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Chapter 1: Wartime Laboratory

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SAFETY MARGINS

A major concern of Clinton Laboratories during the war was the potential effect of radiation on health. The Oak Ridge facility hired health physicists who monitored radiation throughout the X-10 area, introduced measures for personnel safety, and conducted research on radiation and its effects. Caged rodents were placed near the reactor to detect the effects of any escaping radiation. Despite these precautions, the rush to meet deadlines and aid the war effort sometimes led to radiation overexposures.

A victim of one of the largest radiation exposures during the war was Martin Whitaker, director of Clinton Laboratories. On the west side of the Graphite Reactor was a large opening through the concrete shield to the graphite-uranium pile. Materials such as shielding samples were placed in the opening to test their ability to stop radiation. When testing was not under way, water was pumped into a tank in the opening to block the radiation.

Martin Whitaker (right), director of Clinton Laboratories, discusses wartime administration problems with, from left, Colonel J.S. Hodgson, Robert Thumser, and Colonel
K.D. Nichols.
Martin Whitaker (right), director of Clinton Laboratories, discusses wartime administration problems with, from left, Colonel J.S. Hodgson, Robert Thumser, and Colonel K.D. Nichols.

While escorting dignitaries from Washington, D.C., on an inspection of the Graphite Reactor in 1944, Martin Whitaker ignored "No Admittance" signs and took the visitors past the front of the tank, thinking it full of water. Unfortunately, it had been drained. The exposure to radiation could be only estimated, not measured, because no one in the group wore a dosimeter. The chief health physicist later called this debacle a blessing in disguise, because health physics regulations thereafter became mandatory at Clinton Laboratories.

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