Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Process Wednesday: one way to get people to understand safety issues

Thanks to See Arr Oh's very kind Christmas present to me, I've had the joy of reading through "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman", Richard Feynman's autobiography-by-anecdote.

In the section where Feynman is at Los Alamos, the scientists working on the atomic bomb suddenly realized that the large-scale Oak Ridge, Tennessee plant will have too much uranium-235 in too high of a concentration at certain times in the process itself and the warehousing of the intermediates (enough U235 in one place and you get a criticality event). It falls to Feynman to go and tell Oak Ridge that they have a problem. But how to get that point across?:
...The next day there was going to be a big meeting. I forgot to say that before I left Los Alamos, Oppenheimer said to me, "Now, the following people are technically able* down there at Oak Ridge: Mr. Julian Webb, Mr. So-and-so, and so on." I want you to make sure that these people are at the meeting, that you tell them how the thing can be made safe, so that they really understand."  
I said, "What if they're not at the meeting? What am I supposed to do?"  
He said, "Then you should say: Los Alamos cannot accept the responsibility for the safety of the Oak Ridge plant unless _________!"... 
...When I arrived, sure enough, the big shots in the company and the technical people that I wanted were there, and the generals and everyone who was interested in this very serious problem. That was good because the plant would have blown up if nobody had paid attneion to this problem. 
There was a Lieutenant Zumwalt who took care of me. He told me that the colonel said that I shouldn't tell them how the neutrons work and all the details because we want to keep things separate, so just tell them what to do to keep it safe. 
I said, "In my opinion it is impossible for them to obey a bunch of rules unless they understand how it works. It's my opinion that it's only going to work if I tell them, and Los Alamos cannot accept the responsibility for the safety of the Oak Ridge plant unless they are fully informed as to how it works!"
Thankfully for Oak Ridge, they listened to Feynman. I don't often think to myself that "washing one's hands publicly" of a matter is an effective means of communicating chemical safety issues to the plant. But I sometimes wonder what would happen if I did so...

*What a compliment for Oppenheimer to call you technically able! 


  1. the issue in Oak Ridge was that military management did not realize that solution of enriched uranium are far more dangerous in solution and wet form (than dry stuff) because water is a very good moderator and slow neutron cross-section is much higher hence the critical amount smaller.

    Stories from Soviet analog of Oak Ridge in Ural mountains called Mayak show that the safety was awful and the rush to meet unrealistic deadlines set by Lavrentii Beria always took a precedent. The lab-level employees were unaware what they were working with and were just given instructions, sometimes wrong ones. Very many injured people (stories of people mopping up plutonium solution spills with bare hands) and quite few killed ones. I remember one particular one where an employee was filtering a precipitate of an enriched uranium and suddenly heard poof and saw a blue flash. So she collected the material that "spilled itself" and put it back on the filter funnel. There was another poof and blue flash, and then people around starting throwing up. Quite few of them later died, including the technician

  2. True. I think the full horror story of the casualties of the Soviet atomic bomb project is yet to be told.

  3. I think the full horror story of the casualties of Chinese custom synthesis also is yet to be told. A friend worked recently with a very good custom synthesis company in Europe - a company that has reputation for being ballsy. "A GMP process that uses phosgene, ethyl ether, potassium metal and ethylene oxide? No problem! We do it all the time!" That kind of ballsy. But even this company balked at the order for custom synthesis of organo-arsine material that uses kilos of As2O3 in the first step, and from then on it only goes downhill. So they sub-contracted that particular chemistry to one willing Chinese company. Apparently this organoarsenic business went quite well, they had several batches made in China and sold. One day, without a waning, a "thank you for your past business but we will not continue" letter arrived from China. The letter started with "We regret to inform you that we are unable to manufacture this material for you again because the loss of human life is to great." So you see, even they have a quota for allowable casualties, a quota that was apparently exceeded...

    1. It's always a good time to link to the song "Process Man" by Great Big Sea:

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looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20