Obituary: Professor Glenn Seaborg

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The Independent Culture
GLENN SEABORG discovered plutonium, one of the world's most exciting substances.

Before dawn on 24 February 1941, the team of nuclear scientists he led at the University of California's Berkeley campus identified element 94 in the periodic table, second of the transuranium elements. It had been made by atomic bombardment in a cyclotron. Plutonium followed the discovery of neptunium, element 93, by Seaborg's colleague Edwin McMillan at Berkeley, in 1940.

Element 94 was named plutonium after Pluto, the next furthest planet from Earth. Seaborg and McMillan shared the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1951 for their discovery of what young Seaborg wanted to call the "actinide series" of the heaviest elements starting with element 89. "Don't do it", friends cautioned, "you'll ruin your scientific reputation," he recalled at a 50th anniversary meeting in 1991. "I had a great advantage," Seaborg replied, "I didn't have any reputation at that time."

His concept proved to have great predictive value, and helped the discovery of another 17 man-made elements, of which he participated in a total of 10. In 1997 element 106 was named seaborgium - the first to be named after a living person. In 1991 the Seaborg Institute, devoted to the study of the 20 heaviest elements, from thorium (90), was inaugurated at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

No element has been more intensely studied or proved to have a more unruly and fascinating range of properties than plutonium. Seaborg called it the "ornery element". "When you hold a lump of plutonium in your hand it feels warm, like a live rabbit," observed a woman scientist who helped refine it during the Second World War.

Plutonium is a dark, silvery metal which when molten is chemically intensely reactive and very hard to contain. As a solid it exists in several different physical states with different properties, which makes metalworking extremely exasperating as it changes dramatically between states. But its paramount property is that the plutonium-239 isotope is fissile. It offered an alternative to uranium-235 as a potential nuclear explosive.

Seaborg could not even see his first speck of plutonium oxide, but the pressures of the new US Manhattan Project (developing the atomic bomb) soon had the science - and Seaborg - transferred to the Metallurgical Laboratory in Chicago, to work out ways of "mass producing" the metal. Here the first visible amount of plutonium was made: about one millionth of a gram.

Early in 1942, at a general conference on plutonium chemistry in Chicago, attended by Seaborg, two main tasks were identified. One was to separate the metal in the amounts and purity required for war purposes. The other was to obtain good understanding of the chemistry needed to build and maintain "atomic piles". Seaborg was appointed to lead the separation team.

In the next two years plutonium manufacture in atomic piles and refinement in kilogram quantities to provide the critical mass for a weapon scaled up the process ten billion times - "surely the greatest scale-up factor ever attempted", Seaborg was to remark.

The verdict of the official history of the Manhattan Project by H.D. Smyth in 1945 was: "Altogether the solving of many of the chemical problems has been one of the most remarkable achievements of the Metallurgical Laboratory." From the outset Seaborg was deeply concerned with the toxicity of the new metal, and the need to protect himself and his team from, in particular, airborne particles. He established safe laboratory practices which prevail to this day.

Plutonium's peculiarities lent themselves more readily to fanciful notions from opponents of nuclear weapons and, later, nuclear power than the other nuclear explosive, uranium-235. So pervasive was an erroneous mythology of plutonium by the mid-1970s that, in Britain, the report of the Windscale Inquiry by Mr Justice Parker spelled out seven of the "misunderstandings" then current. His report was implemented but the myths still prevail widely.

In 1961, when the US and Britain were building their first power reactors, Seaborg was appointed by President Kennedy as chairman of the powerful US Atomic Energy Commission and the President's chief nuclear adviser, a post he held for 10 years. He spoke widely, wisely and well on all aspects of the emerging nuclear industry and the technical and social problems it was facing. He gave much thought to what he foresaw as an emerging "plutonium economy" arising from the byproduct of nuclear reactors, as a way of safeguarding the substance from misuse.

In an interview with the Financial Times in 1969 Seaborg discussed the problems a veritable deluge of US reactor orders - over 30 in the mid- 1960s - were causing. "People are now becoming conscious of nuclear power plants." The first co- ordinated campaigns opposing nuclear power were beginning.

"We take their criticisms seriously, though they chiefly arise through misconceptions," he believed. His counter-attack had just begun, with a tough-talking speech asserting that critics were using an effective method of propaganda known as "stacking the deck". The idea was to amass isolated detrimental facts, and add statements by nuclear authorities lifted out of context, plus a leavening of misinterpretation, he contended.

Specifically, said Seaborg, every fact and statement in a story might be true. Yet the article and its conclusion remained invalid and misleading. "Such dishonesty is made more harmful by the fact that these articles are written as exposes and published in the public interest". He forecast a further deluge of US reactor orders in the early 1970s, but that was not to be.

Glenn Theodore Seaborg was born in 1912 in Ishperning, Michigan, an iron mining town on the Upper Peninsula. His father was the son of Swedish immigrants, and his mother an immigrant herself. Seaborg spoke Swedish before learning English. He received his first degree in chemistry from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1934; and a PhD three years later. That year, 1937, he was appointed a research associate at Berkeley and began his assocation with such greats of US physics as E.O. Lawrence and J. Robert Oppenheimer, the founders of nuclear science. Seaborg married Helen Griggs in 1942, the year he moved to Chicago.

Seaborg's publications include The Chemistry of the Actinide Elements, with Joseph J. Katz, published in 1958; The Transuranium Elements (1958); Education and the Atom (with Daniel M. Wilkes, 1954); Men and Atom (with William A. Corliss, 1971); Nuclear Milestones (1972) and Transuranium Elements: products of modern alchemy (with others, 1978).

As a pioneer of nuclear alchemy, Seaborg's many scientific awards and prizes included the Enrico Fermi Award of the US Atomic Energy Commission, in 1957. It was then worth $50,000. Later came the Priesley Medal of the American Chemical Society in 1979, the Henry De Wolf Smyth Award of the American Nuclear Society, in 1982, and the Actinide Award in 1984.

Glenn Seaborg returned to academic life in 1971, and to a fruitful period as scientist, teacher, administrator and government adviser from his original base at Berkeley.

David Fishlock

Glenn Seaborg was a formidable presence, writes Tam Dalyell. I met him in the summer of 1965, when I was asked to stay in the house of Bill Carey, then the senior official in the Bureau of the Budget responsible for the funding of the science and space programme.

I was a member of the first House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology, chaired by Arthur Palmer MP, electrical engineer and Member for Bristol Central, who determined that an early report should be on the UK nuclear industry, and was therefore interested in the American view. Seaborg agreed to see me, I suspect, because, like everyone else in federal Washington, he would do a lot to oblige the Bureau of the Budget. The rare guest of the Bureau of the Budget, however unimportant in himself, would get superior treatment to the guest of the State Department.

On entering his office, I found that he was a man of no small talk, but straight, direct and to the point. He was enormously well informed about the British nuclear situation, its difficulties, achievements and successes. He knew in detail all about the Windscale accident, which he insisted on describing as "an incident".

I was grilled by this man with piercing eyes on the likely policies towards and consequences for nuclear energy of the incoming 1964 Labour government. When I explained that some of the younger Labour MPs were fiercely pro- nuclear, because we saw the price of coal being often the price of emphysema, pneumoconiosis, and chronic bronchitis, from working down a pit in bad conditions, he warmed and said quite simply, "that's very near my own family and that's partly why I wanted this job and want to champion the cause of civil nuclear power". He was a man of passionate convictions, formed partly by family adversity.

A couple of years later I sent Seaborg the answers to 70 parliamentary written questions about Aldabra Atoll in the Indian Ocean where it was proposed by the Ministry of Defence that there should be an RAF staging post, along the lines proposed by Denis Healey. To have turned the atoll into a base would have been an ecological disaster and would have been the end of the flightless rail, the pink-footed booby, as well as decimating the giant tortoise of the Indian Ocean, whose breeding place it was.

Seaborg's reaction was concern as a scientist, and in conjunction with his friend Dillon Ripley, Secretary of the Smithsonian, he exercised his right to go to the President of the United States direct, then Lyndon Johnson. Parliamentary questions would not have dissuaded Harold Wilson from going ahead with the Aldabra staging post. But a question from LBJ, prompted by Seaborg and Ripley, was altogether another matter.

As Wilson wryly put it to me some months later in connection with Aldabra - he was a generous soul - "You certainly went to the right people in Washington to scupper our proposal!"

Glenn Theodore Seaborg, chemist: born Ishperning, Michigan 19 April 1912; Resident Associate, College of Chemistry, University of California, Berkeley 1937-39, Instructor, Department of Chemistry 1939-41, Assistant Professor 1941-45, Professor 1945-71, Chancellor 1958-61, University Professor of Chemistry 1971-99; Nobel Prize for Chemistry (jointly with Edwin McMillan) 1951; Chairman, US Atomic Energy Commission 1961-71; married 1942 Helen Griggs (three sons, two daughters, one son deceased); died Lafayette, California 25 February 1999.