Nuclear History

By Olwell, Russell | Academe, January/February 2007 | Go to article overview

Nuclear History


Olwell, Russell, Academe


The American Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, has an exhibition detailing the cleanup of the chemical and atomic waste left behind from its role as a processor of uranium and plutonium for the Manhattan Project, the U.S. effort to develop nuclear weapons during World War II. The final result is a pit filled in and covered over with a thick layer of concrete.

The same fate may be in store for the field of nuclear history, where tightened federal classification rules threaten to close off a whole area of the past. The death of nuclear history is not natural or unavoidable. In fact, the wide proliferation of nuclear weapons in the past decade makes the field more relevant than ever. The issues that initially drew scholars into the field-nuclear proliferation, the amis race, and international control of atomic energy-are again in the headlines. As nuclear technology spreads to more countries, a new generation of American policy makers worries about how to get the atomic genie back into the bottle, just as its predecessors did in 1945. Moreover, nuclear historians have continued to ask hard questions, such as why do Americans feel they need to police proliferation, and has there been any real atomic secret since Hiroshima?

Recent historical accounts, such as Martin Sherwin and Kai Bird's Pulitzer Prize-winning American Prometheus: ne Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Jennet Conant's 109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the secret City of Los Alamos; and Priscilla McMillan's The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Birth of the Modern Arms Race demonstrate that the history of America's nuclear projects and the people who built them are timely and important, worthy of scholarly and popular notice.

Such historical work is not done overnight, however. Much of the scholarship published recently was decades in the making and draws on documents declassified in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. It is not an overstatement to say that nuclear history is a child of the 1966 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and of numerous lawsuits and actions that led to declassification of key collections and documents.

For example, my own research on the history of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was made possible in 1994 when the U.S. Department of Energy released documents whose declassification revealed human radiation experiments in which thousands of individuals were exposed to radiation without their consent. …

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