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Life AtomicA History of Radioisotopes in Science and Medicine$

Angela N. H. Creager

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780226017808

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: January 2014

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226017945.001.0001

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(p.351) Chapter Ten Ecosystems
Life Atomic

Angela N. H. Creager

University of Chicago Press

Abstract and Keywords

Ecology was profoundly shaped by the AEC through the agency’s investigations of the environmental consequences of radioactive contaminants and ecologists’ use of radioisotopes in analyzing the flow of materials and energy through ecosystems. This chapter traces how radioisotopes became tools in ecology and argues that this research strategy favored the development of ecosystems ecology. The ecological contributions of G. Evelyn Hutchinson and his collaborators at Yale feature in the early part of this chapter. One finds a surprising degree of conceptual commonality between this use of tracers in radioecology and in metabolic biochemistry and physiology. The second part of the chapter focuses on the development of radioecology at three AEC installations: Hanford, Oak Ridge, and Savannah River. In these sites, radioactive waste itself provided tracers for ecological research, yielding information about the movement of materials through aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. In the end, radioisotopes became “model pollutants” for developing means of detecting other environmental contaminants, especially synthetic chemicals.

Keywords:   Radioecology, Ecosystem, G. Evelyn Hutchinson, U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, Hanford, Oak Ridge, Savannah River, Stanley Auerbach, Eugene P. Odum, Bioconcentration

Man's opportunity to learn more about environmental processes through the use of radioactive tracers balances the possible troubles he may have with environmental contamination. Radioactive tracers have already been well exploited by the physiologist, but the ecologist is just beginning to develop techniques for studies in “community metabolism” as it becomes clear that with proper precautions radioactive tracers can be used as safely in the field as in the laboratory.—Eugene P. Odum, 19591

The availability of radioisotopes impacted not only biomedicine but also environmental science, particularly through the emergence of ecosystems ecology.2 In the field, ecologists used radioisotopes to physically trace the movement of materials and energy through ecosystems, emulating how biochemists and physiologists used radioisotopes in the laboratory to elucidate pathways of metabolism. The AEC supported much of this research in order to track the effects of effluents and radioactive waste from its plants. The three most important sites for the development of radioecology were part of the agency—Hanford Works, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and the University of Georgia research station at the Savannah River plant. The ecosystems approach, fostered by the AEC, was subsequently used to understand the spread of other kinds of contaminants through the environment.

Arthur Tansley introduced the term “ecosystem” in 1935 in an article reflecting on the contributions of Frederic Clements.3 Clements's (p.352) ecological theory relied on two key ideas: first, building on Henry C. Cowles's work, that plant formations follow a predetermined pattern of succession, leading to the climax community; and second, that a plant community functions as a complex organism with its own life cycle and evolutionary development.4 Tansley was critical of Clements's theory for treating animals and plants as “members” of the same biotic community; this was “to put on an equal footing things which in their whole nature and behaviour are too different.”5 A more sensible overarching unit, in Tansley's view, should encompass nonliving as well as living components:

The more fundamental conception is, as it seems to me, the whole system (in the sense of physics), including not only the organism-complex, but also the whole complex of physical factors forming what we call the environment of the biome—the habitat factors in the widest sense.6

In addition, preferring materialist causes to the vitalistic and idealistic overtones of community-as-organism, Tansley attributed the self-regulatory aspects of ecosystems to the stable interaction of their physical, chemical, and biological components.7 In this sense the ecosystem was, as Frank Golley has put it, “a machine theory applied to nature.”8 Nonetheless, as historians of ecology have pointed out, the neologism tended to be used as simply a new term for biotic community or complex organism, retaining Clements's organicism.9

(p.353) The material basis of ecological knowledge suggests another reason why the ecosystem continued to be figured as an organism. With radioisotopes, the ecosystem could be treated like an organism or cell whose chemical pathways could be traced out. Whereas Tansley had suggested “ecosystem” to rid ecology of the term “biotic community,” the use of isotopes to follow metabolic pathways in both physiology and ecology kept the organismal conception in play. As G. Evelyn Hutchinson noted in a book review of Bio-Ecology by Frederic Clements and Victor Shelford: “If, as is insisted, the community is an organism, it should be possible to study the metabolism of that organism.”10 The following year, Hutchinson made good on this analogy, publishing an article entitled “The Mechanisms of Intermediary Metabolism in Stratified Lakes.”11

At the same time, Hutchinson shared with Tansley a commitment to the critical role of nonliving environmental components in the functioning of a “community.” His pioneering use of isotopes to trace the development and metabolism of aquatic communities in Connecticut showed how elements moved among sediment, microorganisms such as plankton, and larger organisms such as fish. These nutrient cycles rendered Tansley's ecosystem in concrete terms. In addition, the representational practices involved in mapping the patterns of circulation in an ecosystem manifested the epistemological links between metabolic biochemistry and biogeochemical studies of ecosystems.12 Hutchinson's understanding of ecosystems spread through American ecology after World War II due in part to the work of AEC scientists at Hanford, Oak Ridge, and Savannah, Georgia, who followed radioisotopes through aquatic and terrestrial systems to understand the cycling of nutrients and the movement of radioactive waste.

Bodies of Water

Freshwater ecology, or limnology, proved a more promising arena for the application of Tansley's unit of “ecosystem” than the British scientist's (p.354) own field of terrestrial plant ecology.13 Stephen Forbes, in his classic article “The Lake as a Microcosm,” had described the lake as “an organic complex” in equilibrium as early as 1887.14 Along similar lines, August Thienemann had treated the lake as a unit, describing it as a “biosystem” in 1918.15 The relative boundedness of freshwater bodies made the movement of materials through organisms, and more specifically, through different levels of organisms, tractable for investigation. Raymond Lindeman's doctoral dissertation at the University of Minnesota included analysis of the results from extensively sampling the inhabitants of Cedar Creek Bog, a shallow body of water “lying in the transition between late lake succession and early terrestrial succession.”16 With the collaboration of his wife, Eleanor Hall Lindeman, he surveyed a wide variety of organisms—including aquatic plants, phytoplankton, zooplankton, insects, crustaceans, and fish—enabling what Robert Cook termed “a very intimate understanding of the movement of nutrients from one trophic level to another.”17 The concluding chapter of Lindeman's dissertation related these findings conceptually to the ecological concepts of “community” (as treated by Clements, Thienemann, and, more critically, Tansley) and succession.

Lindeman studied with Hutchinson as a Sterling postdoctoral fellow from late 1941 until June 1942, the month of his untimely death at age twenty-seven. While in New Haven, Lindeman revised this final theoretical chapter of his dissertation and submitted it for publication in Ecology.18 Both men had been trying to develop a framework for understanding how energy, once captured from sunlight, is transferred from plants to other organisms, and then along the food chain. Through their collaboration, Lindeman was able to utilize some of Hutchinson's key concepts by interpreting these nutritional and energy relationships in the aquatic environment he understood so deeply.19 Their notion of trophic dynamics was a way of recasting Charles Elton's food chain, which represented feeding (p.355) relationships as a “pyramid of numbers.” Rather than understanding these relationships governing prey and predator as related to animal size, Lindeman focused on the movement of material and energy between the different trophic levels—viewed as producers and consumers.20

Lindeman's published paper drew on data from his own work and those of others to calculate the productivity of various food groups and food cycles, but much of the paper was a theoretical contribution.21 As he noted, earlier studies of trophic levels tended to restrict analysis to the flow of materials and energy between living components, namely the food cycle. He took a more broadly biogeochemical (and Hutchinsonian) approach: “Upon further consideration of the trophic cycle, the discrimination between living organisms as parts of the ‘biotic community’ and dead organisms and inorganic nutritives as parts of the ‘environment’ seems arbitrary and unnatural.”22 At the heart of Lindeman's schematic diagram of food-cycle relationships was “non-living nascent ooze,” much of which “is rapidly reincorporated through ‘dissolved nutrients’ back into the living ‘biotic community.’”23 He contended that the data of dynamic ecology are best understood in terms of Tansley's notion of ecosystem, “composed of physical-chemical-biological processes active within a space-time unit of any magnitude, i.e., the biotic community plus its abiotic environment.”24 Lindeman differentiated three trophic groups: producers (autotrophic plants which synthesized complex organic substances from simple inorganic compounds, using energy from photosynthesis), primary consumers (herbivores), and secondary consumers (predators). These categories had been employed before, but Lindeman showed how they were related to energy flows. Energy was lost as it flowed through higher trophic levels, so consumers at these higher levels must necessarily be more efficient at retaining energy.

Lindeman's article also aimed at showing how attention to the flow of energy between different trophic levels related to ecological succession. In this sense, his articulation of ecosystems theory retained the underlying (p.356) metaphor of embryological development that had informed the superorganismic “community” of Clements and John Phillips.25 However, his attention to how nutrients entered into and cycled through the biotic and abiotic parts of the system illuminated a different temporal dimension: the “metabolism” of the ecosystem. Here his work drew on biogeochemistry as it had been established by Vladimir Vernadsky.26 Hutchinson had already been drawing on Vernadsky's approach through a decade's work on the movement of elements in aquatic systems.27 Here the organizing metaphor was one of homeostasis and equilibrium, rather than growth and development.28 The inspiration was not embryology, but physiology.

Hutchinson had previously appropriated the biochemical notion of metabolism for an aquatic body. The fourth paper in his study of lakes in Connecticut, published in 1941, examined the phosphorus cycle in Linsley Pond “as a specific example of intermediary metabolism.”29 He argued that the phosphorus cycle in the lake was “ideally closed” it could be effectively “understood without reference to anything but the events in the water and the mud with which it is in contact.”30 In this respect the body (p.357) of water was like the body of an organism, whose chemical interrelations could be studied in situ:

A considerable body of information is available as to the total quantity of various important substances present in lakes. Observations on the oxygen deficit and various studies of the photosynthetic and katabolic activity of the plankton have given some information, often, however, of a very relative nature, as to the total metabolism of lakes. The intermediary aspect of metabolism, to continue the analogy with the individual organism, is extremely little known.31

Strikingly, this interest in the metabolism of the lake led Hutchinson to consider the cycling not only of elements, but also of vitamins, such as thiamin and niacin.32 Whereas biochemists had focused on vitamins as essential nutrients for individual organisms (whether animal or microbial), Hutchinson examined their circulation and function in aquatic communities.33

In the 1941 paper, Hutchinson offered a picture of how phosphorus moved through both the living and the nonliving components of the lake even as it was maintained at a steady state level. Clearly the redox potential of the mud or water affected the form in which the phosphorus was available for uptake; this in turn depended on the relationship of phosphorus and iron.34 Phosphate liberated from the mud, as it reached the illuminated layers of the lake, was taken up by the phytoplankton. Later the phosphorus settled back down to the bottom of the lake as particulate matter, from dead plankton and from the feces of the zooplankton that fed on the plant cells.35 The activity of phytoplankton, which grew in response to the supply of phosphate ions from the mud, effectively maintained the persistently low concentration of phosphorus in the surface water.

Hutchinson sought more direct evidence for this pattern of self-regulation of phosphorus in the lake, and developments in the physical sciences at Yale opened a possibility. In 1939, physicist Ernest Pollard (p.358) successfully completed the construction of a cyclotron at Yale with the assistance of E. O. Lawrence. This enabled the production of artificial radioisotopes at Yale (as at Berkeley). Hutchinson requested some phosphorus-32 from Pollard for his continuing study of the pond. In 1941, the two of them, with collaborator W. Thomas Edmondson, planned to use some cyclotron-generated phosphorus-32, with its half-life of two weeks, to directly demonstrate the cycling of phosphorus in Linsley Pond. Unfortunately, the night before the experiment the cyclotron broke down, so the researchers obtained only half as much phosphorus-32 as they had calculated they would need. Hutchinson decided to proceed anyway. As Edmondson described their work,

The operation was not the most efficient possible. We had a small rowboat with a hand-powered winch and several five-gallon glass carboys…. I helped take samples (endless turning of the handle of the winch), but my main function, as the owner of a car, was to drive each carboy to Osborn [Laboratory building] as soon as it was filled. There Ann Wollack, the chemical technician, filtered large volumes through membrane filters to find out how much phosphate had been taken up by algae and other small organisms.36

Despite the limitations, he recalled, preliminary results were encouraging. “Pollard was able to detect radioactivity in some of the samples, including material from the deep water. All that this showed was that the study could be made, given enough isotope.”37 The fourteen-day half-life of phosphorus-32 suited an experiment lasting a few weeks.

The Linsley Pond tracer experiment was attempted again on June 21, 1946, this time without cyclotron problems. In addition, instrumentation for detecting radioactivity had improved during the war.38 Approximately ten millicuries of phosphorus-32, made up as sodium phosphate in a bicarbonate solution, were released in twenty-four equal portions into the surface waters of the pond. The sites at which these aliquots were released (p.359) spanned the pond evenly east to west and were concentrated at several locations on the southern half of the body, to compensate for a northernblowing wind. A week later, vertical water columns were collected in the deep central part of the lake. Each column was divided into four sections, dried, and then its radioactivity counted. Samples of plants were collected and counted two weeks later. Because the radioactivity was so dilute in the collected liquid samples, a large number of counts had to be taken, and voltage fluctuations in the Geiger counter obscured the signal somewhat. Nonetheless, certain features of distribution were clear. Nearly half of the radioactivity had descended below the three meter level, and 10% below six meters, although there was little mixing of the water due to stable thermal stratification. This was consistent with the role of algae in taking up the available phosphorus and subsequently sedimenting to the bottom of the pond, the model Hutchinson had proposed in 1941.39 In addition, the plant samples showed a concentration of radioactivity a thousand-fold over that of the water.40

Still, further work would be needed to clarify the specifics of the phosphate cycle. Hutchinson was among the earliest applicants to purchase radioisotopes from the AEC; he obtained authorization in May 1947 and received his first shipment of 350 millicuries of phosphorus-32 that summer.41 On July 25, 1947, Hutchinson and Bowen introduced 70 millicuries into the lake waters. This time the radioisotope was distributed “in twenty-five portions while rowing in an approximately circular course between the central deep part of the lake and the margin; this arrangement is believed to have provided adequate opportunity for the mixing of the radiophosphorus with the superficial layer of the lake.”42 Between August 1 and 22, the researchers took weekly temperature readings at various depths and collected samples of pond water over the same range of depths. Each water sample was filtered, and both the filter paper and remaining water dried down to enable determinations of total phosphorus and radioactivity. Unlike in the previous experiment, the amounts of (p.360) radioactivity being measured were well above the background count of the detector. In addition, significant amounts of radioactivity were recovered at all levels of the lake. Recovery was so remarkable, in fact, as to suggest that nearly all of the released phosphorus was immediately taken up by phytoplankton. The recovery at lower levels indicated that substantial phosphorus-32 was carried down by the sedimentation of seston; some of this phosphorus then passed into littoral vegetation and back into free water.43 Again, the results confirmed Hutchinson's portrait of the overall metabolism of phosphorus in the lake as maintained at a steady state by the growth and death of algae.44

Biochemistry and physiology were not the only sources of ideas of equilibrium and self-regulation—engineering was another. Or rather, physiological regulation had itself been adopted by Norbert Wiener as inspiration for the articulation of cybernetics, a term he coined in 1947.45 As others have noted, Hutchinson came into direct contact with this development by attending the Macy Foundation conferences on cybernetics between 1946 and 1953.46 For the initial meeting on “Teleological Mechanisms,” Hutchinson contributed his influential paper “Circular Causal Systems in Ecology” (published in 1948), which emphasized the self-regulating features of an ecosystem as seen in element cycling. Two examples featured in his analysis: the global carbon cycle of the biosphere, and the phosphorus cycle in inland lakes.47

The basic carbon cycle, as Hutchinson pointed out, is familiar to students of elementary biology—plants take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere through photosynthesis; consumption of plants by animals keeps the carbon moving through the terrestrial food chain; and through decay of both plants and animals, carbon is lost to sediment and buried. Some carbon makes its way back to the atmosphere directly through respiration or indirectly through bacterial metabolism. Large-scale natural events, (p.361) such as volcanic eruptions, forest fires, and human activities, namely combustion of fossil fuels, contribute atmospheric carbon dioxide. Quantitative information was harder to come by than the qualitative picture, though Hutchinson drew on recent work by chemist Walter Noddack and geochemist Victor Goldschmidt, as well as that of his former student Gordon Riley.48 Hutchinson also considered data suggesting that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels had increased since the nineteenth century. Rather than attribute this trend to industrial development, he argued that it was due to changes in the biological parts of the system, particularly the deforestation of land through agricultural development.

Hutchinson's treatment of the carbon cycle shows how ecological understandings of the relationships between living organisms could be extended to include the nonliving world. As he noted, theoretical ecologist V. A. Kostitzin had already observed that “a cycle in which the rate of growth of consuming and decomposing organisms depends on the rate of photosynthetic production, and the latter depends on the rate of return of CO2 to the atmosphere by decomposing and consuming organisms, would tend to oscillate according to Volterra's prey-predator equations.”49 Hutchinson linked this to “oscillations in the CO2 content of the atmosphere.”50 Overall, Hutchinson cited two self-correcting systems in the carbon cycle: the circulation of carbon through air, sea, and sediments in CO2-bicarbonate-carbonate, and the biological cycle involving photosynthesis. However, he stopped short of referring to the carbon cycle as “purposive,” in Norbert Wiener and Arturo Rosenblueth's cybernetic sense.51 Like Tansley, Hutchinson was committed to a materialist rather than vitalist understanding of the larger biological system. Even so, Hutchinson's diagram of the global biogeochemical cycle of carbon shows some visual similarity to metabolic pathways of contemporary biochemists, though few of the specific chemical conversions are depicted. It appears to be the metabolism of a superorganism, if not a living system per se. In this picture, isotopes provided a natural tracer, on account of the variation in (p.362)


Figure 10.1. G. Evelyn Hutchinson's diagram of carbon cycling. G. E. Hutchinson, “Circular Causal Systems in Ecology,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 50 (1948): 221–46, on p. 223. Reproduced by permission of John Wiley and Sons.

the relative abundance of carbon isotopes that provided additional information.52 Carbonate precipitated from aqueous solutions was found to be slightly enriched in carbon-13 compared with carbon in plutonic rocks.53 (See figure 10.1.)

Hutchinson soon requested radioisotopes of other elements besides phosphorus from Oak Ridge, namely iodine, barium, and bromine.54 Other (p.363) ecologists began to take up this promising method as well. In 1952, E. Steemann-Nielsen published a sensitive technique for using carbon-14 to measure the productivity of aquatic plants.55 Eugene Odum and coworkers used phosphorus-32 to measure the productivity of marine benthic algae.56 Isotopes were equally useful in examining the relationships between organisms. Robert Pendleton and A. W. Grundmann used phosphorus-32 to elucidate insect-plant relationships in the thistle.57 Researchers were also “radio-tagging” specific insects such as mosquitoes and houseflies.58 By the late 1950s, the intentional release of limited amounts of radioisotopes to trace the uptake and circulation of elements became a vital strategy for work in ecology.59 In the second edition of his textbook Fundamentals of Ecology (1959), Odum added a chapter on “Radiation Ecology” that summarized these trends.60 In fact, he wrote this new chapter while on a sabbatical leave from the University of Georgia, during which he spent four months with ecologists at Hanford (see below).61 Ecosystems ecology provided the organizing framework of Odum's textbook, which in turn propagated this theoretical orientation in the 1950s and 1960s and solidified its connection to radioecology—and to the AEC.

Bioconcentration at Hanford

Unlike tracer experiments in biochemistry and nuclear medicine, ecology included “experiments” that researchers did not set in motion. (p.364) Radioactivity was entering the environment, often on a large scale, through the AEC's disposal of nuclear waste and through atomic weapons tests, and ecologists were tracking the movement of these radionuclides. In this respect, ecological “tracing” was directly connected to the continuing military uses of atomic energy. Radioactive waste itself provided ecologists with useful tracers.62

The US government supported some research on the ecological consequences of nuclear waste during World War II, notably in relation to the building of the major production facilities for plutonium. Late in 1942, leaders of the Manhattan Project sought a remote site for the massive plutonium works which was proximate to supplies of 100,000 kilowatts of electric power and 25,000 gallons per minute of clean, cold water.63 General Leslie Groves selected an area on the Columbia River in the state of Washington not far from the recently completed Grand Coulee Dam; construction of the Hanford reactors began in April 1943.64 The decision to construct water-cooled nuclear reactors made the question of water supply even more crucial. The installation was expected to require nearly as much water as a city, raising concerns about the impacts on the Columbia River. Would the volume of water needed to cool the reactors introduce enough heat, toxicity, or radioactivity to detrimentally affect the populations of trout and salmon, which supported a substantial fishing industry? Would it affect the safety of water for human consumption? Hundreds of communities obtained drinking water from the Columbia River and its tributaries. Groves sought the advice of Stafford Warren, Chief of the Medical Section of the Manhattan Engineer District (MED), who concurred on the need for scientific research on the effects of radiation on aquatic life and water quality. Top personnel in the Manhattan Project, including Robert Stone, Eugene Wigner, Arthur Compton, and H. L. Friedell, also discussed the (p.365) possible contamination of the Columbia River at a meeting at the University of Chicago on May 20, 1943, with consensus that the matter warranted investigation.65

In August of 1943, Warren approached Lauren R. Donaldson at the University of Washington, an assistant professor of fisheries who had previously worked as a consultant to the Department of the Interior on the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam.66 He asked Donaldson to begin a study of the effects of radioactivity on aquatic organisms, especially fish. In order to keep the nature of the atomic project secret, funding (to the tune of $65,000) was arranged through the OSRD, not the MED. The contract title—“Investigation of the Use of X-rays in the Treatment of Fungoid Infections in Salmonoid Fishes” —obscured the actual aims of research.67 So began the Applied Fisheries Laboratory at the University of Washington, Seattle.68

There was little knowledge of the biological effects of radiation on aquatic animals for Donaldson's group to build upon.69 The Applied Fisheries Laboratory conducted a number of fundamental studies assessing the effects of external radiation exposure on eggs, embryos, and adults of various salmon species.70 These confirmed that the radiation sickness seen in mammals after exposure to high doses also existed in cold-blooded vertebrates, although with a longer latency period.71 The fish that Donaldson's group investigated were not studied in their native aquatic environment, but rather bred for several generations in the laboratory. A large-scale study of rainbow trout showed high levels of mortality and malformation among embryos whose parents were exposed to high doses (at various levels) of x-rays. The young fish that survived this prenatal exposure grew (p.366) more slowly than control trout.72 The researchers also set up long-term studies of the effects of lower-dose radiation, exposing juvenile fish before they returned to sea for two or more years. The Applied Fisheries Laboratory conducted research for a year before the first Hanford reactor went into operation, which resulted in the first significant and ongoing release of radioisotopes into the local environment.73

In late 1944, Donaldson persuaded the MED leadership of the importance of beginning research on site at the Columbia River.74 His graduate student Richard F. Foster was transferred to Hanford in June 1945, to work at a new Aquatic Biological Laboratory.75 A research plan for aquatic studies at Hanford was formed with input from several MED officials at a June 9, 1945, meeting held at the University of California, Berkeley.76 Initial laboratory studies by Foster, conducted in the second half of 1945, suggested that the addition of cooling effluent from the Hanford reactors, if diluted sufficiently (at least 1:50) by river water, would not threaten the salmon and trout populations.77 (See figure 10.2.) More (p.367)


Figure 10.2. Paired intakes of the KE and KW Reactors where water was withdrawn from the Hanford Reach for once-through cooling of the fuel cells. From C. D. Becker, Aquatic Bioenvironmental Studies: The Hanford Experience 1944–84 (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 1990), p. 43. Copyright Elsevier 1990.

toxic than radioactivity to the fish were the sodium dichromate, calcium chloride, and other process chemicals added to the cooling water to prevent corrosion of the fuel cells. The heating of the river water by the addition of effluent was also a hazard to salmon and trout, which could not survive water warmer than 24°C. Newly hatched salmon (“fry” proved more susceptible to these “adverse factors” in the effluent than adult fish.78 The earlier the developmental stage, the more sensitive the fish were; eggs at the earliest stages of development exhibited increased mortality when exposed to effluent diluted even 1:500 in river water.79

Hanford scientists also studied the levels of radioactivity in the river water. After exiting the reactors, the effluent was held for twenty-four hours in Retention Basins, allowing the decay of short-lived radioisotopes. Most of these radioisotopes were not fission products from the reactor, but normal constituents of river water whose minerals became radioactive (p.368) through activation (via neutron capture) when passing through the cooling vessels.80 Even so, researchers found the concentration of fission products in the river water near Hanford to be higher and more constant than expected based on the discharges from fuel cells. It turned out that this was due to natural “tramp uranium” in the river water being activated by exposure during cooling to the neutron flux of the fuel cells.81 The residual radioactivity of effluent was measured before the water was returned to the river. In the estimation of Hanford's chief health physicist, Herbert M. Parker, the “water released from the basins has always been considered safe for humans or fish to swim in.”82

The end of the war lifted the veil of secrecy over the research being done by the University of Washington's Applied Fisheries Laboratory; its connection to the Manhattan Project became public. Donaldson's group expanded their work under the AEC, conducting aquatic surveys after the Crossroads tests at Bikini.83 In the fall of 1946, General Electric took over from DuPont as contractor of Hanford Works. The Aquatic Biological Laboratory at Hanford was put on more permanent footing as a section within the Radiological Sciences division. Two years later, Foster's group was consolidated with another in the Health Instruments Division (p.369) to comprise a Biology Section, which conducted research on the effects of environmental radioactivity on terrestrial as well as aquatic animals.84

In the spring of 1946, Foster presented his work on the ecological effects of the Hanford Engineer Works on the Columbia River at a joint meeting of officials of the Washington State Department of Game and the US Fish and Wildlife Service.85 That did not mean the work of biologists at Hanford was now unclassified. In the summer of 1946, members of Foster's group were required to sign a statement in which they pledged “not to divulge to any persons, except those authorized by the U.S. government, any information received on the studies … conducted at Hanford Engineer Works relative to the effect of plant operations on fish life in the Columbia River.”86 Even so, the work of the Hanford group was remarkably influential within the echelons of the AEC. In their 1947 survey of AEC work on radiation effects inherited from the Manhattan Project, the Interim Medical Committee mentioned the important studies at Hanford on the “transfer of radioactive materials in ‘food chains’” from plankton through fish.87

Over the next several years, the Hanford group's findings were written up and circulated as classified documents to AEC laboratories and some other government agencies. For example, one hundred fourteen copies of the Biology Group's first annual report (for 1951) were distributed within government channels, including all the major AEC installations and laboratories (e.g., the Berkeley Rad Lab), the US Public Health Service, the Patent Office, and the Naval Medical Research Center.88 Notably, the recipient list included Eugene Odum's new research station at Savannah. In (p.370) actuality, the report was declassified soon after its printing, but this did not make it readily available to scientists working outside the channels of the AEC.

Foster and his colleagues in the Aquatic Biology Section continued his research into the effect of the effluent water on fish. Their most significant finding was first reported internally in 1946: fish concentrate radioactivity in their bodies, especially in the liver and kidneys, following exposure.89 In 1947, Hanford biologist Karl Herde showed that twelve different species of fish caught downstream of the reactor, even twenty miles away, had accumulated radioactivity; his more thorough assessment the next year documented concentrations up to several thousand-fold over that of the river water.90 This occurred as fish took up essential elements from their environment. Concentrations were especially high for elements, such as phosphorus, that were not naturally abundant. Early on, Hanford researchers inferred that the majority of this radioactivity came from shortlived isotopes manganese-56 and sodium-24 in the effluent. (Sodium-24 has a half-life of just two and a half hours.) Only later did they realize most of the radioactivity in fish was from a longer-lived isotope, notably phosphorus-32.91 Also, metabolic rate played an important role in the degree (p.371)


Figure 10.3. Hanford scientists collecting plankton in nets, to study the movement of radioactivity through Columbia River marine life. A current meter is being used to measure the rate of flow of the river. Credit: Hanford, Washington. National Archives, RG 326-G, box 2, folder 2, AEC-50–3938.

of concentration. Young, rapidly growing fish assimilated more radioactivity than older ones.

In 1948, R. W. Coopey, another member of the Hanford group, demonstrated that plankton could concentrate radioactivity in the river water 2,000 to 4,000 times; this constituted the entry point of radioactivity into the aquatic food web.92 (See figure 10.3.) As Coopey commented, “The concentrating ability of the bottom algae appears to be, in essence, the foundation of the radiobiological problem in the river.”93 As he concluded, the concentrating ability of marine organisms, especially plankton such as algae, made them “a liable source of radioactive contamination in the river (p.372) economy.”94 The term economy was not inconsequential; another internal Hanford document circulated in 1947 noted that the “present value of the salmon runs in the Columbia River has been estimated at from $8,000,000 to $10,000,000.”95

Herde extended this analysis to waterfowl, placing domesticated Pekin ducks in the river for one to fifteen months, feeding them algae from the river, then examining their tissues for radioactivity. The ducks were concentrating substantial amounts of radioactivity in their organs, particularly phosphorus-32. But the highest levels of radioactivity were due to iodine-131 in their thyroids, which they assimilated from plants contaminated by aerial release of radioactive gases from the chemical processing units. In the internal memorandum reporting these results, Herde expressed concern about the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project, which was scheduled to withdraw river water for crop irrigation from twenty miles below where the reactors were distributed.96

Parker, the chief health physicist at Hanford, was also concerned about the assimilation of iodine-131 from aerial waste gas release in area live-stock. In 1946, he began a program of clandestine monitoring, in which sheep and cattle in the Hanford vicinity were captured and the radioactivity in their thyroids measured with a Geiger-Müller counter.97 Members of the Environmental Survey Group (including Herde) also visited local farms in the guise of USDA agents in order to obtain thyroid readings on more animals.98 They found “positive, though low, thyroid readings in nearly every animal examined.”99 The readings were sufficiently low to reassure the Hanford scientists that the radiation level was not damaging to livestock or consumers.

The level of radioactive waste generated by Hanford Works increased steadily in the early postwar period. The beginning of the Cold War arms race meant escalating production of plutonium. In August 1947 Hanford embarked on an ambitious expansion plan for building two new reactors (p.373) in addition to the three that were already in operation.100 In August 1949, when the Soviets detonated their first atomic device, the AEC was already producing more fission fuel yearly than the MED had during World War II. The increased pace of US atomic weapons production that followed the Soviet test only accelerated through the late 1950s under President Eisenhower.101 By 1955, five new reactors had been added at Hanford (and another five built on the Savannah River in Georgia). The ecological burden on the Columbia River increased accordingly; by 1954 about 8,000 curies of radioactive material were being dumped into the river each day.102 In 1949 a Columbia River Advisory Group was formed with officials from the US Public Health Service and the health departments of Washington and Oregon.103 Measures of radioactivity in plankton, in fish, and in the river water itself reached unprecedented levels in 1950. That same year the Public Health Service sent a team to evaluate the safety of the river water for nearby inhabitants.104

Hanford's scientists perceived the public health implications of radioactive bioconcentration, even as they continued to insist that there were no current health hazards in the Columbia River. As Parker wrote in a review published in 1948:

In large bodies of water, the concentration of activity in algae or in colloidal materials with its possible utilization by fish, later used for food, presents a chain of events of great consequence to the public health. Up to the present time, these problems have been by-passed by ultraconservative policy in waste disposal, but future pressure for economical disposal facilities greatly point[s] the need for extensive research on these problems.105

(p.374) Yet despite this oblique reference, the Hanford group's finding of the bioconcentration of radioactivity, though regarded by insiders as a major discovery, was not published in the open literature until after the 1954 revision of the Atomic Energy Act—and after a published ecological survey of the watershed near Oak Ridge National Laboratory documented the selective concentration of radioactivity in aquatic life there.106 Eisenhower's push to develop domestic nuclear power, and the associated declassification and dissemination of information about reactors, gave Hanford's findings about radioactive waste a new relevance. One report anticipated that US production of fission products from nuclear power would reach a ton a day by 2000.107

The first International Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy in Geneva in 1955 provided Hanford scientists a world stage on which to announce their findings. In a session on “Ecological Problems Related to Reactor Operation,” the group presented two papers, one by Foster and Davis focusing on aquatic life, and one by W. C. Hanson and Harold A. Kornberg on terrestrial animals.108 The papers appeared in the proceedings in 1956. Davis and Foster published a longer paper entitled “Bioaccumulation of Radioisotopes through Aquatic Food Chains” in Ecology in 1958.109 These papers display a broader and more theoretical orientation to the problems of radioactive contamination than the classified reports written earlier. In the 1956 paper, Foster and Davis asserted:

(p.375) The organisms living in the Columbia River which have picked up radioactive substances from the reactor effluent may be utilized as a large-scale experiment in which the isotopes serve as tracers. In this way, studies designed primarily to monitor the level of radioactivity, also provide information on nutrient cycles, metabolic rates, and ecological relationships.110

They also pointed out the inadequacy of understanding radioactive contamination through an exclusive reliance on laboratory studies. For example, Foster and Davis found that the fish taken from the Columbia River contained around 100 times as much radioactivity as laboratory fish who were exposed to equivalent mixtures of radioactivity as found in the effluent. This was because the laboratory fish (in contrast to those in the river) were eating uncontaminated food.111

In his second edition of Fundamentals of Ecology, Odum drew on this group's work at Hanford (familiar to him through the four months he spent there while writing the new chapter on “Radiation Ecology” to illustrate the importance of food webs for the bioconcentration of radioactivity, while interpreting their results explicitly in terms of his ecosystems ecology. As Odum pointed out, there were three routes through which various radioisotopes entered the environment around Hanford, resulting in aquatic, aerial, and terrestrial contamination.112 The aquatic contamination resulted from the release of radioactivity in the effluent from the reactors. The operation of the plant led to the aerial release of iodine-131 (and other radioisotopes) in waste gases, which contributed to both aerial and terrestrial contamination. Disposal of radioactive waste fluids, in turn, contributed to both terrestrial and aquatic contamination. The food web dispersed and concentrated radioisotopes from these different environmental entry points. For example, phosphorus-32 in the cooling effluent moved from aquatic insects, vegetation, and crustaceans into a variety of waterfowl. River ducks and geese, which principally ate grains, concentrated radiophosphorus less than swallows (which, though not a water fowl, consumed aquatic insects) and diving ducks. Even so, the phosphorus-rich egg yolk of river ducks and geese showed enrichment of phosphorus-32 of 200,000 over its concentration in river water. Iodine-131, released from the Hanford chemical separations facilities into the air (p.376)

Table 31. Concentration of radioisotopes in food chains as shoton by the ratio of isotopes in organisms to that in the environment

1. P32-Columbia River: *



Insects, Crustaceans



Swallows, adults




Swallows, young




Geese and ducks






2. Long-lived mixed fission products in holding pond: *







250 in mincle (mostly Cs137) 500 in bone (mostly Sr90)

3. I131 aerial contamination at Hanford: *


Jack Rabbit Thyroids

Coyote Thyroids

Terrestrial food chain




4. P32 and other isotopes in Columbia River



Aquatic insects


Aquatic food chain





• Data from Hanson and Kornberg, 1965.

† Date from Foster and Rostenbach, 1954.

Figure 10.4. Table representing the concentration of radioisotopes in organisms and in food chains, based on data collected by researchers at Hanford Works. From Eugene P. Odum, Fundamentals of Ecology, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders, 1959), p. 468. © 1959, W. B. Saunders, a part of Cengage Learning, Inc. Reproduced by permission, www.cengage.com/permissions.

through waste gases, was taken up by mammals, birds, reptiles, and insects. Rabbits, for instance, showed a concentration of radioiodine in their thyroids as high as 500 times that of the vegetation.113 (See figure 10.4.)

The publications from Hanford scientists emphasized that radioactive contamination in the Columbia River “never approached hazardous levels.”114 But Odum drew a more cautious conclusion:

(p.377) Thus, an isotope might be diluted to a relatively harmless level on release into the environment, yet become concentrated by organisms or a series of organisms to a point where it would be critical. In other words we could give “nature” an apparently innocuous amount of radioactivity and have her give it back to us in a lethal package!115

The reception of the belatedly published Hanford findings was undoubtedly sharpened by the fallout controversy of the mid-1950s, which had focused attention on environmental contamination and the hazards of low-level radiation exposure. Strikingly, in his 1958 paper in Science addressing the controversy over strontium-90 from atomic testing fallout, Commissioner Willard Libby cited Foster and Davis's 1956 publication and noted possible environmental concentration mechanisms, even though he denied human health risks.116

Radioecology at Oak Ridge and Savannah

Concerns about radioactive contamination in the vicinity of Oak Ridge National Laboratory prompted an ecological research program there as well. Stanley Auerbach arrived in 1954 to join their division, and by 1960 he had built up one of the largest ecology research groups in the country, with twenty-two people on staff.117 As at Hanford, the revision of the Atomic Energy Act in 1954 and the government's greater emphasis on civilian development of nuclear power gave the ecologists at Oak Ridge (p.378) a justification for not only conducting but also publishing their research. Moreover, from the early 1950s “waste disposal” provided the framework under which ecologists were included at Oak Ridge. Along similar lines, Eugene Odum built up a significant ecological research group at the AEC production facility on the Savannah River in Georgia. At both Oak Ridge and Savannah, studies of the movement of radioisotopes, particularly long-lived fission products such as strontium-90 and cesium-137, furthered the importance of ecosystems to ecological research and offered concrete information about how the government and nuclear industry might manage the growing load of radioactive waste.

Beginning in 1951, Oak Ridge National Laboratory disposed of low-level radioactive waste by pumping it into pits in the earth, from which it could seep into surrounding soil. The expectation was that through binding of soil particles, the radioisotopes would become immobilized.118 In addition, since wartime, nearly all low-level liquid radioactive wastes had been dumped into nearby White Oak Creek or White Oak Lake, a 35-acre impoundment formed in 1943 by a small dam to hold wastes, allowing short-lived radioisotopes to decay before their release into the Clinch River. (See figure 10.5.) Karl Z. Morgan, director of the Health Physics Division, raised concerns as early as 1948 about effects of contaminated waterways on the local populations. This prompted a cooperative project with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to determine the extent of radioactive contamination, including levels reaching the Clinch River.119

Louis A. Krumholz, a fisheries biologist with the TVA, directed the ecological surveys of White Oak Lake and environs from 1950 to 1954. The surveys documented that the plants, phytoplankton, and fish in White Oak Lake accumulated and concentrated radioactivity.120 In one type of green algae, Spirogyra, the concentration factor for radiophosphorus was (p.379)


Figure 10.5. Photograph showing the White Oak Creek drainage basin and White Oak Lake. From Stanley I. Auerbach and Vincent Schultz, eds., Onsite Ecological Research of the Division of Biology and Medicine at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, TID-16890. Washington, DC: AEC Division of Technical Information, 1962, p. 79.

as high as 850,000.121 There was only one case in which the concentration of radioactivity seemed to have caused damage to an organism: an American elm tree “that selectively concentrated enough radioruthenium to cause the edges of the leaves to curl and die.”122 With this one exception, the surveys did not reveal evidence of deleterious effects on the aquatic or terrestrial populations.123 However, the lower reaches of White Oak Creek, below the dam, were not as productive as the upper reaches, which supported twice as many genera of benthic organisms. Krumholz noted (p.380) that the effects of the heavy silt as well as the waste effluents seemed to inhibit the creek's productivity.124

The ORNL administration took the TVA's assessment as confirmation that contamination in the White Oak water system was not at a level sufficient to cause noticeable environmental damage, despite the significant amounts of waste it received.125 This nearly led to the cessation of any further ecological work at Oak Ridge, in part because, in the eyes of nuclear physicists, “the kind of science they were doing was almost totally alien to what was going on at this laboratory.”126 Health physicist Morgan crusaded for further attention to radioactive waste, arguing that protection of wildlife on the reservation was a legitimate aspect of health physics.127 He and his assistant Edward Struxness developed a broad funding plan for research on radiation ecology, but the response from the AEC was tepid. In Morgan's memoir, he states that one agency official (unnamed) commented, “Man is the thing we should be interested in protecting; we should protect him and forget about these microorganisms and other forms of life. After all it would be a good thing if radiation destroyed all these microorganisms.”128 However, other factors tipped the balance in Morgan's favor. First, the decision to drain White Oak Lake (for flood-control purposes) created an undeniable opportunity for studying the fate of contamination in the lake bed—a “natural contaminated ecosystem,” as one account puts it.129 Second, President Eisenhower's push for civilian nuclear power development gave the study of environmental radioactivity a new and urgent (p.381) relevance. Former ORNL Director Eugene Wigner, still involved at the upper echelons of the agency, viewed radioactive waste disposal as a key problem for nuclear power. He supported Morgan's proposal.

Ecologist Orlando Park of Northwestern University, with whom Struxness had previously studied, was brought in to consult on Morgan's new program, and Park's former graduate student Stanley Auerbach was hired by ORNL in 1955. Struxness, who had been supervisor of health physics at the Oak Ridge Y-12 plant, was transferred to ORNL to focus on the environmental aspects of radioactive waste management.130 Auerbach initially pursued laboratory studies, such as investigating the effects of radiation on arthropods in rotting wood and radiostrontium uptake by earthworms.131 John Wolfe, newly appointed as head of a national ecology program for the AEC Division of Biology and Medicine, visited Oak Ridge in 1956. A field ecologist himself, Wolfe urged Auerbach to take advantage of the newly drained lake as a site for research.132

White Oak Lake received, either directly or through seepage from earthen storage pits, lower-activity radioactive wastes, principally containing strontium-90, cesium-137, cobalt-6o, and ruthenium-106. As Auerbach has noted, “Even by the standards of that time, the White Oak lake bed was considered to be highly contaminated…. At that time this small piece of landscape was considered to be one of the most radioactive sites on Earth.”133 To conduct fieldwork in the lake bed, where radiation dose at waist-high ranged up to 300 millirads per hour in some areas, researchers were required to wear radiological protection gear. Auerbach recalls carrying a “cutie pie” detector and moving around to try to keep himself in areas with less than 25 millirads per hour exposure, to remain below the permissible limit for occupational exposure.134

(p.382) In part due to Odum's role as a consultant for the program, Auerbach adopted an ecosystems approach in studying the succession of vegetation and animal life in the lake bed and the biogeochemical movement of radioisotopes within it.135 He was also interested in the biological effects of the contaminating radiation on the biota of the lake bed, a concern allied with the health physics orientation of Morgan's ORNL group.136 The group focused on reactor waste products strontium-90 and cesium-137, investigating their uptake into plants and possible transfer into food chains via insects, birds, and mammals.137 As Dac Crossley and Henry Howden put it in one of their publications, “The resulting ecosystem on White Oak Lake bed may be envisioned as a gigantic radioactive tracer experiment, which can yield information of interest to both ecologists and health physicists.”138

Recruits Crossley and Ellis Graham assessed the soil chemistry and surveyed the succession of plants that invaded the lake bed.139 They found that the contaminating radionuclides were taken up and dispersed by the vegetation, showing that radioactive waste could not be assumed to remain where it had been deposited. However, there was tremendous variability. As Auerbach put it, “We could make no sense out of what we got. There were trees that were hot, there were trees that weren't hot, and we saw quickly that from a scientific point of view—from an inductive point of view, we would get numbers; but we aren't going to get much in the way of useful predictive information.”140

In order to try to attain more predictive information, they began a more experimental approach, adding either vegetation or radioactivity to the landscape. Following Auerbach's penchant for “controlled field experimentation,” (p.383) his group planted corn, legumes, and other crops in the contaminated lake bed.141 Biologists at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and the University of Georgia collaborated on these studies, their work supported through contracts with the AEC.142 Other projects reflected the interest at ORNL in entire ecosystems. Here Auerbach followed the precedent of Hutchinson in using artificially produced radioisotopes, readily available at Oak Ridge, to investigate element cycling.143 In May 1962, ORNL ecologists tagged an entire Oak Ridge forest with cesium-137, with the intent of measuring cesium transfer between the components of the ecosystem. As Auerbach and two coauthors noted, tracer experiments in the United States had not previously been attempted before “on a relatively large scale in field experiments.”144 They applied the radioisotopic material directly to each tree trunk, distributing 467 millicuries across the entire stand. (See figure 10.6.) The group had spent three years developing methods for such a large-scale operation. As the authors of the paper commented, “Utilization of such a large quantity of long-lived radioisotope in the field required careful handling and special procedures in order to avoid unnecessary exposure of personnel or accidental contamination during the tagging operation.”145 The study showed that cesium cycled out of the trees into the litter on the forest floor, but did not rapidly re-enter the system through the roots.146 (See figure 10.7.)

The ecologists at Oak Ridge were also interested in the biological effects of the radioactive contamination on animals. In one study, ORNL researchers Stephen Kaye and Paul Dunaway captured small wild mammals such as cotton rats to determine their level of exposure from radioactive wastes. They noted that “the radiobiology of standard laboratory animals has been extensively investigated,” whereas that of native animals had not. “Are calculations and predictions based upon biological half-lives, (p.384)


Figure 10.6. Oak Ridge National Laboratory ecologists applying cesium-137 to a tree. The entire stand was tagged with 467 millicuries of the radioisotope. From Stanley I. Auerbach and Vincent Schultz, eds., Onsite Ecological Research of the Division of Biology and Medicine at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, TID-16890. Washington, DC: AEC Division of Technical Information, 1962, p. 74.

assimilation factors, critical organs, etc., determined for laboratory rats valid for native rats?”147 In fact, the country's largest laboratory experiment on radiation effects on rodents was being conducted at ORNL, the “mega-mouse” experiment, under the direction of William and Lianne Russell in Alexander Hollaender's Biology Division, to determine the mutation rate in mammals.148 As Auerbach commented on Dunaway and Kaye's research, “While they used techniques that were developed and used by radiobiologists, their study of mammals in a natural environment distinguished their research from that of the Biology Division.”149 One senses (p.385)

Figure 10.7. Schematic diagram of the cycling of cesium-137 out of the tree leaves into the soil and litter of the forest floor, results of the tagging experiment shown in the previous figure. From Stanley I. Auerbach and Vincent Schultz, eds., Onsite Ecological Research of the Division of Biology and Medicine at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, TID-16890. Washington, DC: AEC Division of Technical Information, 1962, p. 79.

the old rivalry between laboratory and field at ORNL, even in an ecology group that was unusually oriented toward the physical sciences.150

The field researchers argued that results from their study would also shed light on the exposure of wildlife to contamination from radioactive fallout—which included the same spectrum of radioisotopes that were being released as waste at Oak Ridge. But whereas “fallout contamination in the general environment occurs at relatively low levels which often present radioanalytical difficulties,” the contamination at the White Oak Lake bed was “orders of magnitude higher in levels of contamination than fallout, yet… low enough so that personnel may work in the area for a practical length of time without being overexposed.”151 Their initial studies of trapped animals showed body burdens to be high enough that pathological (p.386) effects would be expected (though no lesions were identified).152 But variability was high, and the field experiments were supplemented by setting up fenced-in areas in which uncontaminated animals could be introduced and their assimilation of radioisotopes followed in a controlled fashion.153 At the same time, the researchers sought to combine population ecology with studies of the movement of radioisotopes and radiation exposure.

Eugene Odum carried out similar radiolabeling experiments on research tracts at the Savannah River nuclear site. When the AEC decided to build new plutonium production plant on this river in Georgia, the agency's newly established Division of Biology and Medicine supported studying this facility's impact on the environment. They invited the University of South Carolina and the University of Georgia to submit proposals for “pre-installation” inventories of the site. Each university received $10,000 a year for three years, and divided the task up between them, with the University of Georgia focusing on animal populations of warm-blooded vertebrates and invertebrates, and the University of South Carolina on botanical work and cold-blooded vertebrates.154 Odum convinced the AEC that some of the money to Georgia should be used to study secondary succession of vegetation and fauna on farmlands abandoned when the government moved residents off the designated 250,000 acre reservation.155 After 1954, the Division of Biology and Medicine increased funding for ecological research at Savannah River, enabling Odum eventually to establish a permanent on-site laboratory there, the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory.156

Beginning in 1957, the group at Savannah River began field experiments with radioactive tracers, something Odum had expressed interest in doing in an unsuccessful 1951 application to the AEC.157 As Chunglin (p.387) Kwa has noted, Odum was not constrained in the way that Auerbach was by the Oak Ridge focus on radioactive waste and the special concern with fission products such as cesium-137 and strontium-90.158 He could design his radiolabeling experiment to best measure the movement of material and energy between trophic levels in the terrestrial ecosystem. For this purpose, injecting a specific amount of radioactivity into the system at a particular point allowed the researcher more control over measuring its movement.159 As an element required for growth in all organisms, phosphorus was a more desirable tracer than strontium or cesium. Odum and Edward Kuenzler devised a method of laying out “hot quadrats” in which all individuals of a kind of plant were labeled with phosphorus-32.160 They radiolabeled three quadrats, each of a different plant species—het-erotheca, rumex, and sorghum—in the spring of 1957.

By following the movement of radiophosphorus into higher trophic levels—namely, animals—the researchers could isolate the food chain: Any animal that became radioactive had to belong to the food chain originating with the tagged plant species. Arthropods and snails closely associated with the vegetation were sampled “by sweeping with a standard sweep net,” and crickets, ground beetles, and other insects associated with the substratum were captured with a cryptozoa board (under which these insects congregated). Kuenzler, Odum's collaborator, specialized in wolf spiders, which he caught by “‘shining their eyes’ with a flashlight.”161 The researchers also trapped mice to see if the phosphorus reached small mammals. All these animals' bodies were counted for radioactivity. In addition to showing how rapidly phosphorus (and thus energy) was transferred from plants, the primary producers, to grazing herbivores and ants, the primary consumers, the experiment shed light on the eating habits of the snails, whose rapid acquisition of radioactivity indicated that grass was an important food source.162 The researchers' plots of radioactivity versus time in various species showed “the graphic separation of certain trophic and habitat groups.”163 (See figure 10.8.) Odum's group continued these investigations over longer periods of time, and pointed to the promise (p.388)


Figure 10.8. Typical radioactivity density curves at three trophic levels resulting from the labeling of a single species of herbaceous plant with phosphorus-32 at time zero. The movement of the label from plants to herbivores to predators is clearly visible. All curves are corrected for radioactive decay. From Eugene P. Odum, “Feedback between Radiation Ecology and General Ecology,” Health Physics 11 (1965): 1257–62, on p. 1260.

of this radiolabeling method for determining “food web diversity for an entire community.”164

While ORNL and Savannah continued to be major sites for research, the reach of radioecology can be seen in the many symposia volumes published in the late 1950s through the early 1970s as well as in AEC records. (See figure 10.9.) The 1955 and 1958 International Conferences on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy featured many papers by ecologists, mostly oriented toward the problems of radioactive waste from civilian nuclear power development. A Symposium on Radioisotopes in the Biosphere, at the University of Minnesota, October 19–23,1959, focused principally on the pathways of radioisotopes released into the atmosphere through atomic explosions. Similarly, the International Symposium on Radioecological Concentration Processes, held in Stockholm, April 25–29, 1966, addressed the distribution and movement of radioisotopes in fallout.165 The importance of radiation studies to general ecology is also evident. The AEC supported three large-scale symposia on radioecology, the first held in Fort Collins, Colorado, September 10–15, 1961, the second in Ann Arbor, Michigan, May 15–17,1967, and the third at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, (p.389)


Figure 10.9. A University of Wisconsin researcher preparing to release iodine-131 into the lake at a depth of thirteen feet, in order to determine the physical and biological movements within the deeper layers of the lake. Credit: University of Wisconsin. National Archives, RG 326-G, box 8, folder 2, AEC-62–6582.

May 10–12,1971. These three symposia included dozens of papers that feature the use of radioisotopes as tracers through aquatic or terrestrial ecosystems, many of which represented AEC-sponsored work at Oak Ridge and Savannah River. According to Auerbach, the 1961 symposium “brought out the need for training ecologists in the use of radioisotopes as a research tool in ecology.”166 In response, his group organized a special summer course for ecologists, which was first offered in 1962.167

(p.390) Research with isotopic tracers helped put ecosystems ecology on a quantitative footing.168 Ultimately, computers were used to mathematically simulate ecosystems, a development in which Oak Ridge figured prominently.169 Jerry Olson, a research ecologist hired at ORNL in 1958, harnessed the computational resources available at a national laboratory to undertake mathematical modeling of nutrient cycling, focusing on the movement of radionuclides through ecosystems.170 In fact, the 1962 cesium-137 tagging of the Oak Ridge forest was conducted with the hope of inputting the resulting data into Olson's computer model for mineral cycling.171 Through the 1960s, ORNL ecologists advocated the design of ever-larger computational models to derive information about ecosystems from research data on their components and linkages. The International Biological Program became the vehicle for the development of this kind of large-scale systems biology into the 1970s. This episode, though beyond the scope of this chapter, has been analyzed by others.172 Here it suffices to underline the important contribution of tracer studies and radiation ecology (not to mention the big-science money and infrastructure available through the AEC) to the emergence of a computational approach.

The AEC's footprint in radiation ecology also included surveys of coral atolls in the Pacific in conjunction with atomic weapons testing, radiation experiments with cesium-137 and cobalt-6o gamma ray sources in forests near Brookhaven National Laboratory and in a Puerto Rican preserve, and ongoing studies of the Trinity site and Nevada Proving Ground by UCLA health physicists interested in the fate of fission products.173 A (p.391) wide array of projects by extramural ecologists received support through the AEC's Division of Biology and Medicine, and, after 1958, the Division of Environmental Sciences.174 The United States was not the only sponsor of radioecological work; the British Atomic Energy Authority had an influential group, and Japanese scientists were also making key contributions.175 As Odum observed in 1965, a positive feedback loop developed between nuclear power and ecology after World War II.176


One might infer from the involvement of the US government in the emergence of radioecology, and the key importance of research at Hanford, that this new field originated as a result of the military development of atomic energy. But as with biochemistry, interests among ecologists in using radioisotopes as tracers preceded the Manhattan Project. For Hutchinson this interest was catalyzed by the success of biochemists and physiologists in elucidating the movement of compounds in the body and metabolic pathways through radiolabeling. Hutchinson, who already viewed aquatic bodies in terms of their “intermediary metabolism,” verified the utility of radioisotopes for tracing biogeochemical cycles and visualizing the dynamics of material and energy flow within ecosystems. This disciplinary crossover was consequential in other respects: the physiological understanding that accompanied his use of radiotracers revived the ecosystem as a quasi-organism, not merely a machine.

That said, of course, the interests of the Manhattan Project and subsequently the AEC in managing the disposal of radioactive waste from atomic weapons production nudged ecological research in particular directions, both through patronage relations and through unprecedented experimental opportunities. As we have seen, the amounts of radioactivity being deposited into waterways and landscapes provided ecologists the chance to study the effects of radiation in the field and the movement of (p.392) radioactive materials through the environment. The landscapes around the AEC's atomic weapons plants and national laboratories became experimental test-beds for ecological radiotracers, and problems of radioactive waste there were, in turn, understood in terms of ecosystems.

More broadly, ecological studies of radioactive waste as well as the growing understanding of the dangers of low-level radiation exposure disclosed the environmental and occupational risks associated with using radioisotopes, information the AEC was initially reluctant to accept.177 Radioactive tracers also made newly visible the problems of containing nuclear contamination; this in turn generated concerns about the disposal of radioactive waste from laboratories and clinics, and even more so from the government's large-scale atomic energy and weapons facilities.178 The changed political environment prompted new federal regulation that made radioactive materials more challenging to use and dispose of, after the government had done so much to ensure that radioisotopes were widely distributed.179

Lastly, the legacy of atomic energy was important to environmentalism in another key respect. Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, which launched widespread public concern about environmental contamination with synthetic chemicals, posits the similarity between the hazards of radioactive fallout and the dangers of chemical contaminants: “In this now universal contamination of the environment, chemicals are the sinister and little-recognized partners of radiation in changing the very nature of the world—the very nature of its life.”180 As it turned out, some insecticides were found to exhibit the same trait of bioconcentration as compounds moved up the food chain.181 DDT became the exemplar of this phenomenon. In fact, it was George Woodwell at Brookhaven National Laboratory, having made his name studying how radiation affects forest ecosystems, who demonstrated that DDT was concentrated up to 1.5-million fold in an aquatic ecosystem on Long Island.182 As Woodwell has noted, the attention to one part per billion in the environment “in itself was a revolution,” and this realization (p.393) that biotic studies required measurement in the “range of nanograms and picograms, nanocuries and picocuries” became a defining feature of the study of environmental contamination.183 Historians have noted how the environmental movement built on the shift from perceiving the invisible danger lurking in radioactivity to that present in synthetic chemicals.184 This analogy also informed how scientists approached the problem of understanding the ways in which chemical contaminants moved through ecosystems and entered food webs, both dispersing and concentrating in the environment. As two textbook authors noted in 1982, when it came to studying ecological processes involved in the spread of “smog, pesticides, and other chemical substances that may threaten the environment,” radioisotopes were a “model pollutant.”185


(1) . Odum, Fundamentals of Ecology (1959), p. 469.

(2) . On this issue, Kwa, Mimicking Nature (1989), ch. 1; Kwa, “Radiation Ecology” (1993); Hagen, Entangled Bank (1992), ch. 6. I follow Hagen's line of argument but focus specific attention on the material basis for this synergy, namely the radioisotopes that became critical tools for tracing out the patterns of circulation in ecosystems.

(3) . Tansley, “Use and Abuse” (1935). The article was part of a festschrift for ecologist Henry C. Cowles.

(4) . Kingsland, “Defining Ecology as a Science” (1991), p. 5. For an earlier articulation of biotic community in the work of Karl Möbius, see Nyhart, “Civic and Economic Zoology” (1998); idem, Modern Nature (2009).

(5) . Tansley, “Use and Abuse” (1935), p. 296.

(6) . Ibid., p. 299; emphasis in original.

(7) . Tansley was particularly critical of how Clements's concept had been further developed by South Africans Jan Smuts and John Phillips. Smuts, Holism and Evolution (1926); Phillips, “Biotic Community” (1931); Worster, Nature's Economy (1977), pp. 239 and 301; Anker, Imperial Ecology (2001), ch. 4.

(8) . Golley, History of the Ecosystem Concept (1993), p. 2.

(9) . Scholars have interpreted the relationship between Clements's and Tansley's contrasting “community” and “ecosystem” in different ways. Ronald Tobey emphasizes the discontinuity signaled in the introduction of ecosystem, whereas Tansley's biographer Harry Godwin views Tansley's concept as “qualifying without disabling” Clements's organismal one. Like Hagen, I am struck by the continuities embedded in Tansley's innovation. Tobey, Saving the Prairies (1981); Godwin, “Sir Arthur Tansley” (1977); Hagen, Entangled Bank (1992), esp. pp. 79–80; Anker, Imperial Ecology (2001), ch. 4; Kingsland, Evolution of American Ecology (2005), pp. 184–85.

(10) . Hutchinson, “Bio-Ecology” (1940), p. 268; Hagen, Entangled Bank (1992), ch. 4.

(11) . Hutchinson, “Mechanisms of Intermediary Metabolism” (1941).

(12) . Not that the resemblance is exact: the ecological diagrams included nonliving components and stressed the flow of energy as well as materials.

(13) . Golley, History of the Ecosystem Concept (1993), p. 36.

(14) . Forbes, “Lake as a Microcosm” (1887); Schneider, “Local Knowledge” (2000).

(15) . Thienemann, “Lebengemeinschaft und Lebensraum” (1918); McIntosh, Background of Ecology (1985), p. 195.

(16) . Cook, “Raymond Lindeman” (1977), p. 22.

(17) . Ibid.

(18) . Lindeman, “Trophic-Dynamic Aspect of Ecology” (1942).

(19) . Hagen, Entangled Bank (1992), pp. 88–90. Hutchinson's developing theory is reflected in an unpublished 1941 manuscript, Lecture Notes in Limnology (that Lindeman refers to as Recent Advances in Limnology). Cook, “Raymond Lindeman” (1977), p. 217n52.

(20) . Lindeman, “Trophic-Dynamic Aspect of Ecology” (1942), p. 408. Odum continued this reworking of Elton, referring to the “pyramid of biomass.” Kwa, “Radiation Ecology” (1993), P. 222.

(21) . The paper's emphasis on theory almost prevented it from being published; see Cook, “Raymond Lindeman” (1977).

(22) . Lindeman, “Trophic-Dynamic Aspect of Ecology” (1942), p. 399.

(23) . Ibid., pp. 399–400.

(24) . Ibid., p. 400.

(25) . As Cook observes, this “organismic approach paralleled the whole conceptual framework being established in developmental biology at this time,” citing Haraway, Crystals, Fabrics and Fields (1976). Cook, “Raymond Lindeman” (1977), p. 26n30.

(26) . Golley, History of the Ecosystem Concept (1993), p. 56.

(27) . Slack, “G. Evelyn Hutchinson” (2008). Some of this work was undertaken by Hutchinson's first graduate students, particularly Gordon Riley, who studied the copper cycle in Linsley Pond: Riley, “General Limnological Survey” (1939); idem, “Plankton of Linsley Pond” (1940). Hutchinson's initial foray into limnology was in South Africa where he held a research position in 1926 and 1927 at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. This research was sponsored by Lancelot Hogben, who was then professor of zoology at the University of Capetown.

(28) . Golley, History of the Ecosystem Concept (1993), p. 59. Sharon Kingsland argues that population ecology may be understood in terms of “a conflict between historical and ahistorical thinking,” the latter usually involving mathematics. As she puts it, “The very act of imposing mathematics (or any model) on nature often involved a rejection of history in favor of a harmonious, unifying concept.” This fits very closely with the tension between the metaphors of development and physiology in ecosystems ecology, and in fact it was the view of ecosystems as self-regulating that was consonant with the application of mathematics to understand how they maintained equilibrium. Kingsland, Modeling Nature (1985), p. 8.

(29) . Hutchinson, “Mechanisms of Intermediary Metabolism” (1941), p. 56. Hutchinson was also investigating the biogeochemistry of particular metals: Hutchinson, “Biogeochemistry of Aluminum” (1943).

(30) . Hutchinson, “Mechanisms of Intermediary Metabolism” (1941), p. 56.

(31) . Ibid., p. 23.

(32) . See Hutchinson, “Thiamin in Lake Waters” (1943); Hutchinson and Setlow, “Limnological Studies in Connecticut, VIII” (1946).

(33) . On the history of nutritional biochemistry, see Kamminga and Weatherall, “Making of a Biochemist, I” (1996); Weatherall and Kamminga, “Making of a Biochemist, II” (1996).

(34) . Hutchinson, “Mechanisms of Intermediary Metabolism” (1941), p. 52.

(35) . Hutchinson and Bowen, “Direct Demonstration” (1947), pp. 148–49.

(36) . Letter, W. T. Edmondson to Joel B. Hagen, 22 Mar 1989, courtesy of Hagen.

(37) . Ibid. Further information on this early attempt is available from an interview by Joel B. Hagen of G. Evelyn Hutchinson, 31 Mar 1989 as cited in Hagen, Entangled Bank (1992), p. 221n45; Hutchinson and Bowen, “Direct Demonstration” (1947), asterisk endnote on p. 153; G. Evelyn Hutchinson to Edward S. Deevey, 26 Sep 1944, Hutchinson papers, box 11, folder 193 Deevey, Edward S. 1944–1949.

(38) . Letter, W. T. Edmondson to Joel B. Hagen, 22 Mar 1989, courtesy of Hagen.

(39) . Hutchinson and Bowen, “Direct Demonstration” (1947), p. 148.

(40) . Ibid., p. 152.

(41) . Letter from Paul Aebersold, Isotopes Branch, to G. E. Hutchinson, 8 May 1947,NARA Atlanta, 326, MED CEW Gen Res Corr, Acc 67B0803, box 178, folder AEC 441.2 (R-Yale Univ.). Hutchinson's radioisotope application with the Manhattan District and Monsanto (as contractor and hence distributor), signed on 27 Nov 1946, is in NARA Atlanta, RG 326, OROO Files for K-25, X-10, Y-25, Acc 671309, box 14, Certificates.

(42) . Hutchinson and Bowen, “Quantitative Radiochemical Study” (1950), p. 194.

(43) . Seston is particulate matter in water, composed of both minute living organisms and nonliving matter, which floats and contributes to turbidity.

(44) . Undated, hand-written notes on this experiment in Hutchinson papers, box 6, folder 96 Bowen, Vaughan T., 1942–1948, 1956. Unbeknownst to Hutchinson, in July 1948 a Canadian group undertook similar experiments with phosphorus-32 in a lake in Nova Scotia. Slack, G. Evelyn Hutchinson (2010), p. 162; Coffin et al., “Exchange of Materials” (1949).

(45) . Weiner, Cybernetics (1948).

(46) . Taylor, “Technocratic Optimism” (1988), pp. 217–23. On the Macy Foundation conferences, see Heims, Cybernetics Group (1991).

(47) . Hutchinson, “Circular Causal Systems” (1948).

(48) . Noddack, “Der Kohlenstoff im Haushalt der Natur” (1937); Goldschmidt, “Drei Vorträge über Geochemie” (1934); Riley, “Carbon Metabolism and Photosynthetic Efficiency”

(49) . Hutchinson, “Circular Causal Systems” (1948), p. 222.

(50) . Ibid.

(51) Rosenblueth et al., “Behavior, Purpose and Teleology” (1943). See also Rosenblueth and Wiener, “Purposeful and Non-purposeful Behavior” (1950).

(52) . Nier and Gulbransen, “Variations in the Relative Abundance” (1939).

(53) . Hutchinson, “Circular Causal Systems” (1948), p. 225.

(54) . Letter from Paul C. Aebersold to G. Evelyn Hutchinson, 8 May 1947, Subject: Approval of Requests for Radioisotopes, NARA Atlanta, RG 326, MED CEW Gen Res Corr, Acc 67B0803, box 178, folder AEC 441.2 (R- Yale Univ.).

(55) . As Eugene Odum describes it: “One of the most sensitive methods for measuring aquatic plant production is done in bottles with radioactive carbon (C14) added as carbonate. After a short period of time, the plankton or other plants are separated from the water, dried and placed in a counting device. With suitable calculations, the amount of carbon dioxide fixed in photosynthesis can be determined from the radioactive counts made.” Odum, Fundamentals of Ecology (1959), p. 84; Steemann Nielsen, “Use of Radioactive Carbon” (1954); Ryther, “Measurement of Primary Production” (1956).

(56) . Odum et al., “Uptake of P32” (1958).

(57) . Pendleton and Grundmann, “Use of P32 in Tracing” (1954).

(58) . Hassett and Jenkins, “Uptake and Effect of Radiophosphorus” (1951).

(59) . For a retrospective assessment, see Auerbach, “Radionuclide Cycling” (1965). Note that by the mid-1960s, radionuclide had come to replace radioisotope as the preferred term.

(60) . Odum, Fundamentals of Ecology (1959).

(61) . Odum was seeking greater competence in radiation biology during the year's leave on a National Science Foundation grant. Beside the time at Hanford, he spent another four months at UCLA with the group that studied the effects of radiation on desert ecology at the testing grounds in Nevada. Kwa, “Radiation Ecology” (1993), p. 230.

(62) . Whicker and Pinder, “Food Chains” (2002).

(63) . Hewlett and Anderson, New World (1962), p. 189; Hines, Proving Ground (1962), p. 5. Hines lists the energy requirement as 200,000 kilowatts.

(64) . Hines, Proving Ground (1962), pp. 4–6; Stannard, Radioactivity and Health (1988), vol. 2, p. 757. The huge Grand Coulee dam project had been mired in controversy since the 1920s, but its completion led to the building of several plants in Washington and Oregon to produce aluminum during the war. The construction of Hanford continued the federal government's industrial development of the Northwest to aid the war effort, albeit in secrecy. As one historian notes, “Once up and running, the plutonium plants required the entire output of two generators at the Grand Coulee powerhouse.” Ficken, “Grand Coulee and Hanford” (1998), p. 27.

(65) . Hines, Proving Ground (1962), p. 8. Stone was director of the new Health Division of the Metallurgical Project at Chicago; Wigner was head of the group in charge of pile design; and Warren's executive officer in the Medical Section was Friedell.

(66) . Ibid., p. 8; Klingle, “Plying Atomic Waters” (1988).

(67) . Hines, Proving Ground (1962), p. 10.

(68) . Whicker and Schultz, “Introduction and Historical Perspective” (1982), p. 4; Gerber, On the Home Front (2002), p. 116.

(69) . Hines, Proving Ground (1962), p. 12.

(70) . These experiments made use of a 200 peak kilovoltage Picker-Waite radiation therapy machine, the only radiation source readily available. As Hines notes, “Nowhere was there yet a source of supply of man-made radioisotopes that might have made possible the design of more sophisticated biological studies involving the use of internal emitters even if such studies had been somehow visualized.” Ibid., p. 14.

(71) . Ibid., p. 16.

(72) . Ibid., pp. 16–17. This project, which involved tabulating the results from 115,454 eggs, was the doctoral dissertation of Richard Foster, subsequently published: Foster et al., “Effect on Embryos and Young of Rainbow Trout” (1949). Seven groups of twenty adult fish each were exposed to whole body doses of 50, 100, 500, 750, 1000, 1500, or 2500 Roentgen, then their offspring followed. Over 500 Roentgen, mortality of offspring was close to 100%.

(73) . The B reactor was fueled beginning on September 13, 1944, but ceased operating after achieving criticality due to xenon poisoning. This problem was resolved by the end of the year, and Los Alamos received the first shipment of plutonium from Hanford on February 2, 1945. See http://www.cfo.doe.gov/me70/manhattan/hanford_operational.htm.

(74) . Michele Stenehjem Gerber attributes the impetus for field observations to Stafford Warren, not Donaldson. On the Home Front (2002), p. 116.

(75) . Donaldson was to serve as a consultant for the Aquatic Biological Laboratory. Hines, Proving Ground (1962), p. 17.

(76) . In attendance at the meeting were Stafford L. Warren, H. L. Friedell, A. A. White, Dr. Howland (of the Medical Corps), and Lauren Donaldson. They recommended that Foster determine the effect of the effluent on the fish through a series of dilutions. They estimated the actual dilution in the river to be about 1:500. R. F. Foster, “Some Effects of Pile Area Effluent Water on Young Chinook Salmon and Steelhead Trout,” 31 Aug 1946, US AEC Report HW-7-4759, Hanford Engineer Works, Opennet Acc NV0717097, p. 2; L. Donaldson, “Program of Fisheries Experiment for the Hanford Field Laboratory,” July 1945, DUH-7287, OpenNet Acc RL-1-336129.

(77) . Foster, “Some Effects of Pile Area Effluent.” It should be noted that if the effluent was not diluted, it was highly toxic to the fish, but the scientists calculated that the dilution factor in the river was at least 1:100. Foster studied the effects on fish of placing them in water with a variety of dilutions with the effluent, from 1:3 to 1:1000.

(78) . Ibid., p. 72.

(79) . Ibid.

(80) . Odum, Fundamentals of Ecology (1959), p. 467. As Foster observes, an aluminum jacket surrounding the fuel elements kept the cooling water from making direct contact with the uranium rods. Foster, “History of Hanford” (1972), p. 13.

(81) . Stannard, Radioactivity and Health (1988), vol. 2, p. 759.

(82) . H. M. Parker, “Status of Problem of Measurement of the Activity of Waste Water Returned to the Columbia River,” memorandum to S. T. Cantril, 11 Sep 1945, OpenNet Acc NV0719099, p.1. See also Foster, “History of Hanford” (1979), p. 8; Reichle and Auerbach, “U.S. Radioecology Research Programs” (2003), p. 4. One might bear in mind, as Barton Hacker has pointed out, the standard perceptions about radiological safety in World War II America: namely, if radiation exposure did not mean direct harm, it was considered safe enough. Hacker, “No Evidence of Ill Effects” (1991), p. 147.

(83) . Researchers from the Applied Fisheries Laboratory participated in the surveys of Bikini islands pre- and post-detonation as part of the summer 1946 Nuclear Testing Program in the Pacific. The resurvey in Bikini a year after the detonations revealed the persistence of radioactivity in the flora and fauna of the atoll. See Life magazine's feature “What Science Learned at Bikini” (1947). The “Conclusions,” authored by Stafford Warren, are entitled “Tests Proved Irresistible Spread of Radioactivity.” On the work of Donaldson's group in the Pacific, see Hines, Proving Ground (1962); Stannard, Radioactivity and Health (1988); Hamblin, Poison in the Well (2008), ch. 3.

(84) . Becker, Aquatic Bioenvironmental Studies (1990), pp. 82–83; Stannard, Radioactivity and Health (1988), vol. 1, pp. 434–35. I have tried to reconcile differences between these two accounts in terms of the history of this group. One of the first major studies of the Biology Section concerned the accumulation in sheep of iodine-131, one of the environmental contaminants given off by Hanford Works. This was not a field study, however; experimental sheep were fed iodine-131 and then tracked.

(85) . Hines, Proving Ground (1962), p. 18.

(86) . “Statements Signed by Hanford Engineer Works Personnel Agreeing Not to Divulge Information Relative to the Effect of Plant Operations on Fish Life in the Columbia River,” 18 Jun 1946, OpenNet Acc NV0062060, as quoted in Gerber, On the Home Front (2002), p. 116.

(87) . Stafford L. Warren, Report of the Meeting of the Interim Medical Committee, AEC, 23–24 Jan 1947, OpenNet Acc NV0727195, p. 12.

(88) . Biology Section, Radiological Sciences Department, “Effect of Hanford Pile Effluent Upon Aquatic Invertebrates in the Columbia River,” 19 Jan 1951, OpenNet Acc NV0717092, P. 3.

(89) . John W. Healy, “Accumulation of Radioactive Elements in Fish Immersed in Pile Effluent Water,” 27 Feb 1946, Opennet Acc NV0719097. Healy cites an earlier Hanford document: C. Ladd Prossner, Wm. Pervinsek, Jane Arnold, George Svihla and P. C. Tompkins, “Accumulation and Distribution of Radioactive Strontium, Barium-Lanthanum, Fission Mixture, and Sodium in Goldfish,” 15 Feb 1945. This paper, however, was part of a laboratory study on the metabolism of mixtures of fission products, as compared with the field observations of bioconcentration at Hanford. One study at Hanford that followed up Healy's was K. E. Herde, “Studies in the Accumulation of Radioactive Elements in Oncorhynchus tschawytscha (Chinook salmon) Exposed to a Medium of Pile Effluent Water,” 14 Oct 1946, OpenNet Acc NV0719098.

(90) . Karl E. Herde, “Radioactivity in Various Species of Fish from the Columbia and Yakima Rivers,” 14 May 1947, Hanford Health Instruments Section, OpenNet Acc NV0717089; idem, “A One Year Study of Radioactivity in Columbia River Fish,” 25 Oct 1948, Open-Net Acc NV0717090. Herde was not in the Aquatic Biology Section, but collaborated with Foster.

(91) . Gerber, On the Home Front (2002), p. 117. As Foster and Rostenbach noted, “In some instances, where the natural supply of an essential element—notably phosphorus—is limited, the radioisotopes may be several hundred thousand times more concentrated in the organism than in the surrounding water.” Foster and Rostenbach, “Distribution of Radioisotopes” (1954), p. 638.

(92) . R. W. Coopey, “The Accumulation of Radioactivity as Shown by a Limnological Study of the Columbia River in the Vicinity of Hanford Works,” 12 Nov 1948, OpenNet Acc NV0717091, p. 2.

(93) . Ibid., p. 1.

(94) . Ibid., p. 11.

(95) . C. C. Gamertsfelder, “Effects on Surrounding Areas Caused by the Operations of the Hanford Engineer Works,” 11 Mar 1947, OpenNet Acc RL-1–374061, p. 5.

(96) . Gerber, On the Home Front (2002), p. 119 and ch. 4. The irrigation project, originally scheduled for 1948, began in the mid-1950s.

(97) . Ibid., pp. 84–86.

(98) . Stannard, Radioactivity and Health (1988), vol. 2, pp. 760–62.

(99) . Letter from K. Herde to J. Newell Stannard, 30 Oct 1978, as quoted in Stannard, Radioactivity and Health (1988), vol. 2, p. 762.

(100) . Hewlett and Duncan, Atomic Shield (1969), pp. 141–53.

(101) . Gerber, On the Home Front (2002), pp. 38–42.

(102) . Herbert M. Parker, “Columbia River Situation-A Semi-Technical Review,” 19 Aug 1954, OpenNet Acc RL-1-360700.

(103) . Gerber, On the Home Front (2002), pp. 121–22.

(104) . Robeck et al., Water Quality Studies (1954); Becker, Aquatic Bioenvironmental Studies (1990), p. 20. Gerber argues that the first draft of the Public Health Service's report was considered by the AEC to be “highly detrimental to public relations” and was revised to “preserve the present status.” She is quoting from Herbert M. Parker, “Columbia River Situation-A Semi-Technical Review,” 19 Aug 1954, OpenNet Doc HW-32809, pp. 4–7; Gerber, On the Home Front (2002), p. 123.

(105) . Parker, “Health Physics, Instrumentation, and Radiation Protection” (1948), p. 241. Gerber (On the Home Front [2002], p. 296n35) suggests that this review was written for AEC officials and remained classified until it was reprinted in Health Physics in 1980, but this is not the case.

(106) . Krumholz, Summary of Findings (1954). In fact, many ecologists, especially those at Oak Ridge, tended to cite the Krumholz finding of bioconcentration in aquatic life. One Hanford publication did appear in 1954, though in the Journal of the American Water Works Association, perhaps an obscure location for ecologists: Foster and Rostenbach, “Distribution of Radioisotopes” (1954).

(107) . This number, provided by E. I. Goodman and R. A. Brightsen in a 1955 report for the American Chemical Society, was calculated on the basis of an estimated US production of 750,000,000 kilowatts of electricity per day from nuclear power. Laurence, “Waste Held Peril” (1:955); Hamblin, Poison in the Well (2008), p. 62.

(108) . Foster and Davis, “Accumulation of Radioactive Substances” (1956); Hanson and Kornberg, “Radioactivity in Terrestrial Animals” (1956). There were two other ecological papers at the conference by Hanford scientists, one on absorption of fission products by plants, and the other a review of radiation exposure from environmental sources. Stannard, Radioactivity and Health (1988), vol. 2, p. 765.

(109) . Davis and Foster, “Bioaccumulation of Radioisotopes” (1958).

(110) . Foster and Davis, “Accumulation of Radioactive Substances” (1956), p. 364.

(111) . Davis and Foster, “Bioaccumulation of Radioisotopes” (1958), p. 531.

(112) . Odum, Fundamentals of Ecology (1959), p. 467.

(113) . Hanson and Kornberg's paper, “Radioactivity in Terrestrial Animals” (1956), reported an enrichment of phosphorus-32 in egg yolks of ducks and geese of 1,500,000, but Odum notes that the average was lower, as reflected in his table for Fundamentals of Ecology (1959). p.468.

(114) . Davis and Foster, “Bioaccumulation of Radioisotopes” (1958), p. 531; see also Foster and Rostenbach, “Distribution of Radioisotopes” (1954), p. 635, in which the authors state, “No effect from the small amounts of radioactivity present has been detected.” This same point comes through clearly in “Hanford Science Forum,” a television broadcast (sponsored by Hanford's contractor, General Electric), which featured an interview with Foster on the work of the Aquatic Biology Operations in a 1957 program. The interviewer introduced the venture as a special kind of “fishing” in the Columbia River. The telecast is available at http://www.archive.org/details/HanfordS1957.

(115) . Odum, Fundamentals of Ecology (1959), p. 467.

(116) . Kwa, Mimicking Nature (1989), p. 83n43: “An early publication by W. F. Libby, member of the Atomic Energy Commission, declared the danger of Strontium-90 unimportant for humans while noting possible concentration mechanisms.” That publication was Libby, “Radioactive Fallout and Radioactive Strontium” (1956). According to Gerber, even “AEC Chairman Lewis Strauss expressed worry over the ‘Columbia River contamination situation’” (On the Home Front [2002], p. 128). Given Strauss's dismissal of concerns about the hazards of radioactive fallout from atomic weapons tests (see chapter 5), this is a rather surprising admission.

(117) . The ecology group at ORNL continued growing steadily, and had close to 250 employees in 1978. Bocking, Ecologists and Environmental Politics (1997), p. 75.

(118) . Ibid., p. 68; Reichle and Auerbach, “U.S. Radioecology Research Programs” (2003), p. 8.

(119) . The cooperation between ORNL and TVA concerning radioactive waste disposal began earlier. The Health Physics Division and the TVA jointly organized a section of Waste Disposal Research in 1948, involving scientists from the Army Corps of Engineers, the Public Health Service, and the US Geological Survey. The radioecological survey the AEC authorized in 1950 was based in the Health Physics Division and in collaboration with this section. The AEC contracted with the TVA's Fish and Game Branch to conduct the survey. Auerbach, History of the Environmental Sciences Division (1993), p. 3.

(120) . Krumholz, Summary of Findings (1954).

(121) . Ibid., p. 25.

(122) . Ibid., p. 14.

(123) . Kwa, “Radiation Ecology” (1993), p. 233; Whicker and Schultz, “Introduction and Historical Perspective” (1982), p. 5; Reichle and Auerbach, “U.S. Radioecology Research Programs” (2003), p. 8. Stannard, Radioactivity and Health (1988), vol. 2, p. 762 ff.

(124) . Krumholz, Summary of Findings (1954), p. 26.

(125) . Krumholz, it should be stressed, did not see his assessment in such a positive light. As he wrote in his conclusions, “The circumstantial evidence against the continued (or increased) contamination of aquatic environments with radiomaterials is very strong. Although the evidence is not unequivocal that the damage to the populations in White Oak Lake was caused by irradiation alone, it can hardly be denied that the constant exposure to radiation may have been a strongly contributing factor.” Krumholz, Summary of Findings (1954), p. 50.

(126) . Auerbach goes on to say of the ecological survey work: “The kinds of things we accept in the environment—great variability as a result of multi factors that we've got to deal with—was something that they didn't quite put across well…. It created a certain amount of horror in the eyes of the more rigorous physical scientists who ran the ORNL.” J. Newell Stannard, transcript of interview with Stanley I. Auerbach, 19 Apr 1979, Stannard papers, box 3, folder 4, quotes from p. 2.

(127) . Morgan and Peterson, Angry Genie (1999), p. 85; Bocking, Ecologists and Environmental Politics (1997), pp. 65–68. 1 picked up the term “crusade” from Stannard, Radioactivity and Health (1988), vol. 2, p. 769.

(128) . Morgan and Peterson, Angry Genie (1999), p. 85.

(129) . Stannard, Radioactivity and Health (1988), vol. 2, p. 769.

(130) . Ibid., vol. 2, p. 769.

(131) . Auerbach, History of the Environmental Sciences Division (1993), pp. 5–6. See also Auerbach, “Soil Ecosystem” (1958).

(132) . Auerbach, History of the Environmental Sciences Division (1993), p. 6. In 1958 Wolfe became chief of a new Environmental Sciences Branch of the AEC's Division of Biology and Medicine, a role in which he expanded the agency's funding of ecological research at the national laboratories and at colleges and universities through grants. See Dunham, “Foreword” (1962).

(133) . Reichle and Auerbach, “U.S. Radioecology Research Programs” (2003), p. 9. Auerbach explains that most of this waste was generated by the intensive work at ORNL on techniques for reprocessing used reactor fuel elements.

(134) . J. Newell Stannard, transcript of interview with Stanley I. Auerbach, 19 Apr 1979, Stannard papers, box 3, folder 4, p. 10. A “cutie pie” was a diminutive ion chamber detector; this was among numerous nicknames given radiation detection instruments during World War II.

(135) . Bocking, Ecologists and Environmental Politics (1997), p. 71. Bocking emphasizes that reading Eugene Odum's textbook Fundamentals of Ecology (1959) was crucial to Auerbach's awareness of this approach.

(136) . See, e.g., Dunaway and Kaye, “Effects of Ionizing Radiation” (1963).

(137) . Auerbach and Crossley, “Strontium-90 and Cesium-137 Uptake” (1958); Crossley and Howden, “Insect-Vegetation Relationships” (1961); Crossley, “Movement and Accumulation” (1963). Paul Dunaway, who joined the group in 1957, worked on mammals.

(138) . Crossley and Howden, “Insect-Vegetation Relationships” (1961), p. 302.

(139) . Kwa, “Radiation Ecology” (1993), p. 234; Auerbach, History of the Environmental Sciences Division (1993), p. 9; Graham, “Uptake of Waste Sr 90 and Cs 137” (1958).

(140) . J. Newell Stannard, transcript of interview with Stanley I. Auerbach, 19 Apr 1979, Stannard papers, box 3, folder 4, pp. 8–9.

(141) . The “controlled field experimentation” phrase is in Auerbach, “Soil Ecosystem” (1958), p. 525. Results of the corn planting are given in Auerbach and Crossley, “Strontium-90 and Cesium-137 Uptake” (1958).

(142) . Willard, “Avian Uptake of Fission Products” (1960); DeSelm and Shanks, “Accumulation and Cycling” (1963); Shanks and DeSelm, “Factors Related to Concentration of Radiocesium” (1963).

(143) . Johnson and Schaffer, Oak Ridge National Laboratory (1994), pp. 99–100.

(144) . Auerbach, Olson, and Waller, “Landscape Investigations Using Caesium-137” (1964), p. 761.

(145) . Ibid., p. 762.

(146) . Stannard, Radioactivity and Health (1988), vol. 2, p. 771.

(147) . Kaye and Dunaway, “Bioaccumulation of Radioactive Isotopes” (1962), p. 205.

(148) . See Rader, Making Mice (2004), ch. 6.

(149) . Auerbach, History of the Environmental Sciences Division (1993), p. 19.

(150) . On the contentious interplay between lab and field, see Kohler, Landscapes and Labscapes (2002).

(151) . Kaye and Dunaway, “Estimation of Dose Rate” (1963), p. 107.

(152) . In particular, the researchers found and trapped four muskrats living in the settling basin for liquid waste, whose whole-body dose rates were so high that pathologies would be expected. Perhaps due to lack of exposure time, the researchers found no lesions in the two muskrats dissected. Ibid., p. 109.

(153) . Ibid., p. 111.

(154) . Odum, “Early University of Georgia Research” (1987), pp. 43–44.

(155) . Kwa, “Radiation Ecology” (1993), pp. 227–29; Odum, “Organic Production and Turnover” (1960).

(156) . The on-site laboratory was approved in 1960 and became available in 1961. Kwa, “Radiation Ecology” (1993), p. 229.

(157) . A copy of Odum's unsuccessful 1951 application is printed as Appendix A (pp. 59–72) to Odum, “Early University of Georgia Research” (1987).

(158) . Kwa, “Radiation Ecology” (1993), p. 230.

(159) . See Odum and Golley, “Radioactive Tracers as an Aid” (1963).

(160) . Odum and Kuenzler, “Experimental Isolation of Food Chains” (1963).

(161) . Ibid., p. 116.

(162) . Ibid., p. 118.

(163) . Ibid., p. 119.

(164) . Wiegert and Odum, “Radionuclide Tracer Measurements” (1969), p. 710.

(165) . Åberg and Hungate, Radioecological Concentration Processes (1967).

(166) . Auerbach, History of the Environmental Sciences Division (1993), p. 21.

(167) . Ibid. The summer courses for ecologists were short-lived, however, with the last one being offered in 1964. After that, ecologists were expected simply to enroll in the regular course.

(168) . Hagen, Entangled Bank (1992), pp. 112–15.

(169) . NASA and the related space industry provided another context in which ecologists became familiar with computer simulations. Anker, “Ecological Colonization of Space” (2005).

(170) . Olson, “Analog Computer Models” (1963). Olson used the National Laboratory Analog Computer Facility at Oak Ridge. Kwa, “Radiation Ecology” (1993), pp. 235–36, 243; Bocking, Ecologists and Environmental Politics (1997), pp. 77–84.

(171) . Auerbach, Olson, and Waller, “Landscape Investigations Using Caesium-137” (1964).

(172) . See Kwa, “Radiation Ecology” (1993); Golley, History of the Ecosystem Concept (1993), ch. 5; McIntosh, Background of Ecology (1985), ch. 6; Coleman, Big Ecology (2010), ch. 2.

(173) . Odum and Odum, “Trophic Structure and Productivity” (1955); Larson, “Continental Close-In Fallout” (1963); Woodwell, “Effects of Ionizing Radiation” (1962); Odum, Tropical Rain Forest (1970). For the AEC's impact on oceanography, see Rainger, “Wonderful Oceanographic Tool” (2004);idem, “Going from Blue to Green?” (2004); Hamblin, “Hallowed Lords of the Sea” (2006); idem, Poison in the Well (2008). On the environmental response to Project Chariot in Alaska, see Kirsch, Proving Grounds (2005).

(174) . Kingsland, Evolution of American Ecology (2005), ch. 7.

(175) . Hamblin, Poison in the Well (2008), ch. 3.

(176) . Odum, “Feedback” (1965). See also Rothschild, “Environmental Awareness” (2013); Schloegel, “‘Nuclear Revolution’ Is Over” (2011).

(177) . See chapter 6.

(178) . Mazuzan and Walker, Controlling the Atom (1985), ch. 12.

(179) . Walker, Containing the Atom (1992).

(180) . Carson, Silent Spring (1962), p. 6.

(181) . Woodwell, “Toxic Substances and Ecological Cycles” (1967).

(182) . The concentration went from a dilution of 0.00005 PPm in water to 75.5 ppm in an immature ring-billed gull. Woodwell, Wurster, and Isaacson, “DDT Residues” (1967). Odum reproduced part of their data in a figure for the third edition of his textbook: Odum, Fundamentals of Ecology (1971), p. 74. On Woodwell's work at Brookhaven on forest ecosystems, see Woodwell, “Effects of Ionizing Radiation” (1962).

(183) . Woodwell, “BRAVO plus 25 Years” (1980), p. 62.

(184) . Lutts, “Chemical Fallout” (1985). This is not to suggest ecologists saw these hazards as equivalent. See Hagen, “Teaching Ecology” (2008).

(185) . Whicker and Schultz, “Introduction and Historical Perspective” (1982), p. 2.