The Manhattan Project: Making the Atomic Bomb

Part IV: The Manhattan Engineer District in Operation

Groves Steps In

October 1942 found Groves in Chicago ready to force a showdown on pile design. Szilard was noisily complaining that decisions had to be made so that design could move to procurement and construction. Compton's delay reflected uncertainty of the superiority of the helium pile and awareness that, engineering studies could not be definitive until the precise value of k had been established. Some scientists at the Met Lab urged that a full production pile be built immediately, while others advocated a multi-step process, perhaps beginning with an externally cooled reactor proposed by Fermi. The situation was tailor-made for a man with Groves' temperament. On October 5 Groves exhorted the Met Lab to decide on pile design within a week. Even wrong decisions were better than no decisions, Groves claimed, and since time was more valuable than money, more than one approach should be pursued if no single design stood out. While Groves did not mandate a specific decision, his imposed deadline forced the Met Lab scientists to reach a consensus.

Compton decided on compromise. Fermi would study the fundamentals of pile operation on a small experimental unit to be completed and in operation by the end of the year. Hopefully he could determine the precise value of k and make a significant advance in pile engineering possible. An intermediate pile with external cooling would be built at Argonne and operated until June 1, 1943, when it would be taken down for plutonium extraction. The helium cooled Mae West, designed to produce 100 grams of plutonium a day, would be built and operating by March 1944. Studies on liquid-cooled reactors would continue, including Szilard's work on liquid metals.

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