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Manh(a)ttan Recap: Security Theater and Safety Risks [SPOILERS]

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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The race for the first atomic bomb heats up, and we learn more about the human cost in terms of safety and security protocols on this week’s episode of Manh(a)ttan. “Acceptable Limits” proved to be another more leisurely paced episode, yet tightly plotted, methodically moving pieces in place for what promises to be some fireworks next week.

We see a man walking through a town that is not Los Alamos — it has a European vibe — into a university building and then a room that looks a lot like Ackley’s and Winter’s labs: scientists scribbling on blackboards and drinking cup after cup of coffee. When a second man marches through the corridor with an air of authority, the others greet him: “Good morning, Dr. Heisenberg.” This is the headquarters of the German Manhattan Project, America’s foremost competition in the race to build an atomic bomb, with the outcome of the war at stake.

Back in the New Mexico desert, Frank Winter is definitely feeling the pressure, trying in vain to get useful information about various fissile material tests out of his lovestruck junior scientist, Fritz, who is vague on firm data on certain key properties. He can’t help talking incessantly about his lady love, Jeannie — the working girl who reads Dickens and charges him for their highly chaste (so far) “dates.” (When his co-workers tease him about this, Fritz points out that “all girls cost money” in terms of dinner, drinks, and the movies; at least with Jeannie it’s a flat rate.)

We learn the clock is ticking because an X10 nuclear reactor is about to go online at another top-secret site in Tennessee — the future Oak Ridge National Laboratory — and Frank’s group needs to demonstrate their competence with the precious bit of Pu-239 they’ve been given, in hopes of being given more. The prior samples came from Enrico Fermi’s lab in Chicago, made in teensy amounts in a cyclotron, which is why the substance is so precious; the X10 reactor will scale up production of Pu-239 from micrograms to kilograms.

Christopher Denham as Jim Meeks and Harry Lloyd as Paul Crosley.

“We’re about to have our very own plutonium factory,” Ackley tells Charlie after the latter gets yet another full physical prior to a top-secret business trip to that very site. Ackley is concerned that the military, in its rush to beat Germany to a bomb, isn’t quite as concerned with safety as they should be, given the potential destructive power of a nuclear critical reaction should anything go wrong. Charlie is being sent to do a safety review.

And he’s not going alone: Helen Prins, the sexually liberated sole female scientist in Winter’s group, is traveling undercover with him as his “wife.” Given that things are still tense between Charlie and his actual wife, Abby, after last week’s plagiarism accusations, this is probably not going to help matters, especially since Charlie neglected to share this fact with Abby. She learned it about from Liza Winter, who let it slip in casual conversation.

Interesting tidbit, courtesy of UCLA physicist David Saltzberg, who consulted on this episode: while Helen is an entirely fictional character, there was a young female physicist who worked with Enrico Fermi on the first nuclear reactor, later supervising the construction and operation of the nuclear reactor at Hanford in Washington State: Leona Woods Marshall Libby. She later recalled the oppressive mood among the scientists in those days in the race to be first with a nuclear bomb:

I think everyone was terrified that we were wrong [in our way of developing the bomb] and the Germans were ahead of us. That was a persistent and ever-present fear, fed, of course, by the fact that our leaders knew those people in Germany. They went to school with them. Our leaders were terrified, and that terror fed to us. If the Germans got it before we did, I don’t know what would have happened to the world. Something different. Germany led in the field of physics. In every respect, at the time war set in, when Hitler lowered the boom. It was a very frightening time.”

Things have smoothed over between Frank and his closeted gay mentor, Babbit — he is once again having a friendly dinner chez Winter. Liza regales Babbit with the tale of Frank’s gift to her on their second wedding anniversary: a rabbit in a box. Frank decided the rabbit was an appropriate symbol of their marriage: something about shared curiosity and “a keen mating instinct.” But within a week the rabbit developed sores all over its body and started banging its head against the cage, and died soon after. Turns out Frank stole the rabbit from a biology lab, where it was part of an infectious disease study. “Awww, you gave your wife syphilis. That’s nice,” Babbit teases. It’s tough not to see the rabbit story as ominous foreshadowing, given the current stresses on the Winters’ marriage.

Fritz is working long hours conducting experiments with the Pu-239 to get Frank the hard data he’s demanded. Alas, there is an unexpected chemical reaction. Fritz later calls it a rapid vapor expansion — a sudden pop and puff of smoke, right in his face. Paul Crosley and Jim Meeks (Christopher Denham) return to the lab to find Fritz in his underwear, on the floor with Geiger counter and scope, desperately searching for the missing plutonium. Crosley is incredulous: “You’ve misplaced a million dollars of Pu-239?” Misplaced isn’t quite the right word: Fritz inhaled the full 24 micrograms of this radioactive substance. Crosley and Meeks rush him to the medic, where Dr. Edelman (Adam Godley) pumps his stomach and presents poor Fritz with the contents, telling him he’ll need to recover the plutonium from all that “organic matter.”

To Frank’s credit, his immediate concern is with Fritz’s health, and he is appalled at Edelman’s “prescription”: aspirin and a case of beer, with instructions to collect all the ensuing urine. “But how do you feel?” Frank insists. “A little buzzed from the beer,” Fritz admits sheepishly. Fritz, Crosley and Meeks are a bit too blase about the odd effects of ingesting even a little Pu-239. They work their way through the case of beer and end up drunkenly making wagers on just how far away the Geiger counter can detect the radiation when Fritz strongly exhales.

Today we know all about the dangers of ionizing radiation, which includes x-rays, as well as the alpha, beta and gamma radiation emitted as plutonium decays. An ion’s electrical charge can lead to unnatural chemical reactions inside biological cells. It can break DNA chains, causing the cell to either die or develop a mutation and become cancerous, which can then spread. Fritz inhaled a tiny amount, but it’s easier for plutonium to cross into the bloodstream when it is inhaled, and from there it accumulates in the bone marrow, the liver  and other major organs. And it has a biological half-life of 200 years, exposing the surrounding tissue to even more radiation. (That said, several Los Alamos workers inhaled a good amount of plutonium dust in the 1940s, with no corresponding spike in incidents of lung cancer. So maybe Fritz will be okay.)

Frank confronts Edelman, who assures him the scientist’s exposure was within “acceptable limits.” Edelman “followed the Q9 directive to the letter,” but when Frank asks who wrote that directive, all he gets is “That’s classified.” Edelman’s ignorance of radiation and its effects on the body is soon unmasked; he’s an obstetrician by training. Frank demands that the project medical director be summoned to examine Fritz, but thanks to compartmentalization, Edelman has no idea who that might be.

Thus begins an elaborate cat-and-mouse dance as Frank attempts to chase down exactly who has been getting the blood and urine samples routinely taken from workers in the camp. Edelman’s assistant just drops them off to be posted, and they are supposedly analyzed elsewhere by the “project radiation chief.” Eventually Frank gets through to a ranking doctor and asks to speak to this mysterious project radiation chief. All the doctor knows is his security ID number, B-379, and calls the assigned extension. Edelman’s phone promptly rings, to the doctor’s shock. It’s all an elaborate illusion — security theater. Apparently nobody has been analyzing all those blood and urine samples; everyone just assumed someone else was handling it.

(L-R) Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zuckerman) and Helen Prins (Katja Herbers) confront Daniel Ellis (John Carroll Lynch) about their safety concerns regarding the nuclear reactor facility as Theodore Sinclair (Corey Allen) looks on.

Charlie isn’t thrilled about traveling with Helen, perhaps remembering how she played him a few episodes back to get hold of some plutonium. At the airport, he complains about Helen’s extra luggage: “How many pairs of shoes do you need?” She fires back with a dig about finding a grammatical error in “your little space paper” (Charlie confused “affect” and “effect”), and spins a tall tale for the woman at the ticket counter about how she supports her poor deadbeat husband — just for a little added humiliation. They are so filing for fake divorce when they get back to Los Alamos.

Still bickering, “Mr. and Mrs. Donaldson” arrive at the reactor facility in Tennessee and are met by the man in charge, one Daniel Ellis (John Carroll Lynch), who is quickly established as a stereotypical Southern good ol’ boy, referring to female employees as “pretty little patriots” and brusquely dismissing any contributions from Helen and his black assistant, Theodore Sinclair (Casey Allen), who he would clearly prefer to be seen and not heard.

He shows them the new reactor, a behemoth made of 600 pound of graphite: “She’s dressed and ready for her cotillion,” he boasts. By tomorrow morning, “She’ll start spinning uranium straw into plutonium gold.” (Helen notes his choice of pronoun approvingly and declares, “All reactors should be female.”) There were actually two fissile materials used in the bomb effort: uranium-235 and Pu-239. Most uranium is actually of the stable (non-fissile) U-238 variety; U-235 is an isotope, meaning the nucleus has the same number of protons but three fewer neutrons. Because the two are so chemically similar, it’s very difficult and expensive to separate them chemically. It’s much easier to separate Pu-239 from U-238, because they are different elements.

Anyway, Ellis’ friendly demeanor soon turns hostile when Charlie starts asking too many questions about safety procedures. Theodore helpfully suggests that Charlie would find the facility’s schematics more informative than a lengthy tour, but Ellis cuts him off and sends him for coffee — BURN! — telling Charlie that he is here to grease the wheels, not gum up the works. “I’m here to make sure you don’t set the atmosphere on fire,” Charlie retorts. Then he pulls rank and plays the Oppenheimer card, since Oppie’s orders outrank Ellis’ deadline.

Up until now, Helen has been mostly playing along with Ellis, but she follows Sinclair on his coffee run. “When I get dismissed by a group of men, usually it means they’re afraid of what I’m about to say,” she offers. Sinclair is initially defensive and rejects the olive branch: “This isn’t the underground railroad. I don’t need a woman to rescue me from the white man.” Undeterred, Helen points out that “no one else in that room gives a shit what you think,” but she does. He pauses for a beat and then says, “Green water,” before stalking off.

“Green water,” as we learn in the next scene, is what happens when uranium dissolves into liquid form. The neutrons slow down and become 100 times more fissionable. That’s why safety protocol demands that no more than 12 kilograms can be stored  in any given building; nobody wants a nuclear chain reaction to begin spontaneously. When Helen and Charlie review the blueprints, she notices that the renderings are off in scale by a good six inches. The uranium storage units are too close to each other. Helen tells Ellis he’ll need to clear all those vats, spread out over 100 acres, a process that will cause a week’s delay. Charlie backs her up: “You heard my ‘wife.’” Finally, they’re working as a team.

Meanwhile, Frank is hot on the trail of just who who hired Edelman, knowing he’d probably just follow the directive and not ask too many questions. That would be Alex Barath (Johnny Coyle), a fellow scientist, who we’ve seen briefly in prior episodes. Frank confronts Barath about why he hand-picked an inexperienced obstetrician as the camp’s ranking medical officer. Why not give the position to Barath himself? The Hungarian-born physicist worked with Marie Curie as a young man at the Pasteur Institute, and hence had firsthand experience with radiology.

Curie famously died of leukemia at age 67, very likely due to her years of exposure to ionizing radiation in the lab. Frank is correct that her lab books turned out to be highly radioactive — so much so that when scientists placed photographic plates between the pages, the resulting films revealed her fingerprints, made from radioactive deposits wherever she touched the paper. She publicly never spoke of the risks of radiation exposure, but Frank reminds Alex that she never let him handle the radioactive materials in the lab, either — likely to protect the young man who, he implies, had fallen in love with her.

His worst fears confirmed, Frank resolves to confront the issue head-on at the upcoming town council meeting: “People need to know you’re running a Potemkin clinic and it’s all a lie.” Barath warns him not to shout “plutonium!” in a crowded theater; Frank won’t just lose his job for this, he could well end up in a military prison.

Meanwhile, Liza is investigating who or what killed her beloved honeybees in preparation for the same town council meeting, where she plans to make a stink about — among other things — the Army’s use of the toxic pesticide DDT all over the base. Apparently studies with mosquitoes ended up with the exposed insects having violent seizures and bleeding internally until all their organs failed. Liza could really use a microscope to aid in her investigations, but when she asked Frank and Babbit to “borrow” one for her from the lab, they refused — the Army is very strict on that score and monitors equipment too closely. She ends up borrowing one from the schoolhouse.

In the end, neither Frank nor Liza testify at the town council meeting. He is dissuaded by Colonel Cox, who shares top-secret information with him provided by a German spy (going by the code name “Magpie”) indicating that the German bomb effort is two months ahead of the Los Alamos project. When Frank sees the accompanying equations, he realizes the Germans are already testing yields — they are more than two months ahead. If Frank raises a stink about the medical charade now, it will result in a weeks-long delay, giving the Germans even more of a head start. And if the Germans drop a nuclear bomb, “none of this makes any difference,” Cox warns.

John Benjamin Hickey plays Frank Winter and Marks Moses playes Colonel Alden Cox on WGN America's "Manh(a)ttan."

By now Frank has amply demonstrated his single-minded prioritizing of the bomb development over everything else, so his decision is never in doubt. He takes Cox’s advice and remains silent. Chalk it up to just another human cost of wartime science. At least it’s within the “acceptable limits,” right?

However, he does make one change to keep his people safer. Following Marie Curie’s lead, he insists that from now on, only he will be handle the radioactive plutonium in the lab — although he makes them think it’s because he doesn’t trust them, thanks to Fritz’s stupid mistake. God forbid he should show an inkling of warmth or humanity to his team.

Or to his wife. He returns home to find her still working on the case of the dead honeybees, having skipped the town meeting for lack of evidence. She didn’t find any trace of DDT or toxic pesticides in her dead honeybees, and she also ruled out infectious diseases, so it’s not due to a virus or parasite. “You’ll figure it out, you always do,” Frank says in consolation — but he changes his tune quickly when she asks if there might be something toxic in the tech area that’s at fault. This is hitting a bit too close to the truth, so naturally he lies to her — what’s one more lie when he’s told so many by now? — and claims he personally read all the environmental safety reports.

When that doesn’t work on the tenacious Liza (“A bee colony doesn’t just collapse on its own!”), he tries the old-school, “it’s all in your head, dear” line. Liza is insulted and hurt by the ploy, as she should be, especially when Frank follows up with a patronizing “We’ll get you some new bees.” She rebuffs him when he tries to stroke her face. And does she give up? Hah! We last see her pulling the preserved purple chrysanthemum she’d picked way back in the pilot from the pages of a book. Liza always figures things out.

Meanwhile, back in Tennessee, Helen and Charlie arrive on-site to find the staff have already begun unloading the various rods, as Ellis smugly informs them that the reactor should be fully operational within a day. It’s been given a clean bill of health on the storage by the military. Charlie points out they’d made a list of 22 major hazards to resolve — it wasn’t just the storage issue — and Ellis assures him the Army will “give your list the consideration it deserves — just as soon as we’re critical.” And he tells Charlie it’s no good playing the Oppenheimer card again, since the current directive comes straight from General Leslie Groves’ authority: “the guy who hired Oppenheimer.” Once again, safety is sacrificed for the greater good.

Will the fate of Liza’s bees be tied to the radioactive substances being handled in the tech sectors? Will Fritz still be breathing radioactivity (and might Jeannie finally relieve him of his virginity)? And surely we’ll see what happens when the Oak Ridge reactor comes online, and whether Charlie and Helen are right to be concerned. (Hint: they probably are, because History.) We’ll also have more commentary from David Saltzberg on the underlying physics of next week’s episode. So stay tuned!

Jennifer Ouellette About the Author: Jennifer Ouellette is a science writer who loves to indulge her inner geek by finding quirky connections between physics, popular culture, and the world at large. Follow on Twitter @JenLucPiquant.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. AlanHK 9:11 am 09/2/2014

    “when the Oak Ridge reactor comes online, and whether Charlie and Helen are right to be concerned. (Hint: they probably are, because History.)”

    – I can’t find any mention of an accident with the X10 reactor, so what is the “history”?
    The sites I check that discuss the real history:
    http://www.losalamoshistory.org/manhattan_discussion_intro.htm and http://www.atomicheritage.org/ haven’t reviewed this episode yet.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Jennifer Ouellette 11:14 am 09/2/2014

    There will be more on that in next week’s post, because it’s pertinent to that episode. But much revolves around issues with the reactor stalling out due to an issue with xenon poisoning. This famously happened at the Hanford reactor: http://www.mphpa.org/classic/HISTORY/H-06d2a.htm

    The writers of the series have adapted that issue to the Oak Ridge reactor (creative license!). :) Issues with xenon poisoning were also behind the Chernobyl accident decades later.

    Link to this
  3. 3. M Tucker 4:29 pm 09/2/2014

    Be careful, the Manh(a)ttan series is not history. The writers take great liberty with history. With this episode, involving the Heisenberg segment, we see a complete fantasy dreamed up by the writers. It might even be considered alternate history.

    It is easy to look into the actual participation of Heisenberg with regard to the Nazi bomb program. He was not a good enough Nazi to head a German project. It was commonly believed by most of the actual leaders of the allied bomb project (it was actually an American, British and Canadian effort with a great deal of help from former German scientists who escaped Nazi Germany) that the Nazis were about two years ahead of the American project. This belief instilled a constant drive to all participants in the Manhattan project to complete a working bomb as quickly as possible. It turns out that the Germans (Hitler) never gave an atomic bomb project the emphasis or resources necessary to even come close.

    Neither the Oak Ridge reactor nor the Hanford reactors ever had a possibility of a runaway chain reaction threatening a meltdown of the nuclear material. Chernobyl did have a problem that had a xenon poisoning event as the initial cause but the scientists and engineers at Hanford figured it out and the robust construction of the reactor allowed them to overcome the problem.

    As for poor Fritz: I personally believe he would in actuality be doomed to a painful death. It seems the writers want us to believe Fritz ingested the plutonium. They are collecting all the liquid from pumping his stomach and collecting all his urine. Fritz is asked, “You know how to separate heavy metals from organic matter don’t you?” It might be enlightening to read “The Plutonium Files: America’s Secret Medical Experiments in the Cold War” by Eileen Welsome. The secret experiments actually began with the Manhattan Project and it turns out that plutonium is extremely toxic. Fritz would have most likely becomes part of the military’s diabolical human experiment project.

    Enjoy the series, enjoy the actual history and keep in mind the series is not about educating it is about entertainment only.

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  4. 4. Jennifer Ouellette 5:40 pm 09/2/2014

    absolutely nobody is claiming the TV series is in line with history. Warning is completely unnecessary.

    Link to this
  5. 5. M Tucker 4:20 pm 09/3/2014

    “…while Helen is an entirely fictional character, there was a young female physicist who worked with Enrico Fermi on the first nuclear reactor…”

    I did enjoy reading the Leona Libby interview you linked to BUT there was a young female scientist who did work with plutonium at Los Alamos. She was not asked to join the project it was her husband, Donald Hornig, who was invited to Los Alamos but Oppenheimer got a bonus. Don’s wife Lilli was a chemist and was asked to work on plutonium chemistry. You won’t find anything on Lilli Hornig in Wikipedia but I found this from the American Chemical Society:

    “His wife, Lilli S. Hornig, also served on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, working initially on plutonium chemistry. “Then at some point they decided plutonium chemistry was too dangerous for women,” [reproductive concerns] says Donald Hornig, “so she went on to high-explosive lenses instead – which was a little crazy.” Lilli Hornig later became a chemistry professor at Brown University and chairman of the chemistry department at Trinity College, Washington, D.C.”

    http://pubs.acs.org/cen/hotarticles/cenear/950717/art02.html

    So we have a husband and wife living and working at Los Alamos who could and undoubtedly did speak with each other about the work, they knew exactly what Los Alamos was about, they lived with the other families, went to the same parties, and both worked with plutonium; Lilly on chemistry and Don on the implosion problem. Actual history can be stranger than fiction.

    You can find an interesting paragraph about Lilly on the Atomic Heritage Foundation web site under ‘Profiles’. If you visit the link to the American Chemical Society article you will learn about the contribution made to the bomb project by chemists.

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  6. 6. Altair4 10:19 am 09/4/2014

    The vast majority of the Xenon-135 is the radioactive daughter product of the beta decay of the fission product Iodine-135. Xenon-135 itself was NOT a cause of the Chernobyl accident; it was the mishandled attempt to “over-ride” the Xenon transient, and the rather ill-advised measures the operators resorted to, in a reactor that was not designed to over-ride Xenon; that triggered the Chernobyl accident.

    The effects of Xenon poisoning were first noted at the first attempt to restart the Hanford “B” Reactor. When operators could not restart the reactor after the first refueling outage, reactor designer Eugene Wigner stated that he expected they might have a problem with restart. Wigner told the operators to wait 24 hours and attempt again. The next day the Hanford “B” reactor was successfully restarted. Xenon-135 has a half-life of about 9 hours, and one merely has to wait a day or so for the bulk of the Xe-135 to decay. Very few reactors are designed to over-ride Xenon, and must wait a day following shutdown before restart can be attempted. Naval reactors are the exception. They were designed to over-ride Xenon because the ship has to be able to move when the skipper orders it, regardless of how short a time has elapsed since reactor shutdown.

    When I was a doctoral student at MIT, I took the “reactor lab” class. One of my projects for the class was to measure the Xenon transient of the MIT Reactor. The MIT Reactor can over-ride Xenon, so the reactivity effect can be measured. I spent the night with the MIT reactor. The measurement began Friday afternoon before the weekend shutdown of the reactor, and I was measuring the transient all evening, through the night, and into the wee hours of Saturday morning.

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  7. 7. Jennifer Ouellette 12:58 pm 09/4/2014

    And now you’ve gone and provided spoilers for the science in next week’s post. :) Yes, I should have clarified that xenon-25 issues were related to Chernobyl accident but not the first cause….

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  8. 8. Altair4 10:34 am 09/5/2014

    At the risk of providing more spoilers, I’d like to comment that the previous episodes of Manh(a)ttan were incredibly POOR in the accurate portrayal of the science. Unfortunately, the episode “Acceptable Limits” was no different.

    There were actually three individual Manhattan Project sites in the vicinity of Oak Ridge; they were code-named (west to east) K-25, X-10, and Y-12. K-25 and Y-12 had the same mission; to provide highly enriched weapons-grade Uranium to the Project, but they differed in their technologies. K-25 enriched via the gaseous diffusion process, whereas Y-12 used “Calutrons” which were an ElectroMagnetic Isotope Separation (EMIS) technology. The X-10 site, which is the location of the modern day Oak Ridge National Laboratory, was a prototype for the Plutonium production operation that would be built at Hanford in Washington State.

    In “Acceptable Limits”, they reference the young women that were hired as operators. These were the “Calutron Girls” that operated the Calutron EMIS enrichment facilities at the Y-12 site, miles away from X-10, and not nearby as depicted in “Acceptable Limits”. More on the “Calutron Girls” at http://smithdray1.net/angeltowns/or/go.htm

    Contrary to the claim of Charlie Isaacs, there was NEVER any concern that the X-10 reactor was going to ignite the atmosphere. The writers of Manh(a)ttan are just attempting to scare people. Contrary to what Charlie Isaacs states, uranium fuel does NOT flow into the X-10 reactor. The uranium fuel is loaded by hand in the form of long rods introduced into the “loading face” of the reactor as depicted: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:X10_Reactor_Face.jpg

    That scene was loosely based on the writings of Richard Feynman in his book “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out”. But Feynman was describing his visit to the Y-12 plant, not X-10. At Y-12, gaseous uranium hexaflouride (UF6) did flow into the Calutrons.

    The concern for criticality by Charlie and Helen is WRONG too. Helen actually understates the increase in fission cross-section with slow neutrons vs fast neutrons. She states the slow neutrons are 100X ( 2 orders of magnitude ) more likely to induce fission relative to fast neutrons. It’s actually more like 3 orders of magnitude, or a factor of 1000X. However, the mean free path and range of the neutrons also go DOWN by that same factor. So it’s more of the writers’ unscientific NONSENSE that uranium spread over “100 acres” is going to couple to form an unexpected criticality.

    The term “green water” was the code-word for uranyl-nitrate solution. In X-10, and later at Hanford; natural uranium would be loaded into the reactor. After irradiation in the reactor in which U-235 was burned, and some of the U-238 was transmuted to Pu-239; the irradiated fuel rods were pushed out the back of the reactor when new fuel was pushed in at the loading face. This spent fuel was collected and dissolved in nitric acid before further chemical processing to extract the Plutonium. Because the fuel was mostly still Uranium, which forms Uranyl-Nitrate when dissolved in nitric acid, one obtains Uranyl-Nitrate solution; and the solution was code-named “green water”. However, Oak Ridge would only have this “green water” byproduct AFTER the X-10 reactor was operated; and NOT BEFORE as depicted in “Acceptable Limits”.

    In the scene where Fritz swallows the Pu-239, they detect the ingested Pu-239 with Geiger counters. Pu-239 decays 100% by alpha decay; emitting alpha particles. Alpha particles have essentially no penetrating power, as they can be stopped by a sheet of paper. Alpha particles can not even penetrate the dead layer of skin on the body’s exterior. NO WAY can alpha particles emitted from Pu-239 in the stomach escape to the surface of the body to be detected by Geiger counters, as depicted in “Acceptable Limits”.

    The representation of the science is overwhelmingly POOR. I understand that Manh(a)ttan is entertainment and not meant as either a history lesson nor to teach science. However, the producers of Manh(a)ttan went through great pains to accurately represent the interiors of the scientists’ housing. If the producers are going through the trouble to assure the authenticity of the background scenery; one would think that they would pay even a small modicum of attention to the accuracy of the script.

    Link to this
  9. 9. Altair4 11:44 am 09/5/2014

    Manh(a)ttan gets it right when Daniel Ellis brags about how much electric power the facilities use. It wasn’t X-10 that required the electric power; but K-25 and Y-12. K-25 required large amounts of electric power to run the massively powerful electric motors that drove the UF6 compressors for each of the multitude of stages in the K-25 enrichment cascade. Y-12 required large amounts of electric power to run the magnets for the ElectroMagnetic Isotope Separation technology or “Calutrons”. The K-25 and Y-12 plants were located in Oak Ridge to be close to the Government-owned Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) power plants.

    I have no idea why Oak Ridge needed so much mayonnaise!

    Link to this
  10. 10. Luke25 12:05 pm 09/19/2014

    As other commenters have mentioned, in the real world, Richard Feynman was the physicist sent by Oppenheimer to Tennessee, to the “Clinton Engineer Works” as it was then called to oversee criticality safety and other concerns. (See Feynman’s “Los Alamos from Below”, James Gleick’s “Genius” etc.)

    Given the fictional Charlie Isaacs’ youth and strong mathematical, theoretical aptitude (even relative to the high standards of wartime Los Alamos) it does seem like some aspects of this character are drawn from Feynman. Charlie’s “that’s not a valve, that’s a window” scene is drawn essentially verbatim from Feynman’s anecdotes.

    Realistically, the safety concern Feynman identified was not the X-10 pile itself but the “green water” – the storage quantities and geometry of highly-enriched uranium in uranyl nitrate solution, pending conversion back to uranium metal for use in Little Boy after its enrichment in the Y-12 calutrons and/or the diffusion plant.

    Interestingly, “Manhattan” seems to completely neglect any mention of the uranium bomb.

    Fritz’ mishap with the plutonium is based on a real event – chemist Don Mastick swallowed some micrograms of the priceless, scarce new metal in 1944.

    https://www.nytimes.com/books/first/w/welsome-plutonium.html

    Link to this

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