Feb 11, 2008

Oh, what his hands have held

This Sarasota man was the 1st to feel plutonium's pulsating heat

By BILLY COX, Herald Tribune

As the first plutonium warheads in America's aging nuclear arsenal reach their 30-year expiration dates in 2008, the controversy over how -- or whether -- to upgrade thousands of the expensive bombs is starting to get noisy.

And the man who helped weaponize nuclear physics is following the debate with a sense of resignation.

At the modest Sarasota retirement home he shares with Edith, his wife of 72 years, Morris Kolodney, 96, has just finished reading a recent edition of Scientific American. The apocalyptic cover story, illustrated with a photo of a hellish mushrooming fireball, rests on the kitchen table. Kolodney, whose discovery of the melting point of plutonium was a watershed moment, compresses the discussion into a flick of the wrist.

"We have thousands of these weapons," says the first man on planet Earth to cup the pulsing heat of metallic plutonium in his bare hands. "I don't know why we need so many."

Kolodney moves slowly, and his hearing abilities are diminished. But if his command of physics is an indicator, Kolodney's mental agility is no less formidable today than when he was recruited in 1943 to work on the fissionable core of the atomic bomb in Los Alamos, N.M.

"How much," inquires the retired professor, as if challenging a college freshman, "do you know about this stuff, anyway?"

In fact, given his extensive exposure to plutonium, Kolodney is lucky to be alive. Certainly, he is one of the few remaining survivors listed on the nonprofit Atomic Heritage Foundation's online Manhattan Project Hall of Fame.

The details of what City College of New York's professor emeritus of chemical engineering did in New Mexico were not declassified until 1982. At that point, Kolodney wrote an explanation for the Journal of the Electrochemical Society, entitled "Preparation of the First Electrolytic Plutonium and of Uranium From Fused Chlorides."

Even so, Kolodney shuns attention, and needs prodding to agree to an interview. That does not surprise his most famous student, Andrew Grove, in Los Altos, Calif.

"He never talked much about those days; he never regaled us with his stories," says Grove, whose own history was shaped by Kolodney's intuition.

In his autobiography "Swimming Across: A Memoir," Grove recalls a brief but fateful chat with Kolodney, who was, at that point, his faculty adviser.

The year was 1957; Grove had just enrolled at CCNY to study chemical engineering. His name back then was Gróf András István. He was a refugee from Hungary, where the revolution had just been crushed beneath Soviet tanks.

Longing for his native Budapest, Grove told Kolodney he loved America, but hated New York's cold gray weather. "The professor, whose low-key demeanor was at odds with the perpetually amused glint in his eye," wrote Grove, suggested the more temperate climate of San Francisco might suit him better.

So Grove went west to become the godfather of Silicon Valley as the CEO of computer giant Intel. Intel's microprocessors revolutionized the global communications industry. Grove was named "Man of the Year" by Time magazine in 1997. In 2006, in a show of gratitude for his CCNY experience, he donated $26 million to the school.

Grove has maintained a long-distance relationship with Kolodney, and harbors an outspoken fondness for the old academician. But he did not know the full extent of Kolodney's role with the atomic bomb until years after graduating from CCNY.

What Kolodney volunteers today is that his love of toying with the elements began during his childhood in Brooklyn, where he learned to mix chemicals into small-scale dynamite explosions on the Fourth of July.

His fascination grew more sophisticated in the 1930s with advanced degrees at City College and Columbia University. By 1939, Kolodney had secured a patent for figuring out how to extract pure manganese metal from minerals through electrolysis, which Newsweek hailed at the time as "a boon for America's military preparedness."

Kolodney, an electrochemical engineer, was on the Manhattan Project's ground floor alongside a handful of metallurgists. Their assignment was to harness fissionable plutonium distilled from uranium and create a super bomb. To do that, they needed quantities in the kilogram range -- many kilograms.

But creating compounds of that artificial and poisonous element was tedious work. Kolodney's team did not receive its first shipment of plutonium from the Hanford, Wash., reactor until March 1944. And it was a mere half-gram.

In the meantime, in a lab called the D Building shared with chemists, the metallurgists practiced teasing crystal deposits from uranium compounds.

The arrival of wildly radioactive plutonium changed everything. Booties, surgical gloves, coveralls and cumbersome face masks became standard gear. Kolodney's most hair-raising moment occurred when a glass tube filled with plutonium salt broke, cut through two layers of gloves, and pierced his bloodstream.

"It was a lunatic period; it was crazy," recalls Kolodney, operating under the assumption that Nazi Germany was ahead in the nuclear race. "We contaminated that building to such an extent that eventually it had to be cut up, encased in plastic and buried somewhere."

Kolodney's goal was to melt plutonium, remove its impurities, and convert it into a metal that could be used to form a bomb core. But there was some bad news.

University of Chicago scientists announced the melting point of plutonium was an outrageous 1800 degrees Centigrade, or 3272 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperature demands of that magnitude could dilute the requisite purity levels and render a plutonium bomb untenable.

Kolodney pressed forward. Experimenting on new plutonium trichloride salts, he detected something dramatic evolving under his microscope. The molten material was beginning to bead up into metallic spheres -- at 640 degrees Centigrade, or nearly two-thirds lower than projections.

Kolodney's contention that the experts in Chicago were so far wrong initially drew hoots of derision -- until his colleagues began duplicating his results.

Plutonium shipments to Los Alamos grew larger. In 1945, Kolodney was able to produce two small samples of metallic plutonium, each no more than 1 1/4 inch in diameter. He electro-plated them with silver.

"I washed them in acetone, and they were bright and they were smooth," Kolodney recalls. "I wanted to hold them, I wanted to feel them, so I pulled off my gloves. I mean, what the heck, I was dirty anyhow. And I picked up these two pieces, and I'm the first person in the world to hold metallic plutonium.

"They were heavy, almost as dense as a big hunk of gold and they seemed alive to me, like I was holding a small animal in my hand. This was a shock."

Needing immediate confirmation of his Prometheus moment, Kolodney made a beeline for his British colleague, Dr. Cyril Smith. Smith held the chunks and felt the inner heat as well.

"Let's take them over to Oppie," he said.

Smith and Kolodney hustled over to the office of Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Los Alamos project. "Oppie said, 'Oh my god!'" Kolodney says.

At that point, the bomb graduated into the engineering phase. Shortly thereafter, test shot Trinity created a midnight sun boiling off the floor of the New Mexico desert. Then came Hiroshima. And Nagasaki.

Today, according to the Scientific American report, the United States has 9,900 nukes in its stockpile. Russia has 15,000. France counts 350, followed by China (200), Great Britain (200), Israel (80), Pakistan (60), India (50), and North Korea (10).

The most powerful weapon on record is a 50 megaton horizon-swallower unleashed by the Soviet Union in 1961, or roughly 150 times stronger than the bombs that vaporized Japan's cities.

The perpetually amused glint noted by Andrew Grove half a century ago returns to the eye of the old professor as he contemplates the absurdity of the proportions.

Even more absurd to him are the aspirations of the countries -- and individuals -- intent on joining the nuclear club. Between the radiation and countless cigarettes, Kolodney is so lucky to be alive, it almost defies logic.

"Plutonium," he says, "is such lousy stuff to be around."


Anonymous said...

"Plutonium," he says, "is such lousy stuff to be around."

Shhh, be quiet! How is LANS going to set up the Pit Factory with crazy talk like this going around?

Anonymous said...


Why not "throbbing"? What a load of crap.