Manhattan Project - Part 6

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Ensuring safety required more, however, than simply studying how radioactive substances moved through and affected the human body. It also involved studying how these substances moved through the environment. While undetectable to the human senses, radiation in the environment is easily measurable by instruments. When General Groves chose Hanford, on the Columbia River in Washington state, as a site for the plutonium production facility, a secret research program was mounted to understand the fate of radioactive pollution in the water, the air, and wildlife.

Outdoor research was at times improvisational. Years after the fact, Stafford Warren would recall how Manhattan Project researchers had deliberately "contaminated the alfalfa field" next to the University of Rochester medical school with radiosodium, to determine the shielding requirements for radiation-measuring equipment. Warren's associate Dr. Harold Hodge recalled that a shipment of radiosodium was received by plane from Robley Evans at MIT, mixed with water in a barrel, and poured into garden sprinklers:

We walked along and sprinkled the driveway. This was after dark. . . . The next thing, we went out and sprayed a considerable part of the field. . . . It was sprayed and then after a while sprayed again, so there was a second and third application. We were all in rubber, so we didn't get wet with the stuff . . . then Staff [Warren] said that one of the things we needed was to see what would be the effect on the inside of a wooden building. So we took the end of the parking garage, and we sprinkled that up about as high as our shoulders, and somebody went inside and made measurements, and we sprinkled it again. Then we wanted to know about the inside of a brick building, and so we sprinkled the side of the animal house. . . . I had no idea what the readings were. . . I hadn't the foggiest idea of what we were doing, except that obviously it was something radioactive.

Outdoor releases would put at risk unsuspecting citizens, even communities, as well as workers. There were no clear policies and no history of practice to guide how these releases should be conducted. As we explore in chapter 11, this would be worked out by experts and officials in secret, on behalf of the workers and citizens who might be affected.

On August 6, 1945, when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the most sensitive of secrets became a symbol for the ages. A week later, the bomb was the subject of a government report that revealed to the public the uses of plutonium and uranium. Immediately, debate began over the future of atomic energy. Could it be controlled at the international level?

Should it remain entirely under control of the military? What role would industry have in developing its potential? Although American policymakers failed to establish international control of the bomb, they succeeded in creating a national agency with responsibility for the domestic control of atomic energy.

The most divisive question in the creation of the new agency that would hold sway over the atom was the role of the military. Following congressional hearings, the Atomic Energy Commission was established by the 1946 McMahon Act, to be headed by five civilian commissioners. President Truman appointed David Lilienthal, former head of the Tennessee Valley Authority, as the first chairman of the AEC, which took over responsibilities of the Manhattan Engineer District in January 1947.

Also in 1947, under the National Security Act, the armed services were put under the authority of the newly created National Military Establishment (NME), to be headed by the secretary of defense. In 1949 the National Security Act was amended, and the NME was transformed into an executive department--the Department of Defense.

The Armed Forces Special Weapons Project, which would coordinate the Defense Department's responsibilities in the area of nuclear weapons, became the military heir to the Manhattan Engineer District. The Military Liaison Committee was also established as an intermediary between the Atomic Energy Commission and the Defense Department; it was also to help set military requirements for the number and type of nuclear weapons needed by the armed services.

Even before the AEC officially assumed responsibility for the bomb from the Manhattan Project, the Interim Medical Advisory Committee, chaired by former Manhattan Project medical director Stafford Warren, began meeting to map out an ambitious postwar biomedical research program. Former Manhattan Project contractors proposed to resume the research that had been interrupted by the war and to continue wartime radiation effects studies upon human subjects.

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