Radiological weapons and radioactive waste in the United States: insiders' and outsiders' views, 1941–55
Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 January 2009
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
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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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.
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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), 69–70Google 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
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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.
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
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
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
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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
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, 1–12.Google Scholar
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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.
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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
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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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