Atomic Age

Atomic Age

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The Manhattan Project consequently ushered in the Atomic Age. This would lead to new atomic developments and consequences, including the Cold War. Important questions about nuclear weapons continue to be debated today.


The Beginning of the Atomic Age

The successful test of the "Trinity device" on July 16, 1945 signaled the beginning of the Atomic Age. Immediately after the war, however, the future of the wartime complex with production plants, laboratories, and administrative offices scattered in thirteen states across the continent was unclear. Employment levels dropped precipitously at Hanford. Many officials believed that the hastily constructed plants would be shut down at the end of the war, their missions accomplished.

The Atomic Energy Commission

Amidst this uncertainty, the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 was passed, creating a five person Atomic Energy Commission responsible for managing the former Manhattan Project operations. The Act also called for the development of atomic energy toward "improving the public welfare, increasing the standard of living, strengthening free competition in private enterprise, and promoting world peace."

The newly formed Atomic Energy Commission took steps to implement this mandate. First, the Commission established a national laboratory system that could provide universities in different areas of the country with access to nuclear reactors and high energy accelerators. These enormously expensive tools were essential for universities to pursue the next steps in research in the fundamentals of nuclear science, its application in biomedical sciences and other fields, and for the training of young scientists. In addition, the new Atomic Energy Commission launched a "Plowshare Program" with projects that involved peaceful applications of the atomic energy such as mining, oil drilling, and large-scale engineering projects such as canal, harbor, and dam construction.

Experimental Breeder Reactor I

The Atomic Energy Commission intended the national laboratories to be the backbone of its research program. The initial laboratories included Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Argonne National Laboratory, both created during the war. Brookhaven National Laboratory was begun in 1946 as a regional research center for universities in the Northeast. During the war, the Radiation Laboratory was founded by Ernest O. Lawrence with support from private funds and the University of California, Berkeley; later it became Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque was established as a separate entity in 1949.  In the two years immediately after the war, there was a lull in the pace of research activities at Los Alamos and great uncertainty at Hanford and Oak Ridge. The quiet ended abruptly with the victory of Communist forces in China and the Sino-Soviet mutual assistance pact. By summer 1947, the new Atomic Energy Commission was charged with ensuring a steady flow of fissionable material from Hanford and Oak Ridge and stepping up weapons research at Los Alamos.

In the spring of 1949, the Atomic Energy Commission chose the former U.S. Navy's ordnance plant and testing site near Pocatello, Idaho for the National Reactor Test Station in March 1949. At this 890-square mile site in eastern Idaho, 52 nuclear reactors, most of them first of a kind facilities, were developed and tested during the early Cold War years. The Experimental Breeder Reactor I (EBR-I) was the first of these reactors built and the first to produce usable electrical power from the atom in 1951. The Experimental Breeder Reactor-I and its history are being restored under a Save America's Treasures grant with contributions from Argonne National Laboratory, Bechtel BWXT Idaho, Bechtel National, BNFL, Exelon, Florida Power & Light, the M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust, and other donors.