Joshua Silverman

"Building the Bomb in Ohio:
Environmental Safety at Fernald, 1952-1984"

by Andy McIntire & Josh Silverman


Josh Silverman, a member of the Cold War Science & Technology Studies Group, presented the final paper in the Fall 1998 Colloquium. His paper examines the closed nature of government's cold war industrial operations, maintaining that such systems tend to remain frozen in the safety and environmental practices of the time when they were built. This stasis has proven difficult to overcome for the government's cold war facilities. Silverman focuses especially on the nuclear feed materials plant at Fernald, Ohio, as an example.

Fernald was authorized and built during a period of huge AEC expansion in the early 1950s. Its creation should be understood in the context of the first Soviet atomic bomb, Korea, and National Security Council Action Memorandum 68. There was tremendous impetus on the part of the Atomic Energy Commission to get the job done, and since Fernald was an integral component of the American nuclear weapons production system, the government spared no expense getting the plant up and running as quickly as possible. Its operations were, naturally, secret.

This secrecy caused the facility to operate in a closed environment, shielded from influences that affected the rest of society and industry. At the time it opened, its production operations were similar to those found in private industry, and during the first decade of its operation, environmental safety practice at Fernald resembled that at other smelting and refining operations at non-AEC plants. National Lead, the corporate contractor at Fernald, used its prior industrial experience to manage the facility according to accepted industrial practices.

The AEC's closed, secretive operating environment shielded Fernald from changes in environmental regulation and public concern about pollution in the 1960s and 1970s. Thus environmental safety practice at Fernald began to diverge from that of comparable industrial facilities in the second and third decades of the plant's operations. Fernald operated into the 1980s in this closed, secretive environment, with contacts almost exclusively related to the nuclear weapons production system. Its operations, still consistent with industrial practices of the 1950s, had become environmental disasters.

After a series of revelations about the plant, concerned outside groups used the political process to apply external pressure to Fernald to address environmental safety. Activist organizations and neighbors of the facility raised concerns about the plant's public health and environmental impacts, and workers questioned the safety of operating conditions. Their efforts began to pay off in 1984, prompting state and federal representatives to examine the facility.

The problems were legion. When external review revealed significant problems in environmental safety at the facility, a public firestorm errupted. The existing contractor, National Lead, was quickly forced out. The problems at Fernald seemed to imply that major restructuring of the management and operation of the facility was required. The Department of Energy, successor agency to the AEC, underwent a variety of changes associated with the end of the Cold War that led to greater environmental accountability, though there are still problems. Identifying problems and forcing the agency to acknowledge that something needs to be done about them proved to be only the first step.

In conclusion, external pressure is often required to cause radical change in closed systems such as Fernald. Instituting change, however, is a difficult, time-consuming, and ongoing process. The transformation is at best incomplete, and may ultimately be beyond the capability of the DOE.

Back to Fall 1998 Program