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Elements of Controversy: the Atomic Energy Commission and radiation safety in nuclear weapons testing, 1947-1974
 0520083237, 9780520083233

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Elements of Controversy The Atomic Energy Commission and Radiation Safety in Nuclear Weapons Testing 1947-1974

Barton C. Hacker

University of California Press Berkeley / Los Angeles / London

University of California Press Berkeley and Los Angeles, California University of California Press London, England Copyright © 1994 by The Regents of the University of California Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Hacker, Barton C., 1935Elements of controversy: the Atomic Energy Commission and radiation safety in nuclear weapons testing, 1947-1974 / Barton C. Hacker. p. cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 0-520-08323-7 1. Nuclear weapons—United States—Testing—Safety measures— History. 2. U.S. Atomic Energy Commission—History. I. Title. U264.3.H333 1994 355.8'25119'0973—dc20 93-41611 CIP Printed in the United States of America 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 The paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of American National Standard for Information Sciences—Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials, ANSI Z39.48-1984 ©

For Sally

Contents

Maps xi Foreword • Bruce W. Church xiii About This Book • William J. Brady Preface xxi

xv

Introduction: Testing and Radiological Safety The Manhattan Project Legacy The Third Wave 6

1

1

1 Operation Sandstone: The AEC Test Program Begins, 1947-1948 10 The Formation of Joint Task Force 7 10 Establishing the Pacific Proving Ground 14 Planning Radiation Safety 19 Preparations at Enewetak 23 X-Ray 27 Yoke, Zebra, and Roll-up 31 2 A Continental Test Site: Operations Greenhouse and Ranger, 1948-1951 36 Greenhouse Plans 36 Finding a North American Test Site 40 Preparing for Operation Ranger 44 vii

Contents

Testing in Nevada Begins 48 Greenhouse at Last 53 Thermonuclear Experiments 56 3 Developing Weapons and Tactics in Nevada: Testing and Troop Maneuvers, 1951-1952 60 Jangle Feasibility 60 Military Needs and AEC Standards Buster-Jangle 69 Rad-Safe Plans and Training 72 Desert Rock and Tumbler-Snapper

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77

4 Testing Jeopardized: Fallout from Ivy and Upshot-Knothole, 1952-1953 82 Toward Thermonuclear Weapons Mike and King 86 Safeguarding Civilians and Troops Desert Rock V 95 Upshot-Knothole 99 Fallout in Nevada and Utah 102

82 89

5 The Cost of Sheep: Fallout and the Future of Nevada Testing, 1953 106 Livestock Problems Emerge 106 Preliminary Findings 111 Exposure Standards under Attack 115 Hard Thinking about Safety Problems 119 Absolving Radioactivity 123 Scientists versus Stockmen 127 6 Operation Castle, 1954 Castle Foundations 131 Bravo 136 Evacuation 140 The Unlucky Dragon 148 Castle after Bravo 152 First Repercussions 155

131

Contents

7 Routinization and Controversy: Accelerated Testing and Rising Public Concern, 1955-1956 159 Reshaping Public Safety 159 Operation T eapot 164 Testing Underwater 170 Safety Testing Begins 172 Operation Redwing 176 Strontium and Sunshine 180 8 Atmospheric Testing Challenged: Safety Issues and the Test Ban Movement, 1956-1961 185 New Guidelines 185 Plumbbob and the End of Desert Rock Hardtack and Argus 192 Toward the Moratorium 196 Nuclear Rockets and Ramjets in Nevada Tunnels, Shafts, and Craters 205

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200

9 From Moratorium to Test Ban: Radiation Safety in Transition, 1961-1964 211 Nougat and Gnome 211 The Last Pacific Tests 215 Fallout from Sedan 219 Radioiodine Matters 222 Testing and Thyroid Disease 226 Problems of Treaty Compliance 230 10 Testing Underground: The New Character of Radiation Safety, 1964-1974 236 Nuclear Excavation 236 Plowshare’s Fading Promise 241 From Mississippi to Alaska 244 Baneberry 247 The Issue of Low-Level Radiation 251 Caring for the Natives 254

ix

Contents

Epilogue: After the AEC, 1975-1990 Congressional Initiatives 259 Executive Action 261 The Quest for Compensation 266 Radiation Exposure versus Radiation Damage History and Health Effects 276

259

272

Appendix 281 Acronyms and Abbreviations 283 Notes 291 Bibliography 491 Books 491 Conference Proceedings and Other Edited Works Magazine and Journal Articles 511 Newspaper and News Magazine Articles 530 Congressional Hearings and Reports 532 Nuclear Test Personnel Review Reports 535 Other Government Documents 541 Unpublished Articles, Manuscripts, and Dissertations Text Index 565 Notes Index 591

Maps

1. 2. 3. 4. 5.

The Central Pacific The northern Marshall Islands Enewetak atoll, 1948 The southwestern United States Nevada Test Site and vicinity, 1951

6. Bikini atoll, 1954 7. Castle Bravo dose contours after 96 hours, 1-5 March 1954

5 15 16 41 49 133 144

xi

Foreword

This project was conceived more than fifteen years ago, its objective to document the history and development of the radiological safety program that supported America’s nuclear weapons testing program. Elements o f Contro­ versy is the second of two volumes, following The Dragon's Tail, published in 1987. Together the two books cover over fifty years of often-controversial history, demanding of the author, Barton Hacker, an extraordinary research and writing effort. Hacker was hired in 1978 by Reynolds Electrical and Engineering Company, Inc. (REECo), a Department of Energy Nevada Op­ erations (DOE/NV) prime contractor, specifically to write this history, which he continued to work on even after leaving REECo in 1986 for Oregon State University. In 1992, he assumed the newly created post of historian at Law­ rence Livermore National Laboratory. The development of this book, like the subject itself, has not been without controversy. Its title could not be more appropriate. As project manager of this work, I have found one of my most difficult jobs to be ensuring that his­ tory, facts, and interpretations were acceptable both to the author and to those of whom he has written. I have learned a great deal about the recording of history and its interpretation as these two books have progressed. Simply put, it is much easier to write about history so old that only documents remain. Contemporary events are much more difficult to write about because one has to deal with the memory and interpretation of events by those who actually lived them and produced the written records. Without a doubt, none of us—not the author, not myself, not anyone else at REECo or DOE/NV—fully understood when this project was launched how large an undertaking it would prove to be. It has certainly taken consid­ xiii

xiv

Foreword

erably more time than we had projected, much of it consumed during the re­ view process. Many individuals who participated in this history provided cri­ tiques of the work. Comments did not always agree, and Hacker was required to resolve any conflicts, a process that sometimes generated heated emotion. Time-consuming though it might have been, the review process was vital in ensuring the greatest possible accuracy of the final product. I hope that the many thousands, perhaps millions, of those whose lives have been affected by the testing of nuclear weapons will find this work of value. The author, management, and project staff have long labored to bring together an account of events that involved both those working in the radio­ logical safety program and those it served to protect. I have learned that a truly perfect history of contemporary events is impossible. Some of the rea­ sons for this are stated above; in addition, the written word is fallible, can be incomplete, and can be shaped by personal experience and perceptions. However, I believe the author has tried to be objective. As he states in his epi­ logue, the conclusions are his. Reviews have served primarily to clarify and establish facts surrounding events. For those who question this written account, virtually all the documents cited in the book’s voluminous source notes are available to the public. The same DOE/NV project that sponsored Hacker has archived nearly 250,000 documents that are open for public examination and research at the Co­ ordination and Information Center, 3084 South Highland Drive, Las Vegas, Nevada. Information or requests can also be handled by telephone; call (702) 295-0731. In conclusion, I wish to thank Dr. Hacker for his dedication and hard work in producing the two books. I would also like to thank all those who assisted in finding, recording, and archiving many of the source documents, as well as those who gave their time for interviews and reviews. The many federal and contract staff members who worked to bring this project to fruition are to be congratulated; I extend sincere thanks to them as well. Bruce W. Church Assistant Manager for Environment, Safety, & Health Nevada Field Office U.S. Department of Energy Project Manager

About This Book

Memory fades as time passes, and history may be the loser if setting down the facts is delayed too long. Because Elements of Controversy originated in unusual circumstances embedded in controversy, the review panel for this book concluded that some account of its institutional and political prove­ nance would help readers to evaluate what they find here. In the panel’s view, my long association with the project made me the logical person to explain the book’s background. Endless questions might be raised about such a project. What unlikely mix of political, legal, and bureaucratic concerns induced a government agency to sponsor such a work in the first place? How could interest in a relatively modest fact book become long-term support for a major scholarly study of an intensely sensitive subject? Why did the parties involved agree to seek an outside professional historian? How was Barton Hacker chosen to write the book? What arrangements were made to ensure that he could do so without compromising professional standards? How was the manuscript to be re­ viewed and approved? What problems did he face in completing the work? I cannot answer all these questions definitively, but having been personally in­ volved at virtually every stage of the project, I can offer some observations on the process. For me the story began in 1957 with Reynolds Electrical and Engineering Co., Inc., at the Nevada Test Site (NTS), where I worked with Floyd W. (Wes) Wilcox, then superintendent of REECo’s Radiological Safety Division. At that time personnel radiation exposure, or dosimetry, records were scat­ tered about the country, and not much thought had been given to preserving them. Wes and I were sure, however, such records would one day be needed xv

xvi

About This Book

for epidemiological studies and radiation injury litigation, so we began col­ lecting them. When Wes left REECo in 1963, we had already acquired a room full of records, and they were still coming. Shelves contained different record types—reports, rosters, card files—all organized by test series, an impossible situation for determining an accurate and complete exposure history for an in­ dividual who may have participated in several series of tests, particularly if participation dates were unknown. Hundreds of thousands of records had to be searched, many of them duplicates and some of them wrong. Later com­ plaints that we and others before us maintained “double sets of records” only provoked gallows humor. It would take money to overcome this impasse, but our Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) counterparts would provide no funds. Fortunately, an air force captain from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base agreed to trade me $200,000 in Defense Atomic Support Agency (DASA) funding for a U.S. Air Force/AEC dosimetry encoding project if I would ghostwrite dosimetry pro­ cedures for the Joint Task Force 8 Readiness Program (a plan to keep us ready to begin our own testing again in the Pacific if the Russians resumed their atmospheric testing). From 1966 until 1969, this money was used to en­ code our exposure records into what would become a computerized “master file” of nuclear testing personnel dosimetry records. By the end of the decade, the source documents backing up the master file filled about 350 cubic-foot archive boxes. An air force lieutenant from Wright-Patterson and I made the best decisions we could without in-depth re­ search, but errors, omissions, and lack of data persisted for another decade. Not until the late 1970s under the impetus of public pressure and congres­ sional hearings did cleaning up the file become a high-priority goal for REECo and the Nuclear Test Personnel Review program of the Defense Nuclear Agency (DNA, DASA’s successor), but more about that later. By 1969, at least a reasonably correct exposure history could be researched in about fifteen minutes from hard copy computer reports for each year of test­ ing on the continent and in the Pacific. Inevitable intracompany politics ensued; individuals vied for control of this politically popular new resource and sometimes changed it to entrench their responsibilities. An ill-conceived 1972 effort alphabetized the records by individual names and consolidated the data on 35 mm microfilm in a com­ mon 80-column format (IBM card size). Trying to cram too much data into too little space resulted in lost data and other problems, a tragic mistake from which the master file has never fully recovered. The immediate product was a system always unwieldy and often unusable. When the U.S. Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA) succeeded the AEC in January 1975, the system was no longer working at all. Expressing concern because REECo had been unable to respond promptly to requests for individual radiation exposure histories—some remained un­

About This Book

xvii

answered even after six months—Bruce W. Church, Chief of the Radiation Branch in ERDA’s Nevada Operations Office (ERDA/NV), ordered an inves­ tigation of the company’s dosimetry record-keeping and administrative prac­ tices. Shortly after the investigation began, my division manager called a meeting with my department manager and me (I reported to both of them). He instructed me to again assume control over dosimetry records, determine the problem areas, and repair the damage. Layton J. O’Neill, Radiation Safety Specialist, and Ivor L. Kilmer, Systems Analyst, both of ERDA/NV, con­ ducted the investigation, and I assisted them. In the process, I developed in­ terim procedures for radiation exposure histories, dated 5 June, which were appended to their report of 20 June 1975. Among the tasks proposed for REECo in the June report was to “develop a chronological history fact book from historical documents and key personnel interviews to assist in determining and supplementing exposure records.” Church and O’Neill had earlier asked me to write such a “fact book,” a re­ quest to which I had halfheartedly acceded—it would be a big job and proba­ bly thankless—but this mention in the June report is the first time I can recall seeing it on paper. The June report resulted in the Dosimetry Records System Reorganization project, and the fact book became part of the formal tasking letter from ERDA/NV to REECo dated 25 August 1975. In addition, there is a need for REECo to develop a historical fact book which will describe the varying circumstances relating to the practices that were uti­ lized to provide personnel dosimetry and record keeping for the various histori­ cal time frames. It is our understanding that Mr. W. J. Brady has initiated such a document; however, the input of other knowledgeable individuals should be ob­ tained while they are still available.

Directing the reorganization project, to say nothing of any number of other assignments, left me little time for writing. I had less than fifty pages done when I submitted the project’s final progress report on 22 February 1977. In an attempt to avoid facing a demand for the fact book’s immediate comple­ tion, I left it entirely unmentioned. Church, however, continued to press for the fact book, even as my workload increased dramatically with growing numbers of exposure history requests. I was responsible for assuring accuracy of responses, among other duties, during this hectic time. The master file and fact book assumed even more importance as public and media concern about past exposure to radiation from nuclear tests multi­ plied during the mid-1970s. A major reason was the widely reported case of Paul Cooper, a former soldier dying of leukemia, and the preliminary judg­ ment by Dr. Glyn Caldwell of the Center (later Centers) for Disease Control that troops who had participated in Smoky, a test in the 1957 Plumbbob series at the Nevada Test Site, contracted cancer in excessively large numbers. Mounting government concern led in June 1977 to a Las Vegas conclave

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About This Book

on “historical dosimetry.” Representatives from ERDA headquarters, Nevada Operations, REECo, Los Alamos, and the armed forces met to discuss the problem. I explained to the group that identification of military participants and their exposures was not complete and that much work remained to be done. Both ERDA and military representatives understood the need for a fullscale records project, and the wheels were set in motion. History appeared among the initial objectives of what became identified as the Central Do­ simetry Records Project. ERDA requested REECo to submit a proposal, and I helped make sure that the 14 June 1977 submission included the following item: Accumulate data from operational reports, SOPs, and interviews with personnel who were present during past test operations to document the history of nuclear testing dosimetry programs in a permanent historical report. Hire full-time oral historian, with assistance and training from health physicist, supervisor, and others.

That effectively ended the much-delayed fact book, though it long lingered in memory. ERDA became the Department of Energy (DOE) in October 1977, and funding for the Central Dosimetry Records Project arrived a few weeks later. The search for a historian then began in earnest and made rapid progress. Billie P. Smith, who directed our department’s laboratory and oversaw the dosimetry section, took charge of the job search, placing notices in likely journals and interviewing candidates at the year-end meeting of the American Historical Association. We invited three finalists individually to Las Vegas, where I interviewed them and told them about the project, which I took the liberty of expanding to include nearly all phases of radiation safety in nuclear weapons testing, not dosimetry alone. My choice was Bart Hacker, a choice I never regretted, although I suspect he has, on occasion. Officially, he became a REECo employee on 20 March 1978 as radiation dosimetry historian in the Central Dosimetry Records Project (later the Dosimetry Records Centralization Project; finally in 1979, the Dosimetry Research Project [DRP] in conjunction with the newly created Fallout Records Centralization Project). The project’s name changes reflected, in part, continuing, probably inevitable, intracompany politics, which also produced several changes of manager and some confusion about who Bart re­ ported to. The important point, though, is that through all these changes and be­ yond, Bart remained responsible for only one thing, researching and writing a history of radiation safety. Just what that entailed was not self-evident at the outset, and an early pri­ ority became defining his mission more appropriately. First conceived as writing a fact book on personnel dosimetry in nuclear testing, that mission expanded in his interview to writing a history of dosimetry related to radio­

About This Book

xix

logical safety in nuclear testing. There was more to come. Bart drafted, with my help, his Statement of Mission, Procedures, and Goal, which called for “a complete and fully documented account of personnel dosimetry and radiation safety in the United States nuclear testing program from its beginnings during World War II to the present.” REECo submitted the final three-page statement on 27 September 1978 to DOE/NV (Bruce Church). Thirty days later, no ob­ jections having been made, the statement went into force. For all practical purposes, the transformation of fact book into history was complete, though further details remained to be resolved. Bart started working from cramped quarters—a desk and file cabinet jammed into a janitor’s closet being used as a laboratory balance room—in the Health and Safety Building at NTS, learning about radiological safety functions and nomenclature while he waited the many months that even a routine security clearance required. When his DOE “Q” security clearance was granted, Bart could research classified documents and discuss classified information during interviews in secure areas. Convenient as it was, access to classified information served mainly to show that those without clearances were missing little of significance to the history of radiation safety. Conve­ nience came at a price, though that became clear only later when the manu­ script was subject to endless reviews ostensibly to assure that it included no security classified information; this process became all the more irksome when information declassified by one government agency might still be considered classified by another. While serving as DRP technical director (and, temporarily, project man­ ager), I also functioned as Bart’s health physics coach. He and I discussed each chapter, with factual accuracy and narrative clarity as the prime goals. After he decided what needed changing and revised the manuscript accord­ ingly, REECo forwarded the comment draft to DOE/NV. Specific readers there were never formally identified, but a few comments eventually trickled back through REECo to Bart. Despite comments more often critical than con­ structive, Bart retained the final say in revising the text. The next step was sending the revised text to a number of Bart’s colleagues and others—the socalled peer reviewers—for additional comments, the value of which was in some instances substantial. Finally, a panel of experts created by REECo with DOE/NV blessing reviewed the manuscript to decide whether or not it ought to be published. The panel’s endorsement, with support from the DOE histo­ rian, unblocked the road to publishing The Dragon's Tail, a history of radia­ tion safety in the Manhattan Project, bumpy though that road still remained. Elements of Controversy has proved even harder to steer through the bu­ reaucracy. Unlike The Dragon's Tail, this book centers on an agency still fresh in memory. The long-defunct Manhattan Project was merely an ad hoc wartime effort with no true offspring, but the much more recent Department of Energy is acknowledged the Atomic Energy Commission’s direct heir, and

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About This Book

loyalty to the AEC still bums fiercely in many breasts. Indeed, this fact of life in part explains why we divided the manuscript in two: the relatively noncontroversial Manhattan Project story might slip through to set precedents for what we knew would be a much more vigorously contested account of radia­ tion safety under the AEC. Some in DOE were not thrilled when Bart tried “telling it like it was.” Even The Dragon's Tail drew fire, but by and large our hopes proved well founded. Critics reserved their most ardent attacks for the AEC story. They construed any hint of less than perfect performance by past individuals or organizations as painting the government in a bad light, and even the mild­ est conclusion drew charges of “editorializing.” Government and peer re­ viewers alike have been notably more vocal this time around, some even urg­ ing altered quotations. Seemingly endless reviews and repeated requests for changes imposed frustrating delays, even after the review panel of experts completed its careful study of the manuscript and endorsed publication. Bart has met and overcome challenges and problems far beyond any he, or any of us, could have anticipated initially. What began as a dosimetry fact book became a history of radiological safety in nuclear weapons testing, and one volume became two, as public concern and radiation injury litigation mounted. Bart left Las Vegas early in 1986 to rejoin his wife, Sally Hacker, professor of sociology at Oregon State University in Corvallis. First as a REECo consultant, then under contract to REECo for the book, he continued working. Since early 1989, that has mostly meant responding to endless re­ views and rereviews of his manuscript, some inspired by genuine profes­ sional concerns but most imposed by current and former government officials vaguely troubled by what they perceived as an excess of candor. Throughout this process Bart has studied each comment, weighed its mer­ its, balanced it against sometimes conflicting claims, and decided whether or not it justified changing the text. Objectivity may be more dream than reality, but scholarship and the careful weighing of evidence certainly lie within the realm of practice, and Bart has pursued both without compromise. The victor is truth. His book seeks to inform the public about radiological safety efforts during nuclear weapons testing, not to cover up some nonexistent conspiracy or to point the finger at some phantom miscreant. Instead, it is the story of thousands upon thousands of conscientious men and women who tried to do the best job they could at radiological safety, even if they sometimes failed. The public will never know how much Bart endured through fifteen years to write The Dragon's Tail and Elements of Controversy. Most important for the reader to understand is that he did a very good job. William J. Brady Principal Health Physicist, retired Reynolds Electrical and Engineering Company, Inc.

Preface

Elements of Controversy represents the culmination of fifteen years* work. When my study began early in 1978, the published history of radiation pro­ tection in nuclear weapons testing amounted to scattered paragraphs. This im­ posed the burden of building an account on the smallest pieces—memos, let­ ters, studies, reports, and other contemporary documents, supplemented by interviews where feasible and appropriate. Little in the way of scaffolding for the structure existed; with few exceptions, no one seems likely to have seen the documents from their first filing until their transfer to the archives. But lack of a ready framework also presented an opportunity, a chance to ap­ proach the everyday stuff of administration and action with a relatively open mind. I could scarcely avoid knowing something about the outcome of events, of course, but neither did any special knowledge of the nuclear weapons test­ ing program constrain me. Relying instead for context on my years of studying modem American history, the history of science and technology, and military history, I resolved to read the documents in as nearly chronological order as possible and to write the book the same way. Perhaps the hindsight that too often mars the history of controversial events could thus more easily be avoided, or at least blurred. Without pretending complete blindness to the future, I could still focus on contemporary perspectives. And so I did. That secondary accounts did not yet exist made the choice easier, but as they began to appear, I set them aside while drafting my own version. Always my first goal remained getting the story straight. Consistently seeking to keep my analysis and criti­ cism restricted to what a knowledgeable observer might have attained at the xxi

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time, I hoped to provide a sounder basis for understanding than formerly existed. This is a point worth emphasizing. Reflective historians today can seldom sustain the faith in objectivity that once characterized the American historical profession, certainly not after reading Peter Novick’s critique, That Noble Dream} Yet the Rankean ideal of writing history that reveals the past “wie es eigentlich gewesen war,” how it actually (or essentially) was, from which that faith however mistakenly derived, retains its appeal.2 What happened is the first question the historian must answer, if not definitively, at least to the greatest extent possible. If I have succeeded in getting the story straight, in elucidating the institutional frameworks that constrained or promoted actions, in recapturing some sense of how those involved perceived the issues they faced, I will have achieved my major goal. As these remarks should make clear, a pretense of objectivity does not explain the dispassionate, even aseptic, tone of this book. Nor does my selfrestraint with respect to comment on my findings mean that I have no views on the subject. Quite the contrary, as the careful reader may discern. For the most part, however, my views remain in the background, though they in­ evitably inform my research and writing. In an area of great controversy, where passions run high and have often led to extreme judgments on both sides, the cause of understanding seems to me better served by enabling read­ ers to draw their own conclusions. Straightforward, clear, and thoroughly documented prose seems to me the likeliest path to that goal. Only in lengthy epilogues to each book have I allowed myself to comment on the past from a present-day viewpoint. Originally, the goal was a single manuscript covering the entire history from World War II through the present. Its tentative title was Elements of Controversy: A History o f Radiation Safety in the Nuclear Weapons Testing Program. Midway through the project, for reasons both scholarly and practi­ cal, I divided the manuscript in two. Suitably revised and augmented, the first third of the manuscript yielded The Dragon's Tail, a history of radiation safety in World War II nuclear weapons testing.3 The remaining ten chapters then became the basis for a history of radiation safety in nuclear weapons testing under AEC auspices, the present volume. These books are, in a sense, official history, but they also are value-neutral history in the original Weberian sense. They reflect no values or purposes im­ posed by outside authority, though they must, of course, as I freely admit, re­ flect my own.4 I was hired in 1978 as a professional historian explicitly to write the history of radiation safety in nuclear weapons testing. Both books were funded by the Nevada Operations Office (now the Nevada Field Office) of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE/NV), although the money did not come to me directly. Instead, DOE/NV accepted a proposal from its contrac­ tor, Reynolds Electrical and Engineering Co., Inc., commonly referred to as

Preface

xxiii

REECo, to add history to its newly created Dosimetry Research Project. REECo hired me with the title of Dosimetry Research Historian. Despite my status as a company employee, my autonomy with respect to writing history remained fully intact throughout my tenure in Las Vegas, and writing history was my only assignment. I retained control of the .plan of the work, and final decisions about the text belonged to me. In fact, only strong assurances beforehand, from both DOE/NV and REECo, of support for my independence as a scholar induced me to accept the position; preparing a formal statement of this commitment became my first major task after coming to Las Vegas. Nonetheless, the road to this book proved bumpy, for it passed through contested terrain. Defending the agree­ ment that DOE/NV, REECo, and I had concluded cost time and energy, though it was never explicitly challenged. Some current and former test offi­ cials seemed to fear the consequences of admitting any past error or accident, however minor. Several would even now prefer something much more like the originally proposed data book prepared in house, all “facts” and no “edi­ torializing.” Throughout this struggle, REECo staunchly supported my inde­ pendence and shielded me from the kind of bureaucratic infighting that might otherwise have distracted me from the task at hand. Most critical readers, too, recognized the value of a thorough historical account and supported my ef­ forts to retain the integrity of the text. In a few instances I have altered word­ ing in accordance with the sensibilities of one or another reader, though cnly when I believed such changes did not violate my reading of the sources. Substantive revisions without exception reflected new evidence, not divergent viewpoints. This account adheres closely to the documentary record, supplemented by more recent scholarship and, in a few instances, by interviews with certain participants. Interviews are a mixed blessing. Conversations with people who were there surely is one of the compensations of coping with recent history. However much they may help us recapture the spirit of the times, though, they must be used with caution. When even vivid memories of seemingly in­ nocuous events long past may play us false, as Stephen Jay Gould reminds us, how much trust can we place in memories of events emotionally charged and highly controversial?5 Documentary sources thus provide the bedrock for my narrative. My sources are cited as fully as possible, even though, as in this book based so heavily on innumerable individual documents, that means a daunting multiplication of source notes. This important point deserves amplification. Citation in full derives from the normal canons of scholarly writing, of course, but it may serve other ends as well. One such purpose I had not at first fully appreciated: substantial source notes helped armor me against charges of editorializing. They may also argue for the representativeness of what might otherwise be dismissed as idiosyncratic opinion, as well as the

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converse, identifying those views not widely held. Perhaps my most impor­ tant reason for complete citation, though, was showing those who might have a personal or intellectual stake in the issues discussed how much is publicly accessible. Although I received a security clearance that allowed me to con­ sult still-classified documents, they proved few and largely irrelevant to my story. I had no trouble writing this book entirely from declassified and open sources, all of them available to anyone who asks. Providing public access to such documents is, after all, the central purpose of the Las Vegas Coordi­ nation and Information Center (CIC), with which I worked closely (the origin and purpose of the CIC is discussed in the epilogue). This account of radiation safety in nuclear weapons testing closes with the Atomic Energy Commission’s demise at the beginning of 1975. Strictly speaking, therefore, the current controversy over health effects of low-level radiation exposure (discussed more fully in the epilogue) lies outside the scope of my study, as indeed does the most recent controversy over human experi­ ments. Insofar as this book concerns human exposure to radiation, it ad­ dresses accidental exposure to fallout or other phenomena attendant upon nuclear weapons testing, not human experiments of the kind Secretary of Energy Hazel O’Leary publicized in late 1993. Although test accidents might sometimes teach valuable lessons about radiation effects on humans, as this account will show, the data were essentially by-products of research intended for other purposes. Such inadvertent side effects from field operations should not be confused with experiments on human subjects in clinical and labora­ tory settings designed to observe the effects of plutonium and other radioac­ tive elements deliberately injected or ingested.6 In another sense, of course, my work stands squarely in the middle of such controversies, if for no other reason than its origin in the rising public con­ cerns of the late 1970s and their continuing relevance. Suffice it to say at this point that the book focuses on the chief facts at issue in weapons testing: How did nuclear weapons testing affect health and safety during the third quarter of the twentieth century? Answering that question, as I have suggested above, always remained my primary goal in writing both The Dragon's Tail and Elements o f Controversy. Understanding the past must, I am convinced, rely on as clear as possible an account of what happened, free of official in­ terpretation as well as passionate accusation. It is to this basic need that I ad­ dress my study of the history of radiation safety.

Introduction Testing and Radiological Safety

The Manhattan Project Legacy Radiological safety emerged as a peculiarly twentieth-century issue, dating from the discovery of X rays and radioactivity in the late 1890s. Initially, only a few doctors and technicians risked harm from prolonged or intense contact with X-ray machines or radium. Working together they devised radio­ logical safety codes to protect themselves and, in due course, others whose work might put them at risk. These self-imposed standards defined what in­ formed medical judgment accepted as safe levels of exposure to external X rays and gamma rays or to radioactive substances that somehow entered the body. By and large, they worked, though much remained unknown or un­ clear when World War II began and the United States embarked on the Man­ hattan Project,1the bold attempt to make atomic bombs. Notwithstanding novel demands for handling huge amounts of unfamiliar substances by a vastly ex­ panded workforce during World War II, wartime safety programs largely fol­ lowed prewar standards. From 1928 onward, standards setters had expressed acceptable limits for external radiation in roentgens. Technically defined in terms of radiationcaused ionization of air, the roentgen, strictly speaking, measured exposure, not dose. Specifying dose required another unit that took into account both energy absorbed in tissue and the relative biological effect of the kind of radi­ ation. Though one such unit, the rem, was devised during the war, many prac­ titioners persisted in using roentgens to express exposure or dose indifferently for another decade or more. By the late 1950s, however, the rem had become the standard unit of dose, while still another unit, the rad, was coming into 1

2

Introduction

Table 1 Probable Early Effects of Acute Radiation Doses Over Whole Body Acute Dose

Probable Effect

0-25 r[oentgens] 25-50 r 50-100 r 100-200 r 200-400 r 400 r 600 r

No obvious injury Possible blood changes but no serious injury Blood cell changes, some injury, no disability Injury, possible disability Injury and disability certain, death possible Fatal to 50 percent Fatal

Source: Samuel Glasstone, ed., The Effects o f Atomic Weapons (Los Alamos: Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, Sept. 1950): 342, table 11.28.

use to express energy absorbed. Because the conversion factor was close to unity in many common applications, shifting from one unit to another did not greatly alter the numbers, which may account for the sometimes casual usage of the several units. Doses from internally deposited radionuclides are like­ wise measured in rems or rads, with quantity of material deposited—that is, amount of radioactive substance—measured either in micrograms or, more commonly, in curies, a unit based on the fixed rate of radioactive decay.2 The meaning of these units is perhaps best explained in terms of the bio­ logical effects of radiation, since few readers will share any intuitive under­ standing of their physical meaning. According to an authoritative 1950 man­ ual, acute whole-body exposures of up to 50 roentgens produced little more than blood changes, while serious injury and any likelihood of disability took more than 100. The acute effects of radiation exposure are summarized in table 1, first published in 1950. Essentially similar tables, with r standing for rads instead of roentgens, can be found in the latest textbooks.3 The view that biological thresholds for radiation damage exist—that is, that below some dose cells and tissues can repair themselves—largely pre­ vailed during the first half-century of radiation protection and finds many supporters today. Experiment cannot easily resolve the issue. Meaningful data on the rare and often minor damage inflicted by very low doses or dose rates could come only from huge numbers of animals studied over long periods of time. Possible in theory, such studies simply exceed the limits of any realistic research program, especially because animal findings will not necessarily apply to humans: even closely related species may show markedly different effects. Practically, this seeming impasse poses no insuperable problem. Ra­ diation safety has never relied on final answers. Pragmatic safeguards coun­ tered the everyday hazards long before science could explain either hazard or safeguard. Threshold thinking shaped early safety codes. “Tolerance” expressed the basic idea: living things could survive without patent ill effect some defined

Introduction

3

level of radiation for an indefinitely long time. Inhabitants of Denver, after all, seem as healthy as New Yorkers, although Denver’s altitude means they receive double the background radiation of dwellers at sea level. “Permissible exposure” first emerged as an alternative concept in the mid-1930s, though it gained wide currency only in the early 1950s. The newer term added socialpolitical views about what might be allowed to medical-biological judgments about what might be harmless. Its adoption would, in effect, shift the thrust of radiation protection from seeking biological thresholds to weighing risks and benefits. Although the bulk of evidence in fact argued threshold, guide­ line writers assumed the philosophical stance that any exposure was risky. Whatever they believed about physical realities, many experts came to prefer erring on the side of caution, acting as if any exposure could be harmful. This attitude strongly colored radiation safety practices when the Univer­ sity of Chicago began its work on the plutonium project in 1942. Alert to the risks, the university’s Metallurgical Laboratory created a strong health divi­ sion, imposed strict safety standards, and launched a research program on bi­ ological effects of radiation. Chicago safety practice and research became a model for the entire Manhattan Project, but safety was never the top priority. Winning the war took precedence, especially in view of the circumstances. Early in the war, fear of a Nazi bomb made almost any risk seem worth tak­ ing. Later, field-testing a fission bomb overshadowed safety issues. Although Gen. Leslie R. Groves and his army team in charge of the bomb project rarely ignored safety, they seldom made it their first concern. Neither did civilian members of the project. Getting the job done mattered more, especially for the bomb makers at Los Alamos, the hidden laboratory on a mesa in New Mexico. Led by J. Robert Oppenheimer and a constellation of past and future Nobel Prize winners, they scheduled the first test of a full-size bomb for early summer 1945 at a desert site near Alamogordo in southern New Mexico. Both test and site were code named Trinity. Danger clearly attended what loomed as by far the most violent explosion humankind had ever achieved with a single weapon. Radioactivity might become an even worse problem if plutonium dust or fission products threatened lives and health miles down­ wind. Yet risks at first seemed minor. Relatively well informed and con­ trolled, test workers would, in any event, find little reason to ignore rules in­ tended to assure their own well-being. Secrecy, however, denied the public any knowledge of the test or of safety measures. Still, the only likely threat seemed bad weather or winds blowing fallout the wrong way. Planners coun­ tered that danger with a schedule based on trustworthy forecasts of perfect weather and winds. But proving the bomb and keeping it secret, not safety, dictated Trinity planning. Politics impinged on test timing, and the test pro­ ceeded even when fears about radioactive fallout increased. Bad weather on the eve of Trinity, in fact, delayed firing only briefly. At 5:30 in the morning of 16 July 1945, the radiance of the first atomic bomb

4

Introduction

outshone the dawn. It proved everything its makers hoped, and more. Physi­ cists relaxed, but the health and safety team faced a grueling, sometimes alarming, day. Detonated atop a 100-foot tower and sucking huge amounts of earth and other debris into the rising fireball, Trinity produced enough fallout to worry those in charge. Radiation monitors took disquietingly high instru­ ment readings at several points outside test site borders. Eventually they con­ vinced themselves that safe limits had not been exceeded and that no one suf­ fered lasting harm. Superficially burned livestock appeared the only victims. Like other aspects of Trinity, safety met the needs of a wartime program. Operation Crossroads, though mounted a year later, also looked much like a wartime program. In contrast to Trinity, however, it was a widely observed and reported event. A joint army-navy task force conducted Crossroads at Bikini atoll in the Central Pacific, 4,500 miles from American shores. Joint Task Force 1 deployed 42,000 men and women (the Trinity team never topped 700, including shot-day observers) plus 242 ships and 156 aircraft. Radiological safety—promptly reduced to some variant of “rad-safe” in com­ mon usage—in so huge an effort so far from home posed big problems. Such problems had more to do with finding enough instruments and men for the rad-safe section than with safety principles. Crossroads adhered to Manhattan Project radiation safety standards and practices. In July 1946, two atomic bombs, the same kind used the year before in Trinity and at Nagasaki, exploded at Bikini. A B-29 dropped one to burst hundreds of feet above the target fleet. Suspended from a landing ship used as a floating platform, the second erupted beneath the surface of Bikini lagoon. Test Able held no surprises, but Baker shocked even the experts. As thou­ sands upon thousands of tons of water collapsed back into the lagoon, a surg­ ing wall of radioactive mist blanketed the target fleet. Dismayed salvage teams could scarcely approach most target vessels for days, and some ships remained off limits much longer. Eventually a few target ships sailed from Bikini under their own power, but most had to be towed when the task force abandoned Bikini for nearby Kwajalein. Three-fourths of the target fleet never left the Marshall Islands at all, either sunk in the tests or destroyed afterward as unsalvageable. Only twenty-two of the original ninety-three target vessels again dropped anchor in West Coast ports, where they underwent further de­ contamination and intense study. Worse than aborted salvage plans, spreading contamination after Baker threatened the task force’s own ships and crews. Accumulating radioactivity from seawater cycling through ship systems created one hazard, radioactivity concentrated by marine life on ships’ hulls another. Vigorously striving to protect work crews and other task force members, the rad-safe team achieved only limited success. In the midst of this effort, signs of widespread contami­ nation from unfissioned plutonium proved the last straw. Decontamination work ceased at the strong urging of the rad-safe section, and the task force

Introduction

5

Map 1. The Central Pacific. Reprinted from Kaman Tempo, Operation Crossroads— 1946, by L. H. Berkhouse et a l, Report DNA 6032F (Santa Barbara, 1 May 1984): 20.

withdrew from Bikini in some haste. Eventually the navy launched a special program for clearing as safe every ship aside from targets that spent any time in Bikini lagoon after Baker. Joint Task Force 1 reported no apparent harm to any of its members, but many safety experts saw too close a call for comfort. The advent of controlled nuclear fission and then atomic bombs during World War II transformed the nature and scope of radiation hazards. Nuclear energy exploited for war required huge new plants of novel design and un­ precedented kinds of field-testing. These activities not only put more workers at risk than any prewar program but might also threaten large numbers of people who happened to be in the neighborhood. Prewar safety standards and practices nonetheless met most wartime needs. Radiological safety in the Manhattan Project remained firmly based on methods proved through nearly five decades of trial and error. Developing nuclear reactors and bombs might mandate new safety measures ranging from routine use of film badges to founding health physics (as the profession concerned with radiation protec­ tion came to be styled), but such changes, for the most part, simply aug­ mented well-tried techniques. Greater changes marked the postwar world. Radiological safety faced new demands, political as well as technical. Trinity and Crossroads not only de­ fined the future shape of radiation safety for nuclear weapons testing but

6

Introduction

foreshadowed many of the issues such testing raised. An earlier book, The Dragon's Tail, on which the summary above rests, described in detail the nature and results of radiological safety in the wartime test program. This volume undertakes to extend the story with an account of what happened to radiological safety when the United States decided to continue testing nuclear weapons in peacetime.

The Third Wave Since the United States began testing nuclear weapons in 1945, public fears of radiation have generated three waves of public protest.4 The first cen­ tered on fallout, especially radiostrontium, and played a major role in the nu­ clear test ban debate. Criticism arose and flourished in many public forums; growing doubts about the wisdom of atmospheric nuclear weapons testing among President Dwight D. Eisenhower and a number of his key advisers by 1956, though decisive in the long run, remained almost entirely unknown out­ side government circles. The public outcry peaked in the mid-1950s, faded with the test moratorium of 1958, and vanished when testing went under­ ground after the 1963 limited test ban treaty.5 The less well known second wave built on a larger measure of internal dis­ sent. Most intense during the late 1960s, it paralleled the more visible debate on potential hazards of nuclear reactors. Like the latter, it addressed hazards from low-level radiation, but its focus on past fallout exposures stemmed from a new concern for the threat radioiodine might have posed.6 By the early 1970s, however, mainstream scientific opinion agreed that very low doses carried proportionately small risks and that direct attempts to study their effects on human health held little promise. Influential 1972 statements by the American National Academy of Sciences-National Research Council’s Advisory Committee on the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation and by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radi­ ation, the first of the so-called BEIR and UNSCEAR reports, endorsed these views. They judged that investigating effects so small and so ambiguous was not only inordinately difficult but also unlikely to yield significant health benefits.7 Thus the radiation-safety slate looked clean at the beginning of 1975, when the Atomic Energy Commission split into two new agencies: the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the Energy Research and De­ velopment Administration. The regulatory commission survived, but ERDA lasted only until 1977 before becoming part of the still newer Department of Energy.8 Like the AEC it was created to oversee, the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy also perished in 1977.9 As the AEC’s successors soon learned, the issue of low-dose effects had merely quieted, not died. The apparently

Introduction

7

settled conclusions of 1972 looked much less secure a few years later. As 1978 opened, the trade newsletter Nucleonics Week noted that “a major con­ troversy is brewing up over low-level radiation and its effects on population, long after many . . . thought it had been laid to rest. The issue was a principal one . . . in the late 1960s and early ’70s.”10 This third wave of protest, still with us, provides the context for this book. What happened? For one thing, not everyone agreed with the 1972 BEIR and UNSCEAR reports. During the 1960s and early 1970s, several scientists, some connected with the AEC, had challenged prevailing views about the relative harmless­ ness of exposure to low-level radiation, and they never joined the 1972 con­ sensus. Despite obvious flaws in data and analyses, their critiques did not merely annoy the AEC or, as opponents charged, needlessly distress the pub­ lic. In an evenhanded effort to assess the issues and comment on the literature for the American Journal o f Physics in 1972, R. H. Romer observed that the dissidents also had raised the issue of low-level radiation effects to salience in the research community.11 Although in due course their findings and theories entered the public debate as well, they did not trigger the revived contro­ versy.12 That arose from almost mundane events outside the research commu­ nity entirely. The issue, in fact, had less to do with current research than with events long past. The latest round of controversy began in late 1975 with a patient at the Veterans Administration hospital in Salt Lake City, retired army sergeant Paul Cooper. He suffered from acute myelocytic leukemia. On active duty eigh­ teen years earlier, Cooper was assigned to Task Force Big Bang, a provisional company of the 82d Airborne Division, for a training exercise in Nevada dur­ ing Operation Plumbbob. All tests in the 1957 series provided settings for military maneuvers or training under the overall designation of Exercise Desert Rock VII and VIII. Cooper’s unit was to witness a nuclear explosion, the test code named Smoky, then run an obstacle course to provide psycho­ logical data on how the experience might affect combat performance. The unit arrived at Camp Desert Rock, the military post just south of the AEC’s Nevada Test Site, in mid-August and stayed until early September. When Smoky was postponed, the task force still watched it, but threatened contami­ nation kept the men from the exercise area. They later witnessed the Galileo shot, then completed the course, though Cooper recalled his experience in running the course as part of Smoky.13 Cooper’s case intrigued staff physician Thomas Cosgriff, formerly an epidemiologist at the federal Center (later Centers) for Disease Control in Atlanta. Because leukemia was a well-known sequel to radiation exposure, Cosgriff wondered about a link. Might troops have received higher doses than believed? Alternatively, could doses assumed to be harmlessly low actually have caused cancer? He contacted his former colleague at the Atlanta center, cancer branch chief Glyn G. Caldwell. Meanwhile; Cooper went public after

8

Introduction

the Veterans Administration for the third time denied his claim for serviceconnected disability. Television and newspapers carried the story in spring 1977, as what began with questions about one man’s disease burgeoned into a national debate.14 By summer the Center for Disease Control had authorized Caldwell to launch a detailed Smoky study, while the Department of Defense and ERDA discussed how to collect the required data.15 Despite such efforts under way, nothing suggested any urgency. Con­ gressional hearings in January and February 1978 changed that decisively. Publicity about Paul Cooper had prompted thousands of calls and letters to the Center for Disease Control. One came from another leukemia patient and former sergeant who had been at Camp Desert Rock at the same time as Cooper, Donald Coe of Tompkinsville, Kentucky. Coincidentally, Tompkinsville also was the hometown of onetime country doctor and then Republican congressman Tim Lee Carter.16 Having lost his own son to the disease, Carter voiced outrage that official action might have increased leukemia risks for thousands of young soldiers: “I am mad as hell about the way the government has treated veterans who were exposed to nuclear radiation. Congress should investigate, and I am going to do my best to see that it is done.”17 As ranking minority member of the House Subcommittee on Health and the Environ­ ment, Carter’s best was better than most. The subcommittee chaired by Paul G. Rogers, Democrat of Florida, took extensive testimony on the health effects of low-level radiation.18 It set the pattern for subsequent House and Senate probes. During 1978 and 1979, con­ gressional hearing rooms echoed with merciless questions and repeated chal­ lenges to Energy Department claims.19 Only after 1978 did members of Congress for the first time seem fully to grasp that aboveground tests over­ exposed many hundreds of test workers and soldiers. Technically, of course, as official spokesmen sought time and again to explain, that simply meant exposures in excess (slightly, as a rule) of then-current guidelines, which in any event included what were widely believed to be large safety margins. Overexposure in itself, however undesirable, should thus not necessarily in­ deed not usually, be deemed harmful. Yet valid as such niceties might be in principle, they seemed almost irrelevant before a leukemia-stricken veteran testifying from his wheelchair.20 In a real sense, the purpose of this book is to account for that 1978 con­ frontation by tracing the events from which it ensued. What exactly happened during the AEC’s nuclear weapons testing program, particularly during the fifteen years from 1948 to 1963 when almost all tests took place above ground and many included military maneuvers? Did the Atomic Energy Commission and its contractors neglect proper safety precautions? Were the scientists, physicians, and technicians responsible for radiation safety compe­ tent? Did they, or anyone, know enough about fallout hazards from nuclear explosions to take proper precautions? Did they make mistakes? Were test

Introduction

9

participants or innocent bystanders deliberately exposed to radiation? Such questions—and many like them—have proliferated since the late 1970s. Per­ suasive answers must depend on going back to the sources and reconstructing as fully, carefully, and dispassionately as possible just what did happen. The thesis this book argues is itself straightforward and relatively simple. Those responsible for radiation safety in nuclear weapons testing under the auspices of the Atomic Energy Commission were competent, diligent, and cautious. They understood the hazards and took every precaution within their power to avoid injuring either test participants or bystanders. Testing, of course, meant taking risks, and safety could never be the highest priority. Those in charge sometimes made mistakes, but for the most part they man­ aged to ensure that neither test participants ‘nor bystanders suffered any ap­ parent damage from fallout. Describing how they did so, in terms as neutral as possible and as fully as the sources will allow, defines this book’s ultimate purpose.

1 Operation Sandstone The AEC Test Program Begins 1947-1948

The Formation of Joint Task Force 7 By early 1947, bomb designers at Los Alamos had reached an impasse. Theoretical advances since the 1945 Trinity test in New Mexico and Op­ eration Crossroads in 1946 suggested ways to use scarce resources more effi­ ciently. Laboratory tests alone, however, would not allow them to choose be­ tween alternative bomb designs. Improving weapons required more data, which could come only from full-scale tests. Accordingly, Los Alamos pro­ posed a proof-testing program to the Atomic Energy Commission. The AEC’s General Advisory Committee agreed with Los Alamos and early in April 1947 strongly urged the commission to sponsor new tests. The program would both validate the theory behind three new bomb designs and prove the bombs themselves; successful tests would spread current sources of fissile metals over a larger stockpile of weapons. These tests, in contrast to Oper­ ation Crossroads, would focus on how the bombs performed, not on their ef­ fects. They would also remain far more fully shielded from the public eye.1In the months since Crossroads, much had changed. The Atomic Energy Commission itself was new on the scene. Established by the Atomic Energy Act o f 1946 after a bruising political struggle, the new civilian agency began its formal career on 1 January 1947. The central issue had been civilian control of the atom. Although intended to sponsor peaceful uses of atomic energy, the AEC also controlled bomb design, development, and production. It took over from the Manhattan Engineer District most of the wartime program and its facilities: a complex of plants, laboratories* and offices that spread across thirteen states and employed over 44,000 women 10

Operation Sandstone

11

and men. Seven-eighths of that work force drew paychecks from private companies or universities under government contract, rather than from the government itself. This pattern persisted under the AEC. Los Alamos re­ mained a project of the University of California and survived as the AEC’s weapons laboratory. That outcome, however, hung in the balance for many months.2 To leaders facing an uncertain postwar world with fading prospects for in­ ternational control of atomic energy, a strong weapons program appeared ur­ gent.3 Logically, Los Alamos seemed the place for such a program, but it had fallen on hard times. Most of its brightest stars departed when the war ended, among them the laboratory’s now-famous wartime leader, J. Robert Oppenheimer. Norris E. Bradbury, who replaced him as director, was highly re­ garded but relatively young and inexperienced. Physical hardships at the re­ mote site, a wartime fact of life, not only worsened but became intolerable in peacetime. Uncertain prospects compounded these problems. Morale plum­ meted, and research foundered. Although Operation Crossroads in summer 1946 lifted spirits briefly, it also diverted resources from weapons develop­ ment. Technically, the 1946 bombs marked no advance over Trinity or Na­ gasaki. The General Advisory Committee knew all this. Chaired by Oppenheimer with members drawn from the highest levels of the wartime program, the committee’s advice played a key role in forming AEC policy. Among the first topics it addressed were the future of Los Alamos and the weapons de­ velopment program.4 The proposed Los Alamos test program closely matched the advisory committee’s own views. In an April 1947 meeting, it readily concurred in Los Alamos plans, even to details of what needed testing and how.5 Authority to conduct the tests, however, rested elsewhere. AEC Chairman David E. Lilienthal must now win administration support. Before the war Lilienthal had become a prominent figure in the New Deal as head of the controversial Tennessee Valley Authority; controversy had surfaced again when Congress considered his nomination to the AEC. Ultimately, President Harry S. Tru­ man would decide if proposal became policy, and Lilienthal could count on support from the man who had nominated and backed him for the chairman­ ship. But the AEC must also convince the departments of State, War, and Navy: renewed bomb testing might threaten the nation’s foreign relations, because tests would once again require a Pacific site; that also meant a task force, making armed forces support vital as well. On 25 April 1947, Lilienthal addressed a formal request to the Military Liaison Committee for help.6 Military concerns in AEC affairs raised questions from the outset, and they cut both ways. Nonmilitary control of weapons development and pro­ duction might leave the armed forces without a proper voice in matters of vital import. At the same time, the AEC’s control of nuclear weapons seemed

12

Operation Sandstone

inherently precarious, given the force of military demands. Just these issues, in fact, had provoked much of the conflict that surrounded the Atomic Energy Act of 1946. To meet such concerns, the 1946 act required the AEC to estab­ lish the Division of Military Application, its head by law a general or flag of­ ficer. The act also created the Military Liaison Committee (MLC) to ensure the military voice a hearing. Representatives of the War and Navy depart­ ments (later of the Office of the Secretary of Defense and of the departments of the Army, Navy, and Air Force) formed the committee, with which “the Commission shall advise and consult. . . on all atomic energy matters which the [MLC] deems to relate to military applications.” The liaison committee became as well the AEC’s contact with the armed forces on the policymaking level. Commission and committee were to keep each other fully informed about the relevant activities of their agencies.7 As senior military member, Air Force Lt. Gen. Lewis H. Brereton became chairman. The air force also provided the AEC’s first director of military ap­ plication, newly promoted Brig. Gen. James McCormack. Military liaison re­ mained more promise than fact during the AEC’s hectic early months. When Lilienthal requested its help, the committee had yet to hold its first formal meeting with the AEC. That came on 30 April. Reasoning that almost every aspect of their program had some bearing on military concerns, AEC officials discussed the full range of activities. The proposed Pacific tests nonetheless furnished a central theme. Preparations needed at least nine months, and the matter was urgent: decisions about the nation’s nuclear stockpile, a total of but thirteen weapons in 1947, depended on test results. The Military Liaison Committee agreed, and Brereton promised to pass the AEC’s request for mili­ tary support to the Joint Chiefs. Weeks passed, though, with no sign of action. Attempting to enlist State Department support, Lilienthal likewise found a friendly hearing but no movement. Finally, on 27 June 1947, a White House meeting resolved the issue. The secretaries of state, war, and navy and the Joint Chiefs of Staff all attended, as did AEC Chairman Lilienthal. President Truman heard the AEC case, weighed the views of cabinet officers and the Joint Chiefs, then approved the test program.8 Now the pace of events quickened. Navy Capt. James S. Russell, McCor­ mack’s deputy, journeyed to Los Alamos in July for a planning session. Discussions covered everything from test objectives to cleaning up afterward, but two points emerged as crucial: Los Alamos must ensure that testing truly advanced bomb development, and complete secrecy appeared out of the ques­ tion. Returning to Washington, Russell outlined plans at a joint meeting of the AEC and the Military Liaison Committee. They affirmed the central role of Los Alamos in directing technological aspects of testing and agreed that some easing of security made sense. Specific information about test purposes and timing would remain secret, but President Truman approved a brief no­ tice for the AEC’s semiannual report to Congress: “The Atomic Energy Com­

Operation Sandstone

13

mission is establishing a proving ground in the Pacific for routine experi­ ments and tests of atomic weapons.” The report appeared on 23 July, the same day Los Alamos learned that the AEC had approved a three-test series for early 1948.9 Planning now focused on the details of getting and using test data. To handle the effort, Los Alamos formed the new J- (Weapons Test) Division headed by Darol K. Froman. Second in command was Alvin C. Graves, like Froman a physicist who had joined the Manhattan Project at the University of Chicago’s Metallurgical Laboratory before moving to the Los Alamos bomb project. While Froman and Graves planned tests and assigned experiments to groups within the division, the armed forces prepared to support the mission. Though strictly ancillary, the military role remained vital. Logistically, the proposed test program imposed major demands for transport, manpower, and supplies. The Joint Chiefs informed the AEC early in September that the an­ swer was again, as in Crossroads, a special joint task force. Lt. Gen. John E. Hull, former War Department operations chief and newly appointed head of army forces in the Pacific, assumed command. Its formal activation dated from 18 October 1947, when the Joint Chiefs approved the planning report and forwarded it to the AEC.10 Designated Joint Task Force 7—the number deliberately chosen to ob­ scure any link to Crossroads’ Joint Task Force 1 and thus to atomic tests— Hull’s new command mustered over 10,000 persons. Secrecy shrouded the mission, and the Joint Chiefs provided a block of code names for task force use. The proof-test program became Operation Sandstone. Responsibility for testing proper fell to Froman’s J-Division, and the AEC named him Sand­ stone scientific director. The title of test director went to James Russell. As an experienced naval officer, Russell became the natural choice to command task group 7.1, the Los Alamos science team in Joint Task Force 7. Unable to do everything itself, Los Alamos enlisted outside aid. Contingents from Argonne National Laboratory, AEC contractor Edgerton, Germeshausen and Grier, Inc., and several government agencies—the National Bureau of Stan­ dards, the Naval Research Laboratory, the navy’s David Taylor Model Basin, the army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground—each took charge of specific experi­ ments under J-Division auspices.11 The Armed Forces Special Weapons Project played a larger role. Estab­ lished early in 1947 by joint directive of the secretaries of the army and the navy, AFSWP (pronounced Af-swop) began as an ad hoc assemblage of the Manhattan Project’s military remnants when the AEC took over the bulk of the project’s functions and facilities. Ultimately, it became the overseer of nu­ clear weapons doctrine, training, and logistics for the entire military estab­ lishment. Like the Military Liaison Committee at the policy level, AFSWP provided the key contact between the AEC and the armed forces at the level of operations. Organizer and first chief of AFSWP was the wartime head of

14

Operation Sandstone

the Manhattan Project, Gen. Leslie Groves, but he was soon succeeded by his former deputy and commander of the Manhattan Engineer District, Kenneth D. Nichols. Drawing on all branches of the service to fill its ranks, AFSWP took its place as one of several combined agencies prompted into being by imminently merging armed forces. That movement climaxed in July, when President Truman signed the National Security Act o f 1947. The act created a vaguely defined entity called the National Military Establishment presided over by a secretary of defense. It made the air force an equal partner of the army and navy and imposed other far-reaching changes on the larger structure of national security.12 Meanwhile, though, newly assigned AFSWP members often lacked training and experience in atomic matters. They welcomed the chance Sandstone offered to learn more. Benefits also accrued to Los Ala­ mos. AFSWP accounted for two-fifths of Froman’s team, the largest fraction provided by any single agency, Los Alamos included.13 Establishing the Pacific Proving Ground The top secret target date for the first test became 15 April 1948. As they had for Operation Crossroads in 1946, the Marshall Islands would furnish the site. Yet it was a choice reached only after much deliberation. Initially, the State Department favored keeping tests within the United States, largely to avoid foreign criticism. For technical reasons, the AEC preferred a Pacific site. Strongly seconded by the Joint Chiefs, the AEC view prevailed. The president approved that option at the same June 1947 meeting when he agreed to the test program. That settled, the next question became where in the Pacific. Los Alamos first proposed a return to Bikini. Though Bikini re­ tained the advantages of wind, water, and isolation that made it the Cross­ roads choice, it lacked certain features required for long-term use. In particu­ lar, its islands were too small, its land surface too limited, to support the instrumentation that proof-testing demanded.-14 Other northern Marshall Islands atolls, however, shared features of geog­ raphy and climate that had fitted Bikini for the 1946 tests. Further study con­ firmed the region as the best place for a new proving ground, and the choice soon narrowed to Kwajalein or Enewetak.* Kwajalein held an early edge. ♦The name of the atoll chosen for Operation Sandstone in 1947 was at that time spelled Eniwetok. Prompted by growing concern for Marshallese sensibilities, the U.S. government in 1974 altered official spelling of Marshallese names to conform more closely to actual pronuncia­ tion by native speakers. Eniwetok, the former usage, has thus become Enewetak, with similar changes in the names of some other islands. Since most names will be unfamiliar to present-day readers anyway, this account employs the improved Marshallese-preferred spelling. Older spell­ ings will appear only in quotations or organization names, where they should cause no confusion. For a convenient tabulation of variant spellings and code names for islands in the atoll, see Kaman Tempo, Operation Sandstone: 1948, by L. H. Berkhouse et al., Report DNA 6033F (Santa Barbara, 19 Dec. 1983): Appendix C.

1