The Little Rock Zoo

.The Little Rock Zoo needs to step up and care for the animals better! Please read the several artciles here with deaths, sickness and a bald chimp!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Between October 1952 and January 1953, 36 Rhesus Monkeys Were Exposed to Radiation.

A rhesus monkey is prepared for an experiment at the Bulk Shielding Reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Between October 1952 and January 1953, 36 rhesus monkeys were exposed to radiation.

A rhesus monkey is prepared for an experiment at the Bulk Shielding Reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Between October 1952 and January 1953, 36 rhesus monkeys were exposed to radiation.

OAK RIDGE - Oak Ridge history is bathed in accomplishment, beginning with its work on the first atomic bombs in World War II and continuing today with its leadership in neutron science and supercomputers. But some of the odder events are the most memorable, so maybe it's time to celebrate the unusual.

Let's call it "Oak Ridge: Believe It or Not."

n To the dismay of some and amusement of many, Oak Ridge National Laboratory got loads of attention in 1991 when wire reports circled the globe carrying the yuk-yuk story of the year. Radioactive frogs had invaded the lab.

What happened was tiny amphibians had been feeding and breeding in ORNL's waste ponds, in the process acquiring low levels of radioactivity. The problem got worse when workers installed wire nets over the ponds to keep geese from nesting there. But this kept the herons away, too, and herons had been eating the little leopard frogs. Soon, the local food chain got out of whack, and hot little frogs were getting run over by cars and showing up in places they wouldn't ordinarily. And, with ORNL being a nuclear facility, the radioactivity got detected, measured and reported in a lab bulletin.

Once the story reached the news media, the real fun began. The Oak Ridge frogs spawned T-shirts, talk-show chatter and an endless round of jokes.

The frogs were more of a nuisance than a hazard, but the problem didn't go away completely until the government spent $11.6 million draining and excavating the hot ponds.

didn't go away completely until the government spent $11.6 million draining and excavating the hot ponds.

n People know ORNL by lots of names, including X-10, its original site name during the war, when it also became known as Clinton Laboratories. Union workers sometimes referred to the lab - derisively - as The Country Club, suggesting that the pace of work at ORNL was leisurely compared to the nearby production facilities, K-25 and Y-12.

But few people seem to remember that, for one year in the 1970s, ORNL was known officially as Holifield National Laboratory. Part of the reason is that Oak Ridgers, including the lab's leadership, fiercely resisted the name change, which was legislated by Congress as a tribute to U.S. Rep. Chet Holifield - a powerful Democrat from California who for many years headed the House-Senate Joint Committee on Atomic Energy.

No Oak Ridge signs were ever erected with the lab's new name, and then-Lab Director Herman Postma reportedly kept two sets of stationery on hand. He used a small supply with the Holifield letterhead to correspond with proper authorities in Washington. Everything else went out under the ORNL banner.

Thanks to some political maneuvering by Sen. Howard Baker and Rep. Marilyn Lloyd, bills were enacted in 1974 that returned ORNL to the lab's internationally known template. As a compromise, the California congressman - often called "Mr. Atomic Energy" - got his name on an Oak Ridge accelerator, now known as the Holifield Radioactive Ion Beam Facility.

n As the nuclear arms race spiraled in the 1950s and '60s, government planners worried about how the United States would survive and recover from an atomic attack.

This Cold War concern grew into a brand-new research field known as post-attack ecology, and Oak Ridge was in the forefront. For one project, environmental scientists intentionally "seeded" a makeshift garden near the Clinch River with tiny pellets of radioactive cesium-137. The purpose was to study the agricultural impacts of fallout from an atomic explosion.

Valuable data was obtained on nuclear veggies and the movement of radioactive elements in the environment, but there was a downside. Thirty years later, the Department of Energy had to spend millions of dollars excavating the mess that was left behind.

n Animals are central characters in many of Oak Ridge's strangest stories.

For 16 consecutive weekends in 1952-53, researchers loaded Rhesus monkeys into makeshift submarines and floated them in the waters of ORNL's Bulk Shielding Reactor. They were exposing the primates to radiation of varying levels to study its biological effects.

This bit of monkey business was part of a government program to develop nuclear-powered airplanes.

Scientists wanted to simulate the radiation exposures that military personnel might receive in a series of tactical missions aboard a reactor-powered aircraft, which presumably would be armed with nuclear weapons as well.

n The Tower Shielding Reactor was another Oak Ridge contributor to the atomic aircraft program.

At a ridge-top site a couple of miles from the main lab complex, giant towers with cables were used to hoist an unshielded reactor 200 feet into the air. That allowed engineers to evaluate the effectiveness of different materials in shielding the airplane pilot and crew from the reactor's radiation.

The pursuit of atomic airplanes was ultimately abandoned after ballistic missiles and other means for deploying nuclear weapons became available, but the Tower Shielding Reactor site continued to be used for a number of programs.

"In 1957, Pratt and Whitney ran a roaring jet engine for 50 hours while it was exposed to strong radiation to learn what damage might be done to engine components," Murray Rosenthal, a retired lab executive, wrote in a new report that looks back at the history of research reactors at Oak Ridge.

Even after the reactors were shut down, Tower Shielding was used as a test site for nuclear containers. Heavy-duty casks would be dropped from varying heights to determine their integrity in case of a highway crash or other accident.

n Y-12 is popularly known as the Fort Knox of Uranium because it is home to the nation's - and possibly the world's - largest inventory of bomb-grade uranium.

The Oak Ridge weapons facility historically has managed other large commodity stockpiles as well. During the early 1950s, President Eisenhower authorized Y-12 to borrow a significant (and reportedly still classified) portion of the U.S. supply of mercury. Many millions of pounds of mercury were needed for processing lithium, which was integral to development of thermonuclear weapons - so-called hydrogen bombs.

A decade before that, during the earliest days of the Manhattan Project, Y-12 took out another loan, this time from the U.S. Treasury.

The wartime mission of Y-12 was to enrich uranium, separating and concentrating the fissionable U-235. The plan was to use an electromagnetic process, but that would require huge magnets with big-time conductors, and copper was already in short supply.

Oak Ridge historian Bill Wilcox, a wartime chemist at Y-12, said Army physicists and engineers came up with the idea of using silver, which was an even better electrical conductor than copper. Since Y-12 was part of the top-secret project and guarded to the extreme, security for the precious silver wouldn't be a problem.

According to Wilcox, there are varying reports of how much silver Oak Ridge ended up with, but it was somewhere between 13,000 and 14,000 tons valued at about $400 million. The bars of silver were ultimately converted into miles of magnet windings, allowing Y-12's wartime processing to meet its objective.

After the war, when the windings were stripped from the equipment and chopped up to prepare for their return to the Treasury, even the smallest bits of silver dust were collected and returned to the cache.

n In the early 1990s, there was a comprehensive reinvestigation of the government's use of humans in radiation experiments, and a long-time ORNL employee came forward and offered a disturbing recollection. The worker, who was not identified publicly, told authorities that in the late 1960s he had seen a detached human arm in a nuclear waste trench. He had not reported it at the time, apparently because of security concerns.

The report was considered credible and prompted an investigation, which reviewed thousands of shipping records and other documents. The probe did not turn up any evidence that matched the worker's sighting, although there were indications that a human arm may have been used at one time in a Reference Man research project that looked at the minerals and elements in tissues.

The general conclusion, however, was that the worker's sighting was likely a mannequin. Mannequins were sometimes used for testing radiation-detection equipment and other purposes.

n On the morning of Nov. 11, 1972, Oak Ridge stood still - or nearly so - while a hijacked Southern Airways jetliner circled above.

"It was a very, very scary situation," Jim Alexander, a retired public affairs officer at the Department of Energy, recalled in a 2001 interview.

The hijackers threatened to crash the airplane into the Oak Ridge nuclear facilities if their demands, including $10 million in cash, were not met. The High Flux Isotope Reactor at ORNL was shut down, as were operations at other nuclear facilities.

The threat was real, according to a 1977 book, "The Odyssey of Terror."

The author, Ed Blair, wrote that the hijackers went berserk after placing a call to the White House and being shunned by John Ehrlichman, an aide to President Nixon, who apparently was unaware of the crisis. Blair reported that the hijackers held a grenade to the pilot's head and ordered him to dive the plane toward the Oak Ridge reactor. The plane was actually in a nosedive when a report came over the radio that the money demands were being met, and the pilot was allowed to redirect the aircraft, he wrote.

The crisis dissipated, at least for Oak Ridge. The plane landed in Chattanooga, where $2 million was reportedly taken aboard. The hijackers then ordered the pilot to fly to Cuba, where they were subsequently apprehended and jailed by Cuban authorities.

Senior writer Frank Munger may be reached at 865-342-6329.


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