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Radiological weapons and radioactive waste in the United States: insiders' and outsiders' views, 1941–55

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 January 2009

Adri De La Bruheze
School of Philosophy and Social Sciences, Department of Philosophy of Science and Technology (WMW-FWT), TW-RC Building, r.RC-301, University of Twente, PO Box 217, 7500 AE Enschede, the Netherlands.


The Manhattan Project to develop an atomic bomb, the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the post-war nuclear arms race with fission and fusion bombs have been the subject of many discussions and historical studies. In fact, these subjects, and the way in which they were generally dealt with, have led to retrospective distortion with respect to the spectrum of ‘atomic’ weapons discussed and explored during the wartime Manhattan Project and immediately after the Second World War. Specifically, it has made observers of the cold war's early nuclear arms race overlook the fact that the military use of radioactive reactor fission products in so-called radiological warfare weapons, was a very real possibility at the time, both for the US Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and the military, as well as for relative outsiders and the general public. Thus, for many observers it came as something of a surprise when the United States in 1976 introduced radiological weapons as an issue of UN arms control negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Research Article
Copyright © British Society for the History of Science 1992

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1 The issue of preventing a radiological warfare war was raised by Malta in the General Assembly of the UN in 1969. Malta distinguished two methods of radiological warfare: first, contaminating territories without using atomic weapons, but by dispersal of radioactive materials, such as, radioactive wastes from nuclear power plants; and secondly, increasing the radioactive fallout from nuclear weapon explosions. In 1970 this issue was removed from the agenda of the UN Committee on Disarmament by the Dutch, who, supported by Sweden and the Soviet Union, contended that radiological weapons did not seem to be of ‘much or even of any practical significance’, and therefore judged that ‘it is difficult to see the practical usefulness of discussing arms control measures related to radiological warfare’. However, the issue of radiological warfare was again raised by the United States in the General Assembly of the UN in 1976. The United States pointed at the possible use of radioactive materials from nuclear power plants as source material for radiological weapons, and proposed to prohibit the military use of such materials. Shortly afterwards, radiological weapons became part of the bilateral arms control negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union.

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3 Compton, A. H., Atomic Quest – A Personal Narrative, London, 1956.Google Scholar

4 In the military view the stored fission products might be used militarily. As a consequence, the military wanted to keep information about this source material as secret as possible, and successfully resisted publication of the first versions of a 1949 AEC report to inform the public about radioactive waste management. The military resisted publication, ‘because its authenticity and association with our processes, rates of production and recovery operations, would be of substantial assistance to a competitor nation’. AEC, Reporting of the Handling of Radioactive Waste Materials in the United States Atomic Energy Program, US AEC 180–1, Washington, DC, 17 10 1949, Appendix C and BGoogle Scholar. Document location: US Department of Energy (DOE) – History Division, Records of the AEC, Record Group 326, Collection ‘Secretariat (SECY) 47–51’, Materials 12 (waste processing and disposal).

5 The other recommendations were to construct a ‘pile’ for submarine and ship propulsion, and to develop a fission bomb, see Hewlett, R. G. and Anderson, O. E., A History of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, Vol. 1: The New World, 1939–1946, Washington, DC, 1972, 37–8Google Scholar; Rhodes, R., The Making of the Atomic Bomb, New York, 1986, 10.Google Scholar

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9 James B. Conant, Chairman of the study group, stressed that he believed it unlikely the fission product weapon would be used at all. Rhodes, , op. cit. (5), 512.Google Scholar

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11 Hacker, , op. cit. (7), 47Google Scholar. In April 1943 the famous physicist and Nobel laureate Enrico Fermi privately suggested to Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific head of the wartime Manhattan Project, that reactor fission products might be used to poison German food supplies. Oppenheimer reported this proposal to other highranking Manhattan Project officials such as General Groves, Arthur Conant and Edward Teller, who considered this option promising. Teller and Oppenheimer identified Sr90 as the isotope that appeared to serve this purpose best. Rhodes, , op. cit. (5), 510–11.Google Scholar

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14 Already in its 28 December 1944 report, the Tolman Committee on Postwar Policy recommended that ‘studies of the possible use of fission products as radioactive poisons should be undertaken at such priority as is necessary for military security’. ‘Atomic power and private enterprise. A summary of the Joint Committee Report’, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (1953), 9, 138.Google Scholar

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18 Together with the AEC the 1946 Atomic Energy Act established the MLC and the General Advisory Committee (GAG). The MLC was the focal point for virtually all atomic energy matters within the Department of Defense. Besides that, the MLC was the channel through which the Defense Department and the AEC communicated and consulted on the policy level on atomic energy matters relating to military application. Moreover, the MLC could make recommendations ‘on matters relating to military application’. The GAC supplied scientific and technical advice to the AEC and the MLC. Truman, H. S., Memoirs, Vol. 2: Years of Trial and Hope, New York, 1956, 337.Google Scholar

19 The AFSWP, with its ‘home base’ at Sandia Laboratories, New Mexico, was charged with training and operational functions of the Department of Defense. In addition, the AFSWP was responsible for the participation of all armed forces in the development of military uses of atomic energy. Besides directly working for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the AFSWP constituted the Defense Department's interservice advisory group on the research, production and use of ‘atomic’ weapons. Hewlett, R. G. and Duncan, F., A History of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, Vol. 2: Atomic Shield, 1947–1952, Washington, DC, 1972, 131CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Merken, , op. cit. (16), 198, 242–3.Google Scholar

20 US – National Archives (NA), Records of the AEC – Record Group 326, Office Files of David E. Lilienthal – Subject Files 1945–1950, Box 9 – Folder ‘Correspondence MLC, 1947’, Long-term Commission Agenda. The influence of the MLC was large. In the words of Sumner T. Pike, one of the original five AEC Commissioners: ‘in these infant days of nuclear energy development, there are few things which may not possibly have some military significance’, see Titus, C. A., Bombs in the Backyard. Atomic Testing and American Politics, Reno and Las Vegas, 1986, 228.Google Scholar

21 Hewlett, and Duncan, , op. cit. (19), 130.Google Scholar

22 In the sense of (chemical) toxic gases, arsenic, phosphorus and sulphur, which would have to be made highly radioactive.

23 Baker, M. E., ‘Chemical weapons of the future’, Military Review (1947), 27, 30–5.Google Scholar

24 During this meeting Groves suggested that consideration be given to the ‘circulation’ possibilities provided by the ‘REDOX’ reprocessing method. DOE, Energy History Collection (EHC), Minutes GAC meetings, 1945–1972; fifth meeting, Washington, DC, 07 28–29, 1947.Google Scholar

‘REDOX’ stands for ‘reduction oxidation’, a chemical solvent extraction process used in reprocessing facilities to extract plutonium from irradiated reactor fuel. REDOX started operating in the early 1950s.

25 Lilienthal, D. E., The Journals of David E. Lilienthal. Vol. 2: Atomic Energy Years, 1945–1950, New York, 1964, 349.Google Scholar

26 AEC, Applications of Radioactive Materials for Military Use, AEC 28, Washington, DC, 1947Google Scholar; Hewlett, and Duncan, , op. cit. (19), 130.Google Scholar

27 Oppenheimer, J. R. O., ‘Functions of the International Agency in Research and Development’, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (1947), 3, 176.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

28 As members of the ad hoc panel the GAC suggested: Dr W. A. Noyes, Jr, Dr G. B. Kistiakowsky, Dr E. O. Lawrence or Dr Luis Alvarez, Dr Louis Ridenour, and ‘one or two high-ranking officers who have had appropriate combat experience’. As secretary of the panel the GAC recommended Brigadier General James McGormack, Jr, Director of AEC's Division of Military Applications. ‘This recommendation reflects our conviction that unorthodox approaches to this problem need to be encouraged and explored.’

NA, Records of the AEC – Record Group 326, Office Files of David E. Lilienthal – Subject Files, Box 9 – Folder ‘Correspondence MLC, 1948’: Lilienthal, , Chairman AEC, to Brereton, Lt. Gen., Chairman MLC, 22 03 1948.Google Scholar

29 The NME was established by the National Security Act of 1947 and consisted of the Secretaries of Defense, Army, Navy and Air Force, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a Research and Development Board and a Munitions Board. Although the NME formally represented all US armed forces shown by housing the interservice AFSWP, traditional rivalries between the Armed Forces continued. In practice this meant that each of them conducted its own, not necessarily complementary, research and development programmes, for example on defensive aspects of radiological warfare. Truman, , op. cit. (18), 6970Google Scholar; NA, Record Group 326 – Records of the AEC, Lilienthal Office files – Subject files, Box 9 – Folder ‘Correspondence MLC 1949’: Nichols, Major-General K. D., acting Chairman AEC's MLC, to Lilienthal, , 26 01 1949.Google Scholar

30 NA, op. cit. (28).

31 Kolko, , op. cit. (15), 92Google Scholar; Freedman, L., The Evaluation of Nuclear Strategy, London, 1981, 69.Google Scholar

32 ‘Some rough calculations were made indicating that the supply of radioactive material would be adequate to inactivate the order of one square mile with one day's production of material.’ DOE, EHC, Minutes GAC Meetings, 1945–72: ninth meeting, Washington, DC, 23–25 April 1948.

33 The members of the joint panel included: Dr W. A. Noyes (Chairman), Dr E. O. Lawrence, A. Loomis, Dr Mclean, and Brig. Gen. J. McGormack (secretary). Mclean was the AEC staff member who had written the October 1947 report ‘AEC 28 – Application of radioactive materials for military use’. McGormack was Director of the AEC Division of Military Application.

34 DOE, op. cit. (32), 1948: tenth meeting, Washington DC, 4–6 June.Google Scholar

35 Lilienthal, , op. cit. (25), 349.Google Scholar

36 At that time radioisotopes were created in two ways. First, by the fission of uranium-235 or other fissionable material in reactors (‘fission products’), and secondly, by the neutron absorption of stable non-fissionable ‘nuclei’ placed in nuclear reactors. On the production and use of radioisotopes at the time see Aebersold, P. C., ‘Production and availability of radioisotopes’, Journal of Clinical Investigation (1949), 28, 1247–54.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed

37 DOE, op. cit. (32), 1948.Google Scholar

38 DOE, op. cit. (32)Google Scholar. Besides the REDOX reprocessing process the PUREX or ‘Plutonium-Uranium Extraction’ process was developed in the 1950s.

39 ‘It has been proposed to replace every other tube in a section of the Hanford pile with cans for the irradiation of tantalum. From such an arrangement one might expect to get a tantalum activity about equivalent to that obtainable from the zirconium fission product.’ DOE, op. cit. (32), 1948: tenth meeting, Washington DC, 4–6 June, p. 4.Google Scholar

40 DOE, op. cit. (32), 1948: tenth meeting, Washington DC, 4–6 June, pp. 45.Google Scholar

41 ‘…it is not convinced that chemical methods for the separation of fission products should be looked on with disfavor compared to direct irradiation of suitable materials.’ DOE, op. cit. (32), 1948: tenth meeting, Washington DC, p. 33.Google Scholar

42It was agreed that the Committee would again call the attention of the Commission to its previous recommendation and re-emphasize the importance of the problems associated with dispersal and military use.’ (italics in original) DOE, op. cit. (32), 1948: tenth meeting, Washington DC, 4–6 June, p. 6.Google Scholar

43 DOE, op. cit. (32), 1948: tenth meeting, 4–6 June, p. 33.Google Scholar

44 In October 1948 the AEC Commission formulated a radiological warfare policy in which the AFSWP would prosecute the defensive aspects of radiological warfare, including detection, decontamination and protection. NA, op. cit. (29).

45 Lilienthal considered this ‘contamination’ link between radioactive waste and radiological weapons so important that he proposed ‘exchange of information and continued cooperation’. Moreover, he stated that ‘research on problems of waste disposal is applicable to the purification of contaminated water. In this regard the commission has initiated programs which include biologic, biophysic, medical and sanitary engineering activities in this field’. NA, op. cit. (29): Lilienthal, to Nichols, , Director AFSWP, 7 April.Google Scholar

46 The Joint AEC–NME panel report also recommended continuation of laboratory studies and field tests in order to determine the suitability of radiological weapons used in warfare. The report was considered and approved by the Committee on Atomic Energy of the NME's Research and Development Board on 7 April, 1949. NA, op. cit. (29): Webster, , Chairman MLC, to Lilienthal, , 10 May.Google Scholar

47 The Joint AEC–NME panel recommended that the military use of fission products separated from liquid high-level radioactive wastes held in storage should be kept under consideration, while the AEC should, and actually was planning to, carry out this separation process in its waste management programme. NA, op. cit. (29): Webster, Chairman MLC, to Lilienthal, , 10 May.Google Scholar

48 NA, op. cit. (29): Webster, , Chairman MLC, to Lilienthal, , 10 May.Google Scholar

49 Forrest Western, a high-ranking Oak Ridge National Laboratory Official, stated that waste management practices in the AEC were heavily influenced by military plans and considerations, such as ‘the use of fissionable material or fission products in warfare’. Western, F., ‘Problems of radioactive waste disposal’, Nucleonics (1948), 3, 45.Google ScholarPubMed

50 The military people rejected the use of ‘gross fission products’, that is stored high-activity liquid waste, as radiological warfare agents. Although the use of liquid high-activity wastes would omit costly separation processes, these wastes contained isotopes with very long half-lives, which, when used, would make large portions of contaminated enemy territory uninhabitable and inaccessible for a very long time. ‘Radiological warfare’, Officers Call, the US Armed Forces Magazine (1950), 2, 112.Google Scholar

51 Officers Call, op. cit. (50).Google Scholar

52 The fission products could be used provided they were produced in large quantity, were beta or gammaemitters, and had a half-life in the range from about eight days to about a year. Thirring explicitly mentioned: Sr89, Y91, Nb95, Ru103, 1131, Bo140, Ce141, Br143, Nd147, La140, Pr144. According to Thirring these elements constituted 61 per cent of the fission products remaining after the fission of U235 in nuclear reactors. Thirring, H., ‘Ueber das Mögliche Ausmass einer Radioaktiven Verseuchung durch die Spaltproduckte des U235, Acta Physica Austriaca (1948), 2, 379.Google Scholar

53 In the original German: ‘mann tränkt ganz feinem Sand oder Metallstaub mit einer wässerigen Lösung von Salzen der betreffenden Stoffe. Nach dem Trocknen ist das Wasser verdunstet und die radioaktiven Substanzen haften in feiner Schicht and der Oberfläche der Staubkörner, die dann in geeigneter Weise mit Flugzeugen oder mit Stratosphärenraketen über dem zu verseuchenden Gebiet zerstäubt werden.’ In case the dispersed radioactive sands would form a uniform surface layer of 2 C/m2 = 0.2 mC/cm2, they would, according to Thirring, emit a gamma radiation intensity of approximately 10 R/h, which would be a thousand times higher than the then prevailing international safety standards. Thirring, , op. cit. (52), 379.Google Scholar

54 In the original German text: ‘Der mit den Spaltprodukten von U235 aktivierte Todessand ist daher die leichteste und zugleich einer der gefährlichsten Kriegswaffen die es je gegeben hat.’ Thirring, , op. cit. (52), 385.Google Scholar

55 In 1948 Ridenour had been (unsuccessfully) nominated by AEC's GAC for membership in the Joint AEC–NME panel on radiological warfare. At the time that Ridenour wrote his Bulletin article in the summer of 1950, he was special assistant to the Secretary of the Air Force.

56 Ridenour, L. N., ‘How effective are radioactive poisons in warfare’, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (1950), 7, 224Google Scholar. However, Ridenour also pointed at the technical difficulties (‘drawbacks’) of separating and processing useful fission products from the liquid high-level waste, the delivery of the radiological weapon to the targets, and the disappointingly small area that could be poisoned with the fission products available at that time (‘it amounts to no more than two or three major cities per month’).

57 Officers Call, op. cit. (50), 8.Google Scholar

58 Officers Call, op. cit. (50), 9.Google Scholar

59 A popular magazine even claimed that the Officers Call article had used carefully edited results of a British field experiment in the early 1950s during which five tons of ‘atomic sand’ had been dropped from a plane in a classified area in Australia. Kugelmass, J. A., ‘Our silent mystery weapon: death sand’, NA, Records of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy – Record Group 128, Box 708 – Volume ‘Weapons General, 1946 thru 1953’, 1951, 40.Google Scholar

60 O'Ballance, E., Korea: 1950–1953, Malabor, 1985, 94–5Google Scholar; Kolko, , op. cit. (15), 603Google Scholar; Merken, , op. cit. (16), 334Google Scholar. MacArthur, after his dismissal as UN Commander in Korea in April 1951, proposed to President-elect Eisenhower in December 1952 the ‘sowing of fields of suitable radioactive materials … to close major lines of enemy supply and communication leading south from the Yalu [river]’. Ambrose, S. E., Eisenhower, Vol. 2: The President, New York, 1985, 35.Google Scholar

61 Axel, P., ‘News and notes: military and industrial use of fission products’, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (1951), 7, 153–7.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

63 Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, op. cit. (14), 138.Google Scholar

64 NA Records of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy – Record Group 128, Box 533 – Volume: Radiological Warfare: Letter with annexes from Dement, Jack to McMahon, Brian, 29 12 1951Google Scholar. The declassified radiological warfare weapon patents were: radioactive incendiaries, radioactive warfare gases, radioactive smokes, radioactive mists, radioactive ammunition, radioactive ‘death sands’, radioactively poisoned water and radioactively poisoning the water surface. With respect to radioactive fires Dement stated that such radioactive ‘fires which leave radioactive ash and craters as well as yield radioactive smoke are produced by incendiaries (white phosphorus, magnesium-termite, jellified gasoline, napalm) which carry radioactive fission products. Half or more of the payload of an incendiary missile may comprise radioactive poison.’ About radioactive ammunition Dement stated: ‘a projectile is readily made radioactive by dipping into or coating with RW-agent’.

65 In addition, Dement claimed that substitute atomic weapons would also be useful for civil defence purposes, in that ‘a mock atomic explosion over an unwarned city presents interesting possibilities for demonstrating the urgency of civil defense preparations’. Dement, J., ‘Substitute atomic warfare’, Military Engineering (1952), January–February, 12–13.Google Scholar

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72 Lapp, R. E., ‘The humanitarian H-bomb’, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (1956), 12, 264.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

73 In their modulation of the radiological warfare concept the outsiders did not pick up critical and negative military evaluations, which can be attributed to the military position of setting the possible application of radiological warfare weapons ajar. By doing this, the military contributed to the shaping of a public image of radiological warfare weapons.

74 Del Sesto, S. L., ‘Wasn't the future of nuclear engineering wonderful?’, in Imagining Tomorrow. History, Technology and the American Future (ed. Corn, J. J.), Cambridge, Mass., 1987, 5876.Google Scholar

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