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Volume 3, Number 2/ Winter 1998/99
The Wrong Stuff: Nukes in Space

Karl Grossman

"The Wrong Stuff: Nukes in Space" is a preliminary examination of some of the historical and institutional forces which have successfully kept the lid on the full extent of the deployment of nuclear power and materials in the United States space program. Karl Grossman is a journalism professor at the State University of New York who has spent several years working to expose the social and environmental costs and risks of nuclear materials in space. This essay has been excerpted from his new book, The Wrong Stuff: The Space Program's Nuclear Threat to our Planet, published last year by Common Courage Press, Box 702, Monroe, ME 04951.

Reprinted with permission of the author.
© 1997

Those involved in atomic power began manipulating the media at the birth of the technology—with the rationale, at the time, that war necessitated deception.

In 1945 the Manhattan Project, getting ready to test and deploy the atomic bombs it had built, hired New York Times reporter William L. Laurence as a public relations consultant. Laurence remained on the Times' payroll.1 The Times managing editor had "approached" Laurence that spring and said, "I have a letter here from General Leslie R. Groves. He wants to see you," according to a history of nuclear technology, Time Bomb. Laurence "met with General Groves," the head of the Manhattan Project, and thereafter "went ‘on loan'" working out of the laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico (now Los Alamos National Laboratory) where the earliest bombs were built.2

A first major assignment for Laurence: figuring out how to mislead the press—and public—when the first atomic bomb test, code-named Trinity, took place at the government's Alamogordo bombing range in the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945. The scientists of the Manhattan Project were unsure what would happen. "Anything might go wrong. They had gambled three years and two billion taxpayers' dollars on the project; the time had come to see if it would work," related Time Bomb. "Would the bomb produce a mighty explosion or a fizzle?"3

"Safety was a second concern," according to City of Fire, a history of Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project. "What if radioactive dust drifted over nearby towns?" An army major was "stationed north of the test area with 160 enlisted men on horses and in jeeps [and] instructed to evacuate ranches and towns at the last moment if necessary."4

In any case, the press and public were not to know what was happening. They were to be kept in the dark—as a matter of wartime censorship. The test was scheduled for the middle of the night. The bomb would likely light up the night sky.

Laurence prepared "four different press releases" based on a lie to keep the story of the first atomic explosion out of the press, notes Nukespeak.5 The release would claim that an ammunition dump explosion had occurred. Laurence's four press releases only differed "on the size of the explosion they described"6

The Manhattan Project sent an intelligence officer, Phil Belcher, to the Associated Press office in Albuquerque with the press release, recounts City of Fire.7

The atomic bomb was exploded. When the fireball rose and the desert was bathed in eerie, blinding white light with an ominous mushroom cloud billowing, the scientific director of the Manhattan Project, Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, was struck, he later recalled, by the words of the sacred Hindu book, the Bhagavad-Gita: "I am become death. The shatterer of worlds."8

The light of the explosion was seen all over the southwest. "The first flash of light was seen in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Silver City and El Paso," notes City of Fire. "Windows had been broken in nearby buildings and had been rattled in Silver City and Gallup. A rancher sleeping near Alamogordo was awakened suddenly with what seemed like a plane crashing in his yard...A forest ranger in Silver City reported an earthquake to the Associated Press.... The Associated Press office in Albuquerque soon had a number of queries and reports on a strange explosion in southern New Mexico."9

It was then that Belcher gave the AP the "news release," says City of Fire.10 The AP obediently moved this phony account written by newsman William Laurence;

Alamogordo, July 16—The Commanding Office of the Alamogordo Army Air Base made the following statement today: "Several inquiries have been received concerning a heavy explosion which occurred on the Alamogordo Base reservation this morning.

"A remotely located ammunition magazine containing a considerable amount of high explosives and pyrotechnics exploded.

"There was no loss of life or injury to anyone, and the property damage outside of the explosives magazine itself was negligible.

"Weather conditions affecting the content of the gas shells exploded by the blast made it desirable for the Army to evacuate temporarily a few civilians from their homes."

"New Mexico newspapers ran the story in different versions, and the story appeared in a number of radio shows," notes City of Fire. "No further word was issued by the Alamogordo Base."

The first atomic bomb was detonated in a blast stirring cities and towns through the southwest of the U.S., and there was no difficulty in "managing" the news about it.

That has continued in the story of nuclear technology to the present day. Behind the management of information to minimize the dangers, health impacts and cost of nuclear technology has been an army of public relations practitioners—often using deceptive information in the tradition of Laurence's press release, although no longer is there a war going on for which to rationalize the cover-up.

John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, watchdogs of PR practitioners as editors of the magazine PR Watch,11 are among those who have explored the story of public relations and nuclear technology. It is the subject of a chapter ("Spinning the Atom") in their book Toxic Sludge is Good For You! Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry. They describe the "public relations campaign to transform the image of nuclear technology" that was launched with President Eisenhower's 1953 "Atoms for Peace" speech at the United Nations.12 As is typically the case with public relations in nuclear technology "image and reality were worlds apart."13

They provide numerous examples, including how Metropolitan Edison handled the PR when its Three Mile Island plant suffered a near-meltdown, starting with Met Ed's chief spokesman Don Curry announcing on "the first day of the crisis [that] ‘there have been no recordings of any significant levels of radiation, and none are expected outside the plant.'"14

Stauber and Rampton tell of the still-continuing effort by the Department of Energy and nuclear industry through the American Nuclear Energy Council to have Yucca Mountain in Nevada become a nuclear waste repository. They quote from a plan the council called its "Nevada Initiative" which called for a blanket of TV ads to provide "air cover" for the push, local reporters to be "hired" to present the "industry's side of the story." DOE scientists would act as a "scientific truth response team.... With our ‘campaign committee' of Nevada political insiders, our strategic response teams, the advertising program, and the polls that will provide us with a road map along the way, we believe that as each move is made, one or more of the targeted adversaries will begin to surface, move our way, fight us and then, eventually dialogue with the industry. It is through this strategic game of chess that the campaign will ultimately prevail and move to checkmate anti-nuclear forces in Nevada."15

They quote David Lilienthal, after he resigned as AEC chairman, complaining about the "many instances of the way in which public relations techniques—the not-so-hidden persuader—have been used to promote the appropriation of funds for the peaceful Atom."16

Nukespeak also closely examines the public relations push behind nuclear technology declaring that "the history of nuclear development has been profoundly shaped by the manipulation of information through official secrecy and extensive public-relations campaigns. Nukespeak and the use of information-management techniques have consistently distorted the debate over nuclear weapons and nuclear power."17 Nukespeak, too, is chock full of examples.

Daniel Ford, former executive director of the Union of Concerned Scientists, in his book, Cult of the Atom: The Secret Papers of the Atomic Energy Commission, writes about the PR efforts by the U.S. government in the 1950s and 60s:

A public-relations effort on behalf of nuclear power was not merely an incidental activity of the [Atomic Energy] Commission. It was a fundamental part of what AEC officials, at the highest level, saw as the agency's mission. Chairman [Lewis] Strauss was mindful of the results of opinion surveys that showed that postwar enthusiasm for nuclear power had faded and that public support for the peaceful uses of atomic energy was relatively weak. The Commission knew that it would have to work systematically to win public support for a large nuclear industry, and to lessen public fear of the hazards. Strauss concluded that the national press—and science writers, in particular—provided the AEC's "critical contact with the public," as he termed it, and that the media would have to serve as the conduit for the AEC's atomic power boosterism. In a speech before the National Association of Science Writers in September 1954, Strauss set out the themes that the AEC wanted the media to present to the public. Electric power from the atom, he said, could be available, according to the AEC's experts, in "from five to fifteen years...It is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter."18

"Strauss invited the science writers to ‘work together' with the AEC and its scientists to educate the public about the atom and its promise. From the laudatory articles on nuclear energy that appeared over the next two decades—and the rarity of any critical coverage of the potential hazards—it is evident that the national media responded to the chairman's invitation as he had intended," observed Ford. "With unquestioning support from the media, and unqualified endorsement by Congress and the administration, the advocates of a large nuclear power program proceeded, unchallenged, with their ambitious enterprise."19

In my book, Cover Up: What You Are Not Supposed To Know About Nuclear Power, I reproduced the DOE "Public Information Plan" to push nuclear power by the Reagan administration during the 1980s. The plan called for, among other things, the DOE assistant secretary for nuclear energy "to meet with selected editorial boards" of newspapers, to prepare "articles about nuclear energy" or have "other qualified officials" write them and place them in publications including the New York Times, Reader's Digest and Time. Various government departments would be utilized. "Defense and State could assert the effect on national security... The Department of Commerce, Labor, and Treasury, as well as OMB [Office of Management and Budget], could speak to the economic advantages. The Surgeon General and the President's Science Advisor might commission blue ribbon scientific panels to certify the negligible radiation effect of nuclear power reactors. The Departments of the Interior might comment on the several environmental advantages of nuclear power."20

Moreover, many of the reporters covering nuclear technology—starting with Laurence—became cheerleaders for the technology, just like the reporters who cover the space beat have become uncritical space program boosters.

Laurence is a model for this. The only journalist allowed to witness the Alamogordo atomic bomb test, two months later, after A-bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he wrote about the Alamogordo event in glowing terms in the New York Times. "The hills said ‘yes' and the mountains chimed in ‘yes,'" the newsman waxed poetic. "It was as if the earth had spoken and the suddenly iridescent clouds and sky had joined in one mighty affirmative answer. Atomic energy—yes."21

(Laurence tried hard to get on the Enola Gay for its atomic bombing of Hiroshima. He wasn't permitted to do that but was allowed to witness the bombing of Nagasaki from an observer plane—the only journalist to be present for the A-bomb attack on Japan.)

He would continue his verbal euphoria about nuclear technology for years afterwards. "Laurence's reports were the backbone of the writing, reporting, filming, and editing that constituted a yea-saying to nuclear energy throughout three decades," notes Time Bomb.22

As Laurence wrote in a 1948 article for Woman's Home Companion, with nuclear energy humanity has "a chance to enter into a new Eden...abolishing disease and poverty, anxiety and fear." We might "learn to control weather and heredity...find the key to the riddles of old age." There would be "better, finer and more nourishing plants, better, cheaper and more abundant fertilizer; better and richer soils, farms, and gardens; better and finer clothing and homes; better men and women." Nuclear plants would pump water and turn the world's desert's into "blooming gardens," turn swamps and j