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Going Nuclear: The Manhattan Project, the Nautilus and Beyond

Dropping this weekend, Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” aims to become, quite literally, one of the largest films ever put to screen. The epic film chronicles the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, a physicist and director of the Los Alamos Laboratory in World War II, often credited as the “father of the atomic bomb.” 

Not only is the film igniting conversations about the summer box-office season’s health (which has become a graveyard of box office bombs for such films like “Fast X”, “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny”, and “The Flash”), it’s also reigniting debate on whether the United States should have unleashed atomic weapons — “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” — on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August 1945. 

This is not a philosophical dissertation on that question (if you’d like to chat, feel free to email yours truly). What’s noteworthy is that Connecticut scientists had a role in the atomic bomb’s development at Los Alamos, thereby launching the world into the nuclear age. And although “nuclear” is still a threatening word in the public consciousness, nevertheless the state’s ties to this age are significant — and nuclear can even bring about a revolution in providing clean, affordable energy for future generations. 

‘Now I Am Become Death…’ 

The Manhattan Project (1942 –1946) was the code name given to the development of atomic weapons, one of the “most transformative events of the 20th century,” according to the National Park Service. Under the command of Major Gen. Leslie Groves and directed by Oppenheimer, the project assembled the brightest minds in the middle-of-nowhere New Mexico (along with their families) from 1943 to after the war. The project also incorporated a plutonium factory in Hanford, Wash., and a hidden complex that enriched uranium in Oak Ridge, Tenn. 

As mentioned, several former Connecticut residents were among the more than 5,000 scientists, engineers, technicians and family members who lived at Los Alamos. They included: 

William Woodward: According to the Atomic Heritage Foundation, Woodward was born in Hartford on Sept. 19, 1916. He studied at MIT and Columbia University, and then at Princeton where he “researched infrared spectroscopy” — which measures how infrared light is absorbed, emitted and reflected by a molecule. He was recruited to Los Alamos in 1943, working on the “nuclear properties of fissile materials” (in layman’s terms, working with isotopes that are capable of undergoing fission, or the splitting of an atom). After the war, he would advocate for the international control of nuclear weapons and help establish the Federation of Atomic Scientists — an organization committed to “using science and technology to benefit humanity.” Eventually, Woodward taught at Cornell University for more than 30 years. He died on April 22, 1983.  

Harry Daghlian: Born in Waterbury on May 4, 1921, Daghlian studied particle physics at Purdue University, and then worked on cyclotrons (a circular particle accelerator) with physicist Marshall Holloway. In 1943, Oppenheimer recruited Holloway and his team to Los Alamos, with Daghlian eventually joining the research a year later after completing his Masters degree. During his time on the Manhattan Project, the Connecticut native “conducted dangerous criticality experiments to determine the critical masses of fissile materials,” and “helped prepare the plutonium core that would eventually be used at the Trinity test,” according to the Atomic Heritage Foundation. However, Daghlian was exposed to a lethal dose of radiation while working on the Omega Site on Aug. 21, 1945. He died nearly a month later from radiation poisoning, becoming the first to do so on the Manhattan Project. As a result, stricter safety measures were implemented.  

Charlie Prewitt: Prewitt was a longtime Connecticut resident, serving as a faculty member at Eastern Connecticut State University (ECSU) for more than 60 years. His ESCU 2021 obituary said his long life (he lived to be 102) was “defined by his commitment to peace and human rights” after his work as a chemist for the Manhattan Project. Prewitt was recruited while studying for his doctorate at Louisiana State University in 1941, but he — like others — became “disillusioned” by the nuclear program, and, after the war, taught courses on human rights.  

The Atomic Heritage Foundation catalogues other Connecticut residents who served in varying capacities across the different locations; one notable entry was Nathan Safferstein, a counterintelligence agent who was assigned by the U.S. government to “eavesdrop on the telephone calls of Manhattan Project scientists and engineers.” Safferstein claims that only hours before “Little Boy” was dropped, he added his signature to the bomb after noticing others. He received a Bronze Star for his wartime service.  

The First Nuclear Submarine 

The Manhattan Project’s ramifications did not only pertain to the eventual Japanese surrender and subsequent Cold War arms race with the Soviet Union, but also to research into other atomic capabilities. One such byproduct was the eventual commissioning of the USS Nautilus, the first nuclear submarine. 

Congress authorized the Nautilus’ construction in July 1951, which was placed under the direction of U.S. Navy Capt. Hyman G. Rickover, a Russian-born engineer. Nearly a year later, its keel was laid by President Harry S. Truman; and on Jan. 21, 1954, after 18 months of construction, the submarine was launched into the Thames River in Groton with First Lady Mamie Eisenhower breaking the bottle of champagne over its hull. 

The Nautilus’ construction was made possible “by the successful development of a nuclear propulsion plant by a group of scientists and engineers at the Naval Reactors Branch of the Atomic Energy Commission,” according to the submarine’s website. And the submarine’s atomic engine was impressive, as the Nautilus could remain submerged for nearly unlimited periods since it needed “no air and only a very small quantity of nuclear fuel.” It could also achieve speeds of more than 20 knots and broke numerous records, such as becoming the first submarine to travel under the geographic North Pole in August 1958.  

After several decades of service, the Nautilus was decommissioned on March 3, 1980, but was then designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1982. It remains a notable tourist attraction at the Submarine Force Museum in Groton.  

Is Nuclear the Answer? 

Nuclear energy is a ‘boogeyman’ in the public consciousness because of its use during World War II, the powerful weapons developed afterward in the Cold War, as well as the significant disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima. Yet Connecticut still has one nuclear power plant: the Millstone Power Station in Waterford. The plant, reportedly, produces enough low cost, carbon-free electricity to power two million homes.  

Meanwhile, nearly 30 states use nuclear energy, which is “the largest source of clean power in the United States,” generating 800 billion kilowatt hours of electricity per year. Nuclear energy “produces more than half of the nation’s emissions-free electricity,” according to the Department of Energy (DOE). 

For climate and green energy enthusiasts, nuclear energy prevents more than 470 million metric tons of carbon from being spewed into the atmosphere every year, which the DOE equates to “removing 100 million cars off of the road.” Other advantages involved in going nuclear are creating jobs (the industry already employs nearly half a million people) and strengthening the nation’s energy independence.  

Certainly, nuclear energy has its challenges. As the DOE suggests, public awareness, used fuel transportation, storage and disposal, and constructing new plants remain appreciable hurdles.  

However, the people of Connecticut already endure some of the worst electricity prices across the country. And energy prices may remain high and unstable, due to factors both domestic (the state lacks a pipeline to transport natural gas) and international (the continuing war in Ukraine). These realities beg the question: if state leaders are serious about reducing our carbon footprint and aim to lower costs, then why not consider nuclear energy?  

Yankee Institute’s extended edition of “Charter for Change,” advises allowing more small nuclear reactors (SMR):  

With small reactor technology advancing rapidly, the General Assembly should eliminate the ban altogether to avoid giving a single business a leg-up. Given the state’s push for greater electrification in transportation and home heating, it’s more important than ever that the state eliminate obstacles to emerging technologies. Welcoming SMRs and other emerging generation technologies will give Connecticut a better chance to reverse its unfortunate distinction of having some of the country’s highest electricity costs.  

Obviously, the suggestion is to encourage dialogue and address the energy issues the state faces — but there is no need to “duck and cover” from a discussion.  

As for “Oppenheimer,” if the trailer is any indication, it will be a cautionary tale about atomic energy being a Pandora’s Box, with humanity potentially becoming the “destroyer of worlds.” But nuclear energy can also do great good for millions — and may be the most effective way forward in providing clean power for years to come.  

But I leave that for brighter minds.  

Till next time — 

Your Yankee Doodle Dandy, 

Andy Fowler 


What neat history do you have in your town? Send it to yours truly and I may end up highlighting it in a future edition of ‘Hidden in the Oak.’ Please encourage others to follow and subscribe to our newsletters and podcast, ‘Y CT Matters.’  

Andrew Fowler

Andrew Fowler joined Yankee Institute in July 2022 after four years in the communications department for the Knights of Columbus international headquarters in New Haven. In that span, he managed the organization’s social media accounts and wrote for the company’s various publications, including COLUMBIA magazine, which is delivered to nearly two million members. Additionally, he is the curator of the Blessed Michael McGivney Pilgrimage Center’s online exhibit “K of C Baseball: An American Story,” that explores the intricate ties between the organization and the growth of the national pastime. He was also a production assistant for MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and the 2016 Dinesh D’Souza film, “Hillary’s America.” Andrew currently serves on the Milford Board of Education. He is an avid runner and basketball fan, cinephile, and an aspiring musician and author. He graduated from the University of Connecticut in 2015.

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