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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

John D. Smith

Manhattan Project Locations:

John Smith arrived in Hanford after graduating from Ohio State in 1947 with a degree in mechanical engineering. Smith worked for General Electric at the 300 area where he manufactured uranium fuel elements for the production reactors. Smith describes the canning method that was used during the Manhattan Project; though the process was boring, Smith recounts several instances of horseplay that he and his coworkers took part in to lighten the mood.



Tell us your name.

My name is John Smith. J-O-H-N, S-M-I-T-H.

Tell us where you studied.

Okay, I attended University of Washington and Ohio State. I’m a licensed professional engineer in mechanical engineering in the state of Washington. And I went to work for the General Electric Company in April of 1947. And at the time I went to work for them the only two—I was looking for a temporary job and they had an opening for a gandy dancer (slang) on the railroad crew and a photographer with dark room experience and they didn’t think I was heavy enough for the railroad and I had done a lot of darkroom work so I went to work for GE as a photographer first.

And very shortly thereafter married and became immediately aware that there wasn’t enough money doing what I was doing and I transferred into the operations group in the 300 area, manufacturing reactor fuel elements for the production reactors—interesting work. I went to work in the 313 building which was referred to by the operators as the canning and dipping building and in that building we fabricated the uranium fuel elements which we referred to as slugs, which were uranium cylinders—we were making six inch long ones at that time. And in the canning operation—the uranium was received long rods, probably eight feet long and an inch and a quarter in diameter or something like that. And then they were machined down to approximately six inches long and about an inch and a quarter, inch and an eighth in diameter and then they were canned.

The canning operation involved an operator taking two tongs, picking up two of these uranium cylinders and walking over to the canning—they had three different pots. They had the molten bronze pot, and they had a special clock, large clock, that was divided up in segments of different colors in a sweep second hand type thing. And the method was that you’d pick up the elements, you’d watch clock and when it got to a certain color, you’d stick the two uranium cylinders into the bronze pot and you’d watch the sweep second hand and when it got out of that color, you’d pick them up and you now had the next color segment gave you enough time to walk over to the tin pot and you’d watch that and when it got to the next color, you’d stick the elements in the tin pot, hold them there, until it went through that color; the next color it came out, that gave you time to put them into a couple little baskets in the centrifuge; the next color you’d step on a switch that started the centrifuge and when it got out of that color you get off the switch and step on a brake, the centrifuge would stop; pick up the fuel cylinders with enough time in the clock to get over to the canning pot which looked kind of like an old fashioned well.

These pots were fire brick with a molten metal container in the center. And the canning pots had a mechanical basket arrangement that would—the canning operator would put two aluminum cans in these baskets, submerge it into the molten aluminum, and then when you go there you’d put your cylinders into the molten aluminum for a certain period of time—watching this colored clock thing—and then when the color was just right, you’d take the uranium cylinders and insert them into the aluminum cans and then release them. And the operator would put a little aluminum cap arrangement which was shaped kind of like a wedding cake—two-tiered wedding cake, two different diameters on the cap—and he’d put the little aluminum caps in and submerge it down into the molten aluminum and then pick it back up and you’d pick these two canned aluminum cylinders and set them into a container which allowed them to cool. And go get a couple more.

And this would go on continuously with several operators in trail, going around doing this. And it was a boring operation; I mean, it required no intelligence at all and any diversion was generally would be welcomed. And one aversion that took place daily was an exceptionally attractive young lady dropped the mail in and she had to walk the length of the building to get back to the office and of course all these operators are just a whistling and a hooting and a hollering and just having a lot of fun, and so that little lady’s trip in and out was quite a diversion for us so that was enjoyable.

Anyway it was a boring operation and they rotate you; you didn’t have to stay there all day long. You did different things within that building so that helped a little bit. As one would expect with something as boring as that, that horseplay would prevail a little bit and it did there. One of the favorite things was a canning operator was sitting on a stool and the operator carrying the uranium slugs would come up and instead immersing them he’d swing them in and splash a little molten aluminum along this canning operator’s lap which—he’s very quick and he’d brush that away before any of the heat got up and burn the clothing. And another horseplay thing was there were two canning pots side by side and one canning operator would take one of these aluminum caps and stick it in the molten aluminum and heat it up for about ten, fifteen seconds and set it aside and when the other canning operator would lean forward to crimp the opening—he had a special little tool the two cans at his spot—this operator would take that little cap and he’d stick it on the stool underneath where this operator had lifted up. And when he’d come back on he’d sit on this cap. Well, if you sat on it, it would burn and give you a blister that big on the cheek of your fanny. And you would not believe how sensitive the human body can get to the slightest change in temperature because when you were working in the canning operation, and you went to sit back down, you could detect that there was something there that was warm and you just lean forward and brush that cap away.

So anyhow, it was a dull operation, but that was how they were canned. Then the cylinders, after they had cooled, were taken over to another section and part of the end cap was cut off and then there was a tungsten inert gas welding assembly that, as the cylinder rotated you’d bring the torch in and provide a fusion weld. There was no rod filler added. It was just melting the two together and then these were set aside and inspected. They inspected the welds with a radiograph type—almost an x-ray type thing to make sure the welds were secure and once they were inspected for length, diameter, and good weld, they were stamped and they were part of the inventory and set aside to be shipped off to the production reactors.

The machining operation and machining you’re uranium cylinders was they used a turret lathe—everything was set up so that you didn’t have to really set anything and you just turned the turret from one to the other and cut the diameter and cut the length and man that was it. And then all the turnings that were created in machining these uranium cylinders were taken to a press and pressed into briquette like, little biscuits, about three inches in diameter and an inch and a half, two inches high and then to recycle the uranium they were taken to the 314 building where they were smelted down, cast into uranium billets that were nearly two feet long and about three inches in diameter, 200, 220 pounds of uranium.

And when I was working in the 314 building, machining one of those large uranium billets in preparation for the extrusion press, the turnings from the lathe caught my glove and I tore the end of my little finger off. Anyhow then these large billets were taken to a huge furnace and heated up to something less than melting and put into a large extrusion press and extruded into long diameter rods—the same diameter that are used in the lathes, making the fuel element cylinders themselves. So you were recycling—there were no waste turnings, they all went into the fuel elements this time. That was the canning and dipping as it was referred to—interesting operation.

And I did not stay there for very long. Economics, again, dictated that—married life takes more money than single life and I put in for a transfer to the, what they call the aestivation and they sent me out to T plant for a while and I didn’t work there very long and then they sent me down to the 234-5 building where we manufactured the plutonium weapons components. I was in that building for seven years and left that and took employment in southern California on a research reactor down there so that was my Hanford experience. I stayed in California for about three years and came right back up and went to work for GE again and this time it was on the plutonium recycle test reactor program, which is really not part of the old Hanford project as such. That’s pretty much my Hanford history. Can I answer any question?

Did you know how hard it was to come up with that canning process?

It was all well laid out. It was the typical design by geniuses to be run by idiots. And I’m sure a lot of thinking went into that as your discussions with Mr. Turner, the canning process, the whole business of the dipping it in the molten bronze and then in the tin and all of that, and then into the aluminum silicon, molten aluminum, all of that was done to provide, as he said, a good bond between the aluminum can and the uranium so that the heat transfer coefficient was at its maximum, so you didn’t have any hot spots. But I had absolutely nothing to do with that phase of it. When I got to it, it was just… just the dull routine of getting them into the cans.

Were there people you had worked with that worked through the Manhattan project?

No. The canning operation, that job I took was—I planned on being temporary and most of those people were really not educated people. I mean, these, you know, high school education was plenty to do that work. Nothing nothing scientific required at all.

Were there people that were doing the dipping that had been there the previous couple of years?

There was a pretty fair turnover in that. It was not the kind of thing you want to do for any great length of time.

But the process was the same during the Manhattan project?

Yes, it was the same process. Exactly. The canning technique had been long developed and I’m sure they continued it right up until they shut the reactors down.

The canning technique was developed at the University of Chicago?

I’m not aware of where that canning technique develops. From a scientific standpoint it was very obvious, you know, that they had to provide a good heat transfer through from the uranium metal to the outside to where the cooling media could get at it. And so that was probably thought out very early as to how that should be done. I have no idea who did that or where that was done.

Were there a lot of problems with this?

The problems were discovered quite early, I’m sure and by the time I got into it, it was a cut and dried process and, you know, any problems that had developed had been taken care of and so it was pretty much a routine thing when I got into it.

What were your production rates?

I never ever stopped to think it out but the entire cycle of two six inch long uranium fuel sections would take in the neighborhood of about four to five minutes. And so you’re looking at—and they had two canning pots so you’re looking at four uranium slugs, roughly, every five minutes, would be the through put of that.

Were you ever asked to increase the number and work faster?

No. No, they had put a lot of time into developing that little clock thing and you had to have just X amount of time in the bronze pot to get the temperature up. You can’t hurry that, I mean. And then the same thing with the tin; it just took so much time and these were all minimal times and so I don’t think they there’s any way they could make it go any faster other than to add a couple additional canning lines.

Was there someone inspecting the fuel elements?

To my knowledge, each canned fuel section, after it was welded, was inspected. Very, very carefully inspected, and as I said, the weld itself was radiographed, x-rayed technique to insure that the weld was good. And so no, there were well inspected. And I’ve never heard a whole lot of failures. And they may have had them early but I never heard of them.

Can you explain why you’re looking at six inch slugs and everybody else is talking about eight?

I’ve only hearsay knowledge of that and one of the problems they had in this huge block of graphite with the holes drilled through the graphite and then tubes, metal tubes, going through it they could put the fuel elements in that with cooling water facilities in there. In this large block of graphite the graphite would swell a little bit and the tubes would bow. And initially they had longer fuel segments that would tend to bind as the tubes would bow a little bit. Then they couldn’t push those longer fuel sections through and they went to shorter models that were capable of bending a little bit as the tube bowed slightly. So that’s the only reason I know of that they went from eight inch to a smaller size.

Did they continue with the smaller size?

They were using a six inch model in 1949, which is pretty late in the game and I think they probably were stuck with that length from then on. I’m not sure of that but I think they were.

Do you have any thoughts about how the project transformed this area?

One of things that has happened—probably not so much associated with my work in the 300 area, but the work I did in the 234-5—which was associated with plutonium.

Let’s do that again.

Frequently we were involved in contamination incidents. You’d had leaks from a hood glove or any number of things and so plutonium oxide an plutonium chloride contamination was not unusual and many of the people that worked in the building, myself included, were asked to donate their bodies to the United States trans-uranium registry and I carry a card and upon my demise, they are to be notified and they get my whole body, to chop up and determine where these elements deposited in the body. And quite a number of people that worked in that building were asked to donate their body. And like I said, that was plutonium primarily.

Do you know anything about those that have pre-deceased you?

The periodically published a report on the results of that and the results were very favorable. They are finding that the people with the deposition of these elements are pretty much living about the same length as somebody that worked in the guacamole factory or in some other walk of life. I mean, it was not that bad actor they were expecting it to be. And I got a letter, it’s been a year now, that they’re saying the results were so good, from studies they’ve already done, that they’re going to notify eighty percent of the remaining people that are registered that their bodies will no longer be needed and then twenty percent of that group still—apparently because of higher deposition of whatever. I haven’t been notified yet so I’m apparently still one of the twenty percent. But it’s very favorable. They’re really quite pleased that the ingestion of these materials is not creating the disaster they expected my happen. [Interview ends].

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