This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 7 No. 1, "Behind Closed Doors." Find more from that issue here.
It was perhaps inevitable that during the late 1950s one of the more excessive examples of America’s love affair with nuclear technology — a nuclear research laboratory — should come to the pristine, almost idyllic north Georgia mountains. Dawson County, some 60 miles north of Atlanta, was the site, an untended range of hill and forest where the mountains of Appalachia begin to calm and flatten. The only nearby town, Dawsonville, was noted primarily for producing Lloyd Seay, the fast-driving Georgian who entered state legend by winning one of the first major stock car races before returning home to be shot by a cousin angry over some unsettled moonshine dealings. They buried Seay in the Dawsonville cemetery, under a headstone marked by a reproduction of the newspaper photo showing him in his winning car, smiling.
Some three miles from that cemetery flows the Etowah River; it was here that the Air Force decided to research the development of an atom-driven airplane. The plane would be to the sky what nuclear submarines were to the sea, an ever-prowling war machine to constantly remind any enemy that in the event of even the most meticulously planned attack, retribution was always possible. Besides, as newspaper editorials of the time reasoned, the Soviet Union was reported fast at work on their nuclear aircraft. The United States could not afford to be left behind.
It was something of a coup for Georgia to get the Air Force lab. Roscoe Tucker, a Dawson County landowner who served as a delegate to the Republican convention which first nominated Eisenhower, had heard early on of the nascent plans for an atomic aircraft. He knew from his connections that the government would need a secluded laboratory site, and he began putting together a 10,000- acre tract. Lockheed Aircraft, with the country’s largest airplane assembly plant located in nearby Marietta, was also eager to get in on the burgeoning nuclear industry. They enjoyed their own inside track with the Air Force since Georgia’s senior senator, Richard Russell, chaired the powerful Armed Services Committee. So, in 1956, Lockheed bought Roscoe Turner’s land, then turned around and offered it to the Air Force for one dollar, provided the company be given the contract to run the facility. Over half a million dollars had gone into land acquisition, but Lockheed expected that government fees would more than make up the loss. They were right. From 1958, when the facility opened, to 1961, Lockheed received $19,224,000 to run the plant.
The Air Force also sank $14.5 million into construction costs, much of that going to General Electric for two low-power nuclear reactors. The smaller of the two, called the Critical Experimental Reactor, followed a standard design and was shielded in concrete. At its height, the CER produced three megawatts of power. The companion Radiation Effects Reactor yielded 10 megawatts. Its size was not unusual, but it was the only unshielded reactor in the country. When not in use, the RER sat on a hydraulic lift at the bottom of a 38-foot pool of water. When operating at full power, the reactor was exposed to air, and radiation could move in an unimpeded circle across the landscape.
From the Air Force’s point of view, this exposure was just fine. They wanted to see how large quantities of material — entire sections of an airplane, for example — would withstand constant radioactive bombardment. Other laboratory buildings, warehouses, a railroad spur, a cooling area and an administrative complex were designed to meet this primary purpose. Two fences to keep people out were built, one which encompassed the full 10,000 acres and another set 3,600 feet from the unshielded radiation source. But many residents of Dawson County still worried when they heard about the reactors. Since the Etowah River flowed only 750 feet from the RER, they expressed special concern that the water might be contaminated by radioactive runoff. At a kickoff dinner, Lockheed vice president Dan Haughton1 assured everyone that water contamination would be nonexistent. Lockheed installed water samplers downstream to keep their promise.
Records indicate the water quality was never compromised. Escapage of radiation through the air, however, may have caused problems. At full power, the RER cast out beyond the 3600-foot barrier up to one rem per hour, a radiation level considered safe in the 1950s. More recent research has lowered acceptable radiation exposure levels. For nuclear employees, the yearly allowable level is five rems; but for the general public, it’s only five millirems. During the RER’s life, then, it is likely a number of workers and some civilians received more cumulative radiation than is now thought wise.
As it happened, changing military priorities actually cut RER’s life rather short. Almost as soon as the research facility was built, the need for it vanished. By 1958, Air Force interest in a nuclear plane waned, and when John Kennedy became president, he ordered the project cancelled.
The Air Force initiated plans to warehouse the laboratory, but was convinced instead to turn the site over to other government agencies. NASA paid Lockheed $800,000 annually to do experiments for its RIFT (Reactor in Flight Program) project. Again RER bathed large equipment with controlled radiation doses. The RIFT duty left the RER with a lot of free time, and during the years when the laboratory’s future seemed uncertain, universities leased time for a number of experiments. According to people who worked there during the early 1960s, the experiments included such things as irradiating primates to see what they could take before dying.
One of the better known projects carried out by Emory University concerned radiation’s effect on plant life. The RER, a researcher commented, could provide a good simulation of what it would be like following an atomic blast. By letting the reactor run at full power for 10 hours, the surrounding vegetation would get a taste of life after a nuclear explosion.
There was no immediate effect, but in the fall trees closest to the reactor shed their leaves up to a month early, and leafed out next spring a month late. Then the vegetation started to die. Among the trees, pines went first. Hardwoods lasted longer. The most resilient were the weeds. Andrew Sparks, an Atlanta reporter invited out to view the experiment’s results, described the midsummer forest near the RER this way:
Pine trees are brown and lifeless. Oaks look as bare as in midwinter except for tight dusters of leaves near the trunk and these leaves are abnormal and misshapen. Some of them are two and three times their usual length and ruffled along the midribs as if they had been stitched up on a sewing machine. Buckeyes, surely at the end of their luck, grow leaves that might have been dreamed up in some botanical crazy house. Even the poison ivy looks sick —splotched and blistered as if it had received a dose of its own medicine.
Robert Platt of Emory’s biology department, the man in charge of the project, observed, “This shortening of the life span is one of the most interesting effects of radiation. Scientists think it happens to man too.”
In spite of such experiments, the RER proved a continual burden. Few projects needed the large sweep of radiation it provided. The drop in work meant a drop in employment. At its height the laboratory had given jobs to almost 300 people; by the mid-1960s that number had dropped to around 150. In the beginning, 25 health physicists monitored radiation, but they also felt the budget crunch, and their number dwindled to one or two by the late 1960s.
In 1965 the Air Force turned the site over to the General Services Administration for disposal. Despite all the money that had been poured into construction, the government felt it would be cheaper to get rid of the facility than be stuck with caretaker bills. It had been a waste of money from the start, and when the GSA advertised the laboratory for bids it received only one — from Lockheed. The GSA advertised for bids a second time; again only Lockheed expressed interest. So in 1966 the GSA sold Lockheed the 10,000 acres — plus an estimated $7.5 million worth of real property — for $1,201,000. The site, known during its military days as Air Force 67, officially became the Georgia Nuclear Laboratory.
It’s uncertain why Lockheed felt it could succeed where the government had failed, but shifting from public to private hands did little to halt the facility’s slide. Work continued to come piecemeal. Lockheed built some demonstration reactors for the “Atoms for Peace” program, worked on the irradiation of food for preservation, developed a wood/plastic amalgam (called Lockwood) that promptly went nowhere. The RER had been sunk into its pool and forgotten, while its supporting hot cell was given over to other jobs.
One job entailed encapsulating Cobalt 60 for hospitals and universities. Inside the protected interior of the hot cell the radioactive isotope was handled with mechanical arms and safely shielded before being removed to the outside. The work with Cobalt 60 began in 1967, and later that year an accident occurred which would haunt the area.
Cobalt 60 is a pernicious isotope in that it is such an effective contaminant. It adheres easily to exposed surfaces in a process similar to rusting iron; one person who has worked with Cobalt 60 describes it as “throwing flour into the air. It gets on everything, and you have to be really careful not to track it in or out.” To prevent the Cobalt 60 in the hot cell from escaping to the clean areas of the laboratory building, the cell was negatively pressurized. Air inside the cell would be below normal air pressure, so that air flowed in only one direction: out of the clean laboratory into the radioactive cell. Air was vented from the cell through a special regulator called a damper.
One day in 1967,a mechanical failure prevented the damper from opening. Pressure within the hot cell began to rise, and before long the air flow reversed; breezes laden with micro-scopic radioactive particles of Cobalt 60 began issuing out of the hot cell into the laboratory’s air conditioning system. Most of the laboratory building was contaminated before the problem with the damper was discovered and corrected.
Lockheed evacuated the building and called in a decontamination crew. According to some former employees, cost of the decontamination neared half a million dollars, and when it was finished, the company reported to the AEC that the accident had been corrected. The laboratory checked out clean, and workers returned.
But during the decontamination, one area had been missed or simply ignored. A concrete air duct ran below the floor of the hot cell. When pressure had reversed, a large concentration of Cobalt 60 particles had lodged in the duct. They remained there after the job was over. It is possible they were left behind because, by being in the hot cell floor, their radiation was shielded, and as long as the facility continued to operate normally, the negative air pressure would protect the particles from escaping.
Only one other accident involving radioactive material is known to have occurred at the Georgia Nuclear Laboratory, and the date and details of the event are uncertain. 11 happened in a storage area across the Etowah River from the rest of the facility. When the RER was active, the area had been the cooling-off spot for trains carrying irradiated materials. But as use of the reactor declined, the cooling-off spot was given over to the storage of high-level Cobalt 60 waste prior to shipment to Barnwell, South Carolina, for disposal. The laboratory stored its waste in 55-gallon drums, and at some point the drums leaked radioactive contamination into the environment. One theory is that the drums rusted through, and the Cobalt 60 waste was spread by ground water movement. Some claim that tornado velocity winds tore into the dump once, throwing drums around and cracking a few to leak waste. One way or the other, Cobalt 60 residue was scattered over the storage area.
By 1970 Lockheed decided to close the lab. Only a caretaker staff remained. At this point, the city of Atlanta contacted the company to inquire about purchasing the land for a second airport site. Following a round of discussions, the city agreed to pay $5 million for the acreage if Lockheed could prepare the site and get the transaction cleared by the federal government.
“Lockheed could have sold it as a going concern to Westinghouse or somebody else. That would have been the thing to do,” Lockheed public relations officer Joe Dabney claims now. “But the city of Atlanta wanted this area, so we agreed to clean it up. We didn’t really get much from it. As things turned out, maybe we should have sold it to Westinghouse.”
In 1969 Georgia had signed an agreement with the AEC which turned over administration of most nuclear material licenses to the Georgia Department of Health’s Radiological Health Service. Richard Fetz, a longtime state employee, headed the service. When Lockheed inquired about preparing the land for sale, Fetz made a trip to Washington to discuss with the AEC how Georgia could become the regulating body for the site.
The AEC decided that if the reactor cores were transferred elsewhere, the state could decommission the rest of the facility. When the AEC received confirmation of the action, the state Radiological Health Service took over.
“We sat down with the Lockheed people to figure out exactly how the decommissioning would go,” Fetz says. “Lockheed said they didn’t have the expertise for it, and the state certainly didn’t have the staff, so it was decided to go with an outside company.”
Georgia hired Atcor, an Elmwood, New York, firm with a history of decommissioning atomic reactors, and the state provided people to check the competency of the work. Lockheed picked up the tab, reportedly close to $5 million.
The dismantling proceeded smoothly until the Atcor people got to the hot cell, where they found Cobalt 60 had coated the walls. An inspection disclosed the air duct contaminated in the 1967 accident. It was too dangerous, they decided, to tear down the whole building. Instead, they ordered the walls scraped and the concrete air duct broken up with jackhammmers before being sent to Barnwell, South Carolina, for storage. The work on the hot cell proceeded 24 hours a day and lasted from late March to late June, 1972. When the air duct was destroyed, dust from the activity spread out over the site, carrying minute particles of Cobalt 60. Supervisors from the Radiological Health Service noticed the dust and directed pickup of some of the hotter areas. Getting all of it, they decided, was impossible.
Decommissioning was finished June 22. Radiations levels were declared to be not more than .2 millirems an hour above background level averaged over 10 centimeters squared, with no localized spot exceeding one millirem per hour. Fetz admitted that, despite the effort of his department, some areas containing radioactive material may have been missed. But on the whole, the Radiological Health Service assured, “the best interests of public radiological safety have been met even though some trace amounts of radioactive material necessarily cannot be removed.”
The city of Atlanta signed the contract with Lockheed and became the new owner of the site. In 1975, with plans for a second airport still in the future, the city decided to lease the area to the Georgia Forestry Commission, which promised to manage it. The former nuclear facility had already become a popular spot for people in Dawson County. Visitors explored the area, carrying away souvenirs or discarded building material destined for personal use. A 1975 photo from the area shows a deep trench in front of the hot cell filled with pieces of scrap. Dawson County natives say it was not uncommon to find “doughnuts” carved in the dirt beside the hot cell, physical reminders of teenagers who found the abandoned area conducive to spinning out with motorcycles and automobiles. Picnickers used slabs taken from the hot cell as tables, and campers were said to use the still standing hot cell building as shelter.
Fetz remembers that he returned to the property more than once and was bothered by open holes left in the floor of the hot cell where Atcor had punched through to destroy the contaminated air duct. He thought people might fall into the holes and impale themselves on support rods. Complaints to the state brought no action.
One thing that did not disturb Fetz was radiation. He remained confident of his work. Rumors circulated regularly through the county of lingering dangers from radioactivity at the former nuclear laboratory, but in a 1975 story done by the Times of nearby Gainesville, Fetz discounted the whispered complaints. “I wouldn’t be inclined to eat the soil,” he told reporter Alma Bowen, ‘‘but otherwise it is not dangerous.”
That remained the official line until late 1976 when the Forestry Commission subleased the 10,000 acres to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources for use as a hunting ground. Just that year the DNR had received funds for its own radiological inspection unit, a unit that, unlike the Department of Human Resources Radiological Health Service, would be specifically concerned with contamination of the environment. After a survey headed by T. Roland Phillips, fences marked with “No Trespassing” signs and topped with barbed wire suddenly appeared around the hot cell and the former cooling-off area. Trucks spread dirt two feet deep in a circle around the hot cell. The doors left open for almost five years were sealed shut, and holes where pipes had entered and exited were filled with concrete.
Parishioners of Salem Church woke one Sunday morning, got dressed for services, and drove down the old Salem Church Road only to find their path had been fenced off. Complaints to county officials were relayed to the state and a belated explanation was given: the 1976 study had found “unsafe” levels of radiation. “We are concerned that people will be building campfires, opening beans, and eating them on this ground,” James Setser, supervisor of the DNR’s radiation unit, said. Strangely, the event was given attention only in the Gainesville Times, which printed the story in a low-key manner on March 9, 1977.
Full results of the survey went unpublished for more than a year, until Bill Brooks, who provided research for this article, took Atlanta Constitution reporter Chester Goolrick to the site. Only recently, the paper had printed an article about nuclear contamination in Erwin, Tennessee, and the story about the Georgia Nuclear Laboratory seemed a good local piece with which to follow. On Sunday, May 14, 1978, Goolrick’s story received banner front page display in Georgia’s most widely read newspaper. Suddenly all those people who had been happily scouting around Dawson County were deeply worried.
The 1976 investigation shows flatly that the cleanup four years earlier had been insufficient. Initial findings indicated radioactivity levels from five to 125 times higher than allowed for in the 1972 decommissioning. The final study outlined the problem in greater detail. Even after four years, all five of the areas formerly licensed by the state were found to be still hot, though most fell well beneath the 1972 guidelines for direct radiation. The cooling-off area, however, had one spot rated at 50 millirems an hour and another rated at 100 millirems per hour.
Far more dangerous was the residual Cobalt 60; “significant amounts” were found at the cooling-off area, seepage pits and hot cell. The hot cell was the most heavily contaminated, apparently as a result of the dust spread by Atcor workers. DNR officials found micron-sized particles of Cobalt 60 on everything — walls, ground and the concrete slabs used by campers as picnic tables. Some of the oxidized isotope was firmly attached and of minor concern as a direct radiation source. But enough was mobile for Phillips to declare in his report that “In all areas, except the reactor area at this time, there is definitely a significant radiation hazard with regard to internal exposure to individuals, it is probable and a real possibility that persons in these areas could in some manner ingest or inhale the particulate matter. ”
The scuffed floor of the hot cell with freely moveable dust; the stretch of ground in front of the building where teenagers had played in automobiles, raising thick clouds of dirt; the stone slabs on which picnic meals had been spread — all could have sent invisible particles of Cobalt 60 into some unaware person’s body. Building material from the same area had been surplused and given away to locals during the 1972 decommissioning. Some of it had gone into the local schools and hospital, some into private residences. That material, too, might have carried Cobalt 60.
No illness related to radiation had been reported by visitors to the area; whether because hone had occurred, it hadn’t been discovered, it had yet to develop, or it was attributed to some other cause is unknown. Even the low levels given off by the Cobalt 60 found in Dawson County may cause damage if exposure continues long enough. The isotope, if inhaled, can lodge in the lungs and cause radiation burns, or if it is ingested, can be carried through the blood stream, insoluble, to different body organs, where it would stay until no longer radioactive. But since the latency period for cancers resulting from such low-level exposure is estimated at between 10 and 50 years, it will be well into the 1980s and beyond before anyone will know whether contamination of the Dawson Forest was harmless. The effect of residual low-level radiation is still a topic for debate, so state officials could claim, as James Setser does, that even the higher-than-allowed-for contamination levels were not really all that dangerous.
“We knew it was something,’’ he says, but we didn’t feel it was a serious threat.” The two fenced-off areas were closed not because people going into them were in serious danger, he adds, but because present state policy is to reduce public exposure to radiation as much as possible. “We felt that there we could do something to reduce the risk, so we did it.”
Not everyone agrees. As Bob Boyd, a meteorologist at the Georgia Nuclear Laboratory now at the Georgia Institute of Technology, comments, “Most people would have disagreed that [the decommissioning] was handled properly and wasn’t dangerous.”
State officials attribute the discrepancy between the 1972 and 1976 surveys to differing methods of study. Setser, obviously reluctant to criticize another state agency, says, “I do know there has been a complete difference in philosophy since 1972. Now we believe that radiation should be reduced to the absolute minimum where possible. The earlier idea was that you just had to reach certain levels. But how can you say if a level is safe? We just don’t know.”
Fetz, who still maintains confidence in his 1972 work, agrees, pointing out that he and his men simply walked an area measuring general radiation, while Phillips’ crew scoured the ground on hands and knees, finding localized hot spots. Even so, Fetz’s authorized report had claimed no localized spots emitting over one millirem per hour, which now seems impossible, since a number of general levels wete found to be higher in 1976 than that allowed for in the 1972 decommissioning standards.
By the time the public was notified of the continuing dangers from radiation, the state had hurriedly erected “No Trespassing” signs and fences — as if to solve the problem by isolating it. Yet when reporters went out to view the sealed-off places in May, 1978, they found a hole had been torn into the hot cell big enough for a man to crawl through, and dirt covering the Cobalt 60-contaminated ground was being eroded away. Precautions were immediately stepped up. The hole was filled again, patrols of the area increased, and game wardens told to arrest anyone found inside the marked fences. At a cost of $40,000, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission conducted a flyover to check for higherthan- acceptable levels of radiation in the 10,000 acres. Their survey confirmed the 1976 conclusions. Dawson County remains a hot spot.
The threat of direct contamination of the public from the radiation at the Georgia Nuclear Laboratory now seems halted, but the main issue of the drawn-out affair remains unresolved. What happens after a nuclear operation is no longer needed? The young atomic industry has barely addressed the question; it has focused on the problem of building nuclear facilities instead of the difficulties of dismantling them and disposing of waste. The Georgia Nuclear Laboratory was a site of minor complexity compared to most nuclear facilities currently under construction. If decommissioning so easily went wrong there, who’s to say the same won’t happen when a truly dangerous area is scheduled for cleaning?
“That’s getting to the heart of it,” James Setser says. “The NRC is at work right now to establish criteria for decommissioning of nuclear sites. A lot of other facilities have been decommissioned badly. Not everybody likes the way things have been carried out. I think the Department of Energy has about 150 sites nationally they’re looking at, many of them much worse than Dawson County. All of this has put pressure on the NRC, and points criteria for decommissioning.”
“Dawson County is an example of a larger problem. The larger problem is the use of nuclear material and experimentation techniques without adequate concern over public health.” Janet Lowe says this quietly. She is a member of Georgians Against Nuclear Energy, the most active anti-nuclear organization in the state. “I would just like the public to question if they want to put their tax dollars into this sort of pursuit. What did we get out of Dawson County? What research that aided mankind, or anyone, came out of it?”
She pauses for a moment. “I just wonder what’s going to happen when all these places are closed. All you can do in some cases is pour concrete over everything. What it means is that the nation is going to be pockmarked with these areas you can’t go into.”
The Georgia Nuclear Laboratory looms from the forest unexpectedly, a flattened area strewn with slabs of concrete, presided over by the twostory rectangular hot cell. Abandoned, angular, it has the geometric clarity of Aztec temples in the jungles of Mexico. A discarded shrine. The facility is eerie as the sky darkens and the air cools with the evening, and hunters’ guns echo in the distance. To what gods are these temples erected? And what form of sacrifice will they eventually ask?
1. Dan Haughton later became president and chairman of Lockheed, guiding it through the expose of the C-5A scandal (the huge aircraft, built in Marietta under a controversial Air Force contract, kept dropping wheels and suffering wing cracks), and through the eventual bail-out of Lockheed by the federal government in the early 1970s. Making promises to the public became something of a habit for Haughton during those years.
Mitchell Shields is an Atlanta freelance writer whose work has appeared in a number of regional and national publications. (1979)
Bill Brooks was raised and still lives in Jasper, Georgia, which is about 20 miles from the Georgia Nuclear Laboratory. About a year ago, he took a Geiger counter to the site, found excessive radiation levels and has tried to get the danger corrected ever since. (1979)