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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Jim Walther’s Interview

Manhattan Project Locations:

Jim Walther is the director of the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque, NM. He begins this interview by discussing his working relationship with Jim Sanborn, the sculptor behind the renowned exhibits “Atomic Time” and “Critical Assembly.” He continues with a discussion of health physics, the history of nuclear reactors, and other innovations from the Manhattan Project. Walther also talks about the portrayal of nuclear issues in popular culture. He concludes by asserting the importance of studying the Manhattan Project and other nuclear issues.

Date of Interview:
February 3, 2017
Location of the Interview:


Kelly: This is Cindy Kelly, Atomic Heritage Foundation. It’s Friday, February 3rd, 2017. I’m in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and I’m with Jim Walther. First, could you say your name, your full name and spell it?

Walther: Jim Walther, and that’s spelled J-I-M W-A-L-T-H-E-R.

Kelly: I am here at your wonderful museum [National Museum of Nuclear Science and History], because of this great occasion of opening “Atomic Time”, an exhibit by the artist and sculptor Jim Sanborn. I know you two go way back. Why don’t you tell us the story of how you first knew him?

Walther: Thank you, Cindy. It is an interesting story, and I think it’s one of the things about the relationship we’ve developed around this. That is certainly an important thing to remember. People come together from many points, as we all know.

I met Jim Sanborn about thirty-six years ago. I was a young man, and I had just begun my work in the museum field. I was in my hometown of Charleston, West Virginia, just out of art school. There was a public art colloquia that had been planned by the city, because there was a big sculpture going in in downtown, right next to the Civic Center. Jim Sanborn had been chosen as the artist to do an installation of huge granite blocks and aluminum plates called Elk Delta. The Elk River is right there. It’s the confluence of the Elk River and the Kanawha River in Charleston, West Virginia, and that was my hometown.

I was only twenty-three, and I was asked by the museum that I worked for to help Mr. Sanborn. Well, I was in awe. He was older than I, but not a lot, you know, we were both younger men. I was just a kid, I was just getting started, and I was truly in awe. I had just come out of art school, so I had seen artworks of immense importance around the world and studied them and learned about sculpture. Here was a guy who was starting out and doing amazing work, and I was asked to help him.

This was back before cellphones and bottled water and all the things that we come to think of when someone helps another be comfortable and be prepared. He was directing the efforts of people with big cranes and heavy equipment, and he was taking measurements and writing down things and working with various kinds of equipment, tools. I was asked to help him. I went in my car and parked and took him around and helped him and brought him lunch, and things like that. And worked with him for about two weeks while he was there. That was a long time ago.

I went on in my career and was in West Virginia for six years in the museum field. Then I went to Tennessee for nine years in another museum [Cumberland Science Museum] and became director of exhibitions there. Then I went to Florida and I was VP of a big science museum [Museum of Discovery & Science] for three years, and then I came out here. I was director of this museum, and I’ve been at this museum twenty years now.

After I got here, I was looking at material that we might find for exhibition. I found “Atomic Time,” and I go, “Jim Sanborn? Jim Sanborn? That’s the guy I once worked with.” I went on the Internet and found out about him, and found out about “Atomic Time” and “Critical Assembly.” I looked him up and got his email address and sent him a long email.

“Mr. Sanborn, I’m sure you do not remember me. I was a young curly-haired guy who helped you when you did this exhibit.” It was one of his early ones, too, it was early, and this was thirty-some years ago. “I’m sure you don’t remember me, but I have become the Director of the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History in my career path, and would like to renew a tie with you.”

He wrote back this lovely message, very generously worded, and he said, “I do remember you, and what an interesting thing that you’ve come to be there. What a great thing that it is to learn about you and to connect up with you again after all these years.” What a kind thing, what a nice gesture. He and his lovely wife, Jay, dropped in as they were driving across the United States not long after that, popped in to the museum to see it. Because he’s interested in this kind of thing, and we are the national museum. It was wonderful to see him and meet him and shake his hand after all these years.

Then, as time went on, I was contacted by the Atomic Heritage Foundation, Cindy Kelly. She called on us and asked us if we might be able to host an exhibition by Jim Sanborn. Through your work, Cindy, we were able to negotiate that and find a benefactor [Clay and Dorothy Perkins] that would help us by paying for the acquisition of the exhibit from Mr. Sanborn, transferring it here, and having it set up so that it’s now on exhibit. Your work is part of this, too.

The three of us come to connection here in this story. Mr. Sanborn coming back, renewing his connection with me from all those years. You and I have known each other for a number of years. And you recognizing how important his work is and how it needed a home, a place that it could be, where people could come and see it and access it, learn about it, learn from it, where it would be protected. Then you also knew the person would help to pay for that, whose generosity would make it possible. That’s how we did it. So, I thank you as well as Jim Sanborn.

Kelly: Well, thank you. That’s very nice. It was a lot of fun. It was just happenstance in a way, that all this came together in such a productive way.

Walther: Certainly.

Kelly: So now we have the exhibit.

Walther: Now we have the exhibit and it also knits a further part of the story and fabric of this institution. Here we are, in the Smithsonian affiliate of nuclear science. This is the museum for the country for nuclear science, and so it has a lot of material in it.

People come to us to learn about the stories of the past—not necessarily all the technologies and the details, although there are those interested in that. What they’re really interested in is the human story, how people came to solve these puzzles, how hard it was, how hard they worked, what their perseverance was to figure out what critical mass was, to do the mathematics behind it, to calculate how much enriched uranium would be needed, how much plutonium was required. Those are the things we had a hard time really explaining very well.

Having “Critical Assembly” here in the museum will help us to tell those tales, to teach that and remind people that it took place here in New Mexico, that it’s a New Mexico story. People came to this state to work in the 1940s to do that at Los Alamos. His work is a reproduction of that, as we know. What that does is help us to tell all of the details behind it, and to showcase what it was like at that time. We have created a historic review of that with the old equipment that Jim’s assembled for the show. We will use it in our education programs and in our exhibitions.

As we have here, we have a lot of material that deals with the Trinity Site. The Trinity is a place that is in the White Sands Missile Range here in New Mexico that is not available for the general public to visit, except for two days a year. Yet at this museum, we have things that are from that, and now we have “Critical Assembly.” Now you connect up the issues of the early American involvement in World War II and the start of the Manhattan Project, to the final work at the laboratory, to the development of the test in New Mexico, to the creation of the two bombs that were used to end the war.

We actually have a B-29, the type of plane that was used to drop the bombs. We have the actual [replica of] “Gadget.” We have the Packard limousine that the scientists rode in here. Some amazing artifacts, and “Critical Assembly” fits right into it.

Kelly: That’s perfect, isn’t it?

Walther: It’s a wonderful thing.

Kelly: It’s very, very nice.

Walther: I think you and I might need to get the tortoise award. We are the kind of people who will never stop trying to do these things. We have been able to bring some of these things about. I’m just truly proud to have Jim Sanborn’s material collected by this institution. It’s a lovely thing for us to be charged with this preservation and sharing it with the public, and use it to talk to children and adults.

We’re a big destination here. This place is visited mostly by people from other parts of the United States and other parts of the world. They will come here, and they won’t have any idea about this. They will be very amazed by the exhibition, and it will really help to complete the entire story line, all the way out through the discussions around the Cold War and the growth of the weapons complex and how many nuclear weapons were created and what their uses were, and how we were trying to race the Soviet Union to make sure that we weren’t left behind as far as the number of weapons. That’s how we had the Cold War, that we had a standoff in the scale of weapons, eventually outspending them and causing their collapse. Those are all stories that started with critical assembly.

The exhibit was through the donation of Mr. Perkins, given to the museum. It is the museum’s exhibition property now, and we intend to put it on display. It will be in the installation that’s opening tonight here through October of this year [2017], through the time that people come to New Mexico to see the balloon fiesta, our biggest week.

We will then take it down, and we will plan to place most of it onto display here in the museum in the areas that are kind of pre-Manhattan Project areas around the elements of the Los Alamos component. As you know, we have things from Oak Ridge, we have things from Hanford. We have things about the 509th [Composite Group] and that part of the story. We’ll use this to kind of help people to learn that.

Someday, we intend and hope to build a wing onto the museum that would be a furtherance of our history exhibits. It would allow us to expand and to build, essentially, the “Critical Assembly” exhibit so that you could walk through the laboratory as you went through the museum’s exhibits. It would be a phase of learning about this time in history.

It would allow us also to include the Cold War stories that we can’t today. We don’t have stories about atomic testing, or some of the treaties associated. Though we own the bomber that dropped the last atomic weapon, we don’t have anything about testing. We haven’t enough room for it all. We only display one-fourth of the nuclear weapon materials that we actually own here at this time.

We would be able to put more of those materials on display for people, and we would be able to tell stories around the home-front and more involved stories around, you know, what did people—how frightened were they about this, and those sort of things. That’s part of our future, and “Critical Assembly” will be a permanent installation during those times.

Kelly: Terrific. That’s great. So, shall we move into some of the Los Alamos innovations? 

Why don’t we have you talk about what was known about the effects of radiation at the time the scientists began working with radiation to figure out how to make an atomic bomb? How far do the innovations at Los Alamos and the insights of it help them understand it and what was left to learn, and so forth? 

Walther: Well, as we know, radiation had been discovered. Madame Curie and her husband had discovered radiation, and ionizing radiation had been discovered even before that with X-rays. The fact of unstable naturally-occurring material that was radioactive was known. No one had had a chance to experience a massive exposure to it, like an epidemiological study might provide after some group of people had been irradiated, until the bombs were used in Japan.

But the scientists knew about radiation and were aware of the dangers for being exposed to it. As you know, with critical assembly and the work at the lab, they were tickling the dragon. They were working towards how much is too much of these unstable materials to be placed in proximity to each other before they would case a flux, which would then cause a burst of energy much, much larger, much more dangerous, and cause damage to human cells and anybody in the area. In fact, of course, we know there were accidents, including some deaths [Harry Daghlian and Louis Slotin] associated with this.

Scientists were aware of this. But the laboratory there at Los Alamos really began to bring to bear the modern sense of health physics, where medicine began to learn more about: what are the effects of long-term, chronic exposure to radiation, and what are the acute issues? When someone might have a burst of energy near them, what did that do? How did cell mutation take place, and what kinds of things were effective? What was the situation that occurred when you had a radiation exposure?

Obviously, the dropping of the bombs in Japan, and then the military going in to learn about that and seeing for themselves how the Japanese people were affected. Those that lived from the first blast and were exposed to radiation, many of those people were studied for many years. Those created the first studies for people to understand that.

The laboratory became the place where those kinds of information were better understood. It led to modern health physics. Because radiation is a part of all of these kinds of work, in the medical community, but also in the weapons development community, in the power generation community, every place that radiological materials are used, where they are in industrial settings, there is health physics. There are people who measure and care for the amount of radiation and the experience that one has near it, and developed things like ALARA—As Low As Reasonably Achievable)—elements of measurements and things such as that. All of that started there.

Kelly: Maybe you can talk about what people mean by “health physics.” Why do they call it “health physics?”

Walther: Sure. Now, I am not a physician, I’m a museum director. I don’t play one on TV either. I’m not a health physics professional. I know many, and respect their work, incredibly gifted and skilled people they are. They keep us safe.

Health physics is a form of medical and technical knowledge, where understanding the effects of radiation, the kinds of radiation, the types of materials that can cause radiation exposure, and what those things do to living tissue, how they have short and long-term effect. They help to monitor the amount of radiation, whether it would be alpha, beta, gamma, how long it would be, how much. They calibrate the instruments that are used to detect and understand it, and they design the materials that protect us from that, the barriers as well as the administrative controls, like the kinds of signage and the kinds of warnings that would be around a radiological area.

As the director of this museum, one of the things that I have to be is trained as a manager of radiological workers. One wouldn’t think that would be the case, but our museum does include some radioactive materials that are available for display. They are perfectly safe for the public. But because that is the case, I have to have some training around this, too.

Kelly: That’s great. I haven’t looked today, but in the past, I’ve looked at your health displays about the medical science and application of nuclear medicine. Can you talk about how the very positive legacy of the discovery of what the effects can be for use of radiation under certain circumstances?

Walther: Certainly. We do have a nuclear medicine and radiology collection here, as this museum has the broadest mission of all the museums that might be around the country. This is the big one, so it has all of those. We have a pretty good-sized collection of those materials. The story and the materials, the artifacts, go back to the radiation learned about with X-ray technology. X-rays are ionizing radiation, so they’re a form of radiation with enough power to actually change the cell structure in DNA. That means that they can cause damage and they can cause damage that can lead to things like cancer, and things such as that.

We have that story here, but even though X-rays were discovered in the late 1890s and radioactivity was discovered in the ‘teens [misspoke: 1890s], the splitting of the atom and fission and the development of more sophisticated understanding of nuclear medicine didn’t come about really until the Manhattan Project. It was really at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where the isotopes that were coming from the development of enriched uranium, the daughter elements that were coming from the development of these heavy metals, transuranics being created under these conditions, that the isotopes that we know of today as medical isotopes were being invented by the scientists there.

Radio-pharmaceuticals, radio-chemistry came about there. Radio-pharmaceuticals is a form of radiology and nuclear medicine, where certain isotopes, which have a very short half-life or a shorter half-life, they’re placed with certain tagging agents or other chemicals that might be absorbed by certain organs in the human body. Iodine, for example, is absorbed by your thyroid gland. If a doctor wanted to observe your thyroid gland to see if there was a misfunction or something there, disease there, they would take a type of irradiated iodine and attach it to something that would go there, and you would ingest that. That would then go to that point. They would read the radiation coming out of it, and that then could be analyzed to determine if there’s a tumor there, something like that.

There are two sides to this as well. There is the diagnoses, which is determining if there’s illness, disease, and there’s the therapeutic side of it. That was the other part of this, which was to use things that were radioactive to combat tumors, that was, to implant seeds. Small, tiny pieces of highly radioactive material might be placed right next to a tumor where the radiation would simply destroy the tumor itself, burn it out. This has come a long way, too, because long ago, that was also nearly as dangerous. It was what they called the two-edged sword. You could take the tumor out, but you could expose the other tissue to so much radiation that it would cause just as much difficulty. There are stories of that happening.

Now that things have come so far, there are new forms of nuclear medicine that include what’s called molecular imaging. That is, as I understand it—once again, I’m not a doctor—multi-modality. In other words, it can actually do both things. It can actually help a physician to understand disease and detect it, but it can also implement a cure of some type at the same time, saving countless exploratory surgeries.

Nuclear medicine is like a kind of imaging. You’re probably familiar with the kind—you see them that look like slices of human tissues, and you see CAT scans and things like that that are done that way. Nuclear medicine actually takes a picture of an organ as it’s working, moving. Through computer tomography, actually watches it, and can help to detect that. It’s one of a number of tools used by doctors to understand if you’re sick, if you have cancer or something, a heart disease. It makes a big difference.

I think I’ve been told that 60,000 people each day in the U.S. alone have a nuclear medical uptake. You think about that. That’s an inordinate number of people who relate to a nuclear scientific issue, and they don’t really even recognize it.

That’s what this exhibit here is about, is helping people to understand and appreciate that, because many people, even me, maybe you, most people have experienced cancer somewhere in their families. Hopefully not themselves, but moms, dads, uncles, aunts, and even children sometimes. It’s a tragic thing. My dad and mom died of cancer. To have people learn more about it and not be frightened, but to find ways to get repaired from it, that’s an important thing.

Kelly: How about nuclear reactors? A lot of people conflate the bomb and a reactor.

Walther: Sure.

Kelly: If you could explain how they’re totally different, and talk about nuclear power.

Walther: Nuclear power is also an important attribute of the exhibitions and the programming here at the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History. Unfortunately for us all, in some ways, the connection between the nuclear power industry and the nuclear weapon industry was connected long ago, probably by people who didn’t understand or didn’t like the issues and the concerns of nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are a frightening thing, as we know. Nuclear power is a controlled capability to use the splitting of the atom to create enough heat to make steam to make electricity. Earlier reactors operated perfectly well. Now reactors have come so far, they’re very safe and very controlled.

Nuclear science and nuclear engineering has come a great distance in being able to keep a reactor operating effectively, efficiently, and safely. In fact, their safety level is even higher, in some ways than other kinds of electrical generation. The impact that they have on human health is quite low, compared to particulates that are put out by coal-fired plants, for example.

Think about the deaths that happened in coal mining. I grew up in West Virginia. Coal mining was all around me as a kid. You can bet that if twenty-three coal miners die in West Virginia, they’re not going to stop mining coal. If twenty-three people died in a nuclear power plant, there would never be another one built ever. That happens all the time [in coal]. There’s not been a death in a nuclear power plant, even though there have been several accidents. Chernobyl, of course, was not even a reactor that was like American design. It was completely unshielded. Even the ones at Fukushima shut down as they were expected. The tsunami took out their backup system, so that they did suffer a meltdown.  

What we try to do here is to talk about the difference between them. Nuclear power generation is a controlled reaction with very low enriched uranium that allows that you can generate electricity through making steam. There’s a way to hold that fuel safely, and then to refinish it and bring it out and recycle it and put it back in. We teach about how reactors work.          

There’s a new group of reactors that are coming online called small modular reactors. It’s very exciting. They’re a lot less expensive to develop, they take less time, and they don’t have to be refueled the same way. So we try to do that.

One of the things that people are very concerned about is that of, what do we do with nuclear waste? An invert product of nuclear power generation is, we have used reactor fuel. The United States does not recycle it, though many European countries do. France is one that does. They actually take out the reactor fuel, recycle it, and put it back into the reactor. The reactors are not like water reactors, like American ones. Their reactors are fast reactors. They can actually burn hotter. They run hotter and they actually use plutonium rather than enriched uranium, and so they are a type of breeder reactors. They continue to make their own fuel. Hence, what happens is the amount of waste that comes out, the amount of the daughter products that are radioactive that have to be cared for and kept away from people, is so small compared to what our amount is.

Now, right now, we do not have a place to put those things permanently, and so those are held in pools and stored in casks at the nuclear power plant sites around the United States. One of the things that people are often amazed about is how many reactors run in the United States right now. I’m sure you know how many. 

And people are amazed that there’s 100 nuclear power plants running in the U.S. alone. It’s almost 20% of our power grid. It’s 86% of the clean carbon-free power that’s made in the United States. Carbon-free would be solar and wind and hydro, so that only makes up 14% of the non-carbon output of electricity in the United States. The other part of it is nuclear.

Nuclear power is very important, keeping nuclear power plants operating. They will operate at 93 to 96%. There’s a thing called design plate capacity. There is a power plant and the United States has the highest design plate capacity. You know what it is? It’s the Grand Coulee Dam, and yet it only runs at 14%, because there’s not enough water behind it. Nuclear power generation runs at 96%. It’s a very important part of the grid.

We try to talk to people about that, that you can learn about it. It’s actually a very important career opportunity for many, because nuclear power is an important element of our power generation. It’s also a medical application. There’s many, many very exciting things that one can do with nuclear physics, nuclear engineering skills.

Walther: Many of your speakers will talk about using radioactivity and the decay process of radioactive materials to take on and do things. That’s what that is, it’s harnessing the power of radioactive materials, whether it is through direct fission by enriching radioactive materials to the extent that they heat up and have to be controlled so that you use the heat to create a mechanical effort, like creating steam, for example. Or in a medical application, where you simply let the radioactive decay cause the dispersion of radiation energy that can do things like annihilate a tumor, or cure cancer, or show you a tumor. 

I really appreciate all of the work that you do in trying to help share these things and put them in places where people can learn about them. We talk a little bit here about atomic culture. I find that these scientific issues and these things that are historic tend to be, in some ways, a bit intimidating to people. That’s one of the things about this museum that I hope people appreciate, that it doesn’t repudiate them. They can come here and they can enjoy their time here. Something is here for everyone, whether you’re a man or a woman, whether you’re a child, a family, there’s a sense that you can connect up with the materials here. Something about them teaches you, something that reaches you. They have an effect, they have a meaning. They’re not above your head.

Yet a lot of this stuff is really hard to understand. I mean, there are things about particle physics, for example, that are beyond most people, including me. I can’t get that stuff. The atomic cultural materials are where we land as a person, where our people go, where they want to be consoled about things they don’t understand. We build comic strips and we have games and we devise things that use the super space age, new things like radiation or radium or atomic power or nuclear to try and sell products and to reassure ourselves about what they are.

For me, as a museum professional from all these years, collecting those things and having those things that are sort of the common denominator between the scientific side of our work and the public exposure and understanding—movies, music, television shows, “Big Bang Theory,” those are the things that help people to become closer to this stuff, to feel less intimidated by it, to feel like they can reach it and get a little piece of it. Even if it’s maybe not even accurate, at least they come sense of it, get a way to reach in.

I like that. Our museum has a huge collection of that material. We have cars, I mean, we have a DeLorean here that was given to us, from “Back to the Future” stuff. We have Paul Newman’s racing car, the Go Nuclear Mazda. He was very pro-nuclear. The name of our baseball team in Albuquerque is the Isotopes. Atomic culture is all around us. We have the largest collection of Lionel trains that are atomic-themed in the United States here. Now, there you go. There are ways for this stuff to have happened. That’s what I like, that kind of thing.

The Manhattan Project certainly is one of the things that changed the world. As we all know, those that study it and learn more about it come to terms with the fact that the world has never been the same and will never be the same again after the development of the atomic weapon.

The Manhattan Project brought that about. It brought the people of our world closer to physics knowledges that they would never have had. It has given us capabilities to go to the moon, to explore the planets, to do things like medical applications, to cure diseases that afflict humanity. It also has kept us safe, and has led to a world that is more sophisticated and presents perhaps more dangers, but it has helped us to mitigate those at the same time. The legacy of innovation and spinoff and technologies that came from the Manhattan Project is immense, and probably can’t be understood by someone easily without years of study around it.

Our hope here is to just tickle someone’s interest in it and get them excited about learning more about it, and then to share what we know.

Copyright 2017 The Atomic Heritage Foundation. This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced, or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of the Atomic Heritage Foundation.