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The Environment in the Atomic Age

Summary and Keywords

The development of nuclear technology had a profound influence on the global environment following the Second World War, with ramifications for scientific research, the modern environmental movement, and conceptualizations of pollution more broadly. Government sponsorship of studies on nuclear fallout and waste dramatically reconfigured the field of ecology, leading to the widespread adoption of the ecosystem concept and new understandings of food webs as well as biogeochemical cycles. These scientific endeavors of the atomic age came to play a key role in the formation of environmental research to address a variety of pollution problems in industrialized countries. Concern about invisible radiation served as a foundation for new ways of thinking about chemical risks for activists like Rachel Carson and Barry Commoner as well as many scientists, government officials, and the broader public. Their reservations were not unwarranted, as nuclear weapons and waste resulted in radioactive contamination of the environment around nuclear-testing sites and especially fuel-production facilities. Scholars date the start of the “Anthropocene” period, during which human activity began to have substantial effects on the environment, variously from the beginning of human farming roughly 8,000 years ago to the emergence of industrialism in the 19th century. But all agree that the advent of nuclear weapons and power has dramatically changed the potential for environmental alterations. Our ongoing attempts to harness the benefits of the atomic age while lessening its negative impacts will need to confront the substantial environmental and public-health issues that have plagued nuclear technology since its inception.

Keywords: ecology, environment, atomic age, radiation, nuclear fallout, nuclear waste, science, technology, pollution

On July 16, 1945, a U.S. military detonation in the White Sands Missile Range of New Mexico thrust the world into a new era of nuclear technology. The successful test of an atomic weapon at the conclusion of the Manhattan Project altered the course of the Second World War and substantially changed the ways in which Americans and citizens across the globe thought about their relationship with the environment. Nuclear technology vastly expanded the geographic and temporal scales on which humankind could alter the natural landscape as well as understand it through scientific research. The atomic age thus had a duel legacy for our relationship with nature. At the same time as society gained unprecedented power to reshape the biosphere, we also obtained new tools to understand how radiation and other types of pollution could harm the environment.

Nuclear technology emerged at a time when the vast majority of Americans had not developed a significant environmental awareness about what are now considered “modern” problems of the industrialized age. While the preservation and conservation movements had deeply influenced American culture since the 19th century, our present-day notions of pollution and chemical threats had yet to take root in the popular consciousness. Coal smoke from factories, leaded gasoline, urban waste, and industrial hazards had begun to garner attention among groups of social reformers and members of the public-health community. But the possible environmental dangers of industrialization and living in a high-technology society had yet to receive sustained attention from members of the public or the scientific community. Ecology in particular had an uneasy relationship with environmental issues in the decades prior to the Second World War. In fact, a majority of members of the Ecological Society of America (ESA) voted to restrict any involvement of the organization in the protection of nature, politically or otherwise, in the years between the World Wars.1 Our association of ecology with environmentalism is a phenomenon that owes a great deal to the atomic age, which brought new concerns about nuclear fallout and waste and dramatically reshaped ecology into a “Cold War” science.

Examining the history of the environment through the lens of nuclear weapons and power raises a number of questions about the relationship of the earth and environmental sciences to the military-industrial complex, the extent to which nuclear technology gave rise to the environmental movement, and the degree to which the atomic age reconfigured humanity’s relationship with nature. How much were the ecologists involved in atomic research cognizant of the environmental dangers posed by nuclear technology? How did the tools and techniques of the atomic age advance ecological science while perhaps also inculcating a problematic culture of management and control over nature in the scientific community? How did radioactive fallout and waste influence political and social movements regarding environmental threats, and what was its impact on understandings of “pollution”? Finally, how much damage to nature did nuclear technology cause, and how should we weigh this history in considering the use of nuclear power in the future?

One challenge for historians examining the environment in the atomic age is that there is still considerable debate about how much radiation exposure is “acceptable” for organisms to receive, including humans. Determining the permissible risk or damage to the environment has been complicated by national-security priorities as well as the need to develop alternatives to fossil fuels for energy use. These exposure calculations have shifted over time depending on a number of historical forces, and continue to present vexing questions for societies seeking to preserve the benefits of atomic technology while limiting its environmental costs.

Ecology in the Atomic Energy Commission

Research on the environmental implications of nuclear technology began during the Second World War in connection with the Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb. Yet the motivation for including environmental studies was not primarily rooted in concern for radiation’s impact on the environment or public health, but rather keeping the project a secret from the public. The director of the Manhattan Project, General Leslie R. Groves, first recruited several biologists working at the University of Washington to monitor radiation levels generated by plutonium production at the Hanford nuclear reactor, fearing that high amounts of radioactive materials entering the Columbia River near the site could alert citizens to the secret plan to build the weapon. There was little concern among the site’s early managers that its operations posed a direct threat to the local population or their surroundings.2 Though secrecy may have been the major motivation for environmental monitoring, there were certainly fears among Manhattan Project scientists about the unknown impact of radiation on living organisms, an early iteration of tension between the government’s military imperatives and scientific work on nuclear technology’s environmental impact. Biologists at the University of Washington subsequently monitored aquatic life forms for levels of radioactivity during the course of the war, and continued this work once the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) took over responsibility for nuclear testing and technological development in 1946. The AEC’s Division of Biology and Medicine soon began collaborating with biologists and ecologists at several other universities, notably the University of California–Los Angeles and the University of Georgia, as well as hiring several biologists at U.S. national laboratories. During these initial investigations, most studies focused on examining fallout patterns at the Los Alamos and Nevada test sites, while some additional work analyzed waste byproducts of nuclear fuel production.

Compared to other areas of scientific research within the AEC, ecology received only a small fraction of funding in the immediate years after the Second World War. Its low level of support began to change, however, as a result of a terrible accident in the Marshall Islands in 1954. Known as the “Lucky Dragon” accident, the disaster occurred when unexpected wind shifts during Operation Castle Bravo caused radioactive debris to fall on a nearby Japanese fishing vessel, the Fukuryu Maru (“Lucky Dragon”), as well as the inhabited island of Rongelap. In addition to sickening the fishermen, fallout contaminated nearby tuna fish to such a high degree that they were deemed unfit for human consumption. Following the incident, the AEC increased financial support for ecological research, recruited more biologists to work at U.S. national laboratories, and created a specific Division of Environmental Sciences in 1955. The AEC soon became a top sponsor of ecological research in universities, and by the late 1960s, its Oak Ridge National Laboratory housed one of the largest ecological research programs in the country.3

The influence of nuclear technology on approaches to studying the environment increased substantially as a result of AEC funding. Ecological studies undertaken on radiation hazards with AEC financial support contributed to the adoption of the “ecosystem” concept among ecologists, which shifted the kinds of scientific studies pursued in the field and the types of questions scientists were able to ask. The ecosystem concept had first been articulated by a British ecologist, Arthur Tansley, in 1935, but few researchers had attempted to put his ideas into practice before the Second World War. The challenge of tracing radioactive fallout through the environment, however, led to widespread use of the ecosystem concept among the community of ecologists working at the AEC and spread throughout the field during the 1950s and 1960s. Two ecologists in particular, brothers Eugene and Howard Odum, helped propagate ecosystem studies through their research in the Marshall Islands following the Lucky Dragon accident. In cooperation with scientists from the University of Washington and the AEC Division of Environmental Sciences, the Odum brothers began tracing the movement of radioactive isotopes through food chains in the area. This new approach provided answers to basic ecological questions for the first time and emphasized the environmental interrelationships among species. Investigations into food webs and their importance in understanding biological communities increased dramatically as a result of atomic technology, marking a sharp departure from the population studies and examinations of predator–prey relationships that had characterized ecology before the Second World War.

As tools, radioisotopes also made it possible to better replicate experiments and helped ecosystem ecology become a more quantitative endeavor. Spurred by the challenges of the atomic age, ecologists launched new programs in the early 1960s to train their graduate students in physics, chemistry, and mathematics to foster interdisciplinary work on the environment. The AEC and the U.S. national laboratories were instrumental in facilitating research along these lines over the course of the decade. For example, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and one of its leading ecologists, Stanley Auerbach, pioneered courses in physics and chemistry for ecology students interested in the environmental effects of nuclear fallout and waste. The computing resources of national laboratories were also deployed in mathematical simulations of ecosystems, allowing scientists to model nutrient cycling and other large-scale environmental processes for the first time. These changes to the field are evident in the textbooks of ecology written during the period, which devoted more and more attention to radiation and its environmental impacts.4

The experience of working on atomic issues also propelled a shift in ecology toward what is frequently called “big-science” projects as well as the participation of ecologists in a broader project of interdisciplinary environmental science in the 1970s. Big-science projects are typically defined as government-funded, high-technology research endeavors, and are a legacy of the Manhattan Project. Modeled off of this work as well as other big-science research efforts like the International Geophysical Year, biologists launched an International Biological Programme (IBP) in the late 1960s to promote the approach of big science in ecology. While facing certain setbacks and challenges, the IBP was successful in generating global data on ecosystems.5 In this way, the atomic age also brought about an era of cooperation and large-scale research among ecologists on different biomes across the globe. These would have unanticipated benefits in alerting ecologists to a host of other pollution problems beyond radiation; in West Germany, for example, stations involved in the IBP program were the first to raise alarm about the impact of acid rain, ozone, and other air pollutants on forest ecosystems.6 Furthermore, ecological studies begun in the shadow of fallout and waste compelled many scientists to begin collaborating on joint projects within the emerging area of “environmental science” during the 1970s as governments across the industrialized world grappled with pollution problems from fossil fuels. The atomic age thus not only reoriented the methods, tools, and disciplinary boundaries of ecology. It also marshaled ecology into large, collaborative research teams dependent on government funding and with much deeper involvement in questions about pollution’s deleterious environmental effects.

Atomic-Age Environmentalism

At the end of the Second World War, the American public by and large viewed the development of nuclear weapons as beneficial to the country. In polls, the vast majority approved of President Truman’s decision to drop the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and many scientists and government officials believed that nuclear technology could become a potent power source if fission could be harnessed for electricity generation. The dual imperatives of national security and energy cast the atomic age in a positive light among most Americans for nearly a decade after the conflict, even as the Soviet Union and other countries began their own programs to develop nuclear weapons. Attitudes started to change, however, in the wake of the Lucky Dragon accident and research on the spread of fallout to plants, animals, consumer products, and the human body, which evolved into a newfound environmental awareness about the hazards of radiation as well as other pollution problems caused by technology. The scientific community and the public soon became divided over the risks of the atomic age. Whereas in the spring of 1955 a Gallup poll found that only 17 percent of the American public even knew what fallout was, just two years later 52 percent considered it a serious danger.7

Following the Lucky Dragon accident, two studies in particular contributed to mounting fears over fallout. The first, published in 1958, showed rising levels of radioisotope strontium-90 in the baby teeth of children across the country. The Committee for Nuclear Information at Washington University in St. Louis had conducted the survey using tens of thousands of teeth collected over several years, and its results starkly illustrated how radioactive fallout could concentrate in humans after travelling up the food chain. The second research study was perhaps even more alarming. Consumers Union, purveyor of the popular Consumer Reports, sampled milk in fifty areas over the course of one month and published the results in a March 1959 article “The Milk We Drink.” While the levels of strontium-90 in milk samples fell below acceptable limits set by the government’s National Committee on Radiation Protection, the data showed steadily rising amounts of the radioactive isotope. Newspapers around the country published numerous stories on the results, which led to a massive public outcry despite AEC attempts to reassure the public that limited exposure to radioactive debris was not a serious risk. The emergence of significant public opposition to continued nuclear testing, alongside a broader push for disarmament, eventually helped generate political momentum to ban aboveground nuclear testing through the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty, signed by the United States, Soviet Union, and United Kingdom.8

The social and political activism inspired by the fallout controversy came to serve as a foundation for the modern environmental movement in the 1960s. For example, in the wake of the fallout studies, activists against nuclear testing formed several “proto-environmental” groups, such as the Greater St. Louis Committee for Nuclear Information, the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, and Women Strike for Peace.9 In addition, future prominent environmental activists like scientist Barry Commoner first began to mobilize over the dangers of fallout; in fact, the newsletter of Commoner’s advocacy group, the Committee on Nuclear Information, eventually became Environment magazine in 1969 as the environmental movement took off across America.10

Within the scientific community of biologists and ecologists, opinions regarding the environmental dangers of the atomic age also were beginning to shift by the late 1950s. While the vast majority of ecologists working for the AEC had not found any evidence that fallout from nuclear testing posed deleterious environmental effects, studies of the impact of the Lucky Dragon accident on the island of Rongelap in the Pacific Ocean provoked alarm over the prospect of food contamination in the diets of the inhabitants. Even more troubling to ecologists were emerging research results from examinations of nuclear waste at the Hanford nuclear plant. As they began to develop models of food chains in ecosystems around nuclear reactors, ecologists discovered a clear relationship between the amounts of radioactive waste released and the accumulation of radioactive isotopes in species higher and higher up the food chain.11

These discoveries of bioaccumulation from nuclear waste came on the heels of the U.S. government’s push to develop nuclear power. As part of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, the AEC had undertaken plans to install a full-scale nuclear-power industry across the country. Over the next several years, preparations began for the construction of the first power reactors in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois, and New York. For ecologists working at the AEC, the potential for these plants to vastly multiply the radioactive byproducts in the environment proved a galvanizing influence on their attitudes toward nuclear technology’s environmental dangers. Reports about the troubling accumulation of radioactive isotopes through ecosystems were eventually circulated throughout the leadership of the AEC, which was then frequently disposing of waste by pumping it into nearby pits or releasing radioactive effluent directly into the oceans.12 In addition, AEC ecologists gave congressional testimony about their disconcerting research on risks from nuclear waste, which appeared especially problematic for marine life. But despite attempts to regulate nuclear waste in the late 1950s and 1960s, disposal of low-level wastes in enclosed drums at sites off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts continued until the 1970s, with a worldwide antidumping convention only signed in 1983.13

Yet the AEC, which was tasked with both promoting and regulating nuclear power during its existence, increasingly found itself under attack for downplaying the environmental dangers of nuclear facilities. Beginning in the 1960s and deepening during the course of the 1970s, public fears of nuclear power led to significant opposition to constructing nuclear power plants near urban areas. Protests over a facility slated for construction near New York City led to the withdrawal of the project plans in 1962, while in California numerous protests over power plants occurred during the 1960s and 1970s and led to scraping several possible plants. Alarm over the thermal pollution resulting from a reactor’s high temperatures also prompted opposition against several nuclear power stations; construction of the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Station in Maryland, for example, was temporarily halted after a suit against the AEC by environmental opponents.14 Ultimately, the AEC’s conflicts of interest in nuclear power contributed to the government’s decision to abolish the agency in 1974. The United States subsequently replaced it with the Energy Research and Development Administration, which was later subsumed under the Department of Energy in 1977, and Nuclear Regulatory Commission in order to separate promotion and regulation of nuclear power.

Opposition to nuclear power also played a pivotal role in motivating environmental activism on a global scale throughout the 1970s and 1980s. There was significant transnational cooperation and coordination in anti-nuclear movements across the United States, Europe, and Australia. For instance, France, which had been an early proponent of developing nuclear plants for use in its electric grid, saw its first protest against nuclear power in 1971. It soon became the locus for many green activists in western Europe to organize protests to stop the construction of nuclear plants, notably a massive sit-in to halt the Wyhl nuclear facility in West Germany during the mid-1970s that drew citizens from several nations. These activist groups were crucial in transferring expertise and strategies for environmental organizing around the world, helping to turn the modern environmental movement into a lasting political force with the formation of “green parties” in several industrialized nations.15

Radiation and New Conceptualizations of Pollution

The invisible nature of radiation marked a departure from previous conceptualizations of pollutants in industrialized countries prior to the atomic age. Most investigations into environmental contaminants before the development of nuclear technology focused on factors readily detectible by the unaided eye. For example, the degree of blackness in smoke was a common mechanism scientists and laypersons used to judge its degree of danger, while the smells of waste and trash served as an odious marker of poor conditions in urban areas.16 Although some public-health researchers had begun to focus more on chemical harms as distinct from smoke itself in air pollution before the Second World War, radioactive fallout and waste ushered in a marked transformation in the idea of environmental pollution as a chemical problem that required the use of technology to monitor hazardous levels.

The impact of the atomic age on thinking about pollution was especially profound in relation to the environmental impact of the chemical industry, which had ballooned in size since the Second World War. Pesticides were a key area that radioecologists turned their attention to during the 1950s, notably biologist George Woodwell of Brookhaven National Laboratory.17 His work on the pesticide DDT helped form a foundation for understanding the concentration of chemical hazards as one moved up a food chain. Beyond providing a launching point for research studies, however, the perils of the atomic age for the environment also provided a striking metaphor and warning about the dangers of other types of industrial chemicals. Rachel Carson’s seminal work, Silent Spring, repeatedly invoked radiation hazards to convey the invisible dangers of DDT and other pesticides to the environment.18 The threats posed by radiation also influenced the cautious assessments on the hazards of pesticides by the Presidential Scientific Advisory Committee, which advised President John F. Kennedy in 1963 that there were significant environmental risks to using DDT and other chemicals. Radioactive contamination thus made many scientists skeptical about the potential unforeseen consequences of technological development, both nuclear and otherwise, and contributed to evolving attitudes among the scientific community, politicians, and the larger public about the need for precautionary approaches to pollution problems.

In practical terms, radioactive isotopes also served as a kind of model pollutant, and scientists’ experiences understanding the environmental impact of nuclear fallout and waste were readily deployed to investigate problems of air pollution, water pollution, and other toxic chemicals by the end of the 1960s. The Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, for instance, introduced legislation in 1967 to enlist radioecologists at national laboratories in conducting studies on environmental pollution more broadly. It was passed by the U.S. Congress and enacted into law in December of that year. Just two years later, Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act, which required the first federal environmental impact assessments for nuclear power-plant facilities. These reports were compiled by ecologists working at national laboratories as well, illustrating the significance of atomic-age ecology for understanding a plethora of pollution problems from an energy-intensive, industrialized society.

Another crucial insight gained from nuclear testing was the degree to which pollution could travel across the globe. Prior to atomic testing, pollution was largely perceived as a local problem affecting residents and workers near industrial facilities or in major cities. With new environmental-monitoring technologies capable of charting the dispersal of radioactive fallout, however, scientists gained a greater understanding of how pollutants might move through the atmosphere to regions remote from testing sites. Particularly alarming was the concentration of radioactive fallout in the poles, notably in remote areas of the Arctic and Antarctica that were commonly viewed as untouched by the outputs of industrial society.19 The identification of radioactive fallout far from testing sites was soon followed by evidence that other chemicals such as pesticides like DDT were also travelling across the globe, which contributed to a growing appreciation of the global nature of environmental pollution in developed countries during the late 1960s.

Yet beyond the possibility that pollution could travel great distances, the atomic age also introduced an idea that became a mainstay of debates about environmental problems ranging from acid rain to ozone depletion to global warming: that humankind had the capacity to provoke large-scale planetary change.20 A nuclear conflict, and its concomitant damage to entire regions alongside significant radiation releases, represented the most frightening scenario for many scientists, government officials, and citizens. Congressional hearings addressed the prospect that nuclear war could lead to ecological devastation as far back as the late 1950s, when AEC ecologists gave congressional testimony on the environmental effects of a possible attack. The predicted outcomes included the collapse of food systems, severe erosion, and widespread fires.21 Radiological warfare that might lead to vast environmental devastation became a prime area of military investigation and cooperation among the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada during the atomic age, contributing to a shift in thinking about armed conflicts as extending to environmental destruction and creating “total war.”22

The issue became more salient among the public, however, in the 1980s with the introduction of the concept of “nuclear winter” in the aftermath of an atomic war. Several American scientists, notably Carl Sagan, argued that the smoke and dust from massive nuclear explosions in an atomic war could block solar radiation and send the climate into a severe cooling. These pronouncements captured the attention of scientists, policymakers, and the public around the world and were marshaled by disarmament activists to petition for further reductions in the United States’s and Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenals. While later research ultimately lessened the expected severity of such a “nuclear winter,” the prospect of significant climatic change occurring from atomic warfare figured prominently in conversations about global pollution threats. In introducing technology to create environmental catastrophes on previously unimaginable scales, the atomic age served as one of the catalysts for a new geological area of the “Anthropocene” that saw humankind become a planetary ecological force for the first time in history.23 While some have dated the emergence of this period much earlier, other scholars argue that the creation of nuclear technology along with rapid population growth, climate change, and other global environmental pressures has uniquely accelerated humanity’s impact on the environment since the emergence of the atomic age.24

The Impact of the Atomic Age on the Environment

Nuclear technology not only influenced scientific, political, and cultural ideas about the environment during the atomic age but had material consequences for the biosphere and human health. One of the major areas of environmental impact was the amount of radioactivity released from atmospheric testing. The United States, the United Kingdom, and France conducted a large portion of their nuclear tests in Oceania, with considerable atmospheric, geological, and ecological effects on the region; the Soviet Union’s tests had comparable effects on parts of Kazakhstan and the Russian Arctic, where most of its detonations took place. Though some of the environmental repercussions are difficult to assess because of ongoing secrecy surrounding the testing that was done, scholars have determined that there were both short- and long-term changes to biota exposed to nuclear blasts. Any organisms in close proximity were predictably killed from the bombs themselves; those that survived nearby often showed high levels of radioactive contamination. Fish, for example, were found to accumulate large amounts of radioactivity in their digestive systems, livers, and muscle tissues, while birds showed high amounts in their bones. In addition, testing altered the landscape of the ocean floor and islands where bombs were detonated, producing craters and in some cases destroying entire islets.25

Determining the precise impact of nuclear fallout on human health was and remains a controversial issue, in part because it is so challenging to connect any one particular cancer to radiation from nuclear testing. Within the scientific community, the question of whether low-dose exposures from fallout are harmful proved especially contentious. In the early years of nuclear testing, geneticists began to develop what was called the “linear non-threshold” model, which postulated that any amount of radiation could cause potentially harmful genetic mutations. Nevertheless, safety protocols for radiation exposure at the time operated on a “threshold” model that held that low doses of radiation were not dangerous as long as they remained under a certain limit. Over time, the government adopted a “maximum permissible dose” standard, which recognized that any amount of radiation could cause genetic changes but held that small exposures were worth the risk.26 These standards have since proven controversial, however, and have had significant implications in legal battles between the U.S. government and citizens subjected to radioactive fallout from nuclear testing, often called “downwinders.”27 After patterns of health problems developed, community groups in the areas around testing sites filed several lawsuits against the U.S. government beginning in the 1980s. Their outcry led to the adoption of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act in 1990, which paid damages to victims for the health risks they unknowingly incurred from fallout or other exposures. Despite this acknowledgment of wrongdoing, there is still considerable debate about the dangers of low-dose exposure, how to model the resulting cancer risks, and the ethical dilemmas raised when governments involuntarily expose their citizens to uncertain dangers from radiation or other chemicals in the environment.28

In addition to the environmental repercussions of testing, nuclear power and weapons production caused considerable damages to nature and human health during the atomic age. These occurred as a result of accidents as well as the problem of how to safely store nuclear waste. Early disasters included a nuclear fire at England’s Windscale Pile Number One in 1957, the explosion of nuclear waste buried in the Ural Mountains in Russia in 1958 that led to hundreds of deaths, and an experimental reactor explosion in 1961 in Idaho that allegedly resulted in three workers’ deaths from radiation.29 More publicized meltdowns occurred in the United States and Soviet Union in later years, notably the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania and the 1986 Chernobyl explosion in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union.

Though these latter two disasters caught the eye of the media and the public, it was the slow-moving catastrophe of nuclear-waste disposal that resulted in the most significant environmental and human-health repercussions during the early years of the atomic age. For nuclear-power generation, environmental threats were present at every stage of production from mining to waste disposal. As is often true with environmental pollution, many of the risks were borne by those who worked in the nuclear industry. Lax safety standards at the Hanford nuclear plant in the United States exposed employees to radiation on the job, for instance, and recent research has documented an increase in the rate of infant mortality as well as birth defects in the area during the 1950s. In the Soviet Union, migrant workers, prisoners, and soldiers were tasked with construction and clean-up of contaminated soil with few safeguards, and plants involved in producing nuclear material for weapons or power often showed little regard for the environmental risks of improper waste disposal. One Soviet nuclear facility in the town of Ozersk contaminated the nearby Techa River with such high amounts of radioactive waste that villagers were told not to drink the water. Investigations of the area have since found it to contain higher levels of radioactivity than the land surrounding Chernobyl, with the nearby population exhibiting the third-highest rate of leukemia in the world, behind only the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.30

Mining uranium for processing as fuel for energy usage or as explosive material for nuclear weapons proved hazardous for workers and surrounding communities as well. In small towns across the western United States, including areas controlled by Navajo Native Americans, miners extracted uranium with few to no safeguards for exposure such as ventilation of mines or use of respirators.31 Often called “yellowcake towns,” they shared many of the pro-atomic attitudes found in places like Hanford, Washington, building uranium cafes and hosting “Miss Uranium” pageants where the prize was a large heap of ore.32 But despite the initial boosterism of atomic technology and the economic prosperity it brought, the environmental legacy of uranium mining proved devastating for many communities. Simply creating access to areas with uranium deposits caused significant disruptions, as many locations were in designated wilderness areas. Water pollution from uranium mining led to contamination of local water supplies, while piles of waste that were improperly secured next to mills produced radioactive air pollution. A disaster in July of 1979 at Church Rock, New Mexico, caused some of the most extensive damage when a mill used to process extracted uranium accidentally released tons of waste and radioactive solution into the Puerco River, resulting in the dispersion of more radioactivity than the Three Mile Island accident several months prior. An estimated 100,000 acres of land remain polluted from uranium mining in the United States.33

The dumping of nuclear wastes into the oceans also left a notable ecological legacy from the Cold War. The United States and Britain deposited drums containing spent fuel in ocean waters, the latter more than any other country to date. The Soviet Union, despite claims to the contrary during the period of the Cold War, routinely violated international agreements by discharging radioactive wastes into the ocean, including waters no more than one 300 feet deep. In total, thirteen countries participated in the disposal of nuclear waste at sea since the start of the atomic age. Although the ocean has a large capacity to dilute radioactive material, concentration through food webs in marine species is much greater than occurs on land.34 In the aftermath of the recent Fukushima plant’s meltdown in Japan in 2011, concerns about the ecological damages from radioactivity in the oceans have resurfaced in scientific and political debates about the costs and benefits of nuclear power.35

As societies grapple with the possible role of nuclear technology in our future energy economy, these issues of the atomic age will remain with us. How and where to store nuclear-waste products has posed a problem for power plants since the earliest days of atomic technology, but will grow more and more acute if countries obtain larger proportions of their electricity from nuclear power plants. The U.S. government is still wrestling with onerous legal, political, and scientific battles over the long-term storage of nuclear waste, particularly regarding the implications for future generations. Currently, more than 165 million pounds of nuclear waste is being kept in temporary holdings at hundreds of locations around the country awaiting proper, permanent storage. Some of these wastes were produced as far back as the Second World War. The 2008 cessation of work at the Yucca Mountain storage facility, long thought to be the most promising site for a deep underground repository, has left policymakers at a seeming impasse over how to dispose of radioactive materials when all present methods have not achieved public acceptance.36 With climate change putting pressure on the energy industry to switch from fossil fuels to renewable alternatives, the question of what part nuclear technology will play in our future power production will continue to pose challenges for protecting the environment and public health.

Discussion of the Literature

Research on the environment in the atomic age has drawn together scholars from two major subfields in history: environmental history and the history of science. Given their different methodological approaches and emphases in scholarship, work from these two groups has sometimes not been in dialogue with each other, though that has shown some signs of changing in recent years. Early scholarship on environmental science in the atomic age by historians of science focused on how nuclear technologies enabled ecologists to pursue big-science projects that revealed the workings of ecosystems for the first time. Pioneering research on this topic includes Stephen Bocking’s study of Oak Ridge ecologists in his book Ecologists and Environmental Politics as well as Matthew Klingle’s examination of how radiobiologists at the University of Washington used atomic techniques to advance ideas about proper fisheries management. Angela Creager has also recently situated AEC ecologists in a broader history of radioisotopes as tools of investigation for the biological sciences in her book Life Atomic: A History of Radioisotopes in Science and Medicine. Scott Kirsch’s book Proving Grounds: Project Plowshare and the Unrealized Dream of Nuclear Earthmoving looks at how nuclear weapons themselves became thought of as tools to reshape landscapes without consideration for the potential environmental and human health impacts of using atomic bombs for construction projects.

There has been some debate among historians of science, however, about whether ecologists working for the AEC simply pursued basic research that was inattentive to environmental concerns or whether some did, in fact, harbor fears about the ecological and public-health implications of nuclear technology. For example, the involvement of AEC ecologists in projects pertaining to nuclear earth-moving has led historians such as Scott Kirsch and Gene Cittadino to conclude that there was little attention to the environmental dangers of atomic weapons among certain ecologists who worked for the organization. Other recent work, however, has questioned whether this assessment fails to capture the emergence of certain concerns about environmental damage among AEC ecologists. Additional scholarship on the relationship between the AEC and the emerging field of environmental science could help shed further light on this debate.

More recent literature within environmental history has begun to focus on the environmental impact of producing nuclear fuel for weapons and power. Kate Brown’s Plutopia, which compares U.S. and Soviet “atomic cities,” explores the ways nuclear technology harmed the landscape and public health even as it provided increased access to the benefits of consumer society for privileged groups in these communities. Other major themes in environmental histories of the atomic age have included the ways in which nuclear issues served as a foundation for modern environmentalism, notably Michael Egan’s Barry Commoner and the Science of Survival and Jacob Darwin Hamblin’s Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism. These three books in particular have begun to cross the divide between the history of science and environmental history, illustrating the benefits of seeking to understand both how the atomic age influenced environmental science as well as its impact on nature and social movements to protect the planet. Future research that takes up these questions in the context of environmental justice, particularly for areas such as the Marshall Islands that were subjected to nuclear testing, are a promising avenue for shedding light on the relationship between the atomic age and the environment.

Primary Sources

There are a vast number of archival materials on the environment in the atomic age in countries around the world. As this resource is geared toward scholars in the United States, the focus here will be on American collections. Many Atomic Energy Commission records are now available online by the Department of Energy. Other digitized records include those of congressional hearings on the ecological impacts of nuclear technology, available through subscription from ProQuest, as well as materials from several national laboratories including from Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, and Oak Ridge.

The main U.S. archival sources to studying environmental issues in the atomic age are contained in the U.S. National Archives at College Park, Maryland. The record group of the Atomic Energy Commission, RG 326, contains a plethora of folders on the AEC’s activities concerning nuclear testing and ecological research. Some AEC documents are stored at various NARA regional archives, including NARA offices in Atlanta and Chicago. The U.S. Department of Energy is also an excellent resource for AEC materials; their holdings are in Germantown, Maryland. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Nuclear Testing Archive in Las Vegas, Nevada, also has important source material pertaining to atomic testing.

Other important collections include those at the national laboratories most engaged in AEC-sponsored ecosystems studies. The University of Washington Special Collections Division has records from its radioecological work, as does the Argonne National Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and Brookhaven National Laboratory. Several universities and institutions also hold personal papers of key scientists who participated in environmental studies of nuclear technology. Notable holdings include the papers of Eugene and Howard Odum at the University of Georgia and the University of Florida, respectively; the papers of Roger Revelle at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography; the papers of Barry Commoner at the Library of Congress; and Stafford Warren at the University of California, Los Angeles. The National Academy of Sciences also has collections on the biological effects of atomic radiation in three records groups: the Committees on Biological Effects of Atomic Radiation, the Meteorology Committee, and the Oceanography and Fisheries Committee. These can be found at their Washington, DC, archives.

Records of prominent environmental groups that protested against nuclear technology are also available at several different organizations around the United States. These include the Committee for Nuclear Information Records at the University of Missouri; the Committee on Science and the Promotion of Human Welfare at the American Association for the Advancement of Science archives in Washington, DC; and the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy at the Swarthmore College Library. A more complete listing of these holdings can be found in Paul Rubinson’s essay “The American Antinuclear Movement,” on the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History.

Further Reading

Bocking, Stephen. Ecologists and Environmental Politics: A History of Contemporary Ecology. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997.Find this resource:

    Brown, Kate. Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

      Bruno, Laura A. “The Bequest of the Nuclear Battlefield: Science, Nature, and the Atom during the First Decade of the Cold War.” Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences 33.2 (March 1, 2003): 237–260.Find this resource:

        Cittadino, Eugene. “Paul Sears and the Plowshare Advisory Committee: ‘Subversive’ Ecologist Endorses Nuclear Excavation?” Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 45.3 (June 1, 2015): 397–446.Find this resource:

          Craige, Betty Jean. Eugene Odum: Ecosystem Ecologist and Environmentalist. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2002.Find this resource:

            Creager, Angela. Life Atomic: A History of Radioisotopes in Science and Medicine. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.Find this resource:

              Dörries, Matthias. “The Politics of Atmospheric Sciences: ‘Nuclear Winter’ and Global Climate Change.” Osiris 26.1 (January 1, 2011): 198–223.Find this resource:

                Egan, Michael. Barry Commoner and the Science of Survival. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009.Find this resource:

                  Fox, Sarah Alisabeth. Downwind: A People’s History of the Nuclear West. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014.Find this resource:

                    Gerber, Michele Stenehjem, and John M. Findlay. On the Home Front: The Cold War Legacy of the Hanford Nuclear Site, Third Edition. 3d ed. Lincoln, NE: Bison Books, 2007.Find this resource:

                      Golley, Frank B. A History of the Ecosystem Concept in Ecology. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996.Find this resource:

                        Hamblin, Jacob Darwin. Poison in the Well: Radioactive Waste in the Oceans at the Dawn of the Nuclear Age. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2009.Find this resource:

                          Hamblin, Jacob Darwin. Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism. Oxford University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

                            Kingsland, Sharon E. The Evolution of American Ecology, 1890–2000. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.Find this resource:

                              Kirchhof, Astrid Mignon, and Jan-Henrik Mayer. “Global Protest against Nuclear Power. Transfer and Transnational Exchange in the 1970s and 1980s.” Historical Social Research/Historische Sozialforschung 39.1 (2014): 165–190.Find this resource:

                                Kirsch, Scott L. Proving Grounds: Project Plowshare and the Unrealized Dream of Nuclear Earthmoving. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005.Find this resource:

                                  Klingle, Matthew W. “Plying Atomic Waters: Lauren Donaldson and the ‘Fern Lake Concept’ of Fisheries Management.” Journal of the History of Biology 31.1 (April 1, 1998): 1–32.Find this resource:

                                    Masco, Joseph. “Bad Weather: On Planetary Crisis.” Social Studies of Science 40.1 (February 2010): 7–40.Find this resource:

                                      Masco, Joseph. “The Age of Fallout.” History of the Present 5.2 (2015): 137–68.Find this resource:

                                        Melosi, Martin V. Atomic Age America. 1st ed. Boston: Routledge, 2012.Find this resource:

                                          Oatsvall, Neil. “Atomic Agriculture: Policymaking, Food Production, and Nuclear Technologies in the United States, 1945–1960.” Agricultural History 88.3 (2014): 368–387.Find this resource:

                                            Pajo, Judi. “Danger Explodes, Space Implodes: The Evolution of the Environmental Discourse on Nuclear Waste, 1945–1969.” Energy, Sustainability and Society 5.1 (December 14, 2015): 36.Find this resource:

                                              Rothschild, Rachel. “Environmental Awareness in the Atomic Age: Radioecologists and Nuclear Technology.” Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 43.4 (September 2013): 492–530.Find this resource:

                                                Rubinson, Paul. “The Global Effects of Nuclear Winter: Science and Antinuclear Protest in the United States and the Soviet Union during the 1980s.” Cold War History 14.1 (February 2014): 47–69.Find this resource:

                                                  Van Munster, Rens, and Casper Sylvest. “Pro-nuclear Environmentalism: Should We Learn to Stop Worrying and Love Nuclear Energy?” Technology and Culture 56.4 (October 2015): 789–811.Find this resource:

                                                    Waters, Colin N., James P. M. Syvitski, Agnieszka Gałuszka, Gary J. Hancock, Jan Zalasiewicz, Alejandro Cearreta, Jacques Grinevald, et al. “Can Nuclear Weapons Fallout Mark the Beginning of the Anthropocene Epoch?” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 71.3 (May 1, 2015): 46–57.Find this resource:


                                                      (1.) Robert A. Croker, Pioneer Ecologist: The Life and Work of Victor Ernest Shelford 1877–1968 (Washington, DC: Smithsonian, 1991).

                                                      (2.) Ian Stacy, “Roads to Ruin on the Atomic Frontier: Environmental Decision Making at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, 1942–1952,” Environmental History 15.3 (2010): 415–448. John M. Whiteley, “The Hanford Nuclear Reservation: The Old Realities and the New,” in Critical Masses: Citizens, Nuclear Weapons Production, and Environmental Destruction in the United States and Russia, eds. Russell J. Dalton, Paula Garb, Nicholas Lovrich, John Pierce, and John Whiteley (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999), 29–58.

                                                      (3.) Stephen Bocking, Ecologists and Environmental Politics: A History of Contemporary Ecology (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997), 64.

                                                      (4.) Angela N. H. Creager, Life Atomic: A History of Radioisotopes in Science and Medicine, 1st ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 362–363.

                                                      (5.) Elena Aronova, Karen S. Baker, and Naomi Oreskes, “Big Science and Big Data in Biology: From the International Geophysical Year through the International Biological Program to the Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) Network, 1957–Present,” Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 40.2 (May 1, 2010): 183–224.

                                                      (6.) Rachel Rothschild, “A Poisonous Sky: Scientific Research and International Diplomacy on Acid Rain,” (PhD diss., Yale University, 2015), 300–301.

                                                      (7.) Allan M. Winkler, Life Under a Cloud (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999), 101.

                                                      (8.) Winkler, Life Under a Cloud, 102–103.

                                                      (9.) E. Jerry Jessee, “Radiation Ecologies: Bombs, Bodies, and Environment during the Atmospheric Nuclear Weapons Testing Period, 1942–1965,” (PhD diss., Montana State University, 2013), 4.

                                                      (10.) Jessee, Radiation Ecologies, 6. Also see Michael Egan, Barry Commoner and the Science of Survival (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009).

                                                      (11.) J. J. Davis and R. F. Foster, “Bioaccumulation of Radioisotopes through Aquatic Food Chains,” Ecology 39.3 (July 1958): 530–535.

                                                      (12.) Creager, Life Atomic, 374.

                                                      (13.) For more on nuclear-waste dumping in the oceans, see Jacob Darwin Hamblin, Poison in the Well: Radioactive Waste in the Oceans at the Dawn of the Nuclear Age (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2009).

                                                      (14.) Martin V. Melosi, Atomic Age America, 1 edition (Boston: Routledge, 2012), 227–228.

                                                      (15.) Astrid Mignon Kirchhof and Jan-Henrik Mayer, “Global Protest against Nuclear Power: Transfer and Transnational Exchange in the 1970s and 1980s on JSTOR,” Historical Social Research/Historische Sozialforschung 39.1 (2014): 165–190.

                                                      (16.) Joel Arthur Tarr, The Search for the Ultimate Sink: Urban Pollution in Historical Perspective (Akron, Ohio: University of Akron Press, 1996).

                                                      (17.) Creager, Life Atomic, 392.

                                                      (18.) Ralph H. Lutts, “Chemical Fallout: Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Radioactive Fallout, and the Environmental Movement,” Environmental Review: ER 9.3 (1985): 211–225.

                                                      (19.) John Finney, “Data Link Soviet to Fall-Out Rise: Measurements Also Support Theory of Concentration in Northern Latitudes,” New York Times, April 27, 1959, 12.

                                                      (20.) For a detailed examination of this development, see Jacob Darwin Hamblin, Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

                                                      (21.) Rachel Rothschild, “Environmental Awareness in the Atomic Age: Radioecologists and Nuclear Technology,” Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 43.4 (September 1, 2013): 492–530.

                                                      (22.) Hamblin, Arming Mother Nature, 5.

                                                      (23.) Joseph Masco, “Bad Weather: On Planetary Crisis,” Social Studies of Science 40.1 (February 2010): 7–40. Matthias Dörries, “The Politics of Atmospheric Sciences: ‘Nuclear Winter’ and Global Climate Change,” Osiris 26.1 (January 1, 2011): 198–223.

                                                      (24.) J. R. McNeill, The Great Acceleration (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016). Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer, “The ‘Anthropocene,’” Global Change Newsletter 41 (2000): 17–18.

                                                      (25.) Mark D. Merlin and Richard M. Gonzalez, “Environmental Impact of Nuclear Testing in Remote Oceania, 1946–1996,” in Environmental Histories of the Cold War, eds. J. R. McNeill and Corinna R. Unger (Washington, DC: New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010). 167–202.

                                                      (26.) J. Samuel Walker, Permissible Dose: A History of Radiation Protection in the Twentieth Century, 1st ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 11–12.

                                                      (27.) Sarah Alisabeth Fox, Downwind: A People’s History of the Nuclear West (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014), 20–21.

                                                      (28.) Ioanna Semendeferi, “Legitimating a Nuclear Critic: John Gofman, Radiation Safety, and Cancer Risks,” Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 38.2 (2008): 259–301. Matthew L. Wald, “With New Data, a Debate on Low-Level Radiation,” The New York Times, July 19, 2005, sec. Science.

                                                      (29.) Melosi, Atomic Age America, 226.

                                                      (30.) Kate Brown, Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 223.

                                                      (31.) Peter H. Eichstaedt, If You Poison Us: Uranium and Native Americans (Santa Fe, New Mexico: Red Crane Books, 1994).

                                                      (32.) Michael A. Amundson, Yellowcake Towns—Uranium Mining Communities in the American West (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2004), xvi.

                                                      (33.) Peter D. Shemitz, “Uranium Mining: Environmental Impacts,” in Conservation and Environmentalism: An Encyclopedia, ed. Robert C. Paehlke (London: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1995), 656–659.

                                                      (34.) Rothschild, “Environmental Awareness in the Atomic Age,” 518.

                                                      (35.) Lindsay Deel, “Ocean Radioactivity after Japan Nuclear Crisis,” Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 10.1 (February 2012): 5.

                                                      (36.) Judi Pajo, “Danger Explodes, Space Implodes: The Evolution of the Environmental Discourse on Nuclear Waste, 1945–1969,” Energy, Sustainability and Society 5.1 (December 14, 2015): 36.