News From a Changing Planet: The Atomic Age

Posted inCreative Voices

For less-than-mysterious reasons, I have been thinking lately about the atomic age, and the lingering effects of nuclear radiation on human and environmental health, and culture. 

Spoiler: the reason is that I saw Oppenheimer, but then I also saw several articles about about the people, especially Indigenous people, who lived near Los Alamos and the site of the Trinity test, and the cancer and other health problems that had plagued them and their descendants.

But it’s not as if the harm from exposure to nuclear radiation was limited to the Trinity test. There were, of course, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And the U.S. and other countries (namely the Soviet Union) tested bombs on land and sea and beneath the ground for decades after the end of World War II.

The map showing the spread of radioactive fallout from 94 continental US atmospheric nuclear weapons test, starting with the Trinity test in July 1945. Credit The Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University.

Those who have seen Oppenheimer or know something of the history of the atomic weapons program will know that no one really knew what would actually happen when the tests were performed and the bombs exploded, either in the immediate aftermath and in the years to come. 

But what they discovered and the ways in which they discovered it – how they established measurement and monitoring systems – were crucial to the development of environmental policy and law. It should also make us all think about the creation of knowledge and expertise – who gets to know what and when, if ever, do they have to share it with the public?

It should also make us all think about the creation of knowledge and expertise – who gets to know what and when, if ever, do they have to share it with the public?

(I should say that I’m focusing today on the U.S. government’s response to and management of nuclear pollution domestically, in part to understand the origins of environmental regulation. In doing so, I do not mean to gloss over the horrific tragedy of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki or the colonial scars left by weapons testing in the South Pacific. It’s just that I can’t do it all here, right now.)

After seeing the movie and reading those articles, I remembered a curious fact I had once learned: that the development of calcium-enriched milk and bread and animal feed was spurred by recommendations from the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), and not the FDA (which didn’t exist) or nutritionists to counteract the effects in the human body of strontium-90, a radionuclide (used interchangeably with radioactive isotope) with a half-life of 29 years, that had begun to appear in the food supply, particularly in milk and wheat.

[I learned this curious fact in a lecture from “Environmental Politics and Law,” a lecture course taught by Professor John Wargo and recorded in Spring 2008, available through Open Yale Courses, which I’m so stupid for not having taken in college. Much of the information in today’s newsletter comes from this class, from which I have learned so much over the last few years. Highly recommend!].

Why would calcium help? Without adequate calcium in your diet, your body will take up more strontium in its place, using it to grow bone. The concern was that babies and children, whose bones grow especially quickly, would take up more strontium-90, possibly causing higher rates of cancer in their bones, bone marrow, and soft tissues around their bones. 

But the public at large didn’t learn this, or if they did, it wasn’t because the government told them. The government didn’t begin testing the milk supply until 1957. By this time, the Soviet Union was also testing nuclear weapons, largely in the Siberian Arctic. In about one month in 1959, their weapons tests doubled the amount of radiation in the atmosphere. Also in 1959, Linus Pauling, who had won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry (and would later win the Nobel Peace Prize for his anti-nuclear activism), warned about the dangers of strontium-90 in the food supply, particularly milk, in a letter to the New York Times in Sept. 1959; the Surgeon General had said just a few months earlier that there was no problem with milk.

We take it for granted that the Manhattan Project was a secret, known only to those who needed to know and kept from the public. Even after the U.S. bombed Japan and everyone knew that the U.S. had nuclear capabilities, it stayed secret. 

That meant that the information about the risks of exposure to nuclear radiation and the extent of those risks were secret too, and that knowledge was owned by the government. And since so many of the leading physicists at the time worked for the Manhattan Project or, later, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), much of the knowledge and expertise that would have been generated in the academy and published in research journals was classified. This was all true despite the fact that millions of Americans and, later, almost everyone on Earth, was exposed to radionuclides — in our air, water, and food.

But how did they determine the extent of the exposure? 

Project Sunshine (originally Project Gabriel) was the name given to the work within the AEC to help the government understand the power of its weapons. During Project Sunshine’s existence, from 1949 to 1961, there was no environmental monitoring — no measurements of air quality or water quality or pollution— of any kind. 

One of the first things Project Sunshine did was to set up a monitoring boundary and system — a circle around the Nevada test site, north of Las Vegas, with a radius of about 100 miles, which is where most of the atmospheric tests took place in the 1950s. Within this circle, they looked for evidence of radionuclides and they found them. And because they found them here, they presumed that was the extent of where they were. 

Except it wasn’t — reports came in from across the country of Geiger counters thought to be malfunctioning, but they weren’t: the fallout had been carried in the winds and weather, and deposited in the soil and water around the country. And x-ray film from Polaroid, packed in cornhusks, was discovered to have already been exposed when it arrived at hospitals and doctors’ offices around the country, bearing the imprint of the cornhusks. How? Because the cornhusks had taken up radionuclides from the soil, which exposed the film.

This is how they learned about the issue with milk. Iodine-131 was another radionuclide the government was concerned about. However, it was shown that the body would favor uptake of regular iodine if both were available, and iodized salt came onto the market in the 1920s as a way to prevent goiters and thyroid cancer because many Americans were iodine-deficient. Phew.)

Over the years, scientists with Project Sunshine realized that radionuclides from the U.S.’s tests and those conducted by the Soviet Union were traveling all over the world, contaminating the environment at every level: in the air, in rain and snow, and so in soil and rivers and fish and plants and animals that eat them around the world.

Photo by Gerhard Reus on Unsplash

But for a while then, and later, with events like the Chernobyl disaster, a lack of testing and monitoring meant that officials vastly underestimated the extent of the impacts. The absence of surveillance created a false perception of a clean and healthy environment.

At this time, there was no Environmental Protection Agency. There was no Clean Air Act, or Clean Water Act, or Safe Water Drinking Act, or any of the environmental laws that we count on to protect our health and the health of our environment at the federal level.

But tracing the appearance and deposition of pollutants in the environment, as scientists on the AEC did, informed later biologists and chemists, like Rachel Carson. According to Prof. Wargo, in her papers at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale, Carson’s notes showed that her thinking on the migration of chemicals throughout ecosystems – from plants to animals and people, into the soil and the water – was informed by the paradigm that these atomic scientists developed, which transformed the United States: it jumpstarted the environmental movement, helped create the body of environmental law that we have.

There is a national security argument, sure, for keeping secrets. In part, the government wanted to maintain support for the nuclear program – we had to keep the Soviets in check! – and that support might disappear if people knew the implications of all of this nuclear weapons testing. But there’s a flipside to that national security coin. Without an informed public, only those in power control knowledge, information, and expertise. It prevents broad public literacy on crucial issues, subverting the very idea of democratic participation.

Credit: Archives Center, National Museum of American History
Credit: Archives Center, National Museum of American History

In Professor Wargo’s words, “If you don’t understand these issues, you certainly are not going to be an effective participant in decision making about how to manage risks…It prevents accountability.”

And to quote him quoting Einstein, who spent much of his life organizing scientists to educate the public about the dangers of nuclear weapons, “It’s not enough for a handful of experts to attempt the solution of a problem, to solve it, and then to apply it. The restriction of knowledge to an elite group destroys the spirit of society and leads to its intellectual impoverishment.” 

This was originally posted on Tatiana’s Substack News from a Changing Planet, a free twice-monthly newsletter about what on Earth is happening, with articles and essays about climate change and the environment.

Photo by Yves Alarie on Unsplash.