restricted access 8. A Heightened Controversy: Nuclear Weapons Testing, Radioactive Tracers, and the Dynamic Stratosphere

From: Toxic Airs

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152 On February 2, 1951, Merril Eisenbud, an industrial hygienist at the Atomic Energy Commission’s (AEC) Health and Safety Laboratory (HASL) in New York State, received an urgent phone call from his colleague Henry Blair of the University of Rochester. The Eastman-Kodak Company in upstate New York had just notified Blair that the company’s film manufacturing plant had detected an abnormal rise in radiation in their air intake filters following a thunderstorm. The levels of radiation were apparently not elevated enough to warrant health concerns, but they did threaten the films being produced at the plant. Eisenbud immediately suspected the source of the radiation, even if the incident did catch him by surprise. Six days earlier, the AEC had inaugurated the recently established Nevada Test Site (NTS) with a series of nuclear weapons tests code-named Operation Ranger—the first on the North American continent since Trinity in July of 1945. After getting off the phone with Blair, Eisenbud promptly called NTS medical director Thomas Shipman to inform him of the incident. “You’re crazy, Merril,” Eisenbud later recalled Shipman saying, “I was out to Ground Zero, and there’s no radiation out there, and you’re telling me it’s up in Rochester.”1 Eisenbud next contacted AEC headquarters in Washington, 8 A HEIGHTENED CONTROVERSY Nuclear Weapons Testing, Radioactive Tracers, and the Dynamic Stratosphere E. Jerry Jessee A Heightened Controversy–––153 DC. To his astonishment, the AEC had no program to monitor or track offsite fallout beyond the confines of the NTS. Indeed, as the report that confirmed the feasibility of testing in the southern Nevada desert confidently asserted, “The only places to worry about are those within a radius of 150 miles” of the test site.2 Undeterred, over the next few days Eisenbud endeavored to uncover the extent of the contamination by having HASL personnel and colleagues throughout the Midwest take local radiation measurements. With this information in hand, by the end of the month Eisenbud was able to produce a map illustrating the trajectory and pattern of the Ranger fallout as the radioactive clouds traveled eastward across the continent. The map, Eisenbud later wrote, “demonstrat[ed] that surprising amounts of fallout could occur over large areas thousands of miles from a relatively small air burst.”3 In the wake of Eisenbud’s findings, the commission established a continental fallout sampling program at US Weather Bureau stations to monitor radiation activity across the nation. Consisting of a square-foot adhesive film mounted on a four-foot stand to trap fallout particles, the array of “gummed-film” collecting stations began modestly with forty-five in 1953 and expanded to 120 a few years later, some of which were located outside the United States. The AEC’s concern about offsite fallout, however, stemmed less from their apprehension about the effect of radioactive fallout on human health than from the fear that the photographic film industry might sue for future damages to their products.4 Throughout the 1950s, the AEC consistently maintained that “heavy fallout from near-surface explosions has extended only a few miles from the point of burst. The hazard has been successfully confined to the controlled areas of the Test Site.”5 As Scott Kirsch has argued , containing public fears about radioactivity produced by the tests was dependent upon the illusion of technical control of the spatial boundaries of the NTS.6 Such notions of radioactive containment were deeply rooted in the AEC’s managerial and technocratic attitude toward the material environment. Throughout the era of atmospheric nuclear weapons testing, the AEC continually struggled with a fundamental problem: the boundaries they erected between the spaces where the bombs were tested and the rest of the world ran headlong against the mobile nature of fallout radioactivity once deposited in the material environment.7 An essential assumption undergirding the AEC’s control of offsite fallout held that detonating the weapons under ideal conditions (that is, in the absence of rain), assured that the majority of the fallout would deposit within the confines of the test site. Yet such hori- 154–––E. Jerry Jessee Fig. 8.1. Lester Machta with gummed-film stand. Source: US National Archives and Records Administration, Still Picture Branch, Records of the Weather Bureau RG 27, Image 27-G-1-7A-2. zontal boundary-making relied equally on the insinuation of control on the vertical axis. If the bulk of the heavy particles in the atomic cloud were to “fall out” within the...