Spotlight on: Dr. Paul Numerof
Born to Russian immigrants and raised in Pennsylvania, Dr. Paul Numerof later worked on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos as a member of the 9812th Technical Operations Unit of the Army Corps of Engineers. He worked specifically as a chemist, helping to identify and purify the uranium used in the atomic bomb over Hiroshima. He has lived in East Vail with his wife for the past 10 years. The following is an excerpt from a television interview with Tom Boyd, which will air on Channel 5 later this week.Q: The date is Aug. 6, 1945, the first atomic bomb has been detonated above Hiroshima. Where were you?A: I was on furlough, in Philadelphia with my wife and her parents. 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 pumpernickel bread when the announcer interrupted the broadcast and said he has a special bulletin, that the atomic bomb had been dropped over Hiroshima, Japan, and that the entire city had been destroyed. I was stunned.Q: Was it at this point or later on that you realized that, as part of your work, you had handled every bit of uranium that exploded in that bomb?A: It was somewhat later in the day, because the telephone began to ring. And my parents, my brother, my aunts and uncles had called but I couldn’t answer them, because of the security regulations. Later that afternoon I received a telegram from the war department saying I could make known that I was affiliated with the program trying to answer the questions from family and friends as to what role I had played in it really focused my attention on the fact that I had played a role in one of the seminal events of the 20th century.Q: Explain the process of making the “yellow cake,” the uranium that was needed to build the atomic bomb.A: I was a member of the chemistry unit, and in July we designed a laboratory to process uranium from small metallic blocks into purified uranium. These blocks had been used by physicists who were taking final, critical measurements on whether or not this bomb would explode in the way they designed it to. All of these pieces of metal, along with floor sweepings, insects, whatever, and the physicists said, “OK, here it is, clean it up.”Q: And during this time, were you aware of the dangers and health risks of handling uranium and any other radioactive material?A: Of course, but I insisted on having a radioactive monitor 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.Q: At the end of the day, when the gloves and face shields were off, you were in the presence of some of the greatest minds of the century. What was that like?A: Well, the highlight every week was the review session, the review session that was held in the smaller of the two theaters at Los Alamos It was an experience that was so heady it’s really hard to describe. There I was in the same room with the royalty of physical science.Q: Now we’re looking at a nuclear threat from other nations, smaller nations in the Middle East. What does it take to build a nuclear device? Can it be done by any nation that wants to, can it be done by a small group of renegades, or do you need state backing?A: Currently you don’t need to duplicate the Manhattan project. 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 pounds But I saw one evening the (two) hemispheres of 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.Q: Even inside an apartment building?A: Yes.Q: But the ingredients would be difficult to find.Q: Well, 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.Q: And how much do you need for one bomb.A: Were talking pounds and things have a way of leaking out. In the end, it’s the scientific know-how that makes the difference.