Scientist recalls making of atomic bomb

Among his memorabilia, Meyer Steinberg has a plaque

Among his memorabilia, Meyer Steinberg has a plaque signed by at least half a dozen Nobel laureates who witnessed the first test of Fat Man in Alamogordo, N.M. (March 27, 2012) (Credit: Chris Ware)

Meyer Steinberg was just 20 and fresh out of college when he got the mysterious assignment.

His bosses at Kellex, a division of the construction and engineering giant M.W. Kellogg Co., said he was being transferred. The destination: Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. The job: classified.

The Astoria kid who had just graduated from Cooper Union eventually found himself at a laboratory bench with gloves, masks and a new set of clothes, turning plutonium oxide into carbon tetrafluoride.

He was working on the Manhattan Project and helping to build Fat Man, the atomic bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki in August 1945.

"The thinking was that Hitler was having a bomb built and we needed to get there first," Steinberg said.

Steinberg, now 87 and one of the last surviving members of the project, moved on to the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and was assigned to flow calculations, equipment inspection and eventually making plutonium.

For the scientists who worked on the development of the atomic bomb, the Melville resident said, the ending of World War II was proof of the power of chemistry. "If we didn't use the atomic bomb, we would never have known how dangerous it was," Steinberg said.

Eventually, he said, he left Los Alamos for graduate school, and soon after found himself working in a garage in Mineola with two other scientists commissioned with funding from Harry Guggenheim to develop hydrazine for rocket fuel.

Guggenheim, the businessman, diplomat and president of Newsday, was fascinated by space and sent the scientists a check for $100,000 every year, Steinberg said. Guggenheim visited the lab each year, and on one occasion brought Charles Lindbergh to show off his project.

But the garage experiments eventually ended, Steinberg said, and he needed to find a new job.

The former military base at Camp Upton was being converted to laboratory space and the job at hand was to expand basic research in the atomic sciences.

So Steinberg began working at Brookhaven National Laboratory and went on to become an expert on greenhouse gases. He retired with 38 patents, 500 scientific publications and a book on the effects of carbon dioxide and global warming on the environment.

In the 1990s, one of his Brookhaven colleagues, Edward Kaplan, was interested in the fallout from radiation exposure from atmospheric bomb tests, so Steinberg turned over a urine sample. It showed that his radiation levels were 10,000 times above normal.

"You're a heavy hitter," Steinberg recounted Kaplan as saying.

Plutonium finds its way into bone, much like calcium, and stays put for 23,000 years, the half-life of the metal, Steinberg said. And to this day, his high levels have not caused any adverse medical conditions.

"Maybe a little radiation exposure is good for you," Steinberg said.

Three years ago, he buried his wife of 58 years and now with his kids long grown, he's getting married again.

As he packed up his house recently, Steinberg rummaged through chemistry books, old newspapers from his days at Los Alamos and other memorabilia.

He dusted off a plaque signed by at least half a dozen Nobel laureates who witnessed the first test of Fat Man in Alamogordo, N.M., thanking those who worked on "the World's Greatest Secret."

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