Fallout of Manhattan Project


[B It was 1953 --seven years after Hiroshima --when President Dwight Eisenhower announced plans for the "peaceful atom" so that "the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life."[1,pg.148] The shining star of this program was to be thousands of nuclear-powered electricity-generating plants, worldwide, making electricity "too cheap to meter."[1,pg.149]

But electricity was not the only promised benefit. According to author Catherine Caufield, news articles soon began appearing with headlines such as, "Forestry Expert Predicts Atomic Rays Will Cut Lumber Instead of Saws," and "Atomic Locomotive Designed."

Between 1946 and 1961, the AEC [Atomic Energy Commission] worked diligently --and spent $1.5 billion of taxpayers' money --to develop an atomic airplane. (The entire Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb had cost $2.2 billion.) Problems with the atomic airplane were obvious from the beginning. The nuclear reactor powering the plane had to be shielded to prevent the crew from getting fried, but shielding is heavy, so an atomic-powered airplane could never get off the ground. According to NEW YORK TIMES science-columnist Peter Metzger, for a time the AEC considered reducing the shielding and employing only older pilots who wouldn't be planning to have any more children. Another problem was the radioactivity that would build up inside the nuclear engine: after running for a year, the engine would contain 20 times as much radioactivity as was released by the Hiroshima bomb. A plane crash would leave a major legacy of radioactive waste spread across the countryside.[2,pgs.203-208] The project was abandoned.

The Atoms for Peace program spawned other expensive schemes. For example, NERVA (Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application) was developed at a cost of $1.4 billion. On January 16, 1965, the AEC staged a nuclear accident in the Nevada desert; a NERVA rocket was...