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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Harold Agnew’s Interview (1994)

Manhattan Project Locations:

Harold Agnew was veteran of the Manhattan Project, an observer to the bombing of Hiroshima, and served as director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1970-1979. Agnew discusses the science behind the hydrogen bomb, along with production and research conducted under the Atomic Energy Commission (later the DOE) and the Air Force. Among other topics, he describes the Soviet program and the espionage involved, his clash with the government and military when trying to receive funds for laboratory research, and innovations that resulted from the American nuclear program.

Date of Interview:
May 27, 1994
Location of the Interview:


Rhodes: I am working on a book that would try to cover the years ’45 to ’55. I just finished the first 400 pages; it is all the Soviet bomb story, because so much has come available, including the espionage part of it. But, now I would like to get going and just simply try to deal with the development of the hydrogen bomb. And, most of all, I would like to describe the Mike shot, when you guys all came to put that together. But you also worked later, right, on Romeo? What was Romeo?

Agnew: I do not remember any of the names of anything, but do you have Frank Shelton’s book?

Rhodes: Yeah, sure.

Agnew: And it tells you.

Rhodes: You worked on turning the Mike into a deliverable piece of a weapon, right?

Agnew: Yeah, I was called a project engineer. I had Runt, which was Mark 14. It was finally the first weaponized thing.

Rhodes: That was not the Bravo design, was it? Yeah, it was.

Agnew:  It was the second one, it was after. Ben Diven had Shrimp. I do not remember shot names. Shrimp was the first one that caused the problems.

Rhodes: That was Bravo test.

Agnew: Okay, the first one.

Rhodes: Fifteen megaton.

Agnew: Fifteen or ten?

Rhodes: Fifteen.

Agnew: Oh, whatever.

Rhodes: What the book says is fifteen.

Agnew: Whatever. That was the first one. Mine was the second one. See, mine did not have enriched lithium, and it worked gangbusters, and so we weaponized that. But let us start out with Mike.

Rhodes: Oh, good.

Agnew: It is all wrong, but it was right in that “Quit fooling around with these big things, we can make small things.” But, that was not what Holloway wanted. He was very much enamored of American Machine and Foundry, who were the tin benders for all of this. And, anyway, we had fights. I left in ’46, went to graduate school with Fermi, came back in the Summer of ’49 when lots of arguments were ensuing about whether we should or we should not.

Now, sort of one of my closest friends and a fellow I worked with all during the war at Los Alamos was John Manley. John Manley, during the war, was sort of Oppie’s point man, running around coordinating experimental work, which was conducted under the auspices of the Uranium Committee, or whatever it was called. The various universities were doing things, and John would run around.

Rhodes: Oh, right, he was before Los Alamos was opened.

Agnew:  That is right, yeah. John was doing that. And, then John, who had been at the University of Illinois, asked me and a couple of other guys to go to Illinois—well, actually he took me up to Columbia [University] with [Enrico] Fermi, and we worked up there on his little exponential pile.

I am much older. My wife is even older than I am.


People ask, “How come you married an old woman?”

I said, “Well hell, when we were in high school, she had a driver’s license.”


Agnew: First things first, right. Okay. Anyway, John asked us to go to Illinois because he had an accelerator, a Cockcroft-Walton. Well, and we took it apart and shipped it to Los Alamos. They were the Van de Graaffs, the cyclotron, and the Cockcroft-Walton. And so John had asked us to go with him. We were very close with John, and worked all during the war with him, until I had a chance to join [Norman] Ramsey and [Luis] Alvarez. Ramsey was the boss, I guess, and Alvarez’s group got involved in that.

Then I went back to school. But, when I came back in ’49, it would be maybe August, September, this argument was going on: “Should we or shouldn’t we?” And, the local main zealot against was John Manley.

Rhodes: Oh, yeah. That surprised me; I just read that.

Agnew: Just violent, and in fact, he was even distributing scripture, things from the Bible. He just absolutely infuriated me. I remember I went up to see [Norris] Bradbury – you know, he was very open anybody could go see Norris – with this thing in my hand, saying, “You know, this guy is bananas, absolutely bananas, for crying out loud.” But that was my first sort of introduction, because I had just come back when this battle was going on.

Rhodes: Did Teller recruit you

Agnew: No, no, no, no.

Rhodes: No? How did you decide to go back?

Agnew: Oh, I never decided to leave, really.

Rhodes: Oh, so you just went off to get your doctorate?

Agnew: I just wanted to get my union card and come back, that was all. I was born in Colorado. Fermi wanted me to stay at Chicago, actually, with Garland. Dick and I were students together. Anyway, I came back and I joined P3 under Dick Taschek, the Van de Graaff group. I was working there and also some at the Cockcroft-Walton, and I had some friends across the hall, Frank [J.] Dunn, John [R.] Mosely, Bob [M.] Potter, who had been assigned the job of putting tritium in Mike, and we needed people to help. So I said, “Yeah, I would like to do that and, you know, go overseas. That would be fun.”

Rhodes: You jumped ahead to what, ’51 now?

Agnew: Well, it is about ’51, right. I worked maybe a year doing this other stuff. So my main involvement with Mike was with the team that put tritium in. We were playing it very safe, and we used—I do not think I can say how much or all this sort of—but, I can tell you one interesting incident.

A couple of days before the shot, and it had not been cooled down, because we were using liquid deuterium, we decided we had better, you know, do a dry run to put the tritium in. But we could not use tritium, because we did not have very much. So, we said well, we will use deuterium, because that would not contaminate our lines or where they went into the device.

So, we put the stuff in and had a gauge, you know, watched to make sure, we are checking it; we did not have leaks. And, slowly – this is two days before – my God, how can we have a leak? Thought and thought and thought, and then somebody said, “Maybe it is hydriding,” because we were putting this hydrogen onto warm uranium, and it was a slow leak, but it was a leak.

We said, “Oh, God, well, what are we going to do?” Because that amount of deuterium and hydride—of course, we talked with Carson [Mark] and Marshall [Rosenbluth]. So, we said, “Well, now we use an inert gas.” I did not know whether we used argon or helium, and then no leak. So, that is what it was. But, we really were upset, because there was no way we could have fixed it, because our thing was way in this middle of the thing, which had been built up piece by piece by piece. But that was a scary thing, and then things worked fine.

Rhodes: You took the tritium out and it hydrided onto uranium?

Agnew: That is right.

Rhodes: How do you get something off?

Agnew: You heat it. We had these steel—in fact, talk about contamination, getting cooked—we had steel buckets, essentially maybe about 3/8 inch thick with heaters on the outside. And, what you do is you took uranium cubes—pure uranium metal—you put it in this thing and seal it all up. And, then you heat it real good, and then you cool it down and when you cool it down you activate it. We activated it first with just deuterium, so that you get powdered uranium hydride, uranium deuteride.

Rhodes: The cubes turn into powder?

Agnew: It turns into powder. Then you heat it.

Rhodes: What does the powder look like?

Agnew: I never looked at. It’s pyrophoric as hell.

Rhodes: Oh, yeah.

Agnew: Okay. So I imagine it is a black powder; I have never seen it. But then you heat it again and drive off all the deuterium, so now you have a very active bed of uranium powder. So then we would put our tritium in it, it would gobble up the tritium, and that is the way we transported it out. But then when we are out there, you hook up your lines and then you heat it and it drives the tritium out. That is the way we fed the thing. We loaded it maybe the day before. I do not remember the time scale, and then we all got in the booth and watched.

Rhodes: The tritium and deuterium both were in as a liquid?

Agnew: No. I do not know if it further hydrided, but since it was cold, I doubt it.

Rhodes: The whole system was cold.

Agnew: The whole system was cold. The rate of absorption on non-activated—except the little bit that had been activated by the deuterium that we put in—I do not think there was much absorption or hydriding of our tritium. It was in there in a form of a gas.

Rhodes: So, the deuterium you used for the test procedure never came out?

Agnew: No, it just hydrided, yeah, right. Now of course, the main fuel of the thing was liquid deuterium. That was liquid deuterium. We had other funny incidents. I remember the guy, Stan Burris, was sort of chief guy on the overall project. There was an Army guy named [Richard] Lunger, I think his name was.

Anyway, one incident we had, we had all this hydrogen, liquid deuterium, and we had all these guards with all these guns around, and it sort of drove us bananas. So a couple of us technical people just raised hell and said, “We did not want those guys around with guns, just get them out of here. You know, who is going to invade the island, come on, get them out. You want guns, fine, go out and stand on the beach and watch.”

We got them out, but that was a worry. It is a worry today I have when I go around and visit some of these storage sites that we have, you have these young grunts they call Marines, like right down here at North Island. They got more equipment and guns and, you know, I do not know what they are guarding.

Rhodes: You are concerned about explosions?

Agnew: I am worried about some nut will shoot and accidentally hit a bomb. You know, you will not get a nuclear yield, but you are going to make a mess. And there is no need for it. You want to have guys with guns, have them outside. So, I have been arguing that.

This stems from that experience way back then, you know, young kids with guns. We also during the war had a guard—they get bored—we had a guard shoot himself in the foot. You know, there is nothing to do, he starts playing with his gun. So, it happens and maybe he wanted to get out of the Army, I do not know.

Rhodes: You told a story at Los Alamos last spring about, what was it, having to change the core at the last minute?

Agnew: Oh, that is Marshall. Marshall did that.

Rhodes: Marshall Holloway?

Agnew: No, Rosenbluth.

Rhodes: He did?

Agnew: Well, they fed you very well. The nice thing about being overseas, they understood, if you want happy guys, you rationed the booze. I mean like a fifth a week or something like that, which is okay.


Agnew: But they have very good food, you know, shrimp, steak, just really good food, because you got all these construction guys. You have movies and food. That is it. Ice cream, lots of ice cream. Well, one night they had shrimp, and Marshall ate too much. He could not sleep. And, somehow, he got to thinking about what was going to happen the next couple of days. He decided the core we were using was prone to pre-initiate, and that we should change the core.

Somehow, he talked with Carson, I guess, who talked with Stan Burris. And, indeed there were rapid renegotiations and I guess they sent out a new core. Maybe we had some extra ones out there, I do not know. All I know is that Marshall’s shrimp bellyache may or may not have saved the day; just one of these quirky things. Depending on the core, you can have more or less probability of pre-initiation. Anyway, you should call him on the phone and ask him.

Rhodes: I will, he did not tell us yesterday. He really felt uncomfortable about what is still classified.

Agnew: Yeah, no, no.

Rhodes: He has been away awhile, so.

Agnew: I guess, yeah.

Rhodes: You also told a story about putting, what was it, you put in someone’s shark.

Agnew: Shark. That is Holloway’s. I did not like Holloway. I did not get along with Holloway. None of us got along Holloway. Now, this was after Mike. This had to do with the weaponization really and Marshall was put in charge of an organization called DIRX, D-I-R-X, Director’s Office, I guess experiment. Holloway was in charge. His first deputy was really a man named George Grover, who is still alive. I think he even lives in Los Alamos still. Marshall’s first deputy, and the only guy he really had confidence in, I guess.

Anyway, he was close to Grover. But then he had project managers for each of the devices. Ben Diven, who is still in Los Alamos, had the Shrimp, the one that was the first one we shot and like gangbusters. It was enriched lithium. I had the second one, called Runt, which was the one that we finally weaponized. It was the first. It is in the museum in Albuquerque, the great big thing.

Rhodes: Oh, sure. The one I have a picture of in my park.

Agnew: Yeah, that is mine, okay. Then we had Jughead, which was a cryogenic device.

Rhodes: Was it a weaponized version of Mike, directly?

Agnew: Yeah, it really was, and a big doer. The B36’s, I guess, flew around with liquid deuterium. For that, the project engineers were Wally Leland and Jay Wechsler, although it was more Wally, I would say, than Jay. Jay was sort of helping Marshall a little more.

Rhodes: Jay on Jughead, we are talking about?

Agnew: Yeah. I think. I am pretty sure of that.

Rhodes: I will ask them, yeah.

Agnew: And then I do not know if we called it Onion or what, but Bob Shreffler, who lives in Santa Fe, he had one. Now, it happened that Leland, Diven, Shreffler and I really did not get along with Marshall very well, Marshall Holloway, who was the boss. He was a good guy, but he never confided in us, never told us what the hell was going on, you know. It was a very strange, very strange relationship, so we all had this sort of feeling that he did not—well, he was a bright guy and everything, but we did not feel that he appreciated us.

Anyway, as I mentioned, Wally and I, Leland, we always went hunting and fishing together always, for years. And, so we were out there fishing and I caught this shark, and to me the logical thing to do was put it in Holloway’s bed.


And, nothing was ever said about it. He never, you know, said, “Who the hell did that?” or anything. But it must have been a surprise.


Anyway, as I said, my only really involvement, other than watching Mike being put together and everything, was with the team putting in the tritium, which was Frank Dunn, John Mosely. Frank is dead. Mosely, I do not know if he is still around Los Alamos, and Bob Potter is still around, great genius sort of guy. They were part of Eugene Robinson’s group. Robbie is dead. And, there was a B.B. McIntyre and a couple of other guys. I cannot remember their names, but we had a gang, about six of us. And that was our responsibility. I remember when Norris came out, I let him help by putting some liquid nitrogen in one of the traps we had. We had to pump out our lines.

Rhodes: Were you around in Los Alamos during the engineering of the device itself? 

Agnew: Oh, yeah, you mean of the Mike?

Rhodes: Yeah, Mike.

Agnew: Yeah, I really was not much involved in any of that, and it was not until after I came back, I guess, that I joined T division. Yeah, I joined T division to sort of get some of these weapons weaponized, these things.

Rhodes: Apparently, there were designs already in the works before Mike was shot, before the weaponized versions.

Agnew: I am not so sure. Maybe. I draw a blank on that because if you see this letter, Mike was what, ’50?

Rhodes: ’51, November of ’51. This is ’53.

Agnew: Yeah, we were doing the Runts and Shrimps and stuff like that. I was arguing. I do not even remember what I said, but my main point was that we should really strive for smaller devices. But my scenario would turn out to all be wrong, because things worked better than I thought. It just reinforced what I wanted. It does not say that has been declassified, but it has been, because where it says deleted, usually, they have a stamp on them. But it was never classified anyway; it was just a memo to Norris.

But, Max Roy, who was one of the stalwarts there, he has passed on, too. When he saw this, eventually, because he was in the director’s office, he says, “Boy, if you didn’t have Bethe on that with you, you would be fired. Holloway is furious.” So, Holloway just wanted to make these big damn things.

Rhodes: Big in terms of yield?

Agnew: Well, or in size. We had pretty good yields.

Rhodes: Like the big casing that was on the Mike shot with these heavy steel walls, right?

Agnew: Yeah, with plastic. I remember they had copper nails. I remember seeing them hammer the plastic inside—big, thick polyethylene things. But, for some reason I keep thinking—I guess it was painted aluminum, but it was not rusty.

Rhodes: The casing itself?

Agnew: Yeah.

Rhodes: Wasn’t it steel?

Agnew: Yeah, I keep thinking it was aluminum, but Marshall says it was steel and Van Doren tells me it was steel.

Rhodes: Oh, I see, the way it looked, yeah.

Agnew: Oh, I know what it was. We had a lead liner, and then the plastic was hammered into the lead with these copper nails. I remember watching the guys doing this. It was just all building, it was a big thing, big thing.

Rhodes: What was the plastic for? 

Agnew: Well, that is part of where you get energy. You better take that out.


Agnew: Anyway, but it was a monstrous thing. And, of course, the interesting part of all this is, that people now talk about tech transfer. Well, in order to handle all the deuterium, the guys had to, you know, develop the technology for handling big things of liquid. I remember once on Jughead—that was the deuterium bomb version—we worried what would happen in a military sense, if it got shot. You know, a bullet, an enemy shot it or something.

We took one of those down in one of the canyons and set up a machine gun, and filled it with hydrogen—not too tame—and shot it. And all it did was the hydrogen just went out, nothing happened to them. But it was sort of fun. We were all crouched down shooting at this damn thing, just to see what it was like.

Anyway, going back to the other on tech transfer, they had it developed and there was guys like Adam Schuck, Fred Ediscuti, there was a guy named [Earl] Long, who came from the University of Chicago, who was really in charge of cryogenics and developing the cryostats and all that. We had that at the very beginning in Los Alamos. Earl Long’s group was handling that.

Rhodes: You mean during the war?

Agnew: During the war.

Rhodes: Right, there was a cryogenics plant that was actually built.

Agnew: Yeah, that is right, and that was Earl Long. But, anyway, the technology of how do you transfer, how do you pump it—all that was developed for the hydrogen bomb. Then that technology was transferred after the war, because we did not need it, to the Bureau of Standards in Boulder, or in that same time period.

But, then along came SATURN, remember? All that technology was sitting there—how do you transfer really a lot? And, then we have the NERVA program, the nuclear rocket that again ran on liquid hydrogen. And, all that technology for how you handle safely and pump and store thousands of gallons of liquid hydrogen was all developed. But no one remembers that how they learned to do that all came from the hydrogen bomb. So, there is an example, good or bad, of a tech transfer.

Rhodes: Well, really, the computer, the digital computer, at least got is first workouts.

Agnew: Oh, sure. Well, by Neumann and Metropolis.

Rhodes: Wasn’t that a significant push for the digital computers?

Agnew: Oh, absolutely, yeah.

Rhodes: Which I think no one really realizes.

Agnew: Yeah, digital, electronic, whatever you want to call it.

Rhodes: That was just ringing bells with Louis’s stuff, the electric detonators, which is all new technology. Also his bubble chamber was liquid hydrogen technology.

Agnew: Yeah, liquid hydrogen, right. So, lots of things spun off from that.

Rhodes: Los Alamos knew when you were designing Mike that lithium would probably do the job?

Agnew: Yeah. Well, I will tell you the problem. Louis Rosen’s group had measured lithium cross-section, and their technique was inadequate. They really did not know that on lithium-7, there was an (n, 2n) reaction. They missed it entirely, and that is why Shrimp—Diven’s thing—went gangbusters. 

Later on this cross-section was re-measured, and it was found out that one neutron went in, but two came out, and then you also had the lithium-6, and then it went like regular lithium-6. 

Rhodes: So, the reason that you call it Shrimp—the Bravo shot was so much bigger than anticipated.

Agnew: We had the wrong cross-section. His technique was to look for proton recoils in photographic emulsions. He just could not get the low energy; he just missed the low energy reactions completely. There again is why it is important. I have argued this with people in Washington when they say, “Why are you guys screwing around with this science? Why are you doing this basic research with our weapons money?”

I keep saying, “Well, you need the basic science, you need the basic technologies in order to implement some of these ideas, whether it is in welding or fabrication or handling materials, or finding out effects on people, hazards, all the rest, diagnostics, the whole business. You need this as a base.” 

And, the guys doing particle physics, they are building a technology base, which then the weaponeers transfer over and they make use of it, either in their diagnostic experiments or what have you, build detectors. We had some really dopey generals that really did not understand this.

Rhodes: That is an interesting parallel with the Soviets. They had a lot of trouble with [Lavrentiy] Beria, who was running their program, because all he wanted them to do was make a copy of Fat Man and blow it. We need to understand how you do this. You cannot just do it.

Agnew: There was a guy named Bernie Felt, who was with us. He has passed on, but Bernie and I were with a guy named Emelianoff a long time ago at a Pugwash conference in Poland. The Russians were really strange. They brought their own food, like cold chickens for a week, no refrigeration, Jesus. And also pickles and lots of Vodka. So, we would sit in the room and they would tell you war stories, wonderful war stories. I have never seen any of this in any books. One of them was by Emelianoff, with Bernie and me, telling us how he got involved.

He was a ferrous metallurgist, and he is the guy that developed the technique for making a turret of a tank in one piece. When the project started, you read about [Igor] Kurchatov and people like this and the roles they played. You never hear anything about Emelianoff. Emelianoff said that he got called. He had grown up with Stalin and he was part of that culture. He said he got called by Stalin, saying, “Come see me.” He said, “We’re in this program and I want you to take over.” I do not know, the way he described it was take over everything, now whether it was or not, or was some part. 

He said, “Well, I don’t know anything about this. I’m an iron metallurgist, a ferrous, not a non-ferrous, but a ferrous metallurgist. I can’t do these things.”

Stalin says, “No, I really want you to do this.”

And, he says, “No, I really can’t do this, boss. I’ll fall on my face.”

Stalin evidently said, “Well, you go home and you think about it.” So, he says he went home.

He said he was home maybe five minutes and the telephone rang. And, of course, Bernie and I said, “Stalin.”

And, he says, “No, Beria.” That is how he got involved in the project. 

Just like that. “Comrade, you will.”

Rhodes: Several tell that story.

Agnew: Oh, okay.

Rhodes: Sakharov was at one point—Beria called and said, “Do us a favor.”

Agnew: Yeah, do yourself a favor.

Rhodes: But, they had a really tricky line to walk, because of their insistence that they do a little more. He sounds a little like Groves, in that he wanted to get the damn job done. “You scientists are always going off in the wrong direction.”

Agnew: Oh, I must say I still think the real hero of the whole project was Groves.

Rhodes: Oh, no. I do, too.

Agnew: No question about it. Boy, did he have his neck stuck out, and he handled all these people. Everybody made fun of him in a funny way, because he just did not look like a modern major general or brigadier or what have you. But, as far as choosing people, getting the money, keeping their nose to the grindstone without any revolts, he sure did it.

Oppie was very good, at least at our place in standing up to him with regard to keeping the civilians as civilians, and all that sort of thing.

Rhodes: I am really amazed at the extent of the espionage.

Agnew: Yeah, I must say, I was completely unaware of any of this. And it is interesting, I think the last paper that Fuchs did at Los Alamos, I co-authored with him on it, on the Hiroshima data, on yield.

Rhodes: He seized that information by the way.

Agnew: No inclination whatsoever.

Rhodes: You know, I have been trying to figure out how they got their first reactor without question. I looked into it a little more; it was the 305 test reactor from Hanford.

Agnew: I see.

Rhodes: Arnold Kramish claimed that back in the ‘50s, before having picked it up at the Atoms for Peace conference. But, Argonne looked a little more and there is no doubt, everything was the same. They moved one control rod to a different place.

Agnew: I do not know how they got such detail. It is mind-boggling to me. Well, it is something. I have read the time abstracts of this Russian thing, and just garbage. Some of it is just so garbage, because he says they could not get their reactor to run, but they had a plutonium accident. Well, where the hell did they get the plutonium?

Rhodes: Well, they had not even started working on the reactor yet, in November of 1945.

Agnew: Yeah, just full of garbage.

Rhodes: But they did have a problem when they were assembling the reactor the following fall.

Agnew: Well, we had a problem.

Rhodes: Well, they had a problem getting batches of uranium metal that did not increase the reactivity when they added all this stuff in. They obviously were not able to measure very precisely the boron content.

Agnew: Yeah. Well, the thing that Fermi had up in Columbia, which just did not work very well, and it was due to impure graphite and impure uranium.

Rhodes: They had the same problem, but with less certainty about how to measure at those levels.

Agnew: But our first hand-trigger reactor had a positive temperature coefficient, and I guess that is what you are describing that maybe the Russians did. So you design reactors so you have a negative temperature coefficient.

Rhodes: Meaning they react less when there is less.

Agnew: When it gets hot. As the power goes up, the reactivity goes down. It is sort of a self-shutting off mechanism. It is very important. The RMKGs, or whatever they are, the things at Chernobyl, they are positive.

Rhodes: I know.

Agnew: All of ours are negative, but Hanford originally had a positive. Well, we were just learning. Also, they did not understand the xenon problem. But those dummies at Savannah River, you know, you are going to see this video. When I first came here, I said, “Gee, I work with weapons and we make them inherently safe.” No nuclear reaction if you detonate them at one point or something, unless you detonate them the way you are supposed to, you do not get a yield. You can get a mess, but you do not get yield. 

I talked to the guys here when I first came and said, “How big a reactor can you make that is inherently safe?” Walk-away safe, no matter what, because their research reactors are this way. Well, they worked on it, and they have evolved on now, and it is just beautiful.

But of course, the Westinghouse and the GEs go bananas when you talk an inherently safe reactor, because theirs’ are not. If they use electrical power, you will have worse than Chernobyl, because you have to circulate that water. If you do not circulate the water, you cannot get rid of the heat. Even if you shut the reactor down, they are decayed. The decay heat, well, in about a minute you got a real problem, you have a steam explosion.

This technology that the guys have developed here is inherently safe, and that means you do not have to have an evacuation zone. You can locate it wherever you want. But boy the DOE, they are so infiltrated with the Rickover light water, pressurized water, mafiosa. Then they have got their liquid metal, which nobody will touch with a ten-foot pole, but that is Argonne’s raison d’être to exist.

Rhodes: Charles Till’s project.

Agnew: And, to me it has been, the way that program is run, is not at all the way the weapons program has been run. The weapons program has been run, if you have a better mousetrap or new technology, let’s go for it. Whereas, the technology that is being used in the power generation for nuclear energy, whether it is boiling water or pressure, it is the same that Rickover started fifty years ago. It is utterly ridiculous.

Rhodes: Absolutely.

Agnew: They do bells and whistles and better gadgets, but still they should design reactors that do not depend on what an operator does or does not do. And, it does not depend on what a gadget or a valve or a spring or a relay does or does not do. You can do it. The Germans have demonstrated this, but there is just an anti-nuclear whatever you want to call it.

Rhodes: You know, it is funny, the Russians stayed with the graphite thing all the way through, with their air-cooled reactors.

Agnew: Well, graphite is much better than water.

Rhodes: Well, they stayed with the positive design.

Agnew: That is right.

Rhodes: Coefficient design. [Vladimir] Alexandrov was the Russian who designed that, the first production reactor.

Agnew: Well, I remember talking to the Chinese. Well, the Japanese are building a small, what I call HTGR, high temperature gas thing, and I just predict that now that they are sort of getting on a level playing field with cars. Their big export for the developing world is going to be these small modular nuclear reactors. You watch in about ten years, and it will be a godsend for these places, because you do not need expertise to run it in a safety sense. They are small enough that you do not need a big infrastructure for wielding the power. It is not 1000 megawatts, it is 300 megawatts.

When the AEC was in charge, it was really good. The members of the commission were people that you really respected their intellect. Since the demise of the joint committee and the Atomic Energy Commission, the level of expertise at the upper levels in the Department of Energy or ERD or whatever, they have all been political appointees. Some of them are really vacuum heads, just unbelievable how—they may know something about something, I do not know what it is, but they certainly do not know anything about—in fact, they do not like nuclear.

One could argue the only reason there was an AEC or an ERD or a DOE was because of nuclear energy. If you did not have nuclear energy, there would be no reason to do any of those. The military would do their conventional; energy would be commerce or something like that. But now, they do not like nuclear, and that is really their only reason for being.

It is just to me, it is just horrible what has happened. There is no leadership, and their research, the director of energy research, they will call, that should go to the National Science Foundation. It is that kind of, “They do fusion, they do particle physics. Put it over there.”

Rhodes: Well, you know how those things evolved, and they just sort of tumbled off what it originally was.

Agnew: That is right.

Rhodes: Just before you came out here, out to Los Alamos in ’49, there was a period before the AEC really took over when we did not have any nuclear weapons, essentially. I think they did not have enough polonium to keep the initiators up to speed.

Agnew: In ’49.

Rhodes: You know, when David Lilienthal went to Truman in the spring of ’47 to tell him about their survey out here, he told Truman there are not any bombs. There were like nine, but they did not have any initiators and there was not an assembly team around.

Agnew: I do not know.

Rhodes: But, by the time you arrived, they must have really been gotten going again.

Agnew: I came back in ’49 and things were going pretty gangbuster, yeah. Well, I think there was a hiatus. See, with the war, the universities were essentially devoid of their professors in these fields, in these particular fields. After the war, this was clearly the hot item. So, everybody who had an advanced degree had a very attractive offer at any university they wanted. Any of the guys that were worth a damn were going back to school.

Because of the questions, Baruch Plan, this plan, that plan, it was not clear what the future was going to be. That is why I admire Norris so much for sticking in there and holding on to what he could hold on to, until some of these things were resolved, which he did. Then they were building back and about when I came, ’48, ’49, the decisions had been made and they are starting to go again.

Rhodes: But, then they tested the composite core and the elevated designs, because apparently, there was a big stockpiling of uranium during that time because they were waiting to test the composite so they could do that. And, there were not any bombs. You know, it is so striking in the record. Here is the Berlin airlift, and here was all this stuff going on, and we didn’t have the weapons.

Agnew: Well, the military would say they want as many bombs as they could have with yields sort of in multiples of five, like ten kilotons, twenty kilotons, thirty kilotons, what have you. Max Roy, Jane Hall were sort of in charge of this. It was sort of a mix and match, because everything in the stockpile was made on the basis of the availability of material.

Rhodes: Fissionable material.

Agnew: Fissionable material, uranium and plutonium, and how you could use it best, mixing and matching. And, the parts were made so that they could go together, shells could fit and you could put so much of this and so much of that together, use it all up. They did this all by hand, pencil and paper on a spreadsheet like, of how they would mix these shells with these shells to get this yield, and this yield with this.

Then they had all these cores, so to speak, and we had people. We were training people at Los Alamos—military guys—on how to insert cores. And, the thing that really changed things was the advent of the jet aircraft. But, with conventional aircraft, you see it really did not matter at what altitude they flew. They eventually got up to around 30,000, the B29s did not, but the other ones, they could fly at relatively low altitude and it did not hurt the performance. Whereas, when the B47 first came out, it was a jet and it had to get to altitude in a hurry, otherwise it had no range at all. So, you did not have any time to fool around with a guy inserting a core in a bomb bay.

In the early days, safety was achieved by keeping these things separate. In fact, the military had all the bombs and the high explosives, and the AEC had all the cores. They were located on a base with a fence in between.

They had what we called bird cages, which were the carrying cases for the cores. Then they had people trained who would get in the bomb bay and load the darn things after they took off. That was a safety mechanism. Well, when they got jet aircraft, you could not do that. F-84F was the first externally carried bomb on a fighter bomber. You could not do this, a guy could not hang on the outside, and you had to get to altitude in a hurry.

That is when Sandia started making what were called IFIs, in-flight insertion mechanisms. We knew we could do much better with the present-day technology—again, I am having Marshall sing. But, the technique of fabricating these materials in the form that you needed to do that, we did not have. It was the metallurgy. To make a ball, that ain’t all that hard. But, to make a thin-walled shell is something else, and it was that technology.

Rhodes: Especially with those materials.

Agnew: Yeah, that technology took a long time to develop. Some of the heroes in that are guys like Dick Baker, Bill Merriman, people like that are the guys—Johnny Anderson—those are the guys that developed the technology for making these thin shells of these materials. We made everything at Los Alamos—everything. I remember the first bombs that went to England, called Backbreaker, the Mark 5s. And, we made fifty of them. Absolutely crash program. Made them all at Los Alamos, cores, bombs, everything, high explosive. They were shipped and flown out to England. That was our first, with B47s based in England. 

The guy that was in charge of that squadron, a guy named John D. Stevenson, he was a colonel at the time, retired as a major general. He was one of the heads of DNA [Kadena Air Force Base] eventually in his career. He lives in Augusta, Georgia, I guess on the golf course. He married a real rich lady or something. But, he was the first guy to have this squadron overseas in England. 

That was the first thing that backed up the NATO in the early ‘50s. NATO was formed, I guess, in ’48, something like that. And, these things, somehow I think they were over there in the early ‘50s. See we had the old Mark 4s, and the Mark 5 was somewhat smaller. I do not remember a Mark 6, but I guess there was. Mark 7 was the first one to be externally carried on a F-84F. It was the first. It had an IFI, come to think of it.

Rhodes: This was a mechanical method that inserted the core?

Agnew: Yeah, inserted the core.

Rhodes: Because, I have a cousin who is a retired general in the SAC [Strategic Air Command] and he remembers hand-inserting cores in those early days.

Agnew: Yeah, hand-inserting cores and crawling around. Then we had these IFIs, and then we went to the inherently safe systems, which only were possible with the advent of the metallurgy of making these materials in these rather difficult shapes. But the whole technology of how you do this, how you can get the stuff to keep the air off of them. It was an awful lot of stuff, That is why when people talk about these terrorists are going to swipe something—bunch of baloney, just a bunch of baloney.

Rhodes: I know.

Agnew: Everybody is worried about plutonium. You know, “Oh my god, the terrorists.” They should be worrying about enriched uranium.

Rhodes: Oh, yeah, sure.

Agnew: Because, it is a legal commodity, as an example. It is traded; it is handled.

Rhodes: HEU?

Agnew: Sure.

Rhodes: Well, sure, it is used in some reactors.

Agnew: It is used in reactors. They blend it down, but I mean, we are buying it from the Russians, and I assume the Japanese will buy it. Anybody that wants to buy it, I assume, can buy it. Honest to God, we are going to blend it down. But, you know, the Russians said, “Well, we have 500 metric tons. Oh, no, we got 800. No, I guess we got 1100 metric tons just sitting here, not even in the weapons.” And, when you realize the HEU metal, when you look at their, let us say, thermonuclear bombs, there are big hunks in there. And, the stuff is very much like cold-rolled steel. It is not like plutonium. It will oxidize, gets black. But, it is a very stable metal.

It is scary when you saw it, it sparks. So it sparks, but in the background, the neutron background is zilch. It is easy to handle. I can see a terrorist—if they ever got some in metal form—sawing it up like a jigsaw puzzle, blocks, and putting a thing together like a gun device. It would not be hard to do, just do it in a regular machine shop. If you have got stock, like cold roll, then make it a bomb. And there is tons of it. You do not worry about your people or glowing in the dark.

Rhodes: Larry told me once he could make a very nice, pretty good yield explosion by dropping one piece onto another.

Agnew: Well, that is what Louis Slotin did. But that was plutonium at Berkeley. Oh, no, well, there have been ideas how you drop one in the toilet tank, use the water.

Rhodes: My friend Sy [Seymour] Hersh has a piece of this month’s Atlantic Monthly about the mafia in Russia, who have been trying to get their hands on some HEU.

Agnew: Yeah, I saw that. Well, I really think they are better off to just swipe a bomb.

Rhodes: Sure.

Agnew: You know, things really get bad over there. I can see some more disgruntled staff sergeant saying, “You know, hey fellows, there’s this guy on the Camelot side that, you know, it’s such a deal.” You never know.

Rhodes: You said sometime back something about the Savannah River reactors. Did they have a problem? 

Agnew: Oh, yeah, they did. You know, they are never going to run again. Well, it is interesting. I have got the correspondence on that; I have got some in there. I am trying to clean out the office. But, way back when I first came here, Howard Baker, the Senator, asked me to come to dinner one night in Washington, and he had a group of people there. Actually, he was promoting expo something in Tennessee. I do not know what it was, something, and he had these big shots there, with a sprinkling of academia or something.

Anyway, I got invited, and I sat next to a man named Shapiro. It turned out Shapiro was President of DuPont. I said, “Gee,” at that time, I said, “You know, you are—” this is like in 1980. I said, “Those reactors are almost forty years old,” and DuPont is supposed to be very hot on safety, they are supposed to be one of the big-shots in the industry as far as promoting worker safety. And, I said, “When you replace these things you ought to really consider an inherently safe reactor system for making plutonium or making tritium.” 

I was really emphasizing tritium, and that is a problem today, quite frankly, because we do not have any capability. And, they say, “Well, if we cut down on the weapons and the decay is twelve years, well, we got enough to last.” But then what? Because it is going to take them eight to ten years if you are going to build something to make it. 

Now, everybody has come out the woodwork—I am digressing—that you can use an accelerator. Yeah, but you got to have energy to drive the accelerator, or you can take commercial reactors and sort of load the perimeters, and you can make enough probably. You could buy it from the Russians or maybe buy it from Canada.

Shapiro says, “Well, I don’t know about that, but the man in charge of this, a man named Yeltin, not Yeltsin, but Yeltin. Why don’t you write to him?” So, I wrote to Yeltin expressing my concerns. 

I get a letter back from him saying, “Oh, hell, these things are good for another forty years, never had any problems, da dah, da dah, da dah.” Okay, close the book.

Then, not very long after that, maybe five, six, seven years, a group was asked to look at safety of DoD [Department of Defense] facilities. And, a guy named Lou Rottis, who is dead, and another guy looked into the reactor facilities, the DOE. And, they came up with a scathing report on the Savannah reactors as being unsafe.

Rhodes: What were they, graphite reactors?

Agnew: No, no, they are water, they operate at essentially 100 degrees, they are heavy water.

Rhodes: Heavy water.

Agnew: Heavy water, operate at about 100 degrees, and they have lithium aluminum things which absorb neutrons and make tritium. They boil the lithium aluminum alloy and boil the tritium out, and that is how you get the tritium.

Rhodes: Oh, so the tritium stays in the lithium?

Agnew: Yeah. Anyway, they wrote a scathing report on these reactors. So they shut them down. Then, for some reason, they had been running, and then for some reason they decided they were going to start one up again. So, they pull out the control rods and the reactor does not work. They pull out some more, still does not work. Pull out some more, still does not work. Fortunately, somebody said, “We don’t know what’s going on, let’s shut it down.”

They call some guys in, and the guys said, “Well, it’s obvious. You had been making tritium. Tritium decays into helium-3. Helium-3 is one of the best absorbers of neutrons; it is like the xenon absorption that there is. You guys had kept going, you would have gotten critical, you would have burned out the helium-3 and the thing would’ve gone gangbusters.”

Okay, one example of the proficiency, and a worry of that type of reactor. These guys started looking at the reactors and found all sorts of cracks in the piping, in the reactor vessels and everything. It is criminal what has been done. They have spent between two and three billion dollars trying to fix those reactors, and they will never run again, instead of doing what I have been arguing: let us build an inherently safe reactor for that purpose. It will be the prototype for the next generation commercial reactors. I do not know if you heard a guy named Bill Lee?

Rhodes: Yeah, I heard him with CP-1.

Agnew: Yeah, well he wrote a letter to Harrington, saying, “Boy, this is what you ought to do.” He has written a letter to Clinton in the last few days, or months, saying, “This is what you are going to do,” but the light water Mafioso—

I gave a speech in Italy about inherently safe reactors. God, they come out of the woodwork saying, “You talk about a safe reactor. We’ve got enough problems.” The implication is what we have is not safe. They are safe. And, I say, “Yeah, flying, taking a ride in an airplane, is it safe? No, but, you know, you assess that it is safe. But, if you could make an anti-gravity airplane, shouldn’t you do it?”


Agnew: And, it is that sort of thing. But the trouble is reactors last too long. See, if they were like an automobile, you could throw it away in a year. You could bring in a new technology. But, they are having such trouble just maintaining, relicensing, and disposing of the spent fuel. It is a crime, but the guys here, and let me show you this film, really have a clever idea on. You can get almost 50% thermodynamic efficiency out of these high temperature reactors here, compared with 32%, is what you get on a conventional water thing. And it is inherently safe.

You can site wherever you want, which to me, you could put it in the middle of an oil refinery. They use about a third of their energy potential in the cracking columns and keeping things going. Yeah, no need. You can use it for process heat; you could replace the front end of a steam plant, coal plant, with one of these units. It is just a firebox is all it is. There has been one proponent in the Congress, Bennett Johnson, who seems to be an enlightened guy. He has pushed it.

Rhodes: You know, the anti-nuclear bias in the United States is awesome, just awesome.

Agnew: It is awesome, yeah. Same in Germany.

Rhodes: Yeah. I try to talk to journalists, my fellow journalists.

Agnew: Oh, no.

Rhodes: They shut off, absolutely. They assume that you must be corrupt or something.

Agnew: That is right, you are on the take with some. In a chemical reaction you get three electron volts on the average of energy. In an efficient reaction, you get 210 million, a factor of 70 million. With that leverage you ought to be able to handle it somehow—but no way. And, there are no effluents.

Rhodes: No, it is the radioactivity that scares them. They do not understand it, and they assume it is lethal at any level.

Agnew: That is another thing, you know, we are trying to get a waste disposal site here for the industry. The biotech industry uses all sort of radioactive tracers. And the hospitals use it. Now, take the hospitals. What do they do with it? Well, they use it in all sorts of diagnostic and therapeutic purposes. You know, they get some rubber gloves—maybe the syringe has something. 

Well, now you think about it, less than half a percent of the radioactivity resides in these smocks, chem-wipes, gloves, syringes. Where is the other part? It is in the guy or the gal! Now, they are worried about putting it in a dump, it will get in the ground water. Where does it go in the person? He piddles it.

It is just utterly ridiculous. It is in the person already, you do not have to wait for it to go through the groundwater and the chain, in the well, in—you know, 99+ % is in the person walking around, piddling wherever he wants, and you are worried about a half a percent in a landfill. There is no logic to it.

Rhodes: No, but it is not logical, of course.

Agnew: Yeah, so I do not know what you do about it. Okay, we are off the track.

Rhodes: We are. Was there some particular reason for using heavy water reactors to make tritium?

Agnew: I do not know.

Rhodes: Because, the Russians did the same thing.

Agnew: Well, they probably copied what we did. [Laughter] Well, heavy water is better than light water for the neutronics. And, since you are putting a poison in, gobbling up neutrons in the form of the lithium, in order to make tritium—it is a poison. Anything that gobbles neutrons, you are gobbling neutrons, so you want to get as much reactivity as you can, so heavy water is better than light water. That could well be it. Of course, you lose some neutrons in the deuterium, too. That is another thing about those reactors. The heavy water, of course, becomes radioactive. That is why they have tritium, because the heavy water is radioactive.

Rhodes: Meaning?

Agnew: There is tritium in the water.

Rhodes: Yeah, right, okay, that is why it is radioactive.

Agnew: The deuterons absorb a neutron, you get tritons, so it is radioactive. I do not know why. I was not involved in any of those things.

Rhodes: I just wondered if there was some special reason.

Agnew: People get going and it is a cultural.

Rhodes: But, you are right. The Russians probably went that way because we went that way.

Agnew: They probably went that way because we did. They have a very good network of finding out what is going on, which surprised me, because we were really quite restricted, probably the way the Army did things. They go by their conventional way of doing things, censoring our mail, you know. If you are going to be a bad boy, you are not going to put it in a letter.

Rhodes: I mean, Fuchs just drove into Santa Fe and met Harry Gold, and passed it.

Agnew: Yeah, well, whatever.

Rhodes: Fuchs had a wonderful deal in New York when he was writing papers on gaseous diffusion. His handwritten draft would be typed, and all the typed copies would be numbered and controlled. But they would give him back his handwritten draft, which is what he then passed to the Russians. It was totally out of the loop as far as they were concerned.

Alan Nunn May took some U-233 foils from Argonne, gave them to the Canadian network and they flew them over to Moscow, and U-235, too. I told, talked about that with Al[vin] Weinberg, and he said, “Well, Herb Anderson always wondered where his U-233 foils went.” Went to Kurchatov.

Agnew: I remember reading about twenty or more kilos of HEU disappeared years ago and it obviously went to Israel.

Rhodes: Yeah, that is a famous story, too.

Agnew: And, I must say, we had very loose controls on materials. There was an experiment called Dragon at Los Alamos, which was built on little centimeter cubes of enriched—I used to have some of those in my drawers, sort of souvenirs. Then I got to worrying, “Gee, that’s probably illegal or something,” so I turned them back in. But, there was not the exquisite inventory that they have. It is actually overbearing, but I guess it is reasonable today.

Rhodes: If you are interested, in the back of the [Pavel] Sudoplatov book, are translations of the documents that the KGB released a year ago. You can see Kurchatov getting information and how he changed their program. When he heard about plutonium, they completely reorganized, because they were going to go for uranium and a uranium bomb, in ’43. When Fuchs said plutonium—zam! That fixed it all for them. But, it is there. Since it is physics, it is especially interesting to follow how he learned what and when.

Agnew: I find I have difficulty, except for your book, reading about the project and anything. Because most of it is just garbage, you know, and it irritates me. I do not read it and I do not go see Little Man and the Fat Man, or whatever it was – Little Boy and Fat Man, the movie. I do not go see stuff like that. 

Rhodes: Well, the nice thing here is these are Kurchatov’s reviews of the espionage material, so they are very authentic. There is no question that they are not. And they left him out of the book. They also released a document that I think must have been prepared for Beria describing precisely how the Fat Man was designed in great detail, and they properly put it in their book. Well, I think I am about out of questions.

Agnew: That is why I said, I could not see how you could prolong this non-agony session.

Rhodes: I mean, I would love to get more war stories out of you about these shots and what you guys were doing out there.

Agnew: We had a lot of fun. I was mentioning some of the people in the AEC were very good. You have heroes, you have people who were very dedicated. But had you been an enlisted man, you would have fragged them.


Agnew: Okay. Starboard was a guy that I could have easily fragged.

Rhodes: Starboard.

Agnew: Yeah.

Rhodes: He was an Air Force guy wasn’t he?

Agnew: No, he was Army. Absolutely dedicated, hardest working, and I just could not stand him and neither could a lot of people. Then you would have a guy like Ed Giller, who was fantastic in that job—he was an Air Force major general, he was really good. But you have these heroes and non-heroes. I can give you an example with Starboard. Starboard was the Assistant Secretary for Defense Programs in the new hierarchy when I was in the lab. And, we would go in twice a year to brief the Armed Services Committee.

There was a guy who was the major general, Army Division of Military Application, named Joe Bratton. He became head of the Corps of Engineers. Good guy, but Starboard was his boss. And, I think it was Roger Batsel and I were in to testify and, you know, we both have a pony show on how Los Alamos tried to outdo Livermore and vice versa, very competitive. And, at that last minute, Bratton comes in, very somber on his face and said, “The general has told me to tell you guys to cut your briefings in half.” You know, we are going for our money, for our whole budget, Jesus. Five minutes before.

I was on first and I got a pair of scissors, and all these view guys, and I said, “Gentlemen, General Bratton has told me that General Starboard,” who was there, “has requested that we cut our briefings in half. So I have.” And, I just threw the graphs down. [Laughter].

Starboard was livid. He would not talk to me. His secretary would not talk to me. He said, “No one had ever done that.” If I were not a civilian, boy, would I really be put on the rack and pinion—just absolutely furious. Even [Ron] Dellums and Bob Karn, the antis in those days—they were in the minority, now he is Chairman of Armed Services, Dellums—but they roared with laughter. We got every cent we asked for. And, I kept telling Starboard, “What are you bitching about? We went there to get money, didn’t we?” You pay homage to these guys; you go to get money. That is all. They loved it.

But that was the best, and there are guys that still remind me of this. That was the best fun I ever had. I hated testifying. You know, you are there on your knees and these guys are sitting like—it is sort of like this thing in the comic strips of King Tut, or you know, little guy, whatever he is. “What is he in for, stealing bread? Well, kill him or something.” But, you are in there sort of groveling, being nice to them.

Some of them are interested and most of them could care less, they are just on the committee and if they are from Chicago, they worry about Argonne. If it is [Pete] Domenici, he worries about Los Alamos, Sandia. So it is a pork barrel arrangement that the labs do good things and everything.

But basically, you are in there to get money. You better leave them with a good feeling. They are usually awed, you give them a little bit of way-out science or something. I used to have to testify against Johnny Foster, and he would say outrageous things. He was very good at this. [Norris] Bradbury just was not good at this at all. He would take me to do the soft-shoe, as I called it. 

I used to watch him when Johnny was talking. He would just get red, livid at the crazy things that Johnny—he would promise them he was going to make a small hydrogen bomb like this and just all this just crap. Livermore, well, they had the reputation of being the dynamic, forward thinking gung-ho guys, but if you look at the stockpile.

Rhodes: They got so much credit they did not deserve for the stockpile.

Agnew: Stockpile is nothing, you know, like even today, it is more than 90% Los Alamos. You could argue that, well, if there is one system that has a thousand bombs and you have that system then you do the stockpile. They say, “Okay, let’s do it on the basis of systems that are in the stockpile. Not numbers of weapons, but different systems.” Same thing with Los Alamos. Now, let us look at the funding. We operated at 60% of their funding.

Rhodes: Oh, really?

Agnew: Yeah, I have got it all from the beginning of time on bar charts, each year. Sandia is the big spender, but between Livermore, Los Alamos, Sandia—I have got all the weapons, it is all unclassified, the number of weapons, the number of systems, the percentages of each lab, and the percentages of the money.

In fact, Norris was a very conservative guy, and he really did not have a bookkeeping system on money. He worked on what is called FTEs, full-time employment. He allocated so much money for a full-time employer, employment of a technical person, so much for a support person. Then he would say, “Well, we got so many people, so that’s how much money we need, okay.” Included in that were purchases and everything.

He always underran, he was scared to death of overrunning and going to jail. And, he underran, oh, anywhere from – well, if we had a budget of forty million, he would underrun anywhere from five to eight million, okay. Livermore would always overrun. The budget man in the DOE, or AEC then, named Johnny Abbadessa, was a very smart guy. He always counted on Norris’s underrun to take care of Livermore’s overrun. Well, this always irritated me, because I would run the weapons division, and I would complain and Norris would say, “Oh, you know.” 

So, anyway when I got to be director, I got some guys together and started a fiscal management system. I said, “I want a system that – where does our money go?” And, the reason for that is we really fell on our face on the Spartan, on the, I do not know if you remember, we had Sprint and Spartan. Those were the ABM [Anti-Ballistic Missiles]—

Rhodes: Oh, yeah.

Agnew: Those were the original things. We did very well on Sprint, which was the neutron bomb for low altitude intercept. But, we were just terrible on the big bomb, the Spartan warhead, which Livermore did very well on. And, part of the reason was—

Rhodes: This was a competition to develop this weapon?

Agnew: We always competed on all these things. When I got the system together, it became very obvious what was happening. We were spending all our money on hardware, and very little on computations. Livermore had always led Los Alamos in the computations.

This I blamed on Carson, all respect of Carson. Carson controlled the theoretical division; he also controlled all the computers. It was just, he had it. Well, the first thing I did, I took the computer division away from the theoretical division and told the guys. Oh, it was difficult. The first guy was a friend of Carson’s, that is the way I eased it to take it over. He sort of in the same conventional tradition did not do very much.

Then we got in some really jock computer nuts and then we went gangbusters. The breaking point was between Livermore and ourselves. Abbadessa, the controller, had wanted to buy something called Star. It is an interesting story. Star was a vector machine, and I do not know who made it, but they had a deal as a uniform purchase for all the DOE. They were going to buy Star.

This was a time that Cray, Seymour Cray was just starting. He had not started yet. He had this Cray machine. Our guys looked at the two machines and said, “We think Cray is going to be a better machine, and it is better for the way we do things than Star.” Well, if we did not buy in on the Star, then Abbadessa could not do the multiple procurement deal that he was wangling. I do not know if it was above board or what. He could not sell it to the Congress. So, I opposed him on it, saying no, we would not buy into the Star. We would wait for Cray.

It turned out that if we had not done this, there would have been no Cray, because Cray bought parts and packaged them. He did not really invent anything new; it was his unique way of packaging things that allowed him to do this. And, without an order, contract, this whole business again, he could not get the bank financing to buy the parts. Our order allowed him to get the bank financing to buy the parts, which allowed Cray to become Cray. Very interesting.

Well, back to Abbadessa. As a part of this setting up a business system, very crude by modern standards, but at least we knew where our money was. I was able, at the end of the year, to say we had so much money. You have guys outside the fence. If a truckload of stuff is coming in, do the inventory, can we afford it or if we cannot. If we cannot, stop the truck, wait until the end of fiscal year. Just tell them to come back next week. We came out within maybe $50,000 of our budget.

Abbadessa was in deep; he had been counting on like four million dollars. He called me a crook. He said I had to be a crook. Nobody could do that. He came out and he had people come out, and they went through everything. We were clean as a whistle. In fact now they have got in overly, because of all the auditors. It is just terrible what the DOE and the university and everybody else inflicts on them now.

It was an interesting transition from essentially back of the envelope way of running things, which was why we always had less money than Livermore. It is a factor of two, it is like in boats. One boat is really worth two if it is, you know, you take one from him and put it to you, it makes a difference of two, not one. Anyway, we had a good time.

Well, I do not know, lots of war stories.

Well, I had seen an article about a German by the name of [Theodore] Kanake, who had invented something called a ribbon chute. And, it so happened after the war, we somehow got Dr. Kanake and sent him to El Centro, which was a Navy parachute design place, or something. 

Anyway, in the old days in the AEC, there was a Colonel Paul Buttman and a Colonel Gus Lundquist. Lundquist became a big-shot in the FAA later on. But anyway, I called these guys and said, “I think we ought to go talk to this guy,” because I had heard that he had developed a chute to drop a tank. He could deliver a tank for the Germans – well, not big a tank, but it was tank. I saw them, saw a newspaper article.

Sandia was working on this, it was their job, presumably, to develop retarding things, and they had all kinds of weird things. Somebody had seen an elm tree, you know, how the seed pod goes down. So, they had some metal things that came out and all sorts of engineered things.

Anyway, Buttman came out to Albuquerque and we got in a B25 and flew down to El Centro. We sashayed around with this guy, asking him about what he thought he could deliver, how heavy – ten tons, twenty tons – maybe you could do. Oh, yeah, he could design a chute. Well, that is how originally, and I do not know if it is still so or not, but the Air Force had the responsibility for developing parachutes for all of our bombs, not the DOE.

Now I think Sandia has taken it all over. But originally, for years, Air Force developed the retarding mechanism for delivering bombs, for get-away primarily, or for things that landed on the ground. Some ground bursts, you want it to sit there a while. You had to let them down a little easier than you would, or for low-level delivery. But, it was sort of an interesting thing that that technology came from the German guy named Kanake at El Centro.

There are a lot of stories like this, how we did things. For instance, now they talk about the business of probably one in a million, less than four pounds in the case of an accident – criteria for safety and all that. We developed all that based on weird rules, worried about something happening on a ship. We said, “How much explosive could go off in a ship and it probably would not sink the ship?” We decided like four pounds if it were in a room like this in a ship with steel walls, it would not hurt the people on the other side.

So, we said, “Okay, four pounds.” 

And, then also with four pounds, we said, “How much radiation comes from that?”

We took different numbers, but it turned out that four pounds and the radiation from that, as best we knew in those days, people in the next rooms – whatever they call them on ships – would probably be okay from the radiation. So we decided on four pounds. Then the question is, well, what probability? The best we could calculate was like one in a million.

So, we said, “Okay, one in a million.”

So, this is now called the Walske Criteria. Carl had nothing to do with it! It is all in a notebook of mine on why we did this.

But, this business that this present secretary of energy, you know, how terrible it was that we did these experiments on people—well, most of it was trying to find out what the facts were, establishing the tech base for effects of radiation. Gee, we used to radiate rabbits and dogs. At the Loblaws Clinic, they did all sorts of experiments on blasts with animals primarily. But, we had a lot of workers that had a lot of plutonium in them.

Well, I had an article, I do not know where it is, that George Voelz—if you ever get into the business the effect of plutonium, contact George Voelz. He was the guy on the [Karen] Silkwood thing. There has been a recent article he wrote on that. When I was director, she came up on a weekend. It was an interesting thing, because they put her in a whole-body counter, then she drove off and was killed. So, they got parts to play with later on, within a week of a whole body alive and then parts from the autopsy.

He said when she left, she obviously was under drugs. He had been just looking at her, she was hooked on drugs. Maybe she ran off the road because she took a shot before she left or something. I do not know. We do not know, but obviously that whole thing was a bit of lawyerism, they got a big judgment against Kerr-McGee and it was all nonsense.

But, there was a recent article in one of the Los Alamos newsletters by George Voelz, giving a resume of the Silkwood case, where they got damages for contamination in her house. But, it obviously had been planted somehow. There was a big union thing going on there.

Rhodes: I have been corresponding by email with one of the guys who built that fifty-eight megaton thing, Yuri Smirnov. They dropped it from a plane.

Agnew: Yeah, yeah.

Rhodes: The plane ended up with scorched wings.

Agnew: Well, I was wondering how the plane got away, and I never got an answer.

Rhodes: That is, I think they detonated it at four kilometers up. It was a big bomb, I mean, it had to be pretty high up so that there was no ground fireball.

Agnew: Oh, yeah.

Rhodes: And, I think he said for the next 45 minutes there was no connection to the plane, of course, the radio would not work. So, they were all holding on when they got back.

Agnew: Yeah, that was a gutsy thing, because we worried on our Hiroshima thing. We worried what was going to happen to us, more from shock than anything else.

Rhodes: I did not realize you had taken that film of the Hiroshima.

Agnew: There is not much on Hiroshima, but I arranged for the Nagasaki. What you see is Nagasaki.

Rhodes: Oh, that one that shows the—

Agnew: Oh, beautiful, all in color and everything, that is Nagasaki. But, the press, naturally, that is the—

Rhodes: Poor Nagasaki.

Agnew: That is the film that is used for Hiroshima.

Rhodes: That fifty-eight megaton was, they say, 98% fusion.

Agnew: They say it was. They had cleaned it up, yeah. You know, we made a clean bomb once. Air Force did not want any part of it, and Admiral Strauss dictated that we make it. We made ten of them, and they just sat. The Air Force would not touch them. They did not want the damn things.

Rhodes: Why?

Agnew: They did not want it. Why carry something around with a half or a third the yield?

Rhodes: Oh, right, yeah.

Agnew: That is all.

Rhodes: So, it did not have U-238.

Agnew: No, and it was primarily clean. Used lead instead. It burned fuel, but you did not get any of the fissions from the normal part of the secondary.

Rhodes: When you said that that reaction, the 2n reaction—

Agnew: Lithium, yeah.

Rhodes: Lithium gave the extra yield. That is because of fission of the U-238, right?

Agnew: Well, you got more neutrons. The fuel burned better, because you got lithium-6 from the (n, 2n) on lithium-7. You actually got enriched lithium, plus a neutron. So, it worked as well or better than the enriched stuff.

Rhodes: But, then the extra neutrons also fissioned?

Agnew: Oh, yeah, they fissioned in the uranium. But, it was just that cross-section glitch that—and we did not know that when we shot Mike either. We did not know why it went so well, but subsequently, it was determined that it was just the wrong cross-section.

Rhodes: The other thing that Smirnov has been telling me about, that they are really concerned that that ‘53, so-called layer cake design of theirs, be recognized as a hydrogen bomb. They are so embarrassed that they used the Fat Man for their first bomb. He has given me some numbers that I do not think have circulated yet, that it was 15 % to 20% fusion yield, that they took it up to a megaton in later design, and that they did it without tritium in a later design. They did it with lithium and it worked, so that from their point of view, that was a legitimate hydrogen bomb.

Agnew: Sure, sure.

Rhodes: But, of course, everyone over here from [Hans] Bethe to [Herbert] York, everyone I talk to wants to says, “No, it really was not, it was not a two-stage design.”

Agnew: No, I had one interaction with them when I went over with Monty [inaudible] and people. I do not like to go to Russia.

Rhodes: Oh, no. Oh, it’s terrible.

Agnew: Why do you want to go there for? I already got my matryoshka dolls or whatever they are, my little painted box, you know. Although before all this, Beverly and I did take a trip on the railroad. We took a railroad all the way across. That is wonderful.

Unidentified Female: I would love to do that, from Beijing all the way.

Agnew: When I saw Dr. Zhivago, that is when I wanted to do it. Be sure you get a first class thing. And it is just gorgeous; the country is just gorgeous. But one of the interesting things is it’s all electrified, which to me was, boy is this thing is very vulnerable—you know, from my background of what one could do. But, every 200 miles there is a great big parking lot filled with steam locomotives with boards over their windows. You know, they are moth-balled, steam locomotives, just great big parking lots of these steam locomotives. Obviously, they have anticipated that somebody cuts their power off, they still want to be able to move back and forth across the eleven time zones.

Agnew: To me, it was very funny to see those things sitting there.

Rhodes: That is amazing. I just think about at the beginning of the war when they moved all their factories east. They moved something like a million or more boxcar loads of stuff in a matter of months and built those things.

Unbelievable what they have been able to do – they built the bomb. You know they have stories of making up high explosive assemblies, sort of a simplified implosion system where they would take spheres of explosives and glue them onto a shell of explosives, which would make, I guess, a sort of an implosion device. They would do the gluing from a pot of glue on an open fire, open wood fire out in the middle of the woods, just real primitive. They were cutting their vacuum rubber gaskets out of old inner tubes.

Copyright 1994 Richard Rhodes. This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced, or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of Richard Rhodes. Exclusive rights granted to Atomic Heritage Foundation.