The Manhattan Project: Making the Atomic Bomb

Part II: Early Government Support

Turning the Corner: The MAUD Report

Bush's disappointment with the July 11 National Academy of Sciences report did not last long. Several days later he and Conant received a copy of a draft report forwarded from the National Defense Research Committee liaison office in London. The report, prepared by a group codenamed the MAUD Committee and set up by the British in spring 1940 to study the possibility of developing a nuclear weapon, maintained that a sufficiently purified critical mass of uranium-235 could fission even with fast neutrons.16 Building upon theoretical work on atomic bombs performed by refugee physicists Rudolf Peierls and Otto Frisch in 1940 and 1941, the MAUD report estimated that a critical mass of ten kilograms would be large enough to produce an enormous explosion. A bomb this size could be loaded on existing aircraft and be ready in approximately two years. 17

Americans had been in touch with the MAUD Committee since fall 1940, but it was the July 1941 MAUD report that helped the American bomb effort turn the corner. Here were specific plans for producing a bomb, produced by a distinguished group of scientists with high credibility in the United States, not only with Bush and Conant but with the President.18 The MAUD report dismissed plutonium production, thermal diffusion, the electromagnetic method, and the centrifuge and called for gaseous diffusion of uranium-235 on a massive scale. The British believed that uranium research could lead to the production of a bomb in time to effect the outcome of the war. While the MAUD report provided encouragement to Americans advocating a more extensive uranium research program, it also served as a sobering reminder that fission had been discovered in Nazi Germany almost three years earlier and that since spring 1940 a large part of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin had been set aside for uranium research.

Bush and Conant immediately went to work. After strengthening the Uranium Committee, particularly with the addition of Fermi as head of theoretical studies and Harold C. Urey as head of isotope separation and heavy water research (heavy water was highly regarded as a moderator), Bush asked yet another reconstituted National Academy of Sciences committee to evaluate the uranium program. This time he gave Compton specific instructions to address technical questions of critical mass and destructive capability, partially to verify the MAUD results.

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