By Paul Priest
I recently attended a book tour presentation by Kate Brown, author of Manual for Survival: a Chernobyl Guide to the Future, during which she encouraged the audience to do their bit by becoming citizen-scientists so as to become more capable of evaluating claims about issues that affects all our lives, such as the Chernobyl nuclear reactor explosion and subsequent health effects. And in a recent MIT News article, she encouraged scientists to do their bit: “I would like scientists to know a bit more about the history behind the science.” She encourages this deeper engagement because, as her book demonstrates, particular political circumstances can affect the content and presentation of the scientific conclusions to the public.
So, as a first step toward becoming such a citizen-scientist-historian, I decided to try some primary document research related to radiation safety. I knew that Seattle was one of the regional locations for the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), so I searched their website for clues. As luck would have it, “RG 326.4.3 containing Records of the Idaho Operations Office (Idaho Falls, ID)” of the Atomic Energy Commission are stored in Seattle. Good thing, my travel budget is nil. The description of the records was rather broad and the records themselves occupied 203.23 cubic feet. I’d need to narrow my request quite a bit.
I emailed NARA Seattle asking for further assistance. I received an auto-reply telling me I would hear from a staff member within 10 days to 2 weeks. Thirteen days later a staff member replied, attaching a finding aid containing a more detailed description of the record group that would help me narrow my request, and a guide to how to do in-person research at NARA Seattle. I looked over the various topics contained within the record group and replied with a request to see Box 1 and 2, containing “Incident Reports” on environmental radiation from the 1950s -60s. Seemed a fruitful topic. We agreed on a date for me to view the records.
On the appointed day I hopped on my bike and rode to NARA, located just off the Burke-Gilman trail. After reading the instructions on how to handle original text records I was issued a researcher’s card and was allowed to enter the reading room where my boxes awaited.
A note on what’s allowed in the reading room: Among other prohibited items, no pens, highlighters or post-it notes allowed. Pencils, computers and cell phones are fine.
The boxes I requested contained monthly incident reports by the Health Physics Section of Phillips Petroleum, one of the contractors the AEC oversaw at the Idaho National Laboratory. The lab operated several prototype reactors and a chemical processing plant that separated out uranium from spent fuel. The most interesting part of each report was the “Unusual Occurrences” section. Some months were usual, some were not. Occurrences ranged dramatically from confiscating a truck driver’s lightly radioactive gloves –don’t worry, he was reimbursed $2.98 for them –to providing “…decontamination and technician support to the Los Alamos and IDO teams decontaminating bodies from the SL-1 incident.” Say what? Wow, that did not sound good.
I had never heard of the SL-1 incident and the documents only described
decontamination activities after the event, not the nature of the incident itself. But a quick web search revealed that SL-1 was the first small low-power prototype reactor the military was developing for providing power in remote locations. Three servicemen were killed on the night of Jan. 3, 1961 when the central control rod was withdrawn too far out of the reactor, causing the core to go to Prompt Critical, which in milliseconds led to a lethal series of events.
A detailed description of the event can be found here: https://factsheets.inl.gov/FactSheets/PtP-chapter15.pdf
A more mundane incident occurred during a routine radiation survey. An unattended cup was emitting radiation. It was removed for further analysis, which revealed naturally occurring uranium in the cup’s glaze. Cup was returned to owner.
Digging some more through my boxes made it clear that The Health Physics Section regularly monitored the surrounding environment through air, soil, and other sampling, including jackrabbit bones. There were no radiation protection standards for jackrabbits at the time but levels were dutifully recorded anyway.
In an excellent example of how radiation can spread globally, air samples in September and October of 1961 picked up evidence of numerous Soviet nuclear weapons tests.
Temporary evacuation of buildings due to radiation contamination occurred on a fairly regular basis but were usually judged not to have caused any serious health risks — annual external exposure limits for AEC employees and contractors were up to three times higher than current standards. Not surprisingly, a number of those who worked at the facility have subsequently filed claims for compensation through the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act (2000).
Monthly safety inspection reports also described more familiar and recurrent problems: ungrounded electrical outlets, debris in hallways, a container labelled “unsure of contents”, frayed wiring and disorganized storage areas. I can imagine dour-faced safety techs hectoring staff about their bad habits.
So that’s my glimpse of radiation safety culture at the AEC Idaho Falls facility from 1958-1961. I’m still no citizen-scientist-historian, and therefore will avoid making any broad conclusions from my dilettante’s foray. But, at least I mastered some of the mechanics of primary documents research. Now, NARA seems much more accessible to me. The staff were helpful, friendly and have plenty of free pencils –so retro! I hope to visit them again sometime soon.
If you want to do some in-person research at a NARA site, I recommend starting by reading this page: https://www.archives.gov/research/start/plan-your-visit