All achievers

Glenn T. Seaborg, Ph.D.

Discoverer of Plutonium

There are young people today who feel that we shouldn't have developed the atomic bomb, that it was a mistake. Through no fault of their own, they don't have this sense of history. They didn't live through this most terrifying period when we thought we were losing the race with Adolf Hitler.

Easter 1941: Glenn Seaborg, enlisted for war work, standing in front of a plane on a runway in Washington, D.C.
Easter 1941: Dr. Glenn Seaborg, enlisted for war work, standing in front of plane on runway in Washington, D.C.

Glenn Theodore Seaborg was born in Ishpeming, Michigan, a small community dominated by a single industry, iron mining. Three generations of Seaborg men before him — Americans of Swedish descent — worked as machinists. His mother was a more recent immigrant from rural Sweden, and young Glenn spoke Swedish before he learned English. The family owned their house, but the land under their feet belonged to the iron company, and opportunities for advancement were severely limited. Mrs. Seaborg wanted something better for her son, and at her insistence, the family moved to Southern California when he was ten years old. They settled in what is now the city of South Gate, in Los Angeles County. The town had no high school, so Glenn attended David Star Jordan High School in nearby Watts. An imaginative teacher ignited young Seaborg’s interest in science. He graduated at the top of his class and won admission to the University of California, Los Angeles. Although he was fascinated by physics, a degree in chemistry seemed more useful in the straitened economy of the Depression. He paid for his education by working as a longshoreman and boxing fruit in a packing house, until he was qualified to work as a laboratory assistant.

Glenn Seaborg in 1951, with the periodic table of elements. (AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives)
April 1946: Nuclear alchemist Dr. Glenn T. Seaborg standing in front of the periodic table of elements in his lab.

Seaborg entered graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1934. Berkeley in the ’30s was a hotbed of activity in the new field of atomic research, home to such luminaries as the imperious Robert Oppenheimer, and Ernest Lawrence, inventor of the atom-smashing cyclotron. Seaborg, a shy youngster from a working class family, found himself among the most brilliant scientific minds in the country. He counted on one trait to distinguish himself, his enormous capacity for work. He spent his days assisting the renowned chemist Gilbert M. Lewis, and his evenings in the UC Radiation Laboratory (now known as Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory), a facility full of physicists where his skills as a chemist set Seaborg apart. He was awarded his Ph.D. in 1937, and after two more years of assisting in the laboratories, joined the faculty in 1939.

That same year, the news that nuclear fission had been achieved in Germany galvanized the field of atomic research. With war already raging in Europe and Asia, the federal government took an increasing interest in nuclear research. Lawrence’s cyclotron had made possible the synthesis and isolation of new chemical elements, with an atomic number higher than that of uranium (element 92). Seaborg created numerous isotopes, variations on existing elements, possessing the same number of protons (atomic number) but different numbers of neutrons, giving them a different atomic mass. Most of these isotopes had no immediate practical application, but when a medical researcher requested a variant on iodine for the study of thyroid metabolism, Seaborg created a new isotope to order. The result, Iodine-131, is still commonly used in the treatment of thyroid disease. Its use prolonged the life of Seaborg’s own mother for many years. Other isotopes of Seaborg’s creation have proved useful in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

The B Reactor at the Hanford site construction — the first plutonium-production reactor.
The B Reactor at the Hanford Site near Richland, Washington, during the construction of the first large-scale nuclear reactor ever built. It was commissioned to produce plutonium-239 as part of the Manhattan Project, the United States nuclear weapons development program during World War II.  The reactor was completed in 1944.

In 1941, Seaborg led the research team that isolated a completely new element, plutonium (atomic number 94). Seaborg realized it could provide explosive fuel for a massively destructive weapon, and his discovery was kept secret from the public. He also participated in the isolation of isotopes of uranium, and discovered that uranium-235 was capable of fission, a second means of producing an atomic bomb.

With the entry of the United States into World War II, the federal government initiated a massive effort, the Manhattan Project, to create the first nuclear weapon. German science appeared to have an insurmountable head start, and American scientists worked under intense pressure, with separate parts of the project carried out at different locations, each barely aware of the others’ work. Seaborg was tapped to head one section of the project, to be carried out at the University of Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory.

August 9, 1945: Mushroom cloud above Nagasaki, Japan after the atomic bombing. The atomic bomb dropped had a plutonium core. (Charles Levy from one of the B-29 Superfortresses used in the attack. National Archives image.)
August 9, 1945: Mushroom cloud above Nagasaki, Japan after the atomic bombing. The atomic bomb dropped had a plutonium core. (Charles Levy from one of the B-29 Superfortresses used in the attack. Photo: National Archives.)

To date, plutonium had only been produced in microscopic quantities. Seaborg was tasked with creating an automated process to produce the newly discovered element in sufficient quantities to be used in nuclear weapons. Seaborg and his team labored 12 hours a day, six days a week, until Seaborg was hospitalized for exhaustion. After three years of intense work, Seaborg and his team had produced just enough plutonium for two bombs, but these were enough to end the most destructive war in human history.

After the successful testing of the first atom bomb in Alamogordo, New Mexico in 1945, Seaborg joined six other Manhattan Project scientists in signing a letter to President Harry S. Truman, called the Franck Report. In it, they recommended that Japanese observers be invited to witness an atom bomb test, so that Japan would have the opportunity to surrender before the bomb was used on human population centers. The Franck Report was rejected, and a uranium-235 device was detonated over Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945. The Japanese did not surrender until a plutonium bomb was dropped on Nagasaki three days later.

1947: The General Advisory Committee to the United States Atomic Energy Commission meets for the first time at the War Department in Washington, D.C. From left to right (seated): Professor Enrico Fermi, University of Chicago; Professor Glenn Seaborg, University of California; Hartley Rowe, Vice President, United Fruit Company; James B. Conant, President, Harvard University; (standing in back): Hood Worthington, chemical engineer, E.I. Dupont and Company; Cyril Stanley Smith, University of Chicago; and Professor I. I. Rabi, Columbia University. (© Bettmann/CORBIS)
1947: The General Advisory Committee to the United States Atomic Energy Commission meets for the first time at the War Department in Washington, D.C. From left to right (seated): Professor Enrico Fermi, University of Chicago; Professor Glenn Seaborg, University of California; Hartley Rowe, Vice President, United Fruit Company; James B. Conant, President, Harvard University; (standing in back): Hood Worthington, chemical engineer, E.I. Dupont and Company; Cyril Stanley Smith, University of Chicago; and Professor Isidor Isaac Rabi, Columbia University. (Corbis)

With the coming of peace, President Truman appointed Seaborg to the General Advisory Committee of the newly formed Atomic Energy Commission. He was the only member of the committee to recommend development of the hydrogen bomb, a recommendation he made reluctantly, knowing that the Soviet Union would proceed with developing this weapon in any event.

During his work in Chicago, Seaborg discovered two new chemical elements, americium (atomic number 95) and curium (number 96). He was successful in patenting both elements. To date, they are the only chemical elements ever patented. Americium is today the effective component of the common household smoke detector.

1951: Glenn T. Seaborg with the periodic table of elements he revised. In 1940, Seaborg, in collaboration with Edwin McMillan, Joseph Kennedy, and Arthur Wahl, isolated plutonium (element 94). In 1941, he isolated Uranium-233 and established thorium's nuclear fuel potential. Between 1944 and 1958, Seaborg identified eight elements – americium (95), curium (96), berkelium (97), californium (98), einsteinium (99), fermium (100), mendelevium (101), and nobelium (102). Element 106, seaborgium, bears his name. (© Bettmann/CORBIS)
1951: Dr. Glenn T. Seaborg with the periodic table of elements he revised. In 1940, Seaborg, in collaboration with Edwin McMillan, Joseph Kennedy, and Arthur Wahl, isolated plutonium (element 94). In 1941, he isolated Uranium-233 and established thorium’s nuclear fuel potential. Between 1944 and 1958, Seaborg identified eight elements – americium (95), curium (96), berkelium (97), californium (98), einsteinium (99), fermium (100), mendelevium (101), and nobelium (102). Element 106, seaborgium, bears his name. Dr. Glenn Seaborg was active in national service, advising ten presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt through George H.W. Bush. (© Bettmann Archives and CORBIS)

On returning to Berkeley after the war, Seaborg became Director of the Division of Nuclear Chemistry of the Radiation Laboratory, where he led the discovery of eight new elements: berkelium, californium, einsteinium, fermium, mendelevium and nobelium (elements 97 through 102). This increased the number of known elements by 10 percent, more elements than had been discovered by any previous person in history.

The discovery of elements by nuclear researchers is actually the synthesis and identification of elements which had not previously existed in nature. Separating the atoms of the new elements from the many other atoms that surround them is only possible if the properties of the new element can be predicted accurately. The challenge for the pioneering nuclear researchers was to devise processes which they knew would result in the creation of elements with specific properties. Seaborg succeeded in this by rethinking the relationship of chemical elements, as represented in the periodic table.

1951: Glenn T. Seaborg and his colleague, Edwin M. McMillan. They shared the year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry. (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory)
1951: Glenn T. Seaborg and his colleague, Edwin M. McMillan. They shared that year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Seaborg proposed a radical rearrangement of the periodic table, a design unchanged since the table was first introduced by the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleyev in 1869. Seaborg based his design on his “actinide concept,” named for the series of radioactive elements (89-103) that include uranium and the new transuranium elements he and his colleagues had produced at Berkeley and Chicago. Colleagues warned Seaborg that challenging a universally accepted view of the relationship of the elements was too radical a break with scientific orthodoxy to be accepted by the world scientific community. Some said it would mean the end of his career, but Seaborg was convinced he was right, and his new table was soon adopted by chemists around the world.

His achievements were honored with the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1951. At 39, Seaborg was one of the youngest persons ever to receive the award. The trip to Sweden to accept the honor was exceptionally gratifying for Seaborg. The attendant publicity enabled him to highlight the contribution of Swedish Americans to American society as a whole.

Glenn T. Seaborg during Operation Plumbbob. Operation Plumbbob was a series of nuclear tests conducted between May 28 and October 7, 1957, at the Nevada Test Site, following Project 57, and preceding Project 58/58A. It was the biggest, longest, and most controversial test series in the continental United States. The operation consisted of 29 explosions, of which only two did not produce any nuclear yield. Twenty-one laboratories and government agencies were involved. While most Operation Plumbbob tests contributed to the development of warheads for intercontinental and intermediate range missiles, they also tested air defense and anti-submarine warheads with smaller yields. They included forty-three military effects tests on civil and military structures, radiation and bio-medical studies, and aircraft structural tests. Operation Plumbbob had the tallest tower tests to date in the U.S. nuclear testing program, as well as high-altitude balloon tests. One nuclear test involved the largest troop maneuver ever associated with U.S. nuclear testing.
Dr. Glenn T. Seaborg during Operation Plumbbob. Operation Plumbbob was a series of nuclear tests conducted between May 28 and October 7, 1957, at the Nevada Test Site. It was the biggest, longest, and most controversial test series in the continental United States. The operation consisted of 29 explosions, of which only two did not produce any nuclear yield. Twenty-one laboratories and government agencies were involved. While most of the Operation Plumbbob tests contributed to the development of warheads for intercontinental and intermediate range missiles, they also tested air defense and anti-submarine warheads with smaller yields. They included forty-three military effects tests on civil and military structures, radiation and bio-medical studies, and aircraft structural tests. Operation Plumbbob had the tallest tower in the U.S. nuclear testing program, as well as high-altitude balloon tests. One nuclear test had the largest troop maneuver associated with United States nuclear testing.

In addition to his research, Seaborg was active in all aspects of university life at Berkeley. In the 1950s, he served as the faculty representative to the Pacific Coast Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. When a recruiting scandal threw the conference into chaos, Seaborg assisted in drafting the rules for a new association, known today as the Pac Ten. Seaborg’s effort was instrumental in rebuilding the conference and restoring standards of integrity to collegiate sport.

March 1962: President John F. Kennedy visits the Lawrence Berkeley Radiation Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley. L-R: Director of the Lawrence Livermore Radiation Laboratory, Dr. John S. Foster, Jr.; Director of the Lawrence Berkeley Radiation Laboratory, Dr. Edwin M. McMillan; Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, Glenn T. Seaborg; President Kennedy; co-founder of the Lawrence Livermore Radiation Laboratory, Dr. Edward Teller. Berkeley, California. (Robert Knudsen. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston)
March 1962: President John F. Kennedy visits the Lawrence Berkeley Radiation Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley: Director of the Lawrence Berkeley Radiation Laboratory, Dr. Edwin M. McMillan; Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, Glenn T. Seaborg; President Kennedy; co-founder of the Lawrence Livermore Radiation Laboratory, Dr. Edward Teller; Director of the Lawrence Livermore Radiation Laboratory, Dr. John S. Foster, Jr. (Robert Knudsen. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)

In 1958, he was appointed Chancellor of the University; he was only the second individual to hold the post. It was a source of particular pride to him that his tenure as Chancellor was one in which Berkeley’s athletic teams enjoyed an unprecedented streak of victories, winning titles in basketball, football and baseball. These were also significant years of expansion for the Berkeley campus, with the construction of over a dozen major new buildings, and the creation of new research institutes and laboratory facilities. Seaborg relaxed old restrictions on campus political activity, setting the stage for the flowering of student activism in the 1960s.

1964: The Seaborg family in their Washington, D.C. home. From left to right: Lynne Seaborg, Dianne Seaborg, Peter Seaborg, David Seaborg, Stephen Seaborg (in front of David), Eric Seaborg, Glenn T. Seaborg, and Helen L. Seaborg. (Photo by Fabian Bachrach, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory)
1964: The Seaborg family in their Washington, D.C. home. From left to right: Lynne Seaborg, Dianne Seaborg, Peter Seaborg, David Seaborg, Stephen Seaborg (in front of David), Eric Seaborg, Glenn T. Seaborg, and Helen Seaborg.

Seaborg was called on to advise the government again at the end of the ’50s, chairing a panel of President Dwight Eisenhower’s Science Advisory Committee to study the integration of basic research with graduate science education. The Seaborg Report, as the panel’s findings were known, provided the blueprint for American supremacy in basic research for the next 25 years. Beginning in the 1980s, government funding for basic research declined dramatically, and Seaborg was a vocal, if unheeded, advocate for the importance of pure research to his country’s security and prosperity.

1965: At a White House ceremony, AEC Chairman Glenn Seaborg applauds as President Lyndon B. Johnson presents the Enrico Fermi Award to Vice Admiral Hyman Rickover for his leadership in the development of the nuclear submarine. (© Bettmann/CORBIS)
1965: At a White House ceremony, Chairman Glenn Seaborg applauds as President Lyndon B. Johnson presents the Enrico Fermi Award to Vice Admiral Hyman Rickover for leadership in development of the nuclear submarine.

In 1961, the newly elected President John F. Kennedy asked Seaborg to serve as Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, the agency that oversaw all uses of atomic energy in the United States: military, scientific, industrial and medical. Seaborg enjoyed a warm relationship with the new president and enthusiastically supported his efforts to negotiate a nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviets. Seaborg served on the committee that drafted the American position in the negotiations. In the end, Kennedy secured Soviet agreement to a ban on the open-air testing of nuclear weapons, and the treaty was ratified by the U.S. Senate, despite strenuous political resistance in the United States. Seaborg later concluded that the U.S., through excessive caution, had missed an opportunity to secure a ban on all further nuclear weapon tests, and that the expense and danger of the subsequent arms race could have been avoided.

In 1980, Glenn Seaborg displays one of the cigar boxes in which he and his colleagues stored the first samples of plutonium-239. The cigar boxes were provided by his fellow chemist, G. N. Lewis. (© Roger Ressmeyer/CORBIS)
In 1980, Glenn Seaborg displays one of the cigar boxes in which he and his colleagues stored the first samples of plutonium-239. The cigar boxes were provided by his fellow chemist, G. N. Lewis. (© Roger Ressmeyer/CORBIS)

After the death of President Kennedy in 1963, Seaborg enjoyed an even closer relationship with Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson. During Johnson’s presidency a multilateral non-proliferation treaty was concluded, restricting the spread of nuclear weapons. Seaborg presided over a substantial growth in the civilian use of nuclear power. When he took office, there were only two nuclear power plants in operation in the United States. By the time he left, 70 were online or under construction. Seaborg had a more difficult relationship with President Richard Nixon and was glad to return to Berkeley when his term as AEC Chairman expired in 1971. He continued to advise American presidents on scientific matters in a number of capacities, and to urge negotiation of a comprehensive ban on the testing of nuclear weapons.

Dr. Glenn Seaborg presents the Golden Plate Award to Dr. Maurice Goldhaber, director of the Brookhaven National Laboratory and recipient of National Medal of Science, during 1985 Academy of Achievement Summit in Denver.

In the 1970s, Seaborg served as President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and of the American Chemical Society. In 1980, he achieved the cherished dream of the medieval alchemists, synthesizing gold from a less valued element, bismuth. Seaborg was well aware that this was a purely scientific exercise, as the expense of the process far exceeded the market value of the gold produced.

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Three members of the American Academy of Achievement during the 1991 “Salute to Excellence” luncheon at the United Nations in New York City: Dr. Glenn T. Seaborg, Ambassador Sol M. Linowitz and Walter H. Shorenstein.

When President Ronald Reagan appointed Seaborg to a National Commission on Excellence in Education, Seaborg found the first draft of the commission’s findings hopelessly timid and understated. He threatened to publish a dissenting opinion if the document was not re-written in stronger terms. At Seaborg’s insistence, the finished paper began with the words, “We are a nation at risk.” This phrase gave the influential study the name by which it is commonly known. The report was praised by the president, but to Seaborg’s disappointment, no serious federal commitment resulted, and American science education continued to decline. Seaborg was also unhappy with the security procedures of the Reagan White House, particularly when he was told that his personal journals from the AEC years required security review, after they had been de-classified for over a decade.

Awards Council member Dr. Glenn T. Seaborg presents the Academy’s Golden Plate Award to Clyde W. Tombaugh, eminent astronomer who discovered Pluto, at 1991 American Academy of Achievement Summit in New York City.

Seaborg had more satisfying experiences in the laboratory. His remaining years at Berkeley culminated in the discovery of chemical element 106, in 1994. The element was named seaborgium in his honor, a designation confirmed in 1997. He founded the Lawrence Hall of Science on the Berkeley campus, and served as its Chairman, as well as Associate Director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Over the course of his career, he wrote 50 books and more than 500 scholarly articles. To the end of his life, he followed the latest developments in atomic research, and embraced new communications technology to advocate for science education and for arms control on his own website.

Glenn Seaborg in the 1990s, with the periodic table of elements. He is pointing to the element seaborgium, named in his honor. (© Roger Ressmeyer/CORBIS)
Glenn Seaborg with the periodic table of elements. He is pointing to the element seaborgium, named in his honor.

Glenn Seaborg and his wife, Helen, had six children. He died at home in Lafayette, California in 1999, two months short of his 87th birthday. His autobiography, Adventures in the Atomic Age, co-written with his son Eric, was published posthumously in 2001.

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 1972

In 1941, with the world at war, brilliant physicists on both sides of the Atlantic struggled to produce an unimaginably powerful weapon that would tip the scales of victory, to the Axis or to the Allies. In Berkeley, California, a young chemist named Glenn Seaborg synthesized and isolated a new element unknown in nature — plutonium — that made it possible for the United States to produce the first atomic bomb, and bring an end to World War II.

After the war, Glenn Seaborg re-drew the periodic table of elements, a matrix as essential to the study of chemistry as the multiplication table is to mathematics. Seaborg discovered ten new elements, more than any scientist in history, and synthesized hundreds of radioactive isotopes, with applications in everything from the treatment of cancer to the common household smoke detector.

Over the course of a career that included service as Chancellor of the University of California and Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, he advised ten U.S. presidents, from Harry S. Truman to Bill Clinton, and drew the blueprint for America’s long supremacy in scientific research. Although his youthful discoveries assured his country’s victory in war, he devoted his own efforts for decades to nuclear disarmament and the peaceful use of atomic power.

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We want to talk about the discovery of plutonium. At the time of the discovery, did you know what you were trying to accomplish?

Glenn Seaborg: Yes. Ed McMillan had started it, but he was called away for war work on radar at MIT. After I asked my graduate student, Arthur Wahl, to become very expert in the chemistry of element 93, which had been discovered by McMillan and Abelson but which work had not led to the discovery of element 94, we made our first deuteron bombardment of uranium on December 14, 1940, and then the chemical separations were made and an alpha particle emitting a daughter of element 93 was found. We suspected that was due to element 94, and on February 23, 1941 we were able to prove through chemical techniques that the alpha emitter was due to the new element with the atomic number 94. It was in Gilman Hall, Room 307. It was a stormy night. Art Wahl, my first graduate student, was performing the oxidation experiment, and it was just clear that we were able to oxidize this new alpha particle emitter for the first time under conditions that no other element would be oxidized in that way. So that this led to the discovery and that was exciting.

Glenn Seaborg (Photo courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory)
February 17, 1941: Nobel laureate Dr. Glenn T. Seaborg, on the Berkeley campus at the University of California.

Plutonium was something that had such a huge impact on the world and on your work for years to come. You knew what you were looking for; you were just trying to figure out a way to do it. What was the feeling when you realized that you had reached it?

Glenn Seaborg: I would say just one of satisfaction.

I think that where we first knew it was when we were trying to identify the atomic number of the next two elements, those with the atomic number 95 and 96 — remember neptunium was 93, plutonium was 94 — and were not succeeding. Then I got this idea of the actinide concept. We applied those new chemical concepts then, and then we began to detect the isotopes of the next two elements. That was a moment of excitement. That was probably one of the most exciting moments of my life.

At the time, did you turn around and shake hands with people? Did you decide to go out and have a drink? Did you jump up and down?

Glenn Seaborg: No, nothing like that. Of course it doesn’t happen in the course of a few minutes. It’s sort of a will-o-the-wisp thing. We saw it and then it disappeared. Then we saw it again, and then it disappeared, and then finally we saw it, and we could confirm it. It went on for many days, so there was never one moment where you would stop and celebrate that way. But it was exciting to have this concept verified this way, and for the first time to see these alpha particles in the chemical fraction that you would predict would contain them on the basis of the actinide concept. You make the chemical separation, then you put the final fraction on a little plate — usually a platinum plate — and then you put that into a counter. Then you hear the clicks of the counter as the counts come in, or see them on an oscillograph or something like that. That’s what I mean by seeing it. The actual observation of the radioactive decay. Of course you don’t see anything. We just talk that way. You don’t see the alpha particles but you see their effect on an instrument and then you just say loosely, “We saw them.”

1946: Ernest Lawrence, Glenn T. Seaborg, and J. Robert Oppenheimer at the controls to the magnet of the 184-inch cyclotron, which was being converted from its wartime use to its original purpose as a cyclotron.
1946: Ernest Lawrence, Glenn T. Seaborg, and J. Robert Oppenheimer at the control panel to the magnet of the 184-inch cyclotron, which was being converted from its wartime use to its original purpose as a cyclotron.

You see the signature?

Glenn Seaborg: You see the signature. That’s a good way of putting it. Yes.

You once said that medieval alchemists had often tried to change one element into another and never made it. Did you have a sense in this period that you had succeeded where the alchemists had failed?

Keys to success — Perseverance

Glenn Seaborg: I can’t say that I ever really sat down and said, “Oh look, I have succeeded where alchemists have failed.” It just was everyday life. You’d come to the laboratory, you’d do your experiments, you’d record it, you’d make your interpretation, and I don’t think we ever stopped to think in those kind of terms. I know we didn’t explicitly think in terms of “Wow, what a discovery we’ve made and what an effect this will have on the world!” This was our research. This is what we were looking for. We’d found it. That’s great. We felt very happy about that, but we never stopped to congratulate ourselves and say what a wonderful thing this is. When we measured the fissionability of the other isotope of plutonium that we found after the first one — the one that we identified on February 23, when we produced large amounts, half a microgram of the daughter of the isotope 93-239, which is 94-239. 93-239 is the McMillan and Abelson isotope. When we produced 94-239 in large enough quantity to identify its alpha particle and measure its fissionability and found that it was fissionable with slow neutrons, just like uranium 235, we began to realize then that it had the potential to be the explosive ingredient for an atomic bomb. I should say that we were doing this as our own research. We kept it secret voluntarily and when we reported this to the people in Washington, this really became the basis for the plutonium part of the Manhattan Project, the atomic bomb project.

December 11, 1941: Adolf Hitler declares war on the United States. (Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty)
December 11, 1941: Adolf Hitler declares war on the United States. (Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty)

Did you sense that what you were really doing was uncovering the secrets of nature?

Glenn Seaborg: Yes, it was, in what we perceived to be a life or death race with Adolf Hitler’s scientists in Germany. Because two German chemists had discovered fission and we had certain indications. They bombed out the heavy water plant in Norway. That’s one way of producing plutonium. Lots of signs made us think that we were in a losing race with Hitler’s scientists, and we had understood full well what it would have meant if Adolf Hitler had got the atomic bomb before the Allies did.

It would have meant world domination.

Glenn Seaborg: I think it would have meant world domination for Adolf Hitler.

July 25, 1946: Mushroom-shaped cloud and water column from the underwater Baker nuclear explosion. The photo was taken from a tower on Bikini Island, 3.5 miles (5.6 km) away. Operation Crossroads was a series of two nuclear weapon tests conducted by the United States at Bikini Atoll in mid-1946. They were the first nuclear weapon tests since Trinity in July 1945, and the first detonations of nuclear devices since the atomic bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. The purpose of the tests was to investigate the effect of nuclear weapons on warships.
July 25, 1946: Mushroom-shaped cloud and water column from the underwater Baker nuclear explosion. The photo was taken from a tower on Bikini Island, 3.5 miles away. Operation Crossroads was a series of two nuclear weapon tests conducted by the United States at Bikini Atoll in mid-1946. They were the first nuclear weapon tests since Trinity in July 1945, and the first detonations of nuclear devices since the atomic bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. The purpose of the tests was to investigate the effect of nuclear weapons on Navy warships.

That’s a pretty scary thought.

Glenn Seaborg: It was. We were running scared. That’s why we worked six days a week and had meetings five nights a week. It was a scary time but also obviously a very interesting time. I rate it as the most exciting time of my life.

Was there a fear at that time that it would take years to produce the amount of fuel that you would need?

Glenn Seaborg: Yes, there certainly were doubts that we could ever produce it in time.

Keys to success — Vision

After we moved to Chicago, immediately, in April of 1942 — April 19th, by the way. I arrived there on my 30th birthday, April 19th, 1942 — I got the idea that we could probably produce weighable amounts of plutonium by bombarding huge amounts of uranium, hundreds of pounds, for long periods of time, weeks or even months. Then, knowing the chemical properties, we could extract it so that we would have enough to measure its — what we call macroscopic properties. Up until now we were just working on the radioactive properties — unweighable amounts. I had this idea that we could produce it in large enough amounts that we could have it in actual ponderable amounts, weighable amounts. There were a lot of people that thought that this would not be possible but I thought it would. I hired a couple of ultra-micro chemists, Burris Cunningham and Louis Werner here from Berkeley, and Michael Cefola from New York University, and brought them to Chicago. They took these microgram amounts — a microgram is about a 30 millionth of an ounce. They could do chemical investigations with the actual element itself — weighable amounts, ponderable amounts, macroscopic quantities — and that was the key to working out the separation process for the plutonium that would be produced in the chain reacting piles, as they call them, at Hanford, Washington.

Thirty millionths of an ounce?

Glenn Seaborg: There were a number of people that thought that we couldn’t produce that much. That was a lot. I had the idea and the confidence that perhaps this could be done, and we did that during the summer and fall of 1942 at the wartime Metallurgical Laboratory. This, then, went on to the working out of the chemical separation process. In order to assemble the chemists I needed at the wartime Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago, I had to draw on just about everybody I knew, including a number of my classmates at UCLA. Stan Thompson got the idea for the separation process. This was called bismuth phosphate process — by which it was finally possible to separate the plutonium at Hanford, Washington from the uranium and radioactive fission products. There were tremendous amounts of radioactivity produced, so it had to be a process that worked by remote control — behind large shieldings of water tanks, of lead, and so forth.

February 16, 1961: President John F. Kennedy and Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) Chairman Glenn Seaborg, following the president's visit to the AEC headquarters in Germantown, Maryland. (© Bettmann/CORBIS)
February 16, 1961: President John F. Kennedy and Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) Chairman Glenn Seaborg, following the president’s visit to the AEC headquarters in Germantown, Maryland. (© Bettmann/CORBIS)

The Manhattan Project was such a massive scientific effort. What was your sense of what was going on? Did you know how big the scientific effort was?

Glenn Seaborg: Yes, I knew how big a scientific effort the Manhattan Project was, but it was compartmentalized and there were many laboratories. We had the laboratory at the University of Chicago, the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago. The Metallurgical Laboratory that worked out the chain reaction. Enrico Fermi did that for the production of plutonium. And then the methods for this chemical separation after its productions, I was in charge of that. They had the pilot plant at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where they ran a low level reactor to make smaller amounts of plutonium and tested the chemical separation process. Then they had the production plant at Hanford, Washington, the southeast part of the state of Washington. At the peak they had 50,000 workers building the reactors and the chemical plants, and then the method that Enrico Fermi had worked out for the reactors and the method I had worked out with my people for the chemical separation of the plutonium produced in the so-called reactors or piles, came to fruition at Hanford. There they produced the plutonium-239, which was chemically separated by our process. Thank God it worked. As soon as it was separated in the spring of 1945, it was shipped to Los Alamos, where Robert Oppenheimer was in charge of the weapons laboratory, and his scientists, chemists and so forth, fabricated it into an atomic bomb. I’ve only told you about the plutonium part. There was another equally massive effort, involving thousands of people, producing uranium-235, the fissionable isotope of natural uranium, and that was put together as an atomic bomb at Los Alamos. Then the plutonium was tested as the atomic bomb at Alamogordo on July 16, 1945, and used in Japan early in August. The U-235 bomb, a bomb made from U-235 that didn’t need to be tested for certain reasons, was then used on Hiroshima on August 6, and the plutonium bomb was used on Nagasaki on August 9, and that brought an end to the war. That’s a very brief discussion of the Manhattan Project.

There were thousands of people. I had about 100 chemists working for me to work out the chemical separation processes, the purification process and so forth at the Metallurgical Laboratory. Not always the same 100, because then I had to have these chemists go to Oak Ridge and man that laboratory, and others go to Hanford, Washington to man that laboratory. I should say there were some women involved too. I’m using the term loosely. As I say, at the peak, there were about 100 professional scientists, bachelors and Ph.D.s and, of course, maybe another 50 to 100 laboratory technicians and so forth. But throughout the Project, thousands of people were working.

February 21, 1966: Glenn T. Seaborg (R) with his former student, Arthur C. Wahl (L), in Room 307 of Gilman Hall at Berkeley. Wahl was assisting Seaborg when they discovered plutonium in this very room in 1941. (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory)
February 21, 1966: Dr. Glenn T. Seaborg with his former student, Arthur C. Wahl, in Room 307 of Gilman Hall at Berkeley. Wahl was assisting Seaborg when they discovered plutonium in this room in 1941. (Berkeley Laboratory)

That must have required an incredible amount of coordination.

Glenn Seaborg: There was a great deal of coordination required in the work of my section, as they called it. That had as many as one hundred scientists working at a time. I met with them in group meetings, as I’ve told, practically every night. I kept in very close touch. I interviewed every scientist who came into my section. I did not ever delegate that, so I had some feeling for whether he would fit, and I met in a number of these meetings with the group leaders regularly. I organized it also into a very tightly organized organization. I was what they called a section chief. I had an assistant section chief, and there were three group leaders under him with their groups; another assistant section chief, and he had three groups under him; and another assistant section chief, and I believe four groups there. We met regularly with these group leaders as well. And then the subsections, as we called them, met regularly, and I was conversant with — I believe — everything that each of the one hundred scientists was involved with. It was a great organization effort, and if I may say so myself, I think that may have been the key to the success of the work — the fact that I was really in there and on top of all of it. I think if you talk to any of the people who worked with me in this Chicago section, they would bear this out.

Is that what made it possible to accomplish so much in such a short period of time?

Glenn Seaborg: Yes, absolutely. We certainly did in one year what you almost couldn’t do today. It was an amazing effort, and an amazing performance, if I do say so myself. Not only my section but the others. I don’t think there’s been anything like it since.

1964: Glenn T. Seaborg was chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) from 1961 to 1971.
Nobel laureate Dr. Glenn T. Seaborg was the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) from 1961 to 1971.

Many of your discoveries had two applications: one peaceful, and one for weapons and destruction. How did you reconcile the dual use of this, the fact that you were creating something that had a wonderful side to it but also had a terribly destructive side?

Glenn Seaborg: On the weapons side, we regarded it as a race with Adolf Hitler and his German scientists, so there were no second thoughts about it. No qualms at all. I know of no scientist who felt that we shouldn’t do this and let Hitler beat us. Not a single one at that time. We all felt that this was a matter of life and death and we had to give all of our effort. I had many meetings with leading scientists, like Eugene Wigner, and so forth, who would come over to tell me, “Glenn, we might as well admit it, we’re losing the race. We’re not going to get there in time.” This only spurred us to greater effort. Then lurking in the background was the goal that here we also had a limitless source of energy for use in electricity-producing reactors and that was something developed after the war. It is probably not generally known, but in the power reactors that produce electricity in the United States today, about 40 percent of the energy which comes from the fission is from plutonium and about 60 percent from the U-235. They use the enriched U-235, enriched from its concentration in natural uranium, to run the reactor, but then the rest of it is U-238 capturing a neutron to form plutonium. That same thing happens in power reactors, and while you are producing energy by the fission of U-235, you are producing plutonium-239, which in turn is a nuclear fuel and adds to the nuclear fuel that keeps the reactor going. In the course of the lifetime of a fuel cycle, 40 percent of the energy is produced by plutonium-239, which is a source of satisfaction to me, of course.

1968: AEC Chairman Seaborg at the MSRE controls for startup with U-233. The Molten-Salt Reactor Experiment (MSRE) was an experimental molten salt reactor at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) researching this technology through the 1960s; constructed by 1964, it went critical in 1965 and was operated until 1969.
1968: AEC Chairman Seaborg at the MSRE controls for startup with U-233. The Molten-Salt Reactor Experiment (MSRE) was an experimental molten salt reactor at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) researching this technology through the 1960s; constructed by 1964, it went critical in 1965, and was operational until 1969.

Do people now fully understand what was going on at that time?

Glenn Seaborg: No, I don’t think so. I can understand this.

Keys to success — Integrity

There are young people today who feel that we shouldn’t have developed the atomic bomb — that it was a mistake. I believe that this is because, through no fault of their own, they don’t have this sense of history. They didn’t live through this most terrifying period when we thought we were losing the race with Adolf Hitler. I might go on and say that after we had developed the atomic bomb, and it looked like it was certainly going to work, and Germany had surrendered, the question arose then whether it should be used on Japan. I was a member of a group under the chairmanship of James Franck, an ex-German physicist who was working at the Metallurgical Laboratory as chairman of a committee of about seven to eight scientists who issued what has become known now as the Franck Report, where we recommended that the bomb not be used on Japan. That it be demonstrated first in the presence of Japanese observers on some uninhabited island, with the thought that they would see what a terrible weapon it was, what it would do to their country if it were used, and would induce the Emperor of Japan to surrender, without the need for the use of the atomic bomb on the Japanese people.

You were hoping that a message could be sent to the Japanese?

Glenn Seaborg: We were hoping that there could be a demonstration that Japanese representatives would attend and see the explosion. Anybody who saw the exploding of a nuclear weapon would realize what it would do to one’s own people. We thought those representatives would go back to the Emperor and the leaders of Japan and tell them, “We’d better surrender.”

1990s: Glenn T. Seaborg, in his office at Berkeley, California. Seaborg advised ten presidents, from Franklin D. Roosevelt through George H. W. Bush.
1990s: Dr. Glenn T. Seaborg advised ten presidents, from Franklin D. Roosevelt through George H. W. Bush.

And yet it took two of those bombs.

Glenn Seaborg: It took two to do it.

I’ve often thought that perhaps we could have waited a little longer on the second one — it was only three days between August 6 and August 9 — and saved those lives. However, there’s another side to the story, of course. Those who made the decision that the United States would use the atomic bomb in warfare on Japan had in mind the fact that we only had one or two bombs, and if we made a demonstration and it didn’t work, where would we stand? We certainly would have not convinced the Japanese. And the second reason is that we would save an awful lot of lives overall, American and Japanese, by ending the war even though we had to use atomic bombs to do it. The estimates are that there would have been hundreds of thousands of Japanese killed if it had been necessary to have an Allied invasion, and a large number of American lives lost in an invasion of Japan, and so overall, there were more lives saved than lost by the use of the atomic bomb. That’s the other side of the story. But in balance, I still think it would have been better to have made a demonstration. Then in that way our country would never be in the position of being the only country in the world to use an atomic bomb in warfare.