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‘Just a guy in laboratory on the side of a hill’

Tom Boyd

God grant that not only the love of liberty, but a thorough knowledge of the rights of man pervade all the nations of earth, so that a philosopher may put his foot anywhere on its surface and say: This is my country.– Benjamin FranklinThe date was Aug. 6, 1945, and the first atomic bomb had just been detonated above Hiroshima, Japan. It is a moment Dr. Paul Numerof remembers with startling clarity not only because it was an event that marked the beginning of the nuclear age, but also because Numerof, as a chemist working on the legendary Manhattan Project that created the bomb, had personally handled every ounce of uranium that exploded above Hiroshima that day.”I was on furlough, in Philadelphia with my wife and her parents,” he recalls. “I was the first one down that morning, and I turned on the radio to listen to the news and had just put some cream cheese on a piece of pumpernickel bread when the announcer interrupted the broadcast and said he has a special bulletin, that an atomic bomb had been dropped over Hiroshima, Japan, and that the entire city had been destroyed. I was stunned.”Born to Russian immigrant parents and raised in Pennsylvania, Numerof worked in Los Alamos, N.M. as a member of the 9812th Technical Service Unit, Army Corps of Engineers. He worked specifically as a chemist, helping to identify and purify the uranium used in the atomic bomb known as “Little Boy” during the intense final months of World War II. He now lives in East Vail with his wife, and he still has strong memories of wartime America and the lasting impressions gleaned from a time when nuclear power was changing the landscape of international politics and internal American affairs.Numerof’s role in the Manhattan Project contributed to the success of the top-secret mission. Like the other men and women who had congregated at the secret and remote military research laboratory, Numerof worked each day with the knowledge that the end of the war would depend on how well, and how quickly, the Manhattan Project could be completed and a bomb could be built.And there is no doubt the gravity of his work still pervades his thoughts of the past. The detonation of the bomb he helped make resulted in the eventual death of approximately 200,000 people, but those numbers, he says, are far smaller than the number of dead that would have resulted if the war had continued.”Everyone I’ve ever spoken to or heard speak about it talk about the number of people killed by those weapons in (Hiroshima and Nagasaki),” he says. “But that’s looking at it the wrong way. To me it’s more important to look at the hundreds of thousands of people who did not die, but would have died if those bombs weren’t used. Those bombs ended the war.”Numerof points to post-war research that indicates that 10 million Japanese may have died of starvation had the war continued, and he also points toward accounts that indicate that some Japanese commanders were prepared to sacrifice up to 20 million lives in order to defend their homeland.”But it’s hard to balance lives that way,” Numerof says. “That kind of arithmetic doesn’t make sense, but I think it’s important for people to ask themselves what would have happened if those bombs hadn’t been used.”The scientific battle frontDespite the importance of the bombs and his role in creating them, Numerof does not see himself as anything more than just another American soldier doing his part to help his country win the war and maintain its liberties.”What the 10th Mountain Division did was special and unique. I was just a guy in a laboratory on the side of a hill,” he quips.But he was told from the very start that his role in the military was top secret and very special in its own right. In a meeting held in January of 1944 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Numerof was enrolled as part of the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP), a select group of soldiers was told of a secret project under way that, if successful, could materially shorten the war. Application to participate was voluntary.The ASTP representative told the group that joining this project would be the single greatest contribution that an individual could make toward helping the U.S. win the war.So rather than hoist a gun and charge the front, Numerof battled with his wits, his intellect, and the scientific mind he had cultivated since his childhood in Pennsylvania.”It’s personal, and it’s hard to articulate what it’s like to be a veteran,” he says. “Being in the Army in World War II didn’t separate me from millions of other men. But somebody in the army, I don’t know who, had the foresight to say that some of these men who volunteered or were being drafted have technical abilities that we might be able to use, and out of that evolved the Army Specialized Training Program.”Although the enemy was half a world away, Numerof and his fellow scientists still faced danger and risk.In July, 1945, Numerof and several other soldiers prepared a special laboratory at Los Alamos to purify the enriched uranium the physicists had been using in their final measurements on the feasibility of a uranium-based atomic bomb. This material had come from Oak Ridge, where the composition of natural uranium (0.7 percent uranium-235 and 99.3 percent uranium-238) had been enriched to about 85 percent uranium-235. The purification process involved significant exposure to radiation.”I insisted on having a radioactive monitor,” he says. “And this monitor made noise proportional to the amount of background radiation. I could hear it go click click click , and I knew everything was fine. But after working for a while, during the first day, that click click click changed to click-click-click-click, and that’s not supposed to happen. So we developed a way to lower the level of background radiation.”The effect of the causeOn a recent seafaring trip to Hiroshima, Numerof was asked to give a talk to interested passengers about his experiences at Los Alamos. He obliged, and afterward was greeted by nine men who had served on naval vessels in the Pacific and were slated to take part in any necessary invasion of Japan. The men thanked him to a man for working on the bomb and helping set in motion the chain of events that, they said, preserved their lives.The following day at the Hiroshima Peace Museum, another man who had heard the lecture approached Numerof.”As I was walking, a man came up to me and said, ‘I was in the audience last night, and when I saw those men come up I wanted to come up and talk to you, but I couldn’t; I couldn’t speak,'” Numerof remembers. “And he said, ‘I served on two aircraft carriers: the USS Intrepid and the USS Bunker Hill.'”And he said, ‘Both of those carriers were hit by kamikaze suicide pilots, I can still hear the screams of the men, and still remember the men dying all around me, but I didn’t’ get a scratch. In August, 1945, I was en route to my next assignment, which I found out would be on one of the communication ships that would lead the troops ashore when the attack on Japan began in November. These communication ships are small, and were generally the first taken out by kamikaze pilots. There was no way I would have survived. But I didn’t have to go. Those bombs ended the war.'”The second nuclear ageSince his work in World War II, Numerof has seen the nation work though the Korean War, Vietnam, two Gulf Wars and multiple strikes and invasions but never use nuclear weapons in an attack capacity.”I do not see and could never condone starting to use even low-yield nuclear weapons,” he says. “These are not toys, but terrible weapons, and one has to think deeply about their use.”The threat of nuclear attack has cast a shadow over the world ever since the people of the Los Alamos laboratories made the breakthrough into the nuclear era. Throughout the Cold War, Numerof says the concept of mutual destruction kept the United States and the Soviet union from using nuclear weapons, but now our nation faces a new, more elusive enemy.”The fundamental difference I see is that during World War II and Korea the enemy was clean-cut, known and visible, but you don’t have that now,” he says. “It’s very difficult to deal with terrorists effectively.”But defending against nuclear weapons (and other weapons of mass destruction) pose very special problems, he says. The production of a uranium-based nuclear weapon requires too much energy and scientific know-how for a small group of terrorists to effectively produce. A plutonium-based bomb, like the one dropped over Nagasaki, is perhaps easier to build, but more difficult to detonate. And a “dirty bomb,” though not nuclear, might be the simplest for renegade terrorists to produce.”Currently you don’t need to duplicate the Manhattan Project,” he says. “You hear sometimes about so-called suitcase bombs. You can make a ‘dirty bomb’ as a suitcase bomb which is nasty and it’s mean, but it’s not a ‘nuclear explosive.’ When we look at the problem, it depends on one thing, on the amount of resources you are prepared to invest. Don’t forget, the first two atom bombs weighed about 10,000 each when fully assembled. But one evening at Los Alamos I saw the two hemispheres that were used in the plutonium bomb, and they were only about the size of a grapefruit you can hold them in your hands. If you have patience, and you have the technology, a bomb could be put together, not to be dropped from an airplane, but built in a factory somewhere.”And, if you would like to see something that would shock you about the availability of plutonium, take a trip down to the museum at Los Alamos, N.M. There is one exhibit which shows the world’s supply of plutonium, and the last time I saw that it was something like 90 tons.”And it only requires a few pounds of plutonium to create an atomic bomb.The true solutionAnd here is where Numerof becomes as much a philosopher and a thinker as a scientist. When he considers the state of the world today, and the threat of nuclear attack, he sees only one true way to solve the problem and rid the world of the fear and destruction that comes with nuclear capability.And that way, he says, was best described by Benjamin Franklin more than 200 years ago in this quote, the same one that began this article:God grant that not only the love of liberty, but a thorough knowledge of the rights of man pervade all the nations of earth, so that a philosopher may put his foot anywhere on its surface and say: This is my country.”And that is what is being attempted, in some sense, in Iraq,” Numerof says. “But we still have a long way to go.”Break out box:Numerof suggests these books for those interested in learning more about the Los Alamos laboratories, the Manhattan Project, nuclear physics and the aftermath of World War II:1. The Making of the Atomic Bomb; Richard Rhodes, Simon and Schuster2. Downfall: the End of the Japanese Imperial Empire; Richard Frank, Penguin Books3. The Legacy of Hiroshima; Edward Teller with Allen Brown, Doubleday


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