Atomic Energy for Military Purposes (The Smyth Report)



12.24. There were two considerations that gave unusual importance to the work of the Theoretical Physics Division under H. Bethe. The first of these was the necessity for effecting simultaneous development of everything from the fundamental materials to the method of putting them to use - all despite the virtual unavailability of the principal materials (U-235 and plutonium) and the complete novelty of the processes. The second consideration was the impossibility of producing (as for experimental purposes) a "small-scale" atomic explosion by making use of only a small amount of fissionable material. (No explosion occurs at all unless the mass of the fissionable material exceeds the critical mass.) Thus it was necessary to proceed from data obtained in experiments on infinitesimal quantities of materials and to combine it with the available theories as accurately as possible in order to make estimates as to what would happen in the bomb. Only in this way was it possible to make sensible plans for the other parts of the project, and to make decisions on design and construction without waiting for elaborate experiments on large quantities of material. To take a few examples, theoretical work was required in making rough determinations of the dimensions of the gun, in guiding the metallurgists in the choice of tamper materials, and in determining the influence of the purity of the fissionable material on the efficiency of the bomb.

12.25. The determination of the critical size of the bomb was one of the main problems of the Theoretical Physics Division. In the course of time, several improvements were made in the theoretical approach whereby it was possible to take account of practically all the complex phenomena involved. It was at first considered that the diffusion of neutrons was similar to the diffusion of heat, but this naive analogy had to be forsaken. In the early theoretical work the assumptions were made that the neutrons all had the same velocity and all were scattered isotropically. A method was thus developed which permitted calculation of the critical size for various shapes of the fissionable material provided that the mean free path of the neutrons was the same in the tamper material as in the fissionable material. This method was later improved first by taking account of the angular dependence of the scattering and secondly by allowing for difference in mean free path in core and tamper materials. Still later, means were found of taking into account the effects of the distribution in velocity of the neutrons, the variations of cross sections with velocity, and inelastic scattering in the core and tamper materials. Thus it became possible to compute critical sizes assuming almost any kind of tamper material.

12.26. The rate at which the neutron density decreases in bomb models which are smaller than the critical size can be calculated, and all the variables mentioned above can be taken into account. The rate of approach to the critical condition as the projectile part of the bomb moves toward the target part of the bomb has been studied by theoretical methods. Furthermore, the best distribution of fissionable material in projectile and target was determined by theoretical studies.

12.27. Techniques were developed for dealing with set-ups in which the number of neutrons is so small that a careful statistical analysis must be made of the effects of the neutrons. The most important problem in this connection was the determination of the probability that, when a bomb is larger than critical size, a stray neutron will start a continuing chain reaction. A related problem was the determination of the magnitude of the fluctuations in neutron density in a bomb whose size is close to the critical size. By the summer of 1945 many such calculations had been checked by experiments.

12.28. A great deal of theoretical work was done on the equation of state of matter at the high temperatures and pressures to be expected in the exploding atomic bombs. The expansion of the various constituent parts of the bomb during and after the moment of chain reaction has been calculated. The effects of radiation have been investigated in considerable detail.

12.29. Having calculated the energy that is released in the explosion of an atomic bomb, one naturally wants to estimate the military damage that will be produced. This involves analysis of the shock waves in air and in earth, the determination of the effectiveness of a detonation beneath the surface of the ocean, etc.

12.30. In addition to all the work mentioned above, a considerable amount of work was done in evaluating preliminary experiments. Thus an analysis was made of the back-scattering of neutrons by the various tamper materials proposed. An analysis was also made of the results of experiments on the multiplication of neutrons in subcritical amounts of fissionable material.


12.31. The experiments performed by the Experimental Nuclear Physics group at Los Alamos were of two kinds: "differential" experiments as for determining the cross section for fission of a specific isotope by neutrons of a specific velocity, and "integral" experiments as for determining the average scattering of fission neutrons from an actual tamper.

12.32. Many nuclear constants had already been determined at the University of Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory and elsewhere, but a number of important constants were still undetermined - especially those involving high neutron velocities. Some of the outstanding questions were the following:

  1. What are the fission cross sections of U-234, U-235, U-238 Pu-239, etc.? How do they vary with neutron velocity?
  2. What are the elastic scattering cross sections for the same nuclei (also for nuclei of tamper materials)? How do they vary with neutron velocity?
  3. What are the inelastic cross sections for the nuclei referred to above?
  4. What are the absorption cross sections for processes other than fission?
  5. How many neutrons are emitted per fission in the case of each of the nuclei referred to above?
  6. What is the full explanation of the fact that the number of neutrons emitted per fission is not a whole number?
  7. What is the initial energy of the neutrons produced by fission?
  8. Does the number or energy of such neutrons vary with the speed of the incident neutrons?
  9. Are fission neutrons emitted immediately?
  10. What is the probability of spontaneous fission of the various fissionable nuclei?

12.33. In addition to attempting to find the answers to these questions the Los Alamos Experimental Nuclear Physics Division investigated many problems of great scientific interest which were expected to play a role in their final device. Whether or not this turned out to be the case, the store of knowledge thus accumulated by the Division forms an integral and invaluable part of all thinking on nuclear problems.

12.34. Experimental Methods. The earlier chapters contain little or no discussion of experimental techniques except those for the observing of fast (charged) particles (See Appendix 1.). To obtain answers to the ten questions posed above, we should like to be able to:

(1) determine the number of neutrons of any given energy;

(2) produce neutrons of any desired energy;

(3) determine the angles of deflection of scattered neutrons;

(4) determine the number of fissions occurring;

(5) detect other consequences of neutron absorption, e.g., artificial radioactivity.

We shall indicate briefly how such observations are made.

12.35. Detection of Neutrons. There are three ways in which neutrons can be detected: by the ionization produced by light atomic nuclei driven forward at high speeds by elastic collisions with neutrons, by the radioactive disintegration of unstable nuclei formed by the absorption of neutrons, and by fission resulting from neutron absorption. All three processes lead to the production of ions and the resulting ionization may be detected using electroscopes, ionization chambers, Geiger-Muller counters, Wilson cloud chambers, tracks in photographic emulsion, etc.

12.36. While the mere detection of neutrons is not difficult, the measurement of the neutron velocities is decidedly more so. The Wilson cloud chamber method and the photographic emulsion method give the most direct results but are tedious to apply. More often various combinations of selective absorbers are used. Thus, for example, if a foil known to absorb neutrons of only one particular range of energies is inserted in the path of the neutrons and is then removed, its degree of radioactivity is presumably proportional to the number of neutrons in the particular energy range concerned. Another scheme is to study the induced radioactivity known to be produced only by neutrons whose energy lies above a certain threshold.

12.37. One elegant scheme for studying the effects of neutrons of a single, arbitrarily-selected velocity is the "time of flight" method. In this method a neutron source is modulated, i.e., the source is made to emit neutrons in short "bursts" or "pulses." In each pulse there are a great many neutrons - of a very wide range of velocities. The target material and the detector are situated a considerable distance from the source (several feet or yards from it). The detector is "modulated" also, and with the same periodicity. The timing or phasing is made such that the detector is responsive only for a short interval beginning a certain time after the pulse of neutrons leaves the source. Thus any effects recorded by the detector (e.g., fissions in a layer of uranium deposited on an inner surface of an ionization chamber) are the result only of neutrons that arrive just at the moment of responsivity and therefore have travelled from the source in a certain time interval. In other words, the measured effects are due only to the neutrons having the appropriate velocity.

12.38. Production of Neutrons. All neutrons are produced as the result of nuclear reactions, and their initial speed depends on the energy balance of the particular reaction. If the reaction is endothermic, that is, if the total mass of the resultant particles is greater than that of the initial particles, the reaction does not occur unless the bombarding particle has more than the "threshold" kinetic energy. At higher bombarding energies the kinetic energy of the resulting particles, specifically of the neutrons, goes up with the increase of kinetic energy of the bombarding particle above the threshold value. Thus the Li7(p, n)Be7 reaction absorbs 1.6 Mev energy since the product particles are heavier than the initial particles. Any further energy of the incident protons goes into kinetic energy of the products so that the maximum speed of the neutrons produced goes up with the speed of the incident protons. However, to get neutrons of a narrow range of speed, a thin target must be used, the neutrons must all come off at the same angle, and the protons must all strike the target with the same speed.

12.39. Although the same energy and momentum conservation laws apply to exothermic nuclear reactions, the energy release is usually large compared to the kinetic energy of the bombarding particles and therefore essentially determines the neutron speed. Often there are several ranges of speed from the same reaction. There are some reactions that produce very high energy neutrons (nearly 15 Mev).

12.40. Since there is a limited number of nuclear reactions usable for neutron sources, there are only certain ranges of neutron speeds that can be produced originally. There is no difficulty about slowing down neutrons, but it is impossible to slow them down uniformly, that is, without spreading out the velocity distribution. The most effective slowing-down scheme is the use of a moderator, as in the graphite pile; in fact, the pile itself is an excellent source of thermal (i.e., very low speed) or nearly thermal neutrons.

12.41. Determination of Angles of Deflection. The difficulties in measuring the angles of deflection of neutrons are largely of intensity and interpretation. The number of neutrons scattered in a particular direction may be relatively small, and the "scattered" neutrons nearly always include many strays not coming from the intended target.

12.42. Determination of Number of Fissions. The determination of the number of fissions which are produced by neutrons or occur spontaneously is relatively simple. Ionization chambers, counter tubes, and many other types of detectors can be used.

12.43. Detection of Products of Capture of Neutrons. Often it is desirable to find in detail what has happened to neutrons that are absorbed but have not produced fission, e.g., resonance or "radiative" capture of neutrons by U-238 to form U-239 which leads to the production of plutonium. Such studies usually involve a combination of microchemical separations and radioactivity analyses.

12.44. Some Experiments on Nuclear Constants. By the time that the Los Alamos laboratory had been established, a large amount of work had been done on the effects of slow neutrons on the materials then available. For example, the thermal-neutron fission cross section of natural uranium had been evaluated, and similarly for the separated isotopes of uranium and for plutonium. Some data on high-speed-neutron fission cross sections had been published, and additional information was available in project laboratories. To extend and improve such data, Los Alamos perfected the use of the Van de Graaff generator for the Li7(p, n)Be7 reaction, so as to produce neutrons of any desired energy lying in the range from 3,000 electron volts to two million electron volts. Success was also achieved in modulating the cyclotron beam and developing the neutron time-of-flight method to produce effects of many speed intervals at once. Special methods were devised for filling in the gaps in neutron energy range. Particularly important was the refinement of measurement made possible as greater quantities of U-235, U-238 and plutonium began to be received. On the whole, the value of the cross section for fission as a function of neutron energy from practically zero electron volts to three million electron volts is now fairly well known for these materials.

12.45. Some Integral Experiments. Two "integral experiments" (experiments on assembled or integrated systems comprising fissionable material, reflector, and perhaps moderator also) may be described. In the first of these integral experiments a chain reacting system was constructed which included a relatively large amount of U-235 in liquid solution. It was designed to operate at a very low power level, and it had no cooling system. Its purpose was to provide verification of the effects predicted for reacting systems containing enriched U-235. The results were very nearly as expected.

12.46. The second integral experiment was carried out on a pile containing a mixture of uranium and a hydrogenous moderator. In this first form, the pile was thus a slow-neutron chain reacting pile. The pile was then rebuilt using less hydrogen. In this version of the pile, fast-neutron fission became important. The pile was rebuilt several more times, less hydrogen being used each time. By such a series of reconstructions, the reaction character was successively altered, so that thermal neutron fission became less and less important while fast neutron fission became more and more important - approaching the conditions to be found in the bomb.

12.47. Summary of Results on Nuclear Physics. The nuclear constants of U-235, U-238, and plutonium have been measured with a reasonable degree of accuracy over the range of neutron energies from thermal to three million electron volts. In other words, questions 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 of the ten questions posed at the beginning of this section have been answered. The fission spectrum (question 7) for U-235 and Pu-239 is reasonably well known. Spontaneous fission (question 10) has been studied for several types of nuclei. Preliminary results on questions 6, 8, and 9, involving details of the fission process, have been obtained.


12.48. The Chemistry and Metallurgy Division of the Los Alamos Laboratory was under the joint direction of J. W. Kennedy and C. S. Smith. It was responsible for final purification of the enriched fissionable materials, for fabrication of the bomb core, tamper, etc., and for various other matters. In all this division's work on enriched fissionable materials especial care had to be taken not to lose any appreciable amounts of the materials which are worth much more than gold. Thus the procedures already well-established at Chicago and elsewhere for purifying and fabricating natural uranium were often not satisfactory for handling highly-enriched samples of U-235.


12.49. The above account of the work of the Theoretical Physics, Experimental Nuclear Physics, and Chemistry and Metallurgy Divisions is very incomplete because important aspects of this work cannot be discussed for reasons of security. For the same reasons none of the work of the Ordnance, Explosives, and Bomb Physics Divisions can be discussed at all.


12.50. In the spring of 1943 an entirely new laboratory was established at Los Alamos, New Mexico, under J. R. Oppenheimer for the purpose of investigating the design and construction of the atomic bomb, from the stage of receipt of U-235 or plutonium to the stage of use of the bomb. The new laboratory improved the theoretical treatment of design and performance problems, refined and extended the measurements of the nuclear constants involved, developed methods of purifying the materials to be used, and, finally, designed and constructed operable atomic bombs.