There’s been a little radio silence over here last week; the truth is, I’ve been very absorbed in NUKEMAP-related work. It is going very well; I’ve found some things that I thought were going to be difficult to be not so difficult, after all, and I’ve found myself to be more mathematically capable than I usually would presume, once I really started drilling down in technical minutiae. The only down-side of the work is that it is mostly coding, mostly technical, not terribly conducive to having deep or original historical thoughts, and, of course, I’ve gotten completely obsessed with it. But I’m almost over the hump of the hard stuff.
Two weeks ago, I made a trip out to the West Coast to hang out with the various wonks that congregate at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute for International Studies. This was at the behest of Stephen Schwartz, who teaches a class over there and had me come out to talk to them about nuclear secrecy, and to give a general colloquium talk.
Stephen became known to me early on in my interest in nuclear things for his work in editing the book Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Since 1940 (Brookings Institute, 1998). This is one of these all-time useful reference books; it is the only book I’ve read, for example, that has anything like a good description of the development of US nuclear secrecy policies. And the list of contributors is a who’s-who of late 1990s nuclear scholarship. The book includes really detailed discussions about how difficult it is to put a price tag on nuclear weapons spending in the United States, for reasons relating both to the obvious secrecy issue, but also the fact that these expenses have not really been disentangled from a lot of other spending.
I’ve had a copy of the book for over a decade now, and it has come in handy again and again. I’m not a numbers-guy (NUKEMAP work being the exception), but looking at these kind of aggregate figures helps me wrap my head around the “big picture” of something like, say, the Manhattan Project, in a way that is often lost by the standard historical approach of tight biographical narratives. Of the $2 billion spent on the Manhattan Project, where did it go, and what does it tell us about how we should talk about the history of the bomb?
Here is a breakdown of cost expenditures for the Manhattan Project sites, through the end of 1945:
|Site/Project||1945 dollars||2012 dollars||%|
|OAK RIDGE (Total)||$1,188,352,000||$18,900,000,000||63%|
|—K-25 Gaseous Diffusion Plant||$512,166,000||$8,150,000,000||27%|
|—Y-12 Electromagnetic Plant||$477,631,000||$7,600,000,000||25%|
|—Clinton Engineer Works, HQ and central utilities||$155,951,000||$2,480,000,000||8%|
|—S-50 Thermal Diffusion Plant||$15,672,000||$250,000,000||1%|
|HANFORD ENGINEER WORKS||$390,124,000||$6,200,000,000||21%|
|SPECIAL OPERATING MATERIALS||$103,369,000||$1,640,000,000||5%|
|LOS ALAMOS PROJECT||$74,055,000||$1,180,000,000||4%|
|RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT||$69,681,000||$1,110,000,000||4%|
|HEAVY WATER PLANTS||$26,768,000||$430,000,000||1%|
I’ve taken this chart from here. The “current dollars” are 2012 dollars, with a “production line” labor deflator used (out of all of the options here, it seemed like the most appropriate to the kind of work we’re talking about, most of which was construction).
To break the numbers down a bit more, K-25, Y-12, and S-50 were all uranium enrichment plants. Hanford was for plutonium production. “Special operating materials” refers to the raw materials necessary for the entire project, most of which was uranium, but also highly-refined graphite and fluorine, among other things. Los Alamos was of course the design laboratory. The heavy water plants were constructed in Trail, British Columbia, Morgantown, West Virginia, Montgomery, Alabama, and Dana, Indiana. Their product was not used on a large scale during the war; it was produced as a back-up in case graphite proved to be a bad moderator for the Hanford reactors.
I’m a visual guy, so I of course immediate start looking at these numbers like this:
Which puts things a little more into proportion. The main take-away of these numbers for me is to be pretty impressed by the fact that some 80% of the money was spent on the plants necessary producing fissile materials. Only 4% went towards Los Alamos. And yet, in terms of how we talk about nuclear weapons and the Manhattan Project, we spend a huge amount of the time talking about the work at Los Alamos, often with only token gestures to the work at Hanford and Oak Ridge as the “next step” after the theory had been worked out.
We can also break those numbers down a little finer, by turning to another source, Appendix 2 of Richard Hewlett and Roland Anderson’s The New World. There, they have costs divided into “plant” and “operations” costs:
|OAK RIDGE (Total)||$882,678,000||$305,674,000||74%|
|—K-25 Gaseous Diffusion Plant||$458,316,000||$53,850,000||89%|
|—Y-12 Electromagnetic Plant||$300,625,000||$177,006,000||63%|
|—Clinton Engineer Works, HQ and central utilities||$101,193,000||$54,758,000||65%|
|—S-50 Thermal Diffusion Plant||$10,605,000||$5,067,000||68%|
|HANFORD ENGINEER WORKS||$339,678,000||$50,446,000||87%|
|SPECIAL OPERATING MATERIALS||$20,810,000||$82,559,000||20%|
|LOS ALAMOS PROJECT||$37,176,000||$36,879,000||50%|
|RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT||$63,323,000||$6,358,000||91%|
|HEAVY WATER PLANTS||$15,801,000||$10,967,000||59%|
They do not define how they differentiated between “plant” and “operations” expenses, but the most plausible guess is that the former are various start-up costs (e.g. construction) and one-off costs (e.g. big purchases of materials) and the latter are day-to-day costs (general labor force, electricity, etc.).
Looking at that percentage can tell you a bit about how much of the Manhattan Project was the building of a weapons production system as opposed to building three individual weapons. Nearly three-fourths of the expense was for building a system so large that Niels Bohr famously called it country-sized factory.1
Another way to look at this is to say that we usually talk about the atomic bomb as project focused on scientific research. But one could arguably say that it was more a project of industrial production instead. This is actually quite in line with how General Groves, and even J. Robert Oppenheimer, saw the problem of nuclear weapons. Oppenheimer, in testimony before Congress in 1945, went so far as to phrase it this way:
I think it is important to emphasize [the role of industry in the Manhattan Project], because I deplore the tendency of myself and my colleagues to pretend that with our own hands we actually did this job. We had something to do with it. If it had not been for scientists, there would have been no atomic bomb; but if there had been only scientists, there also would be no atomic bomb.
This is actually a very important point, and one which shines light onto a lot of other questions regarding nuclear weapons. For example, one of the questions that people ask me again and again is how close the Germans were to getting an atomic bomb. The answer is, more or less, not very close at all. Why not? Because even if their scientific understanding was not too far away — which it was not, even though they were wrong about several things and behind on several others — they never came close to the stage that would be necessary to turn it into an industrial production program, as opposed to just a laboratory understanding. That sheer fact is much more important than whether Heisenberg fully understood the nature of chain reactions or anything like that.
Why do we think of the bomb as a scientific problem as opposed to an industrial one? There are perhaps a few answers to this. One is that from the beginning, the bomb came to symbolize the ultimate fruits of scientific modernity: it was seen as the worst culmination of all of those centuries of rational thought. What grim irony, and what a standard story, that knowledge could lead to such ruin? Another reason is that scientific adventure stories are more interesting than industrial adventure stories. It is much more fun to talk about characters like Szilard, Oppenheimer, and Feynman running around trying to solve difficult logic problems in a desperate race against time, than it is to talk about the difficulties inherent to the construction of very large buildings.
Finally, though, there is the issue of secrecy. The scientific facts of the atomic bomb, especially the physics, were the most easily declassifiable. As discussed in a previous post (with many nods towards the work of Rebecca Press Schwartz), one of the main reasons the Smyth Report was so physics-heavy is because the physics was not terribly secret. Nuclear chain reactions, the idea of critical mass, the basic ideas behind uranium enrichment and reactors: all of these things were knowable and even known by physicists all over the world well prior to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The really hard stuff — the chemistry, the metallurgy, the engineering “know-how,” the specific constructions of the massive fissile-material production plants — was silently omitted from official accounts.
Looking at the costs of the bomb help rectify this perception a bit. It still doesn’t get us outside of the heroic narratives, for they are very appealing, but it can help us appreciate the magnitude of what is left out of the standard story.
- Bohr reportedly told Teller upon seeing Los Alamos and hearing about the entire project: “You see, I told you it couldn’t be done without turning the whole country into a factory. You have done just that.” [↩]