TALES OF OUR TIMES: Manhattan Project Era Looms Large

Tales of Our Times
New Mexico Citizens
for Clean Air & Water


Manhattan Project Era Looms Large

The question is not whether history will be debated, but how. The key is telling how times affect deeds. If the past fades out, debate decays to mere sound and fury.

Plans for the Manhattan Project National Historical Park are in the offing. As an early step, the National Park Service and the Department of Energy are coming to town next week. The agencies seek ways to display history that changed history, its actual sites, accurate accounts of details, a breadth of aspects and human interest.

As we did in 2010, our citizens group will propose an aspect to add to the park – environmental history. The idea has two parts, events and context: 

  • The park should include interpretive materials to tell the environmental history of nuclear weapons work; and
  • This history should be set in the context of the nation’s environmental history for the same period.

In the 1940s, there were few 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.

Civilian business, 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 sites where people dumped hazardous wastes have used great sums of money to extract the movable wastes from the fields and 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 book “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 where 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 birth of laws, agencies to carry them out and engineering courses marked the 1970s.

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 eventual 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.

A very different front carries today’s breadth of views on atomic bombs in World War II. I refer to the Forum Wall at the Bradbury Science Museum, on which opposing groups display their strongly different images and views of that history.

Adjacent to the wall stands an open ledger of unlined pages, inviting visitors’ comments. Decades of ledgers have been filled with human thoughts, instincts, reactions and exchanges.   

Through them, we see the wide scope of feelings about A-bombs, pro and con – the simultaneous heroism and tragedy of war – all expressed in styles that range from the thoughtful, religious and even ironic to the crude and obscene.

The weight of opinions from all commenters is summed up in one compelling five-word comment found in one ledger. “JD from NH” wrote: “It was neat and sad.”   

Every era is a weaving of myriad events, which form the context of its times. The leaving of clear tracks that stay in their original context is a mark of an earnest nation. 


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