Atomic Energy for Military Purposes (The Smyth Report)

The Official Report on the Development of the Atomic Bomb Under the Auspices of the United States Government

By Henry De Wolf Smyth



1.35. Chemical atomic-weight determinations give the average weight of a large number of atoms of a given element. Unless the element has only one isotope, the chemical atomic weight is not proportional to the mass of individual atoms. The mass spectrograph developed by F. W. Aston and others from the earlier apparatus of J. J. Thomson measures the masses of individual isotopes. Indeed, it was just such measurements that proved the existence of isotopes and showed that on the atomic-weight scale the masses of all atomic species were very nearly whole numbers. These whole numbers, discovered experimentally, are the mass numbers which we have already defined and which represent the sums of the numbers of the protons and neutrons; their discovery contributed largely to our present views that all nuclei are combinations of neutrons and protons.

1.36. Improved mass spectrograph data supplemented in a few cases by nuclear reaction data have given accurate figures for binding energies for many atomic species over the whole range of atomic masses. This binding energy, B, is the difference between the true nuclear mass, M, and the sum of the masses of all the protons and neutrons in the nucleus. That is,

B = (ZMp + NMn) - M

where Mp and Mn are the masses of the proton and neutron respectively, Z is the number of protons, N = A-Z is the number of neutrons and M is the true mass of the nucleus. It is more interesting to study the binding energy per particle, B/A, than B itself. Such a study shows that, apart from fluctuations in the light nuclei, the general trend of the binding energy per particle is to increase rapidly to a flat maximum around A = 60 (nickel) and then decrease again gradually. Evidently the nuclei in the middle of the periodic table - nuclei of mass numbers 40 to 100 - are the most strongly bound. Any nuclear reaction where the particles in the resultant nuclei are more strongly bound than the particles in the initial nuclei will release energy. Speaking in thermochemical terms, such reactions are exothermic. Thus, in general, energy may be gained by combining light nuclei to form heavier ones or by breaking very heavy ones into two or three smaller fragments. Also, there are a number of special cases of exothermic nuclear disintegrations among the first ten or twelve elements of the periodic table, where the binding energy per particle varies irregularly from one element to another.

1.37. So far we seem to be piling one supposition on another. First we assumed that mass and energy were equivalent; now we are assuming that atomic nuclei can be rearranged with a consequent reduction in their total mass, thereby releasing energy which can then be put to use. It is time to talk about some experiments that convinced physicists of the truth of these statements.


1.38. As we have already said, Rutherford's work in 1919 on artificial nuclear disintegration was followed by many similar experiments. Gradual improvement in high-voltage technique made it possible to substitute artificially produced high-speed ions of hydrogen or helium for natural alpha particles. J. D. Cockcroft and E. T. S. Walton in Rutherford's laboratory were the first to succeed in producing nuclear changes by such methods. In 1932 they bombarded a target of lithium with protons of 700 kilovolts energy and found that alpha particles were ejected from the target as a result of the bombardment. The nuclear reaction which occurred can be written symbolically as

3Li7 + 1H12He4 + 2He4

where the subscript represents the positive charge on the nucleus (atomic number) and the superscript is the number of massive particles in the nucleus (mass number). As in a chemical equation, quantities on the left must add up to those on the right; thus the subscripts total four and the superscripts eight on each side.

1.39. Neither mass nor energy has been included in this equation. In general, the incident proton and the resultant alpha particles will each have kinetic energy. Also, the mass of two alpha particles will not be precisely the same as the sum of the masses of a proton and a lithium atom. According to our theory, the totals of mass and energy taken together should be the same before and after the reaction. The masses were known from mass spectra. On the left (Li7 + H1) they totaled 8.0241, on the right (2 He4) 8.0056, so that 0.0185 units of mass had disappeared in the reaction. The experimentally determined energies of the alpha particles were approximately 8. 5 million electron volts each, a figure compared to which the kinetic energy of the incident proton could be neglected. Thus 0.0185 units of mass had disappeared and 17 Mev of kinetic energy had appeared. Now 0.0185 units of mass is 3.07 X 10-26 grams, 17 Mev is 27.2 X 10-6 ergs and c is 3 X 1010 cm/sec. (See Appendix 2.) If we substitute these figures into Einstein's equation, E = mc2, on the left side we have 27.2 x 10-6 ergs and on the right side we have 27.6 x 10-6 ergs, so that the equation is found to be satisfied to a good approximation. In other words, these experimental results prove that the equivalence of mass and energy was correctly stated by Einstein.



1.40. Cockcroft and Walton produced protons of fairly high energy by ionizing gaseous hydrogen and then accelerating the ions in a transformer-rectifier high-voltage apparatus. A similar procedure can be used to produce high-energy deuterons from deuterium or high-energy alpha particles from helium. Higher energies can be attained by accelerating the ions in cyclotrons or Van de Graaff machines. However, to obtain high-energy gamma radiation or - most important of all - to obtain neutrons, nuclear reactions themselves must be used as sources. Radiations of sufficiently high energy come from certain naturally radioactive materials or from certain bombardments. Neutrons are commonly produced by the bombardment of certain elements, notably beryllium or boron, by natural alpha particles, or by bombarding suitable targets with protons or deuterons. The most common source of neutrons is a mixture of radium and beryllium where the alpha particles from radium and its decay products penetrate the Be9 nuclei, which then give off neutrons and become stable C12 nuclei (ordinary carbon). A frequently used "beam" source of neutrons results from accelerated deuterons impinging on "heavy water" ice. Here the high-speed deuterons strike the target deuterons to produce neutrons and He3 nuclei. Half a dozen other reactions are also used involving deuterium, lithium, beryllium, or boron as targets. Note that in all these reactions the total mass number and total charge number are unchanged.

1.41. To summarize, the agents that are found to initiate nuclear reactions are - in approximate order of importance - neutrons, deuterons, protons, alpha particles, gamma rays and, rarely, heavier particles.


1.42. Most atomic nuclei can be penetrated by at least one type of atomic projectile (or by gamma radiation). Any such penetration may result in a nuclear rearrangement in the course of which a fundamental particle is ejected or radiation is emitted or both. The resulting nucleus may be one of the naturally available stable species, or - more likely - it may be an atom of a different type which is radioactive, eventually changing to still a different nucleus. This may in turn be radioactive and, if so, will again decay. The process continues until all nuclei have changed to a stable type. There are two respects in which these artificially radioactive substances differ from the natural ones: many of them change by emitting positrons (unknown in natural radioactivity) and very few of them emit alpha particles. In every one of the cases where accurate measurements have been made, the equivalence of mass and energy has been demonstrated and the mass-energy total has remained constant. (Sometimes it is necessary to invoke neutrinos to preserve mass-energy conservation.)


1.43. A complete description of a nuclear reaction should include the nature, mass and energy of the incident particle, also the nature (mass number and atomic number), mass and energy (usually zero) of the target particle, also the nature, mass and energy of the ejected particles (or radiation), and finally the nature, mass and energy of the remainder. But all of these are rarely known and for many purposes their complete specification is unnecessary. A nuclear reaction is frequently described by a notation that designates first the target by chemical symbol and mass number if known, then the projectile, then the emitted particle, and then the remainder. In this scheme the neutron is represented by the letter n, the proton by p, the deuteron by d. the alpha particle by α, and the gamma ray by γ. Thus the radium-beryllium neutron reaction can be written Be2 (α, n)C12 and the deuteron-deuteron reaction H2(d, n)He3.


1.44. Considering the five different particles (n, p, d,α, γ) both as projectiles and emitted products, we might expect to find twenty-five combinations possible. Actually the deuteron very rarely occurs as a product particle, and the photon (gamma rays) initiates only two types of reaction. There are, however, a few other types of reaction, such as (n, 2n), (d, H3), and fission, which bring the total known types to about twenty-five. Perhaps the (n, γ) reaction should be specifically mentioned as it is very important in one process which will concern us. It is often called "radiative capture" since the neutron remains in the nucleus and only a gamma ray comes out.


1.45. So far nothing has been said about the probability of nuclear reactions. Actually it varies widely. There is no guarantee that a neutron or proton headed straight for a nucleus will penetrate it at all. It depends on the nucleus and on the incident particle. In nuclear physics, it is found convenient to express probability of a particular event by a "cross section." Statistically, the centers of the atoms in a thin foil can be considered as points evenly distributed over a plane. The center of an atomic projectile striking this plane has geometrically a definite probability of passing within a certain distance (r) of one of these points. In fact, if there are n atomic centers in an area A of the plane, this probability is nπ r2/A, which is simply the ratio of the aggregate area of circles of radius r drawn around the points to the whole area. If we think of the atoms as impenetrable steel discs and the impinging particle as a bullet of negligible diameter, this ratio is the probability that the bullet will strike a steel disc, i.e., that the atomic projectile will be stopped by the foil. If it is the fraction of impinging atoms getting through the foil which is measured, the result can still be expressed in terms of the equivalent stopping cross section of the atoms. This notion can be extended to any interaction between the impinging particle and the atoms in the target. For example, the probability that an alpha particle striking a beryllium target will produce a neutron can be expressed as the equivalent cross section of beryllium for this type of reaction.

1.46. In nuclear physics it is conventional to consider that the impinging particles have negligible diameter. The technical definition of cross section for any nuclear process is therefore:

number of processes occurring
----------------------------------- = (number of target nuclei per cm2) X (nuclear cross section in cm2)
number of incident particles


It should be noted that this definition is for the cross section per nucleus. Cross sections can be computed for any sort of process, such as capture scattering, production of neutrons, etc. In many cases, the number of particles emitted or scattered in nuclear processes is not measured directly; one merely measures the attenuation produced in a parallel beam of incident particles by the interposition of a known thickness of a particular material. The cross section obtained in this way is called the total cross section and is usually denoted by σ.

1.47. As indicated in paragraph 1.11, the typical nuclear diameter is of the order of 10-12cm. We might therefore expect the cross sections for nuclear reactions to be of the order of π d2/4 or roughly 10-24cm2 and this is the unit in which they are usually expressed. Actually the observed cross sections vary enormously. Thus for slow neutrons absorbed by the (n, γ) reaction the cross section in some cases is as much as 1,000 x 10-24 cm2, while the cross sections for transmutations by gamma-ray absorption are in the neighborhood of (1/1,000) x 10-24 cm2.



1.48. We have talked glibly about the equivalence of mass and energy and about nuclear reactions, such as that of protons on lithium, where energy was released in relatively large amounts. Now let us ask why atomic power plants did not spring up all over the world in the thirties. After all, if we can get 2.76 X 10-6 ergs from an atom of lithium struck by a proton, we might expect to obtain approximately half a million kilowatt hours by combining a gram of hydrogen with seven grams of lithium. It looks better than burning coal. The difficulties are in producing the high-speed protons and in controlling the energy produced. All the experiments we have been talking about were done with very small quantities of material, large enough in numbers of atoms, to be sure, but in terms of ordinary masses infinitesimal - not tons or pounds or grams, but fractions of micrograms. The amount of energy used up in the experiment was always far greater than the amount generated by the nuclear reaction.

1.49. Neutrons are particularly effective in producing nuclear disintegration. Why weren't they used? If their initial source was an ion beam striking a target, the limitations discussed in the last paragraph applied. If a radium and beryllium source was to be used, the scarcity of radium was a difficulty.


1.50. Our common sources of power, other than sunlight and water power, are chemical reactions - usually the combustion of coal or oil. They release energy as the result of rearrangements of the outer electronic structures of the atoms, the same kind of process that supplies energy to our bodies. Combustion is always self-propagating; thus lighting a fire with a match releases enough heat to ignite the neighboring fuel, which releases more heat which ignites more fuel and so on. In the nuclear reactions we have described this is not generally true; neither the energy released nor the new particles formed are sufficient to maintain the reaction. But we can imagine nuclear reactions emitting particles of the same sort that initiate them and in sufficient numbers to propagate the reaction in neighboring nuclei. Such a self- propagating reaction is called a "chain reaction" and such conditions must be achieved if the energy of the nuclear reactions with which we are concerned is to be put to large-scale use.


1.51. Although there were no atomic power plants built in the thirties, there were plenty of discoveries in nuclear physics and plenty of speculation. A theory was advanced by H. Bethe to explain the heat of the sun by a cycle of nuclear changes involving carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen, and leading eventually to the formation of helium.* This theory is now generally accepted. The discovery of a few (n, 2n) nuclear reactions (i.e., neutron-produced and neutron-producing reactions) suggested that a self-multiplying chain reaction might be initiated under the right conditions. There was much talk of atomic power and some talk of atomic bombs. But the last great step in this preliminary period came after four years of stumbling. The effects of neutron bombardment of uranium, the most complex element known, had been studied by some of the ablest physicists. The results were striking but confusing. The story of their gradual interpretation is intricate and highly technical, a fascinating tale of theory and experiment. Passing by the earlier inadequate explanations, we shall go directly to the final explanation, which, as so often happens, is relatively simple.

* The series of reactions postulated was

(1) C12 + H1 → N13

(2) N13 → C13 + e

(3) C13 + H1 → N14

(4) N14 + H1 → O15

(5) O15 → N15 + e

(6) N15 + H1 → C12 + He4

The net effect is the transformation of hydrogen into helium and positrons (designated as e) and the release of about thirty million electron volts energy.


1.52. As has already been mentioned, the neutron proved to be the most effective particle for inducing nuclear changes. This was particularly true for the elements of highest atomic number and weight where the large nuclear charge exerts strong repulsive forces on deuteron or proton projectiles but not on uncharged neutrons. The results of the bombardment of uranium by neutrons had proved interesting and puzzling. First studied by Fermi and his colleagues in 1934, they were not properly interpreted until several years later.

Nuclear fission

1.53. On January 16, 1939, Niels Bohr of Copenhagen, Denmark, arrived in this country to spend several months in Princeton, N. J., and was particularly anxious to discuss some abstract problems with Einstein. (Four years later Bohr was to escape from Nazi-occupied Denmark in a small boat.) Just before Bohr left Denmark two of his colleagues, O. R. Frisch and L. Meitner (both refugees from Germany), had told him their guess that the absorption of a neutron by a uranium nucleus sometimes caused that nucleus to split into approximately equal parts with the release of enormous quantities of energy, a process that soon began to be called nuclear "fission." The occasion for this hypothesis was the important discovery of O. Hahn and F. Strassmann in Germany (published in Naturwissenschaften in early January 1939) which proved that an isotope of barium was produced by neutron bombardment of uranium. Immediately on arrival in the United States Bohr communicated this idea to his former student J. A. Wheeler and others at Princeton, and from them the news spread by word of mouth to neighboring physicists including E. Fermi at Columbia University. As a result of conversations among Fermi, J. R. Dunning, and G. B. Pegram, a search was undertaken at Columbia for the heavy pulses of ionization that would be expected from the flying fragments of the uranium nucleus. On January 26, 1939, there was a conference on theoretical physics at Washington, D. C., sponsored jointly by the George Washington University and the Carnegie Institution of Washington. Fermi left New York to attend this meeting before the Columbia fission experiments had been tried. At the meeting Bohr and Fermi discussed the problem of fission, and in particular Fermi mentioned the possibility that neutrons might be emitted during the process. Although this was only a guess, its implication of the possibility of a chain reaction was obvious. A number of sensational articles were published in the press on this subject. Before the meeting in Washington was over, several other experiments to confirm fission had been initiated, and positive experimental confirmation was reported from four laboratories (Columbia University, Carnegie Institution of Washington, Johns Hopkins University, University of California) in the February 15, 1939, issue of the Physical Review. By this time Bohr had heard that similar experiments had been made in his laboratory in Copenhagen about January 15. (Letter by Frisch to Nature dated January 16, 1939, and appearing in the February 18 issue.) F. Joliot in Paris had also published his first results in the Comptes Rendus of January 30, 1939. From this time on there was a steady flow of papers on the subject of fission, so that by the time (December 6, 1939) L. A. Turner of Princeton wrote a review article on the subject in the Reviews of Modern Physics nearly one hundred papers had appeared. Complete analysis and discussion of these papers have appeared in Turner's article and elsewhere.


1.54. Consider the suggestion of Frisch and Meitner in the light of the two general trends that had been discovered in nuclear structure: first, that the proportion of neutrons goes up with atomic number; second, that the binding energy per particle is a maximum for the nuclei of intermediate atomic number. Suppose the U-238 nucleus is broken exactly in half; then, neglecting the mass of the incident neutron, we have two nuclei of atomic number 46 and mass number 119. But the heaviest stable isotope of palladium (Z = 46) has a mass number of only 110. Therefore to reach stability each of these imaginary new nuclei must eject nine neutrons, becoming Pd-110 nuclei; or four neutrons in each nucleus must convert themselves to protons by emitting electrons, thereby forming stable tin nuclei of mass number 119 and atomic number 50; or a combination of such ejections and conversions must occur to give some other pair of stable nuclei. Actually, as was suggested by Hahn and Strassmann's identification of barium (Z = 56, A = 135 to 140) as a product of fission, the split occurs in such a way as to produce two unequal parts of mass numbers about 140 and 90 with the emission of a few neutrons and subsequent radioactive decay by electron emission until stable nuclei are formed. Calculations from binding-energy data show that any such rearrangement gives an aggregate resulting mass considerably less than the initial mass of the uranium nucleus, and thus that a great deal of energy must be released.

1.55. Evidently, there were three major implications of the phenomenon of fission: the release of energy, the production of radioactive atomic species and the possibility of a neutron chain reaction. The energy release might reveal itself in kinetic energy of the fission fragments and in the subsequent radioactive disintegration of the products. The possibility of a neutron chain reaction depended on whether neutrons were in fact emitted - a possibility which required investigation.

1 56. These were the problems suggested by the discovery of fission, the kind of problem reported in the journals in 1939 and 1940 and since then investigated largely in secret. The study of the fission process itself, including production of neutrons and fast fragments has been largely carried out by physicists using counters, cloud chambers, etc. The study and identification of the fission products has been carried out largely by chemists, who have had to perform chemical separations rapidly even with submicroscopic quantities of material and to make repeated determinations of the half-lives of unstable isotopes. We shall summarize the state of knowledge as of June 1940. By that time the principal facts about fission had been discovered and revealed to the scientific world. A chain reaction had not been obtained, but its possibility - at least in principle - was clear and several paths that might lead to it had been suggested.


1.57. All the following information was generally known in June 1940, both here and abroad:

(1) That three elements - uranium, thorium, and protoactinium - when bombarded by neutrons sometimes split into approximately equal fragments, and that these fragments were isotopes of elements in the middle of the periodic table, ranging from selenium (Z = 34) to lanthanum (Z = 57).

(2) That most of these fission fragments were unstable, decaying radioactively by successive emission of beta particles through a series of elements to various stable forms.

(3) That these fission fragments had very great kinetic energy.

(4) That fission of thorium and protoactinum was caused only by fast neutrons (velocities of the order of thousands of miles per second).

(5) That fission in uranium could be produced by fast or slow- (so-called thermal velocity) neutrons; specifically, that thermal neutrons caused fission in one isotope, U-235, but not in the other, U-238, and that fast neutrons had a lower probability of causing fission in U-235 than thermal neutrons.

(6) That at certain neutron speeds there was a large capture cross section in U-238 producing U-239 but not fission.

(7) That the energy released per fission of a uranium nucleus was approximately 200 million electron volts.

(8) That high-speed neutrons were emitted in the process of fission.

(9) That the average number of neutrons released per fission was somewhere between one and three.

(10) That high-speed neutrons could lose energy by inelastic collision with uranium nuclei without any nuclear reaction taking place.

(11) That most of this information was consistent with the semi- empirical theory of nuclear structure worked out by Bohr and Wheeler and others; this suggested that predictions based on this theory had a fair chance of success.


1.58. It was realized that radiative capture of neutrons by U-238 would probably lead by two successive beta-ray emissions to the formation of a nucleus for which Z = 94 and A = 239. Consideration of the Bohr-Wheeler theory of fission and of certain empirical relations among the nuclei by L. A. Turner and others suggested that this nucleus would be a fairly stable alpha emitter and would probably undergo fission when bombarded by thermal neutrons. Later the importance of such thermal fission to the maintenance of the chain reaction was foreshadowed in private correspondence and discussion. In terms of our present knowledge and notation the particular reaction suggested is as follows:

U238 + n → U239 + Np239 + e-

NP239 → Pu239 + e-

where Np and Pu are the chemical symbols now used for the two new elements, neptunium and plutonium; n represents the neutron, and e- represents an ordinary (negative) electron. plutonium 239 is the nucleus rightly guessed to be fissionable by thermal neutrons. It will be discussed fully in later chapters.


1.59. By 1940 nuclear reactions had been intensively studied for over ten years. Several books and review articles on nuclear physics had been published. New techniques had been developed for producing and controlling nuclear projectiles, for studying artificial radioactivity, and for separating submicroscopic quantities of chemical elements produced by nuclear reactions. Isotope masses had been measured accurately. Neutron-capture cross sections had been measured. Methods of slowing down neutrons had been developed. Physiological effects of neutrons had been observed; they had even been tried in the treatment of cancer. All such information was generally available; but it was very incomplete. There were many gaps and many inaccuracies. The techniques were difficult and the quantities of materials available were often submicroscopic. Although the fundamental principles were clear, the theory was full of unverified assumptions and calculations were hard to make. Predictions made in 1940 by different physicists of equally high ability were often at variance. [It is a well known fact in the physics community that repeated calculations tend to converge to a desired result for all involved. At this point, everybody stops calculating.] The subject was in all too many respects an art, rather than a science.


1.60. Looking back on the year 1940, we see that all the prerequisites to a serious attack on the problem of producing atomic bombs and controlling atomic power were at hand. It had been proved that mass and energy were equivalent. It had been proved that the neutrons initiating fission of uranium reproduced themselves in the process and that therefore a multiplying chain reaction might occur with explosive force. To be sure, no one knew whether the required conditions could be achieved, but many scientists had clear ideas as to the problems involved and the directions in which solutions might be sought. The next chapter of this report gives a statement of the problems and serves as a guide to the developments of the past five years.

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