The Manhattan Project: Making the Atomic Bomb

Part IV: The Manhattan Engineer District in Operation

Pile Design

A group headed by Compton's chief engineer, Thomas V. Moore, began designing the production pile in June 1942. Moore's first goals were to find the best methods of extracting plutonium from the irradiated uranium and for cooling the uranium. It quickly became clear that a production pile would differ significantly in design from Fermi's experimental reactor, possibly by extending uranium rods into and through the graphite next to cooling tubes and building a radiation and containment shield. Although experimental reactors like Fermi's did not generate enough power to need cooling systems, piles built to produce plutonium would operate at high power levels and require coolants. The Met Lab group considered the full range of gases and liquids in a search to isolate the substances with the best nuclear characteristics, with hydrogen and helium standing out among the gases and water-even with its marginal nuclear properties and tendency to corrode uranium-as the best liquid.

During the summer, Moore and his group began planning a helium-cooled pilot pile for the Argonne Forest Preserve near Chicago, built by Stone & Webster, and on September 25 they reported to Compton. The proposal was for a 460-ton cube of graphite to be pierced by 376 vertical columns containing twenty-two cartridges of uranium and graphite. Cooling would be provided by circulating helium from top to bottom through the pile. A wall of graphite surrounding the reactor would provide radiation containment, while a series of spherical segments that gave the design the nickname Mae West would make up the outer shell.

By the time Compton received Moore's report, he had two other pile designs to consider. One was a water-cooled model developed by Eugene Wigner and Gale Young, a former colleague of Compton's. Wigner and Young proposed a twelve-foot by twenty-five-foot cylinder of graphite with pipes of uranium extending from a water tank above, through the cylinder, and into a second water tank underneath. Coolant would circulate continuously through the system, and corrosion would be minimized by coating interior surfaces or lining the uranium pipes.

A second alternative to Mae West was more daring. Szilard thought that liquid metal would be such an efficient coolant that, in combination with an electromagnetic pump having no moving parts (adapted from a design he and Einstein had created), it would be possible to achieve high power levels in a considerably smaller pile. Szilard had trouble obtaining supplies for his experiment, primarily because bismuth, the metal he preferred as the coolant, was rare.

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