This Special Number of the Agency Bulletin commemorates the 20th anniversary of the operation of the first nuclear reactor at the Metallurgical Labo­ ratory of the University of on 2 December 1942. Although this first experiment is generally considered to mark the beginning of the , it had.at that time a single objective. This was to show the feasibility of in quantity the new element, plutonium, through the demonstration of a nuclear operating with natural . With the feasibility of such a nuclear reactor thus demonstrated, two outstanding questions still remained. One involved the problem of building such a nuclear reactor, operating on , for operation at such a high power level that sufficient quantities of plutonium could be produced within the required short time scale. The other question was whether it would be possible to devise, also within the required short time interval, the chemical means for separating this plutonium from the uranium and from the tremendous quantities of fission product radioactivities that would be present.

These were the two very difficult problems which formed the basis for the American Plutonium Project. Their solutions were, in large measure, unrelated, and the development programme in each case was in the hands of research men in different Glenn T. Seaborg fields, namely physics and chemistry. plutonium, plutonium-239, production of which formed The present account will be concerned with only the objective of the Plutonium Project, was discovered the second of these problems, that is, the develop­ early in 1941, as a result of bombarding natural ment of the processes for the chemical separation uranium with the high flux of produced and purification of the plutonium. Fortunately, this through the use of the same 60-inch . The task was undertaken against a background of a con­ fact that it is fissionable with slow neutrons was first siderable amount of previous chemical investigation demonstrated on 28 March 1941, with neutrons pro­ of this element. duced through the use of the 3 7-inch cyclotron, also Plutonium had been discovered nearly two years in the Laboratory of the University of earlier and a great deal of investigation of its chemi­ at Berkeley. This established the great cal properties had already taken place. Plutonium value of this for the release of nuclear energy. was discovered in experiments extending from The chemical properties of plutonium were then December 1940 into January and February of 1941, studied by the tracer method at the University of as a result of the production and chemical identifi­ California for the next year or so, using chiefly the cation of the isotope with the 238 re­ isotope plutonium-238. On the basis of these ex­ sulting from the bombardment of uranium withdeuter- periments, it was established that plutonium has at ons in the 60-inch cyclotron at the University of least two oxidation states, the lower of which has California at Berkeley. The fissionable isotope of chemical properties much like those of the rare

15 , and the upper of which has chemical properties therefore, the necessity of separating a wide variety much like those of the . In addition, it was of elements completely from the plutonium and of established that the higher could be accomplishing these separations by remote control obtained by treatment of the lower state with oxidizing behind large amounts of shielding in order to protect agents such as persulphate and argentic ions, di- operating personnel from the radiation hazard. chromate, permanganate, or periodate ions, and that Although it was felt that the use of the two oxi­ the upper state could be reduced to the lower state by dation states of plutonium, which had been discovered treatment with such reducing agents as sulphur di­ during the early work at the , or ion. It was demonstrated that would be the basis for the separation process, the plutonium in the lower oxidation state was carried by details such as the best carrier compounds and best such compounds as the rare earth fluorides, but was oxidizing and reducing agents had not yet been dis­ soluble in the presence of rare earth fluorides in the covered. The quantitative carrying of plutonium (IV) upper oxidation state. On the basis of these experi­ from solution by , an unex­ ments, the principle of the oxidation-reduction cycle pected phenomenon which was discovered in December was conceived - a principle which was to form the 1942, together with the expected non-carrying of basis of the chemical processes to be developed later plutonium (VI) by the same carrier material, was the in the Plutonium Project. key to the process. This method, the Bismuth Phos­ When the scientists in the various fields were phate Process, was operated as follows: - assembled at the early in irradiated uranium was dissolved in , and, 1942, and the responsibility for developing the chemi­ after the addition of sulphuric acid to prevent the pre­ cal separation process was assigned to the chemists cipitation of uranium, plutonium (IV) was co-precipi­ and chemical engineers, this early work at Berkeley tated with bismuth phosphate. The precipitate was formed the basis for these efforts. Among the dissolved in nitric acid, the plutonium (IV) was oxi­ possible separation procedures that were investigated dized to plutonium (VI), and a by-product precipitate during these first months at the Metallurgical Labo­ of bismuth phosphate was formed and removed, the ratory were precipitation, solvent-extraction, vola­ plutonium (VI) remaining in solution. After the re­ tility, adsorption-elution, and pyrometallurgical and duction of plutonium (VI) to plutonium (IV), the latter pyrochemical processes. As a matter of fact, all was again co-precipitated with bismuth phosphate, of the types of chemical processes now in use in and the whole "decontamination" cycle was repeated. plutonium manufacturing , or under investiga­ The carrier was then changed to lanthanum fluoride, tion for such use, were included in this early scout­ and a similar oxidation-reduction cycle was performed ing programme of the year 1942. It was decided to achieve further decontamination and concentration. before the end of 1942 to use a precipitation process Final isolation was accomplished at this point without because this seemed to offer the greatest certainty the use of carrier compounds through the precipi­ of at least limited success in the short time interval tation of plutonium peroxide from acid solution. involved, even though it did not seem to offer the greatest ultimate efficiency and would not to the The Bismuth Phosphate Process was developed recovery of the uranium for re-use. in a remarkably short time. Plutonium was dis­ covered in December 1940, and a plutonium compound The problem which had to be solved was that was first isolated in August 1942. The properties of developing a process which would separate plu­ of bismuth phosphate as a carrier for plutonium were tonium in high yield and purity from many of discovered in December 1942, and the Bismuth Phos­ uranium in which the plutonium was present at a phate Process was placed in successful operation in maximum concentration of about 250 parts per million. the pilot at Clinton Laboratories in Because of this low concentration, compounds of plu­ in December 1943. Thus in less than one year, be­ tonium could not be precipitated; thus any precipi­ fore the total quantity of plutonium produced in cyclo­ tation separation process had to be based on co- tron bombardments had reached two milligrams, the precipitation phenomena, i.e. the use of so-called process development work was almost completed. "carriers" for plutonium. In addition, the radioactive Operation of the large chemical processing plants at fission products which are produced along with plu­ Hanford, , began in December 1944. In tonium in the uranium (as a result of the fission of all, only four years elapsed between the discovery of U235) had to be separated so that less than one part plutonium and its first isolation in quantity. This in 107 parts originally present with the plutonium accomplishment required not only tremendous fi­ would exist with the final product from the process. nancial resources, engineering and chemical skill, This requirement was necessary in order to make it careful planning and organization, high priorities for safe to handle the plutonium, because without a sepa­ material, skilled manpower and construction facili­ ration of the fission products, the plutonium from each ties, but also imagination and a considerable measure of uranium would have more than 105 curies of of good fortune. energetic gamma radiation associated with it. The process of removing fission products is called "de­ Although the outline of a chemical separation contamination". A unique feature of the process was. process could be obtained by tracer-scale investi-

16 gations.the process could not be defined with certain­ first sight of a synthetically produced isotope of any ty until study of it was made possible at the actual element. The first weighing of a pure compound of concentrations of plutonium that would exist in the plutonium occurred on 10 September 1942, when large-scale separation plants. Such a test was par­ 2. 77 micrograms of the oxide (Pu02> were weighed. ticularly necessary in view of the poor understanding Thus, we are also commemorating the 20th anniver­ of the mechanism by which plutonium (IV) is carried sary of the first isolation and the first weighing of by bismuth phosphate and the scepticism of many that the element plutonium. the carrying would be observed at the concentrations of plutonium that would exist in the Hanford plant. The Bismuth Phosphate Process continued in This test had to be carried out as soon as possible operation at the Hanford Engineer Works for a after the discovery of the Bismuth Phosphate Pro­ number of years, certainly a monument to the in­ cess, and it was performed at the Metallurgical La­ vestigational methods of radiochemistry and ultra- boratory in early 1943, following the isolation of plu­ microchemistry. This process was eventually re­ tonium the previous fall. This test was carried out placed by solvent extraction processes. successfully despite the fact that only microgram quantities of plutonium were available, by working on the so-called ultramicrochemical scale. The It is not possible in this short account to go on microgram quantities of plutonium-239 were produced to describe the potential peacetime role of plutonium through the irradiation of huge quantities of uranium in the field of civilian , and as a source with the neutrons from . of power in other special applications. Plutonium has a great future, capable of much development in This ultramicrochemical test of the Bismuth these areas. It is also beyond the scope of this dis­ Phosphate Process followed the first isolation of plu­ cussion to describe the discovery of and the related tonium at the Metallurgical Laboratory. The first early work on other transuranium elements and the of plutonium, free from carrier relationship of this work to that on plutonium. These material and all other foreign matter, was prepared elements all have an intimate, familial relationship on 18 August 1942. This historic day marks man's to plutonium, and a description of this relationship first sight of the element plutonium and, in fact, the would also present an interesting story.