Poison and the Bomb

Norman Dombey

In February 1945 the Soviet people’s commissar for state security, V.N. Merkulov, sent a memo on the status of the Manhattan Project to his boss, Lavrentii Beria, head of the NKVD. Merkulov was responsible for collecting information from Soviet spies inside the Manhattan Project – in particular from Klaus Fuchs, a German refugee who was part of the British mission to Los Alamos, and Ted Hall, a bright young physicist from New York. Both were communist sympathisers. They had sent detailed information to Moscow on the bomb’s design, as well as a list of the nuclear facilities being commissioned for the project. Merkulov reported that the British and American scientists working on the bomb had shown the weapon was feasible and that the main challenge was to produce a critical mass of fissile material. This could be uranium-235, which can only be produced in quantity using sophisticated enrichment equipment, or plutonium-239, which can only be made in a nuclear reactor. So if the Soviet Union was to build a bomb it would have to copy the Manhattan Project and set up production facilities for uranium-235 or plutonium-239, as well as a facility where the weapon could be designed and constructed. The Manhattan Project, as Merkulov discovered, had commissioned three plants, known as Camps X, W and Y. Camp X, at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was devoted to uranium enrichment; Camp W, at Hanford in Washington State, housed the reactors for producing plutonium; and Camp Y, at Los Alamos in New Mexico, was where the theoretical and experimental physics of the weapon were studied and where the bombs to be used later that year against Japan were being designed.

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[*] Norman Dombey wrote about the Litvinenko poisoning in the LRB of 2 August 2007 and in March 2015 gave evidence to Robert Owen’s inquiry into his death.