injection Experiments
Number 23 1995
Los Alamos Science
The Making of Plutonium-239
In 1940, Edwin McMillan and Philip Abelson demonstrated with the cy-clotron at the University of California Radiation Laboratory in Berkeley thatwhen uranium-238 was bombarded with neutrons, a new element was pro-duced (neptunium-239) that was chemically distinct from the uranium. In1941, Glenn Seaborg, Joseph Kennedy, Arthur Wahl, and Emilio Segrè,building on the earlier work, isolated the daughter of neptunium-239, an el-ement, also of mass 239, that had been predicted theoretically by LouisTurner. The chemical properties of this material were different than thoseof neptunium or uranium, and its presence was identiﬁed by its alpha activ-ity (about 130,000 alpha disintegrations per minute per microgram, whichcorresponded to a half-life of about 30,000 years). They then demonstrat-ed that the isotope had the properties predicted by Turner—it underwentﬁssion with slow neutrons with a greater cross-section than uranium-235,making it a potentially favorable material for an explosive chain reaction.The new element was named plutonium by its discoverers in 1942.The next important step was to demonstrate how to produce plutonium-239 in the quantities needed for a weapon. The key was the constructionof a “nuclear pile” that could sustain a chain reaction. In such a reactor,the predominant uranium-238 isotope in the fuel would absorb neutronsfrom the chain reaction to create uranium-239. This isotope would thendecay by two beta emissions to plutonium-239. By December 1942, Enri-co Fermi achieved a controlled chain reaction in a graphite-uranium pileunder the west stands of Stagg Field at the University of Chicago, therebycompleting the ﬁrst goal of the Met Lab and demonstrating in principle thatplutonium-239 could be produced in quantity. It was then up to the Man-hattan Project to construct the production reactors and for Seaborg’s teamat the Met Lab to perfect the chemical techniques that would separate theplutonium from the uranium fuel and the radioactive ﬁssion products.