The Manhattan-Uranium

by Vilma R. Hunt

Copyright 1995

In 1945 during the last days of World War II the Manhattan Project spawned three cataclysmic explosions - at Alamagordo, New Mexico and over Hiroshima and Nagasaki - all three far from New York City.

Even so, the Manhattan Project was a strangely New York affair from its beginning in 1942 to its end in 1946. Two years before the Manhattan Project started, before the famous Einstein letter to President Roosevelt warning of a potential German atom bomb, a ship carrying uranium ore from the Belgian Congo in Africa sailed into New York Harbor, tied up at a Staten Island dock and unloaded its cargo into a warehouse. New York City became the uranium market place.

Since then the veil of secrecy has only gradually and incompletely lifted. We've been able to read about the scientists, the military and the policy makers - who designed the bombs, built the bombs and decided where to drop them. We've read precious little about the crucial element - uranium that was used to make the bombs. Where did it come from, who knew where it was, who bought and sold it? 1

We could say the buying and selling of uranium was the underbelly of the atomic bomb. I'd prefer to describe it as the contribution of the commercial sector - a contribution filled with ambiguities, remarkable personalities, international discord and confidential relationships - not just during the Manhattan Project itself but for the decades before and the decades since.
Commercial competition was not important. The personalities and experience of the two men who controlled the world uranium market were. They were true New Yorkers - Boris Pregel and Edgar Sengier. They were not born there. In 1939 - 1940 they had changed from being cosmopolitan Europeans in the cultivated world of pre-war Paris and Brussels, to being quick walkers along Fifth Avenue - confident, wealthy business men. They had been uranium and radium merchants for 25 years. 2 Their radium cured cancer - sometimes at least. And their uranium was destined to bring a new and beneficial energy source to the post-war world. This they believed.



A well-appointed office with flowers and paintings. The 6th Floor of the Rockefeller Center, 5th Avenue, New York City. The windows look down Fifth Avenue toward Madison Square Garden and Wall Street. The Secretary is smartly dressed. Notebook in hand - ready for dictation.

Boris Pregel: (calling) Sasha! Miss Rothstein - Hasn't my brother arrived yet? Oh, here he is.
Alexander Pregel: I was on the phone. It was....
Boris: (interrupting) I just returned from Groves' office. Took me a while - I should have taken the subway, its only a few stops but there was a taxi right at the Madison Square Garden door - then there were too many trucks unloading to get around to 5th Avenue. I swear the traffic has become worse in the three years we've been here. The Engineers want the schedule of uranium production right away. Do you have that last set of figures for Eldorado? I've finished the Union Miniere ones. I'll just dictate this letter for Groves before we go up to Mount Kisko.
Alexander Pregel: Here they are. You did want both the uranium and radium values, didn't you?
Boris: We'll be needing the radium production for ourselves later. I'm only giving him the uranium projections now. They are only interested in the radium and polonium standards we already have in hand. Miss Rothstein - are you ready? To The District Engineer, U.S. Corps of Engineers, Manhattan District, 261 Fifth Avenue, New York. Dear Sir, Based upon our conference of this date, we propose the following delivery schedule for M308 and/or MD1-308. (Aside) They must have 10 people making up these codes. Anyone would think we were the only ones in the world who knew what uranium oxide was. You can copy these numbers directly (handing over notes) - they run from now - November, 1942 to June 1943. You can make three columns - Just the 32 short tons for this month of Eldorado Ore, the 500 tons of Belgian pitchblende over the next 7 months and the 40 tons already in Canada. The above schedule represents a minimum and we will attempt to process at greater rates than indicated if so directed and if Belgian pitchblende is furnished in sufficient quantities. It is also understood that we will have the privilege of treating the total amount of 1200 tons of Belgian pitchblende now owned by the Government if we can complete this operation prior to June, 1943. It is further understood that the Government will render all possible assistance in expediting the deliveries of material and machinery required for the proposed plant expansion. Very truly yours, I will sign that for Canadian Radium and Uranium Corporation - and you will need to add Eldorado Gold Mines Ltd. Fortunately Carl French will be coming into New York in the morning on the overnight train from Toronto. He can sign it as soon as he gets here and you can hand deliver it before lunch to-morrow. Date it to-day - November 5, 1942.
Miss Rothstein: Mr Alexander, when do you expect to be back from Mt Kisko?
Alexander: Probably not before 6. It depends on whether this new chemist looks promising.
Boris: (as they walk out the door) I am not too optimistic. Though he says he has had experience with radium separation techniques - he probably doesn't know much about rare earths. And then we have to find out if he is eligible for the draft.
(Phone rings)
Miss Rothstein: Canadian Radium and Uranium - Yes, he is- Mr Boris. Long distance - Dr von Halban 3 in Montreal.
Boris: Ah! About that polonium standard, no doubt. Madame Curie would be turning in her grave if she knew how important polonium now is to us all. She always felt it was her orphan child.
Boris: (Phone conversation). Dr von Halban, how are you? I hope you are feeling better. Yes, yes, Yes I can arrange to have Dr Goldschmidt work with us for a few days. - We are using a new calorimetric method. We should be able to establish an accurate value for the standard 4. Yes. Next week. Fine, very happy to be of help. Goodbye.
(Hangs up) Boris:(to Alexander) There's a real problem until they can get a good series of neutron measurements. Those radium standards the British team has been using don't serve the purpose at all - there's just too much gamma background. The Chicago crowd are not doing much better. They'll never get an accurate enough calculation until they can use a pure alpha source. We have a good opportunity here to make a really important contribution. We DO have the only polonium source - in the world as far as I can tell. No one knows how much uranium they'll need for a bomb until they get those experiments done. (Going out the door again)
Alexander: I was going to tell you - Rudenko telephoned this morning from the Russian Purchasing Commission just before you came back. He wants another order of uranium oxide-
Boris: Oh? Before we get to the elevator. (Stops at door - turning around and partially closing it) What is going on?
Alexander: They want 40 tons or more this time. Rudenko says he has the export license from Lend-Lease and that it can fly the same route as the first order - from Canada through Great Falls, Montana to Fairbanks, Alaska and then across Siberia. He says it is to be used for armaments - hardening steel.
Boris: If it is all above board with Lend-Lease I don't see any reason not to go ahead. Rudenko seems to know how to get all the paper work done, but with Groves' attitude I'll be surprised if he lets a second shipment through his hands. (going out the door)

Click for Scene 2 of The Manhattan-Uranium Connection
It also takes place in July 1944.