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.
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