INTERVIEW WITH HAROLD AGNEW
INTERVIEWER: First of all Dr. Agnew, can I ask you the tricky one, can I have your name and title for the transcripts?
HAROLD AGNEW: I'm Harold Agnew, retired former Director of Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory.
INT: Thank you. Can I ask you first of all, take you back to 1949, when the news came through that the Soviets had detonated their first atomic bomb. What was your reaction and the reaction of your colleagues?
HA: When we learned of the first Joe One, I think we called it I don't think we were surprised. It was a little sooner than we had expected, but not by much, 'cos we had a very high regard for the competence of the Soviet scientists, metallurgists, chemists, mathematicians, but we clearly were worried as to what the future would hold, because whereas we had had a monopoly, it was clear that we no longer had that.
INT: And what was the intelligence estimate, the CIA, certainly President Truman being told at that time whether to expect a bomb or not?
HA: I don't know what the intelligence agencies had told Truman or other people in the government, but there was no question in our mind that it was inevitable that the Soviets and other competent major powers would have the ability to do that. I think what surprised was that considering the devastation which had taken place in the Soviet Union as a result of World War Two we didn't think they would be able to amass the necessary infrastructure to develop the bomb, but they certainly did and they clearly were in our knickers, so to speak. More and more we learned how well they had infiltrated the whole Manhattan Project complex and so that gave them a leg up, but nevertheless, they were faced with a very formidable task of just amassing the production capabilities of making reactors getting graphite, getting uranium. I gather they saved about a year by just finding through Germany that - where there was a large cache of uranium oxide - but it was that problem, not the science problem that I think presented them with a problem. It was a problem of just rebuilding and developing the infrastructure required to develop the bomb.
INT: Do you think that espionage played a key factor in the development of the bomb?
HA: I think espionage helped them in the context of confidence. They clearly had the intellectual capability among their physicists, chemists, metallurgists, mathematicians to know how to make such a device once fission was discovered and they'd been working quite early on the theoretical aspects of it, but the real problem was, as impressed me was recovering from the devastation and the starvation and dislocation that they were able to put together this effort.
INT: Did you know Klaus Fuchs at all?
HA: Yes we knew him quite well, because...
INT: Can I just interrupt and say... 'cos you said to me...
HA: We knew Klaus Fuchs quite well, knew him in the sense of who he was and talked with him. We weren't socially very much involved, although we lived in a quadruplex in Los Alamos during the War and our upstairs neighbor - there were four families in the quadruplex, we were upstairs - and our neighbor upstairs was Franz Bader and of course he was very close to Fuchs, also of German background. interesting enough when I was at (unintelligible) we flew the Hiroshima Mission and measured the yield, the person who helped me in analyzing the theory of what the yield was based on our blast measurements, was Klaus Fuchs, so essentially the last paper in which I was involved in Los Alamos before I went back to the University of Chicago was with Klaus Fuchs. But all during the War, had no information that he was essentially supplying information to the Soviets. People used him as a babysitter, he was a very polite, very quiet type of individual. No idea at all that he had this dual personality or this dual endeavor.
INT: What sort of information did Klaus give to the Soviets?
HA: I gather the information he gave the Soviets was what we were doing, what our progress was and in the end a complete detailed drawing, schematic, of our first Nagasaki bomb, the plutonium bomb everything including the lenses, lens design, mass of plutonium, actual dimensions, the whole thing. But, of course, that the lens which was the key to the implosion, that particular information actually came to us through the British Mission, so in a sense, you can say that Fuchs, with the other Britons that came Jim Tuck was one who had brought this particular paper, explaining how using several types of explosives, different burning velocities, you could develop a lens. So Fuchs and his colleague brought that to Los Alamos and in effect he also brought it to the Soviet Union.
INT: Could you just explain to me, in sort of layman's terms, what you mean by a lens and why that that was such a crucial part of getting an atomic bomb to work?
HA: Well, originally, the concept we had in making a bomb was that you'd bring two pieces of potentially fissile material together, very rapidly, and the way of doing that chosen was to be a gun, and that's why the navy got involved into the project in the early days. The naval gun factory and naval ordnance, the naval laboratory had the expertise in what were called smooth-bore guns, so it was clear that whether we had uranium or plutonium, that's the way we were going to make a bomb. But it was Fermi who came up with the concern that perhaps the plutonium, which we were going to get from Hanford, would not be the same as the plutonium which people, Seeborg and Company, had gotten from Laurence Encycloton , because the plutonium that came from a reactor would have a long dwell period in the reactor, perhaps it would absorb additional neutrons and be different. And lo and behold, as a result of some experiments which were conducted in Los Alamos - gee, this was in, I'd say, '44 - it was determined that, yes, indeed, that the plutonium in a reactor was different it had what was called a high spontaneous fission rate, it put out lots of neutrons that would cause pre-initiation if we tried to assemble a bomb using a gun, using plutonium and there was really great consternation at Los Alamos with what we were going to do the reason being that our main supply of fissile material was going to be plutonium coming from Hanford, the amount of enriched uranium which was going to be available, at least in the early years, was going to be limited and it was really an all the effort that had gone into building the reactors of Hanford, that whole effort might just be down the drain. But fortunately, a man named Seth Neddermeier had early on at the suggestion of Johnny von Neumann, had thought that if you could somehow implode a device - by imploding we mean having forces external to the plutonium which would squeeze it thereby that made it go from a sub-critical mass to a critical mass we could get the same effect as bringing two pieces together. He had been doing experiments in cylindrical geometry, because that was easier to do, he'd been using something called Primer Cord and he was not very successful. But when the Brits brought the idea of a lens, which means that you can go from a single point detonation to a wave form of any shape you want, it can be a flat or it can be a converging form of an implosion, the lens was the key to making the implosion system and everybody has used some form of lens or sometimes they used many, many points, but at that time, to use many, many points was out of the question.