World War II at 75: General Electric and the Atomic Age

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Editor’s Note: This year marks the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. Today, Schenectady City Historian Chris Leonard concludes his six-part series that examined Schenectady’s role in the war effort and other topics. For the finale, Leonard writes about GE and the Nuclear Age — the early days of the Cold War.

Last Sunday, Aug. 9, marked the 75th anniversary of the dropping of the second atomic bomb — nicknamed Fat Man — on the Japanese city of Nagasaki.

Coupled with the bombing of Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, this action brought the second World War to a swift close on Aug. 14.

 General Electric played a vital role in the development of these two weapons of mass destruction and into the nascent atomic age that followed. Between work during the war at the Hanford Atomic Facility in Richland, Washington, and post-war efforts locally at the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory (KAPL) in Niskayuna and the West Milton Site, GE helped set the stage for Cold War policy.

GE and the Manhattan Project

GE’s Chemical Department ran the Hanford Engineer Works. The site, established in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project, covered roughly 586 square miles. The “B Reactor” on the site was the first large-scale nuclear reactor built in the world. It converted uranium into plutonium-239, the material used in atomic bombs. Plutonium from the reactor was used in the Trinity test on July 16, 1945, and in Fat Man dropped on Nagasaki.

William D. Coolidge, who managed the GE Research Laboratory during the war, became the head of the research laboratory at Hanford in September 1946.

While GE ended its relationship with Hanford in 1964, it continued to operate into the mid-1980s and produced plutonium for some 60,000 weapons.

It should be noted that the Hanford site is one of the most polluted Superfund sites in the U.S. Cleanup costs for just the four worst areas of the site were pegged at $113.6 billion in 2014, this with over $200 billion previously invested.

Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory

In early 1946, the War Department approached GE to run a yet-to-be constructed nuclear research facility. They offered GE $20 million to build and manage the plant. The deal was sealed in May, and construction started in November. Shortly after, GE started work on KAPL, situated next to the new GE Research Laboratory in Niskayuna.

GE brought in several experienced nuclear scientists who were part of the Manhattan Project, including Nobel Prize winners Dr. Hans A. Bethe (1967,  Physics), Dr. Ernest O. Lawrence (1939, Physics), and Dr. Glenn Seaborg (1951, Chemistry), to work with the site’s uranium reactor.

Future President Jimmy Carter worked at KAPL from 1952-53.


KAPL’s original mission was to support the Hanford facility by developing new ways to separate and enhance uranium and plutonium under the aegis of the Atomic Energy Commission.

In 1950, KAPL’s mission changed as it was shifted under the Naval Propulsion Laboratories. Its new purpose was to develop reactors for the first class of nuclear submarines. It would play a role in the development of the USS

Nautilus

, the world’s first nuclear-propelled submarine.

The West Milton Site

To further this aim, KAPL developed a second facility, known as the West Milton Site. Now known as the Kenneth A. Kesselring Site — named after the long-time KAPL general manager — it began operations in 1955.

The most famous structure on the 3,900-acre campus is the Horton Sphere, known colloquially in its early days as “Atom’s Apple.” The 225-diameter structure was designed by the Chicago Bridge and Iron Works to house and test the reactor for the USS

Seawolf

, the second nuclear submarine in the U.S. arsenal.

The sphere was designed to contain liquid sodium in the event of an explosion. It was more for show than acting, as an explosion of this type would likely have destroyed the sphere.

From 1962-66, the sphere housed the D1G reactor, a prototype reactor for naval destroyers. The reactor was never put into use.

Both facilities were managed by Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, the gruff and humorless “Father of the Nuclear Navy.” Known for white-glove clean tests of all aspects of KAPL, Rickover’s stringent standards kept KAPL employees on their toes.

In Closing

The World War II-era collections at both the Efner History Center and the Schenectady County Historical Society are lighter than they should be. Marietta Carr ([email protected]), the librarian and archivist at SCHS, and I are working to change this. If you have photographs, journals, scrapbooks, artifacts, or ephemera from the World War II era that you would like to donate or share, please contact one or both of us. Please do not throw our history away!

Chris Leonard is the City Historian of Schenectady. He can be reached at [email protected] All photos are courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library at the Schenectady County Historical Society.

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