Adventures on the Columbia
In late December 1942, Colonel Franklin Matthias flew over the Hanford site and was immediately convinced that it was the perfect spot for the world’s first plutonium production facilities.
Narrator: There were three major Manhattan Project sites. For security and political reasons, they were spread across the country. Plutonium production was to take place somewhere in the western states, ideally in an isolated area with abundant supplies of electricity and water. Colonel Franklin Matthias was sent to find such a spot. He explored locations in California and Oregon before flying over Washington and discovering the Hanford site. He was immediately struck by the vast expanse of nearly empty land. To top it all off, there were railroad lines nearby, and electricity-generating dams on the Columbia River. Colonel Matthias knew that his search was over.
Col. Franklin Matthias: I thought that the site was perfect the first time I saw it. We flew over the Rattlesnake Hills up to the river. That night I called General Groves from Portland, and told him I thought we had found the only place in the country that could match for a desirable site. An area with almost no people, very undeveloped. It was obvious that it had been built, that whole area, by the Columbia River in early times, just working across the valley leaving gravel behind it. And there’s nothing better than deep gravel for foundations, for earthquake protection, anything you want. It just has all the advantages. So we were very enthusiastic about it.
Nobel Prize-winning physicist John A. Wheeler remembers feeling like Columbus as he explored the United States for a plutonium production site.
Narrator: John Archibald Wheeler was a leading physicist at Princeton University. He worked on early reactor designs and contributed to the DuPont Company’s development of the plutonium production process. Wheeler remembers his Hanford experience as an exciting adventure. He also remembers a meeting in DuPont’s Wilmington, Delaware offices on Thanksgiving Day, 1942.
John Wheeler: There was a great romance about it. The way to get the feel of that romance is to put yourself back at the meeting in Wilmington, where we had a map of the United States spread out in front of us, and different possibilities there for where this plant might be sited. Great expanses of land. It was almost as if you were Columbus deciding where you would go exploring. Then, to pick that particular place, a most fantastic place. Whoever thinks of that northern state of Washington as having a hot desert in its middle? And that beautiful, bright blue, ice-cold Columbia River coming down through it, from the ice fields of Canada.
Italian physicist Enrico Fermi was one of the most brilliant scientists of the twentieth century. Walter Simon, DuPont’s operations manager at Hanford, talks about how Fermi would do equations in his head for fun.
Narrator: Walter Simon, DuPont’s operations manager at Hanford, remembers Enrico Fermi as having a mind that never slowed down, but was constantly working to solve problems.
Walter Simon: Fermi had a mind that just raced all the time. For instance, if there was a little time to kill around the reactor, he would do equations in his head, with somebody alongside him with a calculator. You know, multiply 9 by 99 by 1162 and divide by this and that. His mind raced so much the only way he could relax was walk on the desert. They would try to take him to a movie, and he would sit there for five minutes and would have the whole plot figured out. He had a tremendous intellectual capacity, absolutely.