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Atomic history: debating what’s kept

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By John Bartlit

The question is not whether history will be debated. If history is kept, the debate may be one of substance. If history fades out, the debate will be “sound and fury.”

Keeping history strong and healthy is the goal of the proposed Manhattan Project National Historical Park, or some form of one.

A stimulating park of this kind would display history that changed history, its actual sites, an accurate telling of details, a breadth of aspects and human interest. The National Park Service (NPS) is tasked with assessing the potential, as well as the costs and options. Congress will choose an option, which includes an option of doing nothing.

The NPS received written comments and ideas about the park online before March 1 and at hearings. One was held on Feb. 2 at historic Fuller Lodge in Los Alamos.

There our citizens group proposed a new aspect to add to the park – environmental history. Our recommendations had three main points:

1) The park should include information and interpretive material to tell the environmental history of nuclear weapons work from the 1940s on.

2) This history should be set in the context of the nation’s environmental history for the same period.

3) These two histories should be included in any form of park selected.

The histories of waste handling in nuclear weapons work and in the nation were pulled together for a conference in Los Alamos in the mid-1990s. Attendees of that U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) program were environmental technologists at the local Indian pueblos.

The chronology was assembled by John Rhoades, then director of the Bradbury Science Museum and myself for the overview we gave at the program’s opening session. We reviewed the eras.

In the 1940s, there were no laws, just common practices. The Manhattan Project – at Los Alamos, Oak Ridge and Hanford – followed the waste-handling practices of the time. On this point, atomic scientists thought like industrial engineers.

The citizenry, too, did the same with hazardous wastes at multitudes of dry cleaners and leaky storage tanks at gas stations nationwide.

The end results were similar in each case. The places people dumped their hazardous wastes now take great sums of money to get the movable wastes back from the fields or the depths.

So it went in the early 1940s, the Depression era in which World War II began. On through the 1950s, the nation’s output grew, as did knowledge and technology for waste handling, which were helpful but still patchy.

Better ideas began to coalesce from the clamor over Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” (1962).

“Silent Spring” is not about radiation, but pesticides – like DDT, dieldrin and aldrin – and where they are found, as in bird eggs that produce no hatchlings. Before “Silent Spring,” the common view was that pesticides do only what we want and then go “away.” The chemicals we use or throw away into the air, water and land somehow “disappear.” Pollution is a passing nuisance, but it clears out or stays put. So we thought.

Then our lens for seeing changed. The new way was to define, measure, record and restrict how much of what can go where. The start of regulatory agencies, the basic laws and engineering courses marked the 1970s.

In 1970, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established by President Richard Nixon. Various laws gave the EPA authority to adopt rules for handling wastes, though with limitations and exemptions. Laws and rules exempted specified wastes from federal facilities and from crude oil operations. Regulating oilfield wastes was left largely to the states.

Federal laws applied to the nuclear laboratories that grew from Manhattan Project days. Parts of their environmental oversight were left with the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC).

An early lawsuit (1971) clarified that the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) applied to the AEC labs, which required an Environmental Impact Statement for federal actions.

Court decisions in the 1980s further narrowed the differences in handling nuclear wastes and other wastes. The decision in LEAF (Legal Environmental Assistance Foundation) vs. Hodel (1984) settled the EPA’s authority over wastes at DOE laboratories.    

This column outlines the range of history a qualified curator can put to good use. History’s details, viewed in broad context, are the tracks of an earnest nation.