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Tom Scolman’s Interview

Manhattan Project Locations:

Tom Scolman arrived in Los Alamos shortly after receiving his PhD in physics from the University of Minnesota under renowned physicist Alfred Nier. At Los Alamos, Scolman worked in the Weapons Division where and a team of physicists helped assemble and test explosives that would be used in nuclear devices. After the war, Scolman worked for the Los Alamos National Laboratory and presided over hundreds of nuclear tests in the South Pacific, Nevada, and Amchitka. Scolman was also a member of a group that responded to weapons accidents; he recalls several instances where planes carrying nuclear weapons crashed but luckily did not explode.

Date of Interview:
June 26, 2013
Location of the Interview:


Cindy Kelly: I am Cindy Kelly with the Atomic Heritage Foundation and it is June 26, 2013 and we are in Rio Verde, Arizona and my first question is please tell us your name and spell it.

Tom Scolman: I am Thomas Scolman, although officially I am Theodore T. Scolman, S-C-O-L-M-A-N, and I Was born October 27, 1926.

Kelly: And where were you born?

Scolman: In Duluth, Minnesota.

Kelly: That is terrific, my husband is from Minneapolis.

Scolman: Okay, well we were married in Minneapolis; I have a PhD from Minnesota.

Kelly: Wonderful. And what is your PhD in?

Scolman: Physics.

Kelly: I am going to let you talk, just tell me the story. You were born in Duluth and how did it happen that you fell in love with physics?

Scolman: Well I think the major reason is that it was interesting and easy. And as you well know, physics was not easy for everybody but if you are interested in it at all it is a great subject. After all it is all about everything. But I spent a couple years in the Navy right out of high school but spent the whole time in the Navy going to school, mostly in Chicago. And when I got out I went to college on the GI Bill, went to Beloit College in Wisconsin, which is a good liberal arts college. And from there [I] went, on the recommendation of my advisor at Beloit, to graduate school at Minnesota and was an experimental physicist. My professor was a very well known experimentalist named Al Nier. 

When I started thinking about looking for a job, which was when I was sure I was going to get my PhD, I talked to people and I was advised by a couple of people that said go to Los Alamos and I had known some other people who had preceded me in Minnesota who had gone to Los Alamos and who went there mainly because it had a reputation for a really good place to live and it was and still is I think. Although my friends that are still there do not think as much of it as they used to.

Kelly: I wanted to backup because Alfred Nier was phenomenally important in the Manhattan Project for the work he did.

Scolman: Yes.

Kelly: Can you talk about that and use his name?

Scolman: Well I did not have anything to do with that part of the thing, and remember this is before the war. And basically his specialty and the thing that his name is known for is for mass spectrometry. We did uranium separation—basically enriched uranium for the first bomb ever. There were a number of schemes tried and the one that the US finally used was gaseous diffusion. The very slight difference in mass between uranium-235 and 238 was one way to separate the two, all be it very hard because they are not very different in weight and only 2% of natural uranium is actually uranium-235. But among other things he was the one that first showed that that fissionable one was uranium-235 and he was involved in setting up the plant and among other things that he developed that was very useful was a leak detector.

Kelly: Can you talk about that?

Scolman: Well hell yes you can go buy them; everybody has a leak detector. It basically filled whatever it was you were trying to find the leak in with helium and look to see where it came out with a mass spectrometer that separated helium from everything else. I do not think Al had anything to do really very directly with the Manhattan Project.

Al Nier had his second marriage in Los Alamos and I was his best man, he and Ardis stayed at our house before the wedding and Edie was more or less the mother of the bride.

Kelly: That is great, good memories, you just started to say you decided after you got your PhD in experimental physics to go to Los Alamos, so tell me what you did there?

Scolman: When I came to Los Alamos and basically all through the Manhattan Project days, Los Alamos was configured much like a university where it had a physics division and a chemistry division and that kind of thing. But in addition to that there were things like an explosives division, there was a weapons division, which is where I went to work—W Division it was called. And I was with a group that was very much involved in testing, even in the very early days. But one of the other things we did was we put the nuclear devices together, we assembled them, and took them to the field.

In the early days actually Sandia Corporation actually did what we called the fusing and firing, but later on the lab took over and did that themselves. And I was involved in testing, even when I was still in the so-called weapons division. And in about 1963 I transferred to the test division and spent the rest of my career there. 

If you’ve have been counting you probably know I was test director of over 100 tests but that is kind of interesting because it was not what you would call a directors job, it was just basically kind of keeping an eye on people to make sure that things were going the way they were supposed to be going.

One of the neat things about Los Alamos in the days I was there was there was everybody knew what they were doing and knew how to do it so you did not need to manage a hell of a lot, you just stand by and do not get in the way. And then I was test director of a lot of things and I was in the pacific at Eniwetok [Atoll] for the last of the tests we did out there which was in 1958 and came back from the test in the pacific, which were, in general, in the summertime.

I came back from Eniwetok in ‘58 and found out that well for one thing that exercise had not been a success; we had things that did to work at all like they were supposed to and so we had more testing that needed to be done. And rather than going to the pacific again—mostly because it was just a hell of a lot more expensive—we went to the Nevada test site where we had been before and frankly I do not know exactly when. This is where you ought to look at John Hopkins’ book. I do not think I ever got it in paperback but I have a CD of it. But I have not bothered to look at it to tell you the truth. 

And then I was in the test directing business until 1988. I went to Washington to act as a scientific advisor to the head of the division of military operations, the DMA, which was an organization put together under the old atomic energy commission and survived all of the other energy research and development of the DOD. I did that for a year, came back, and looked at what was going on and what kind of a thing I could do in Los Alamos and decided there was nothing very interesting. And so it was a time, actually a very advantageous time to retire so I retired.

But in the meantime we got involved in other things. We tested the British weapons. They were tested at the Nevada test site and so we got involved with the British a lot and went back and forth with them. The very interesting relationship—we had an interaction with the French test people that was interesting because we passed no classified information but the fact that the program existed was very highly secret, I mean very, very close held.

And I was told later, and I suspect it may be true, that [Henry] Kissinger had gotten together and did this and the reason for doing it was that the French were going to go underground rather than testing in there atmosphere which they had done both in southern France and in Algeria. And he [Kissinger] said, “If you will go underground we will help you all we can, teach you how to do it.” So we were involved with them. 

We had a number of meetings. They came to our test sites I do not know how many times but quite a few, mostly with their field engineers—not designers. I do not know whether we engineered or talked our way into it or what but they finally let us go to their test site, just a very short observation trip, which was kind of a nice vacation. We spent a little time in Tahiti and went down to where their test site was. 

And then we got into the Russians when Reagan was president. We each decided that we could look and tell you what the yield the test device you had fired if you let us put in cables which could pick up any other information than that.

So they fired and then we fired a shot on our test site, then called [inaudible]. The instrumentation that did the work was actually not in the hole that the device went down underground; it was in another hole. They did the experimentation in the second hole on our test and we did it on theirs and I spent a very short time with actually nothing to do. As a matter of a fact the one thing I remember about it, that is where I finished up reading [Richard] Rhodes’ book was when I was there because I had a lot of time on my hands and not much to do. 

But then we quit testing when—I do not remember exactly anymore, we had gone through a moratorium when Eisenhower I guess was still president because we quit in October of ‘58 and that was kind of interesting because that was a real frantic test exercise. Anybody that had a new idea we would try it and we had a whole bunch of failures.

Kelly: It is interesting there is a map of the world that shows over a period of time how many tests there were and it just goes like almost a decade in three seconds so all of a sudden you see as things picked up and all over the world were these tests. So you were there and trying to keep up with the Russians.

Scolman: I am sure we got most of them, we never did. I was also in another black program where mostly we looked at the high resolution aerial photography to see if we could figure out who was doing what where and we saw some Russian stuff there but not much other than that. There are some interesting conjectures about some of the Russian tests but nothing that I feel comfortable talking about although I suspect they are not classified anymore. Not much is anymore.

Kelly: Oh I do not know, sometimes they reverse things. They declassify and reclassify.

Scolman: And you never know, very hard to know.

Kelly: It is hard to know.

Scolman: One of the neat things about working at Los Alamos, there was an expert there and I mean one of the real experts on almost anything you could think of, I mean a real lot of people. And the other thing that was interesting was in the early days, at least when I came there most of the time that I was there, whether you had access to the secure stuff or not was not on the basis of did you have the need to know, it was did you want to know? So you could learn about things just because they were interesting.

Kelly: So did you take advantage of that?

Scolman: Not really, not an awful lot, I had enough to do but a lot of that stuff just plain automatically came to my desk wherever I was. But one of the things for example it was very highly hush hush and the thing that I worked very deeply in, in the very early stages that I was there was the fact that we used deuterium and tritium in single stage bombs even before we got to any kind of a fusion bomb. We used them in the primaries among other things. The fact that there was even DT around with very very highly classified but by the time I left everybody in the world knew we were doing it. 

That is probably one of the most famous things that made it possible to make warheads for some of the advanced systems like the last system that worked on at Los Alamos, which was the warhead for the Trident missile that goes on the Trident submarine. Well I do not know whether it is physical dimensions are declassified anymore or not. The one I do know, to give some idea of the nuclear warhead for the cruise missile that is about 150 kilotons, is like a big watermelon. That is what we would call in those days the physics package. That does not include the fusing and firing parts of it, but it’s the parts that are involved with the fission process. I know that is declassified because among other things we put it there is one of them in the museum in Los Alamos.

The down-hole things that we did were the device itself went into what we called a weapons rack. It had the device, a number of lines of sites that looked at any particular thing, and then cables that went to the surface. 

The other guy that had been at Los Alamos during the war that was also at Minnesota when I was there was John Williams, who was a professor of physics. He built the linear accelerator and he was the one that said to come and go to Los Alamos. And I had a good friend who is still at Los Alamos that went there and made it awful easy for us to come and fit in. And then there were other things like we spent a lot of years building and skiing on a ski area. Unfortunately, that is one thing that is gone. In fact, I do not know if maybe that’s what caused the knees to go as bad as they are.

Kelly: Can you remember because a lot of people have never seen and will never see hopefully testing in the pacific, what it was like to be there and witness some of these gigantic tests?

Scolman: Yes, well it is interesting because there are not many people who have seen one go off in the atmosphere anymore. That of course is where we saw the big ones we did. I do not remember what the biggest one that I was ever there for but when you fire a big enough shot on Bikini, even from Eniwetok, which was over 100 miles away, the sonic wave would be impressive and if you were close enough you could feel the heat. In fact Harold and I talked about that. Harold, believe it or not, was at the laboratory—although I think he was probably in the military at the time—but he was on the Enola Gay and took photographs, which were the only photographs that were taken. I have always found it hard to believe that the Air Force did not send a photographic plane along.

Kelly: I think he was on the observation plane and had a camera. What was unique is I think he had a movie camera.

Scolman: Yes. And Larry Johnston, who was a professor in Minnesota when I was there, was the only person that I know of that was on both of the drops. It is interesting, I cannot tell you the name of the second plane, and everybody knows the Enola Gay.

Kelly: Bockscar.

Scolman: Bockscar. Yeah you are right.

Kelly: But can you remember, can you describe where you were? Were you 100 miles away? Were you in Bikini watching this?

Scolman: No, I am not sure about Bikini but there were a couple at least that I remember distinctly that were on Eniwetok Atoll. I’ve forgotten how many miles it was across now probably thirty but I do not think any more than that. And we used to fire shots at the upper end of the Atoll while we war still on the Eniwetok island where the main base was. So I have been there when it went on. 

Another interesting place I have been for a couple tests was Amchitka. We did a couple of DOD [Department of Defense] tests. The DOD wanted had just finished setting up their seismic network around the world to detect and to look as best they could how big a thing had been and they needed and wanted to fire a shot in a seismically active area which is why they went to the Amchitka islands which are seismically active. I was there for a little one of those that we put—in fact that was a Los Alamos device and we did the monitoring. And then we did a later shot; actually Livermore did the shot on Eniwetok because we wanted to test a warhead for a system that never got built that had too much yield to fire in Nevada. It would shake up Los Vegas a little too bad.

Every time we shot we used to preannounce anything—I am not sure this is actually the right number but I want to say like 150 kilotons—and it was kind of interesting because we advertised that we were going to fire a shot that was in this range. We never announced anything other than there was going to be one and the notion of it was to let people that were working and perhaps hazardous places like high rises and that kind of thing to give them an opportunity to get into a somewhat safer configuration. We went to fire one and we counted down all the way through it but we didn’t shoot it because the weather was not good, they cancelled at the last minute. But Howard Hughes, who was then the big gun in Las Vegas outfit, immediately called in and protested our shot [chuckle].

Kelly: It has always been curious to me why there is so much public opposition to Yucca Mountain in Nevada when they have never, or have they protested the testing all those…?

Scolman: There had been, there were protests. We had protests several times but nothing that ever stopped anything and nothing that actually got onto the test site. We stopped them at the gates.

Kelly: So these were just anti-nuclear protesters or they were down-winders or they were just people?

Scolman: Well I do not recall any protestors from the down winders. The down winders brought a couple of court cases that I am not familiar with, I do not know how far along they got.

Kelly: Where you ever worried about being exposed when you were out watching these, were you outside watching them or?

Scolman: Yes but we were far enough away.

Kelly: How far is far enough?

Scolman: Well it depends on how big it is. But you know for one thing we always had very good predictions as to which way any kind of plume of debris would go because we had very good weather information. And so the only thing or the main thing you were worried about was any kind of prompt exposure and we were always far enough away that there would be no sign of that, no problem.

Kelly: So despite your occupation, looking at all these tests and being involved in things that you might think would have caused a body burn of radiation that was greater than normal or do you know, I mean do yo think you have had significant exposure?

Scolman: No not really, I never had anything that was an actionable thing. We were always of course badged and if we were going into any place—but that was mostly in the production facility—we might be bootied and have a mask on like we do in TA—I do not remember, but where we have plutonium. I did business at Rocky Flats too where we had plutonium around all the time. 

Actually the things that were probably the most hazardous that I got into—I was also in a group that responded to weapons accidents and I was involved in a couple of them where there were airplane crashes with weapons onboard or at least in one case where one of the weapons was no longer on board.

Kelly: The one off the coast of Spain?

Scolman: No, I did not have anything to do with that one. No, this one was in Goldsboro, North Carolina. That was probably the closest one if you want to think about spooky things. It was a B-29 or a B-52, I am not sure, a B-52 I think, but anyhow in those days—I am sure you are aware of this—both we and the Russians has airplanes that were flying on a trajectory to take them from the United States, refuel them over the Atlantic, and go towards Russia. It was supposed to be a failsafe system in that they had in their orders to turn around and come back unless they were specifically instructed to go on. But these airplanes that were flying around did indeed have nuclear weapons on them; they were all ready to go other than the fact that they were not armed. They all had arm safe switches. Well the one over Goldsboro had just been refueled out over the Atlantic and was coming back in when—I do not know that anybody to this day knows actually what went wrong—it basically broke up, broke in two, and the wing came off. 

But one of the things that started what we call the stockpile target sequence was when you drop the bomb it pulls some pins out that enabled batteries to make to delay the weapon. Well after it was free of those it had everything it needed to go off. Well this one, when it pulled apart, it acted just like you had dropped it normally and it went all the way down to the ground but the only reason it did not go off was because the armed safe switch was on safe. And people were pretty excited about that and they should have been, although I do not think they were as excited enough as they should have been.

Then I was at another one at Shreveport. This was a cargo plane that had four big nuclear weapons on it that crashed just after takeoff and burned and we helped clean that up. And that is the only one I know of where any of our people got any kind of an exposure. And one of the guys that worked on it picked up a little tritium load, which is nothing in particularly worse. He quit worrying after a while.

Kelly: Wow, so when you were testing, I mean sometimes you go to 200 kilotons so that would have been ten times as great as Hiroshima.

Scolman: Yes roughly.

Kelly: And Nagasaki, so that is big bang.

Scolman: The big ones of course were in the pacific and you were basically all done really before I ever came to the lab. The last of them were in a series, it was in 1958 and I do not remember how big they were but they were probably in the low megaton range. 

One of the ones in Amchitka was kind of an interesting one because there was a fair outcry over that. We had gone up and fired a calibration shot to see what kind of ground motion you would get particularly in the Anchorage area for one out there. So we at Los Alamos fired a shot that was like one megaton and then the later shot that was fired was—I do not remember exactly but I think more like six. But none of them really shook up the mainland enough to get to worry about.

Kelly: But it did leave, I know there was a cleanup program, I do not know whether it was because of that test or other tests and in Amchitka.

Scolman: If it’s the cleanup that I think it is, it had nothing to do with the atomic tests. It had to do with the stuff that was leftover from the World War II because Amchitka was the refueling stop flying airplanes to the Russians. That was one of the reasons it was an attractive place for us to use because it had a pretty sizeable airbase on it. It had asphalt roads and taxiways and runways all over the place. It was kind of interesting because they had not been touched. This was in 1960—I do not remember exactly. But it had been a long time since anybody had been there from World War II because World War II, as soon as it was over, they basically just got out of those places as quickly as they could. 

And when we first went there, there were kind of interesting because there were a lot of artifacts left. There were Quonset huts that people had stayed in that had pinup pictures on them and an old officers club. Among other things were discovered on Amchitka was that there were still a lot more sea otters than people thought there had been. And we spent a fair amount of money moving sea otters, I think they went as far down as the California coast.

Kelly: They took the sea otters to California?

Scolman: Yep.

Kelly: Better weather.

Tom Scolman: It appears to have but they took them also, they took them in the mainland Alaska and off to Washington and I think the Oregon coast but they are an interesting animal. You could get pretty close to them and they are cute.

Kelly: So looking back what do you think people should take away about the test program?

Scolman: Hard question—probably that we do not need to do it anymore. But you know it is interesting like all this concern about Iran, or any of these people, what to do you with a bomb? What are you going to do with a nuclear weapon? One or two? The people back there certainly know as well as we do that if they did anything that affects Israel, Israel will jump on them like with all four feet because Russia and Israel can. 

There is another kind of an interesting fact though that you do not hear much of which is on the other side of this picture is as far as we know, everybody that has tried to build one and test it has succeeded. It turns out it is not hard. The Hiroshima bomb was really very simple; it is an engineering piece of work not anything much more than that. The only thing that got to be a little exotic it turns out when they started doing early measurements about the materials they were going to use, they found that they needed higher levels of purity on a number of things than people were used to.

Kelly: The implosion bomb, the plutonium bomb was trickier to build, to design, that was not as simple.

Scolman: Well yeah, the trickiest thing about that of course is to getting it to implode properly so that you put all the plutonium you had basically into a very small shape. You know in the early days, we knew what the theory said. We knew what local tests had said [about what] that compressed plutonium was going to look like. It turns out when we had later tests we had another technique where you could basically take a pinhole picture of the plutonium in its own light and it was not the way it was supposed to be. In fact, you always wondered if maybe if we would have ever tested it, if you knew it was going to look that bad, instead of one nice blob it had ears.

Kelly: That sort of raises a question, I mean very simple non physicist question, that all these years we have tested to try to understand exactly what is going on in the micro second through the NIF facility, the National Ignition Facility, and other experiments. And here you have this experience now and you have discovered that what you thought was going on was not going on, it was much less uniform or perfect and symmetrical as you thought.

Scolman: Well I am not financing it but if it was my money we would not spend eighteen cents on somebody’s facility that they are doing. These high energy lasers, for example, for ignition or whatever. I am not up on it anyhow and that is not anything to do with my particularly field but it is pretty god damned farfetched and lord knows we have spent enough money trying to build something like a fusion reactor; the chances are pretty good, well I think he chances are excellent that we never will. For one thing there is not any material that will stand up under those circumstances, nothing.

Kelly: Do you have any other things you recall you want to share or?

Scolman: Not really, except well I do not think that any of the laboratories are as good or as effective as they were and it is mostly because their mission has become too diffused; they are into all kinds of things. It was pretty simple-minded all the time that I was there; come up with a device that fits the military requirements. It was interesting because most of the time I was there, there was competition between the two laboratories—Los Alamos and Livermore—to see whose design would be chosen to go into production and it was a good thing because it meant a little extra money and that competition was good. 

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