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From Research to Laboratory Production of Plutonium

GOFMAN: Art Wahl taught me everything he'd learned about plutonium and I went on working on plutonium chemistry. By the way, just as an aside: Everything was compartmentalized. The Security Division of the Manhattan Project came to see me and said, "You're not working on uranium-233 anymore, you're working on plutonium." I said, "That's true." They said, "Then you don't have a need to know what's in your own notebooks." I had to give up my notebooks that I'd done on the uranium-233 work. I got them back after the war.

I did work on chemistry of plutonium. The whole thrust was to learn enough about the chemistry of plutonium toward being able to separate it when Hanford['s separation facility] would be built. So we worked on a test-tube level to try to do separations.

We thought that plutonium in the higher oxidation state would behave like uranium. There was a compound we knew about [called] sodium uranyl acetate. That's uranium in the "plus 6" oxidation state. The plutonium might behave that way. I tested that and it did behave that way.

If you precipitated sodium uranyl acetate, even if you had just a limited number of atoms of plutonium, the plutonium went with sodium uranyl acetate. Based on that one thing, I worked out a process that would isolate plutonium away from uranium in one step and then get it to go [back] with uranium. I could cycle it back and forth to get rid of the fission products, by having two different oxidation states of plutonium.

On a lab-bench basis with little beakers, it all worked fine and the plutonium came through the process. I wrote it up, and [as a result of my work] there was one possible way for [a separation facility at] Hanford.

We [had] an occasion to use it. Oppenheimer decided with [Manhattan Engineer District Commander General Leslie R.] Groves and [the] military to step up the Los Alamos Lab. He invited all of us at Berkeley to go with him. Joe Kennedy, as I said, became his head chemist. We knew Joe.

I elected to stay in Berkeley [because] they were then so unsure [about] security that anybody that [went] to Los Alamos, [went] with [the] understanding that it's for the rest of the war. You [would] have no communication with the outside. Oppenheimer said that to me; [you] could not even telephone or write. They had to back off of that [idea] quite a lot. They were very worried about security. I decided to stay in Berkeley.

Oppenheimer went down to Los Alamos, and about 2 months [later] (this was late 1942 or early 1943) he contacted me with a note that said he wanted to see me. By then, the faculty member who was responsible for our group, (Bob Connick and I were the group leaders), was Wendell Latimer, who was a superb chemist, an excellent chemist [with] just the right kind [of experience] to work with the inorganic chemistry of elements like plutonium. Oppenheimer said he wanted to see Professor Latimer and me. He and Joe Kennedy came [to Berkeley] and we met in Professor Latimer's office.

Oppenheimer said, "we need a half a milligram of plutonium." I said, "You're going to have grams of it in a half-year to a year from Oak Ridge." He said, "Yes, I know. We're going to have grams of it, but right now we need a half a milligram and there's only a twentieth of a milligram in existence." I said, "Why are you telling us that?" [He responded,] "Because Joe says you make it." I said, "He does? What do you mean? We'd have to bombard uranium on the Berkeley cyclotron to make it, depending [on] reactor [availability]." Professor Oppenheimer said, "Yes, I know. It would take a lot, maybe a ton of uranium. My chemists have told me."
GOURLEY: So, a ton of uranium to make-
GOFMAN: Uranyl nitrate.
GOURLEY: Oh, uranyl nitrate.
GOFMAN: Uranyl nitrate to try to make a half-milligram of plutonium. I said, "Well, we have [to] bombard it for 6 or 7 weeks." He said, "Yes, I know that. I've already cleared that with Ernest Lawrence." Then there's the other part of it[, I told him]: "I haven't [the] vaguest idea whether this process that I worked out in test tubes and beakers, scaling right up to pounds at a time, will work. All things don't work well as you try to scale up from the lab bench to the manufacture operations." He said, "Well, Joe thinks you can do it." Joe is sitting there. [I'm thinking,] "Thanks a lot!"

Well, we got the ton [of] uranium nitrate stacked around [the] Berkeley cyclotron to capture every neutron that was escaping. Bombarded it for about 6 or 7 weeks. Let it cool a little; I should have let it cool [for] months. We didn't.

Then in room 110, Gilman Hall, we set up big jars and handled 10 pounds of the uranium at a time. With each jar, we took it the first step of our process and [then] the second step.

After about three weeks of around-the-clock work, we had it down to about a quarter-teaspoon of liquid [with] plutonium [in it] and nothing else. We had 1.2 milligrams, and we just needed a half[-milligram].

Joe Kennedy and Oppenheimer came back up. The first thing Oppenheimer said is, "How much did you get?" I said, "You needed a half a milligram." Oppenheimer insisted, "Come on John, I want to know how much did you get?" [I answered,] "You got a milligram and two-tenths." He said, "We'll take a milligram and you can keep the two-tenths to play with it for chemistry." And that's what we did.

At that time, Glen Sheline had joined our group. We wanted someone to work on the microchemistry, on [the] grounds that we might soon have [a] little bit of plutonium to work with. If you work in little capillaries, things like that, you can do chemistry at the very small level.

Within a couple [of] days, after Oppenheimer had taken his milligram with him, which was [a] 20-fold increase in the world supply; by the way, Glen got the remaining two-tenths. He precipitated it. We went through the basis of the whole process, and we could see sodium plutonyl acetate. So we got to see plutonium for the first time. The whole process we had gone through, we had never seen it [(the plutonium)]; we were just tracing it by its radioactivity.

During that whole period, everything moved towards scaling up for Hanford. I used to go back to Chicago every 4 to 6 weeks, where we were transferring information to the du Pont[15] engineers who were going [to] operate Hanford, trying to get them to understand what we had learned of the chemistry.

By then, I had quite a bit of radiation [exposure] and didn't know too much about it. We were very careless, by the way, in the [way] we handled things. None of us knew a damned thing about it. Glenn Seaborg, who poo-pooed the whole thing-he still does-he's obviously wrong as hell.
GOURLEY: But back then, pretty much nobody knew?
GOFMAN: There was a lot known that I didn't know. I hadn't gone back and looked over everything of that era from the day Roentgen discovered the x ray to 1942. That was a whole era of medicine and radiology that I hadn't looked at. I looked at it hard this last year.
GOFMAN: I talked to Latimer [of University of California at Berkeley (UCB)] and said, "What would you think? I don't want to go to Hanford." I had had a lot of radiation with the work on the radium and a lot of radiation from the plutonium isolation. That was a dirty job, converting that whole ton of uranium down to plutonium. I said, "I think I might like to go back to medical school." The war was still on, 1944, and he said, "If you stay in the project, I'm sure we can arrange an academic appointment for you under the Department of Chemistry." [However, I was interested in] the medical school, and I said, "I'd like to apply for admission to the second-year class." I told them I had the first year at Western Reserve and they admitted me to [the] second-year class. I finished up my medical work at UC [(University of California)] San Francisco [(UCSF)].

By then, I had a lot of capital built up in Berkeley as a result of having been one of the workers in the early days of [the] Rad Lab. I didn't know John Lawrence and I knew Ernest only a little, but I did have capital earned. [I] applied for an academic position. I visited the Mayo Clinic [(Rochester, Minnesota)] [and] talked about a position there. Joe Kennedy and all of the chemists from Los Alamos had gone to Washington University in St. Louis. I called Joe up to ask how they were doing. He said, "Why don't you think of coming here to Washington University?" Arthur Compton had [left] Chicago to become the chancellor at Washington University. I visited there [and] they offered me a very nice position in Radiology, which I thought of doing. But finally the Berkeley assistant professorship came through in John Lawrence's division.

John was Ernest's brother and had come [to Berkeley] to work, when Ernest said maybe there's something in artificial radioactivity that might be of interest [to] medicine. He had come out in, 1937 or 1938, and worked (they created a division for him), essentially in the physics department, which was called the Division of Medical Physics. It was John Lawrence, Joe Hamilton, Hardin Jones, and Cornelius Tobias.[16] They had worked together some during the war. Joe Hamilton had worked on various radioactivities and metabolism of fission products, [including] plutonium.

I joined that department and became an assistant professor. I didn't have anything to do with radiation except I worked one day a week at John Lawrence's clinic treating people with radioactive phosphorus (leukemia, polycythemia). By the way, I had an [additional] appointment within [the] medical school as a lecturer. But then I got to do less and less at the medical school because, aside from [the] work one day [a week] at John's clinic and the teaching of handling radioactivity in the lab, I had started to work on heart disease. I had some ideas on how you might study cholesterol.
HEFNER: We have so many questions about this area, I don't want to take you off course.
GOFMAN: Please do, just tell me.
HEFNER: I want to talk you about your colleagues, certainly Joe Hamilton, Dr. Tobias, [and] Dr. Jones. There seems to [have] be[en] quite a bit of contention between the Department of Medical Physics at UCB and UCSF-
HEFNER: Why don't I just leave it at those two [topics] and then we'll go into the heart disease. I've got a few questions about that, too.
GOFMAN: I did start working on heart disease. We were able to figure out why [the previous work ended with] bizarre results that happened in the ultracentrifuge, an instrument for studying proteins and lipoproteins.[17] We solved that in 1948 and published [our findings; we] opened the way for [our] discover[y of] the whole sequence of low-density lipoproteins. We worked on coronary disease.

I got the Stouffer Prize in 1972 for the work on heart disease. Last year, I was honored by being [a] guest speaker at the American Heart Association. It's been a long time since I work[ed on] that. But I gave a talk. It took me about 6 weeks to prepare it.

At any rate, about Berkeley: My joint appointment with the medical school was in the Department of Medicine, not the Radiology Department. But I knew-not in great detail-there was bad blood between the Department of Radiology and John Lawrence.

Joe Hamilton was working in Crocker Lab-at that time it was [the] building where the 60-inch cyclotron was-and Joe was working in collaboration with the people in the Department of Radiology. I think something happened very early that made Dr. Stone and the others in radiology very jealous of John Lawrence.

To the extent that I understood [it] at all, it just seemed as though they felt since they were the radiologists of the Bay Area University of California, it all should be in their department. Here was this guy, John Lawrence, off by himself and independent of them. And they really didn't like [that], but Joe Hamilton and John Lawrence were never close to each other.

I had known Joe Hamilton in [the following] way, when I was a student of Glenn Seaborg: I was a graduate student, and Joe Hamilton had scheduled bombardments on the 60-inch cyclotron. So you needed to get something done, like I needed a bombardment, like 25 pounds of thorium nitrate to do the 233U work, you went to Joe Hamilton and got it scheduled. Now I did some other work on uranium-232-still another nuclide-and Joe had to arrange those bombardments. So, I got to know him only through his being the chief honcho at the Crocker cyclotron.

Joe was a very, very careless guy and you figured if anybody was going to be hurt by radiation, its going to be this guy, because he just didn't seem [to care].

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