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The Search for Atomic Power

Manhattan Project Locations:

This 1954 radio program traces the development of nuclear energy from the discovery of the atomic nucleus to the launch of the USS “Nautilus,” the first nuclear submarine. It includes narration, dramatizations with actors playing physicists Ernest Rutherford and Niels Bohr, and interviews with Arthur H. Compton and Westinghouse Electric Corporation scientists. The program celebrates Westinghouse’s role in producing uranium for the Manhattan Project and details the challenges behind powering the Nautilus.

Date of Interview:
September 12, 2022
Location of the Interview:


Ed Wood: January 21, 1954 will go down as a significant day in human history. A milestone in man’s scientific progress. For on that day, at Groton, Connecticut, was launched the first nuclear-powered submarine, the Nautilus, powered by the world’s first atomic engine designed to do useful work. With this achievement, man at last has seen the dawn of the age of atomic power.

Back of the Nautilus is the heritage of more than half a century of scientific research into the atom. Back of it, too, is the cooperative effort and knowhow of the Atomic Energy Commission and industry. This is that story, the story of how man sought and won useful power from the atom. The story of an achievement, which may well be as far reaching as the discovery of fire or the invention of the wheel.

But where do you begin such a story? There are many places, but let’s begin ours in 1905, in the first few years of the twentieth century. These were busy, exciting years, full of the scientific marvels of the day.

[Sounds of telegraph and airplane engines] 

Unidentified Male 1: Sure is a wonderful age we’re living in, Clem. Me, I’m getting them newfangled electric lights put in. No more coal oil for me! 

Unidentified Male 2: Yeah, sure is great. The greatest thing, though, is this aeroplane. Them Wright Boys flew like a bird, stayed up twelve seconds.

Unidentified Male 3: Sure, great world, really great, but for my money, this wireless tops them all. Imagine, sending a message clear across the Atlantic. If you ask me, this Marconi fellow really has something.

Unidentified Male 4: Don’t hold a candle to them automobiles. Now there is something. Going to get me one soon as I can talk the old lady into it. Gasoline, too. None of them old-fashioned steam buggies. I’m going all out.

Wood: So among the material wonders of the day, small wonder then that nobody paid the slightest attention to an obscure little examiner of patents in Bern, Switzerland. His name: Albert Einstein. His tools of research: a pen and a scrap of paper. His discovery: the theory of relativity, he called it. What it said was that energy and matter were interchangeable, one with the other. But Mr. Einstein was theoretical and complicated, and no one quite understood him. That is, until just forty years later when –

[Sound of an explosion]

News Anchor: Ladies and gentlemen, it has just been announced that we have dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, Japan. Preliminary estimates say that four square miles, two-thirds of the city, have been completely wiped out, and that 250,000 are dead, injured, or missing.

Wood: From relativity to atom bombs, forty years. And for half of those years, the search for power from the atom was inspired by a giant of a man named Sir Ernest Rutherford. He who first looked into the atom and marveled at what he saw.

Actor Portraying Sir Ernest Rutherford: We can say, with some certainty, that the atom consists of a central charge concentrated at a point. Here is contained almost the entire mass of the atom, even though its dimensions are small compared to the atom itself.

Wood: So in 1911, Rutherford gave the atom a nucleus. Two years later, one of his students, a young Dane named Niels Bohr, proposed the first satisfactory picture of how the atom was put together. 

Actor Portraying Niels Bohr: A simple way of looking at the complex structure of the atom is to visualize it as a tiny solar system with the nucleus at the center and the electrons whirling in orbits around it, like the planets around the sun.

Wood: Seven [misspoke: six] years later, in 1919, came a monumental forward step in man’s conquest of the atom. Sir Ernest Rutherford produced the world’s first manmade nuclear reaction.

Rutherford: When alpha particles bombard nitrogen gas, the nitrogen atom is disintegrated by the impact, changing into oxygen, and liberating a positive particle or ray. Tests show this to be a new plus-charged particle in the atom nucleus, a particle identical with a charged atom of hydrogen.

Wood: So the atom got its first reaction and its first nuclear particle, the proton. And the scientists got some baffling problems. What else was inside the atom? How is it put together? What energy was locked within it? In the 1920s and ‘30s, the short, uneasy peace between two world wars, the answers began to come in. Discovery followed discovery thick and fast.

News Anchor: 1931: Robert Van de Graaff, United States, invents high voltage electric generator.

1932: James Chadwick, England, discovers neutron, missing particle in atom nucleus.

1932: [John] Cockroft and [Ernest] Walton, England, cause first nuclear reaction with manmade bullets.

1933: Frédéric and Irène Joliot, France, make radioactive elements.

1934: Enrico Fermi, Italy, bombards uranium with neutrons, prepares new elements.

1936: Carl Anderson, United States, discoverer of positron, finds meson [muon], new atomic particle.

Wood: Then, January 6, 1939, came an announcement by Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Chemistry. An announcement that reached the United States just ten days later, carried by Niels Bohr, Rutherford’s old student. It had quick repercussions at a conference of theoretical physicists, January 26, 1939.

Physicist 1: Professor Bohr, we’ve heard some rumors about this news of yours. It must be pretty startling.

Bohr: I think it is. Just before leaving Copenhagen, I talked with Fraulein [Lise] Meitner and Otto Frisch of my staff. Before fleeing Germany, Fraulein Meitner spent some time in Berlin with Hahn and Strassmann on those experiments of theirs, bombarding uranium with neutrons.

Physicist 1: I’ve heard about their work.

Bohr: Yes.

Physicist 1: As I understand it, the uranium nucleus absorbs the neutron and changes into the next, heavier element. This new element is radioactive, stabilizes itself by giving off an electron or positron. Right, Professor?

Bohr: Well, that is what normally happens. But Hahn and Strassmann were getting alpha particles, and more surprising, they seemed to have a lighter element left instead of an element heavier than uranium.

Physicist 1: That hardly figures. Are you certain?

Bohr: They were as surprised as you are, so they checked this element and found out that it was actually barium.

Physicist 1: Barium? I’d say you’d hardly get barium from uranium by losing alpha particles.

Bohr:  Well, as I say, Fraulein Meitner and Frisch have been investigating this. They tell me they suspect that a completely new reaction is involved.

Physicist 1: A new reaction?

Bohr: They think the neutron is splitting the uranium nucleus roughly in half, giving barium and some other large fragment.

Physicist 1: Hmm, I think I see what you mean. This is new.

Bohr:  Yes.

Physicist 1: The uranium nucleus absorbs the neutron and apparently blows up, huh? Any explanation of it?

Bohr:  Not yet.

Physicist 1: A lot of energy should be released by a reaction like that.

Bohr:  That has been verified. Millions of electron volts.

Sid: Professor, you mentioned other fragments besides barium when this fission happens. Now if barium is left from uranium –

Physicist 1: I see your point, Sid. Uranium is element number 92, barium 56, so 92 minus 56 is –

Sid: 36.

Physicist 1: Yes, 36. 

Sid: Krypton, that’s element 36. Hand me a pencil.

Physicist 1: Does that sound likely to you, Dr. Bohr?

Bohr:  Well, I should say so, yes.

Physicist 2: Look, I’ve jotted this thing down, and the way I see it, you just might get something else, more neutrons.

Bohr:  More neutrons?

Physicist 2: Right, more neutrons to split more uranium, the sort of self-perpetuating nuclear reaction.

Physicist 1: Gentlemen, this is something. We’d better get to work and find out what we have here. From the way events are shaping up in Europe, we better find out fast!

Wood: Within days, within hours, came the confirmation in laboratories, from New York to California. Nuclear fission in uranium was a fact. With it came the possibility, the dim remote possibility, of a chain reaction, of power from the atom. This was a thought that flashed into the minds of scientists in laboratories everywhere. Government, university, industrial laboratories like the Westinghouse Research Laboratories headed by Dr. John A. Hutcheson, Vice President and Director of Research.

Dr. John A. Hutcheson: Industrial laboratories, as well as colleges and universities, do a great deal of pure research. So therefore, our early interest in atomic energy was based largely on our desire to learn more about the field, rather than to develop specific applications of this new form of energy. Our research program, here at the laboratory, started in 1935, more than four years prior to the discovery of uranium fission.

Our first step was the construction of a nuclear particle accelerator of the Van de Graaff type. We chose this machine because with it, we were able to obtain more precise information about nuclear reactions than we could with any other. We made a good many discoveries with it too. One was photofission, the fact that high-energy gamma rays, similar to x-rays, can cause fission of uranium. This work was supervised by Dr. W. E. Shupp, then head of the nuclear physics group at the laboratory.

Another piece of work done by this group was the measurement of the exact neutron energy needed to cause uranium fission. Later, this information was used in designing the world’s first nuclear reactor, and for that matter, the first atom bomb. Our research in nuclear physics is still going on. Much of it, as before, is pure research. Nobody knows what significant discovery might turn up tomorrow.

Wood: Yes, nobody knows what might turn up tomorrow, what discovery might fit like the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle into a finished picture. This is what happened in our story of the search for power from the atom. For long before anybody ever thought of uranium fission, a piece of metallurgical research, which seemed to have no remote connection with atomic power, had been going on at the Westinghouse Lamp Division Research Laboratories in Bloomfield, New Jersey. But actually, this work was related, for it had to do with uranium, pure uranium, the magic stuff out of which atomic power is born. Here to tell you about it is Dr. J. W. Marden and Dr. C. M. Slack, director of the laboratories.

Dr. C. M. Slack: Dr. Marden, you are actively engaged in this uranium business in the very beginning. How did you get involved in it, anyway?

Dr. J. W. Marden: Well, it began just after World War I in 1919. It was suggested that uranium, having the highest atomic weight of the known elements, might have a correspondingly high melting point. Perhaps making it suitable as a filament for an electric light bulb. So Dr. [Harvey C.] Rentschler and I took on the problem of finding out.  

Slack: Well, I’m sure of one thing. You certainly found out it wasn’t suitable. Uranium’s melting point is a lot less than tungsten, which you were already using for filament.

Marden: That’s right, but that was just one of the many things nobody knew about uranium at the time. To find out, you had to have pure uranium, and there wasn’t any. So we worked out a method for making it. Got pretty good at it, too. It turned out that for 20 years we were about the only source of pure uranium in the world.

Slack: Even so, you couldn’t have sold too much of it. Until recently, uranium was pretty useless stuff.

Marden: No, it wasn’t exactly a production line product. We sold it, maybe a tenth of an ounce at a time, to university laboratories mainly. Then, back in the ‘30’s, two men in the laboratories discovered a new way of making it, by the electrolysis of a fused uranium salt, potassium uranium chloride.

Slack: Yes, I recall it produced a lot more metal, and pure, too. That’s when you began getting the bulk request for uranium, wasn’t it?

Marden: Yes it was. Our first big request was in 1941. The laboratory wanted over 20 pounds. That is quite an order considering that the largest piece that we’d ever made was about the size of cashew nut, less than an ounce. We began to wonder if something wasn’t up.

Slack: I remember thinking the same thing, especially when this country’s top nuclear physicists began turning up at the laboratories ever so often.

Marden: Well we got the 22 pounds out in about three months, and we were just getting adjusted to thinking in terms of pounds of uranium instead of ounces, when the roof fell in on us, so to speak. It started with a phone call to Dr. Rentschler.

[Phone rings]

Actor Portraying Dr. Harvey Rentschler: Hello. Yes, speaking. Oh, yes, Dr. [Arthur] Compton. What seems to be – uranium, yes we do. Oh, I’d say it’s pretty pure, uh-huh. How much did you have in mind, Doctor? Three tons!?

Jim: Three tons. But Doctor Rentschler, where are we going to make the stuff in this plant? We’ll have to build another one.

Rentschler: We don’t have time to put up a new building. We’ll have to use every bit of spare room we’ve got.

Westinghouse Employee 1: Hey, where you going with that stuff? Hey, that’s my storage space!

Westinghouse Employee 2: Get them brooms outta there, pops. We’re using this for a laboratory.

Rentschler: We have to use any materials available. Now get busy. Buy up every one you can find in town.

Jim: All right, Doctor, but I’m going to feel silly shopping for garbage cans.

Rentschler: These garbage cans will have to do, Jim. Put them in rows, down in the basement. We’ll use them as pots for the electrolytic process.

Jim: Better order some hoisting gear. These electrodes will be too heavy to handle.

Rentschler: We don’t have time for hoisting gears. Get some automobile jacks, that’ll do for the time being.

Jim: Automobile jacks?

Rentschler: Time is precious, Jim. We’ve got to get refined uranium to Chicago, now hurry.

Westinghouse Employee 3: Smart idea the doctor had, installing the vats for making uranium fluoride on roof. Get the help of the sunlight.

[Sound of thunder]

Westinghouse Employee 4: Did you say sunlight? Looks more to me like it’s going to rain.

Westinghouse Employee 3: Well, don’t stand there! Cover up the vats.

Westinghouse Employee 4: With what?

Westinghouse Employee 3: Your shirt. Get it off and duck down for some more covering. 

Westinghouse Employee 4: Oh, now I have to give the shirt off my back.

Wood: They got the uranium to Chicago. By August, production started reaching an unbelievable 300 pounds of uranium a day. But Chicago answered –

Chicago: Faster, faster.

Wood: Faster and faster it came. And under the west stands of Stagg Field, it went into mankind’s first power-producing atomic apparatus, an atomic reactor. There, in a huge structure of uranium and graphite, neutrons caused the fission of uranium-235 atoms. These, split apart, release energy and give more neutrons, billions upon billions of them each second. Few, even today, realize what this pioneering work meant to the whole atomic energy program. One man who does is Dr. Arthur H. Compton, then Director of the Metallurgical Project for which the work was done, now Chancellor of Washington University.

Dr. Arthur H. Compton: Proceeding with the whole atomic program depended upon building a successful uranium atomic reactor by December 1942. The uranium made by Dr. Rentschler, Dr. Marden, and their associates was delivered by November, making possible the world’s first self-sustaining nuclear reaction on schedule. This critical experiment was the key that unlocked the secret of atomic power.

The next great step was to be the production of the reaction on a magnified, instantaneous scale in an atomic bomb. With the success of the Chicago reactor, the atomic program went ahead vigorously in two directions. First separating the active ingredient U-235 from natural uranium [uranium-238], and using it as fuel for a bomb. Second, making plutonium-239, another fissionable atomic fuel from natural uranium, in similar but larger reactors. Both these methods were tried. Both worked. Both made atomic bombs.

If the tons of uranium had not been ready on schedule, it is doubtful whether we should have had atomic bombs for use in World War II.

Wood: At Oak Ridge, Tennessee, American industry combines to design, build, and equip one of the most unbelievable operations in the history of our country. It was amazing in its magnitude and complexity, and it was a baffling job too, to those who were doing it.

[Train sound]

Unidentified Male: Morning, Jess.

Jess: Another trainload. Great day in the morning, I work for plants and I work for plants, but this is the galldingest one I ever set eyes on.  

Unidentified Male: What’s puzzling you, Jess?

Jess: Well, here we got the biggest factory I ever seen. Buildings and more buildings, workers and more workers, trains and more trains, pulling in every day, packed to the hilt with stuff, stuff. and more stuff coming in every day.

Unidentified Male: Well?

Jess: Well, not a gall blamed thing do I ever see coming out.

Wood: Few men knew that the trainloads of massive machines, apparatus, and raw materials delivered to Oak Ridge were to extract the precious seven-tenths of 1% of U-235 in natural uranium. A few pounds of precious material that was quietly spirited away. Few men knew that from huge nuclear reactors at Hanford, Washington, came the plutonium, a manmade element completely unknown four short years before. Then, in the fateful days of the late summer of 1945, all the world learned the secret. Two bombs, one of uranium, the other plutonium, virtually annihilated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. 

[Sound of explosion]

Wood: But our story is more than atom bombs, death, and destruction. For now has come a whole new world for the atom to conquer. Atomic power, the first new primary source of power since man discovered fire. Today, useful atomic power is a fact, made so by combining the knowledge and technical effort of American government and American industry.

Let us look at the scope and meaning of this accomplishment through the eyes of some of those who helped bring it into being. Here are Mr. C. H. Weaver, Manager, and Mr. J. W. Simpson, Assistant Manager of the Westinghouse Atomic Power Division, as they were recently interviewed by one of the country’s top young science reporters, John Crone of the Pittsburgh Press.

John Crone: Mr. Weaver, there’s tremendous public interest in the possibilities of useful atomic power. This is what you’ve been working on, isn’t it?

C. H. Weaver: Yes, it is. We have been designing and building an atomic power plant to drive the submarine Nautilus. This is being done in cooperation with the Atomic Energy Commission and the United States Navy.

Crone: I see. Now this power plant, Mr. Simpson, what’s it like?

J. W. Simpson: Well, to get atomic power you have to achieve a controlled chain reaction in a nuclear reactor. The fission of uranium produces nuclear fragments, which fly apart with great energy. This energy appears as heat inside the reactor. The next step is to remove the heat. You do this by pumping a fluid through the reactor and into a kind of boiler called a heat exchanger. Here, the heat picked up inside the reactor is released. It heats the water in the heat exchanger and turns it into steam.

Crone: In other words, you generate steam. Something like you would in an ordinary power plant.

Simpson: Right, except you use uranium as fuel instead of coal or oil.

Crone: Mr. Simpson makes the whole thing sound very simple, Mr. Weaver.

Weaver: Well, it’s anything but that. The Nautilus power plant has been one tough problem after another. The main thing that complicates the work is that there is no previous experience to go on. This is the first reactor to run at high temperatures, the first reactor whose sole purpose is to produce power, and thousands of horsepower at that.

Crone: Could I have a few more details on the reactor, Mr. Weaver?

Weaver: Well, a few. The Atomic Energy Commission labels the reactor STR, meaning Submarine Thermal Reactor. Thermal means it uses slow, or thermal, neutrons to cause fission. The fuel is uranium-235.

Simpson: We can also tell you that the fluid pumped through the reactor to extract the heat is water.

Crone: You mean just plain, ordinary water?

Simpson: Well, it’s not so plain or ordinary. It has to be very pure. Otherwise the impurities in the water become radioactive when it passes through the reactor.

Crone: That must have been a difficult problem to lick.

Weaver: There were literally thousands of problems. One of the toughest was finding suitable structural materials.

Simpson: Right. One problem with zirconium: it turned out to be an ideal as a structural material for building the reactor core. But zirconium was practically non-existent, so we had to learn to make it and handle it on a large scale.

Weaver: This was only one of many problems whose solution required lots of hard work by many organizations working as a team.

Crone: Yes. Admiral H. G. Rickover, who got this project moving and who has kept it moving for the government, has stated that the Nautilus represents the accomplishment of many devoted people. That it is a symbol of the remarkable partnership, which has existed among the Atomic Energy Commission, the Navy, and industry. Now, Mr. Simpson, what about the size of this power plant?

Simpson: Well, we can’t disclose too many details on that. It is common knowledge, however, that a conventional submarine develops about 6,000 horsepower. The atomic submarine is much more powerful.

Crone: That’s a pretty good-sized engine.

Simpson: Yes it is, Mr. Crone, but we have already begun work on a much larger plant solely for the purpose of generating electric power.

Crone: Well now, do you have the Nautilus power plant in operation as yet?

Simpson: Actually, we have built two of them. A full-scale test engine is installed and operating in a submarine hull section at the Atomic Energy Commission’s testing station at Arco, Idaho. On March 30, 1953, the reactor went critical. On May 31, the engine went into successful operation. The second power plant is installed in the Nautilus herself. She was launched at Groton, Connecticut on January 21.

Crone: This is a tremendous achievement, and I only wonder if the people of America realize the significance of it.

Wood: The significance of it, what it means to you and me and everybody else in America. Let us listen to Mr. Carlton Shugg, Manager of the Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics Corporation, builders of the submarine, which houses this pioneering atomic engine.

Carlton Shugg: The theories, the calculations, and the plans of the nuclear scientists, the engineering knowhow of the manufacturers of unique special components, all of these have converged at one focal point on our shipways. Here, by the skilled hands of our craftsmen, they have been integrated into the limited confines of a single submarine.

The Nautilus represents a tremendous forward stride in the history of nuclear power development. Earlier atomic plants sprawled over acres of land. Now this one has been compressed into one relatively small vessel capable of free motion, on and beneath the surface of the sea. In doing this, our engineers and mechanics have shared with all members of the project team the challenge posed by a host of new problems. Many of them new not only to the ship building industry, but to the construction world. This is only a start, but we trust that the answers we have learned up to now will be invaluable as mankind continues to take advantage of controlled release of power from the atom.

Wood: The significance of it. Here are the words of a man who turned the simple control valve that set into operation the land-based Nautilus engine. We quote Commissioner Thomas E. Murray of the United States Atomic Energy Commission.

Commissioner Thomas E. Murray: I wish you could have been with me a few months ago, when I had the privilege of being the first to open the control valve of a large submarine nuclear reactor. As I slowly and cautiously cracked that valve of the full scale, shore based submarine reactor plant out in the Idaho desert, and watched the drive shaft revolve, I knew that all that now stands between us and nuclear power is the will to obtain. And a strong national effort to support that will.

The commission has embarked on a program to construct a power reactor that will produce a minimum of 60,000 kilowatts of electric power, with good possibilities of much higher output. This is America’s answer to recent Soviet atomic weapon tests. It should show the world that even in this gravest phase of arming for defense, America’s eyes are still on the peaceful future.

For years, the splitting atom has been our main shield against aggression. Now, in addition, it is to become a God-given instrument to do the constructive work of mankind.

Wood: This transcribed program was presented by this station in the public interest. Your narrator has been Ed Wood. Production by Lionel Poulton and Harry Gale.

Copyright 1965 Stephane Groueff. From the Stephane Groueff Collection, Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University. Exclusive rights granted to the Atomic Heritage Foundation.