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Engineer Still Recalls His Job On Manhattan Project

September 01, 2005

Six decades ago, when Lyle Albright was a 23-year-old engineer newly hired to work at a lab in wartime Cleveland, his supervisor picked up a slug of metal and informed him it was uranium.

“I immediately realized our group was dealing with atomic energy, but we were never told we were working on an atomic bomb,” says Albright, an emeritus professor of chemical engineering at Purdue University. “I speculated that the energy would be used in military equipment like tanks and airplanes.”

Over the next 18 months, Prof. Albright and his colleagues eventually realized the true nature of the work they were involved in, the Manhattan Project – a task that took him across the country to remote lab sites in Washington state. Before nearly anyone else had ever heard of gamma radiation or plutonium, Prof. Albright was assigned to become one of the world’s first health physicists, and in addition to his other duties was charged with keeping people safe around the “atomic piles,” as nuclear reactors were then called. Now he is one of the last remaining scientists who remembers those earliest days that led up to the bombing of Hiroshima 60 years ago on August 6th.

“Of the three atomic piles they initially built on the Hanford, WA, lab site, I was present at the startup of two,” Prof. Albright smiles. “No accidents ever occurred, and no one ever got exposed to too much radiation. But I remember they told me that if there were a runaway reaction, I should get everyone out of the building – and run.”

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