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Chapter 5: Balancing Act

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In the early 1960s, the shadow of the Cuban Missile Crisis hung over the land. Many Americans feared that the country was on the brink of nuclear war. 

Schoolchildren practiced air raid drills—knees bent, heads bowed; store owners dusted off their air raid shelter signs—faded yellow backgrounds, black lettering, arrows usually pointing downward; suburbanites turned portions of their backyards into air raid shelters—holes dug deep, stocked with canned goods and bottled water. Civil defense, in short, was a national obsession.

Cresson Kearny designed and built fallout shelters for ORNL's civil defense project.
Cresson Kearny designed and built fallout shelters for ORNL's civil defense project.

In retrospect, the public reaction seems eerie and irrational, but at the time the fears were real and the threat was clearly defined by the nuclear capabilities of the Soviet Union. 

The Laboratory joined this effort in 1964 by organizing a small but vigorous Civil Defense Research Project led by one of the Laboratory's founding fathers, Eugene Wigner. Wigner believed that a strong civil defense could reduce the possibility of a nuclear confrontation by blunting the force of imprudent adventures. Other physicists were surprised by Wigner's commitment to the civil defense initiative. A Hungarian by birth and an American citizen by choice, Wigner viewed communism not only as a political challenge but a personal affront. 

The Civil Defense Research Project assessed the nation's vulnerabilities in the event of a nuclear attack and explored ways to lessen the impact of the unthinkable—an atomic assault on American soil. 

Wigner provided broad directional support for the 20-member interdisciplinary staff during his once-a-month visits to the Laboratory. James Bresee was appointed project director with responsibility for the daily research efforts. Lawrence Dresner built baffles that could weaken the shock waves expected to ripple across the land after nuclear blasts. Cresson Kearny designed and constructed a fallout shelter equipped with a fan to ventilate it and drew blueprints for homemade dosimeters that could measure radiation. 

David Nelson studied the effects of nuclear explosions and fallout on transistors and other electronic components. Conrad Chester studied the threat of chemical and biological warfare agents. Davis Bobrow examined why political officials failed to place civil defense on the top of the policy agenda. And Claire Nader, sister of political activist Ralph Nader, studied the problems that cities would face in the event of nuclear attack. The program also tracked the progress of Soviet civil defense efforts. Joanne Gailar headed this effort, which included translation and publication of a 240-page handbook, Soviet Civil Defense. 

Other areas of study included the feasibility and effectiveness of blast and fallout shelters, methods of shielding livestock from radiation (and decontaminating meat from irradiated cattle), and human reactions to stress in the wake of a nuclear attack. 

By the early 1970s, the nation's—and Laboratory's—fears of an imminent nuclear war were eclipsed by concerns about energy shortages and skyrocketing energy prices. In 1974, the Laboratory discontinued its Civil Defense Research Program and its staff either left the Laboratory or found work in other areas. The program's findings, thankfully, never found direct application; however, many of the research results have been used by civic defense organizations today in times of floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural disasters. 

The program's multidisciplinary approach foreshadowed the efforts of the Energy Division and created an opening for the fields of economics, political science, demography, and policy analysis—all of which have gained increasing acceptance at the Laboratory during the past two decades. This project was the first at any AEC laboratory to include social scientists as members of the team. 

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