Web-based Primary Sources for Nuclear History

by Alex Wellerstein, published November 14th, 2011

Right now, across the world, there are students taking or planning on taking courses on the history of the atomic bomb. The history of the bomb has been and will probably always be (for better or worse) a relevant topic, and students are drawn to it for a variety of reasons. Some are better than others…

Source: Cartoon by Peter Arno, The New Yorker (April 6, 1963), p. 42.

Fortunately for these students, writing really impressive term papers on the atomic bomb is easier today than it has probably ever been, in part because the amount of primary source research material about the history of nuclear weapons available through the web is actually quite large — if you know where to go.

Below is a list of the most useful web archives relevant to writing papers on the atomic bomb that I have come across in my own research. My intention is to keep this somewhat up to date over time, and I’d love feedback, in the comments or via e-mail, if I’ve missed something, or something goes dead. I’ve omitted academic journals, magazines (for the most part), and blogs, just because this would be a somewhat unmanageable list and one of a very different character. This list is for primary sources only, and those available without stepping foot into an actual archive. Some are pretty specific in what they cover, and some are more general.

I’ve divided them up into open (free) access databases, subscription-only databases, and a few other miscellaneous useful resources. I don’t know how common the subscription databases are among university libraries these days — I was long spoiled by Harvard Library’s copious e-resources — but at least knowing what is out there might be useful for people.

Free access databases:

  • DOE OpenNet: The Department of Energy OpenNet system is a vestige of the “Openness” policies of the early 1990s, back when the Cold War had just ended. It was apparently meant to be a huge repository for declassified documents, but in practice there are only a handful of archives that have contributed materials. Most prominent of these are the records of the Nuclear Testing Archive in Las Vegas, Nevada. The NTA (just off of the strip, attached to the Atomic Testing Museum) is a huge archive of nuclear testing related documents that has its origins in the “atomic veterans” and other test exposure compensation suits some decades back. Anyway, the underlying point is that OpenNet has a HUGE number of documents online as PDFs, and anything that is from the NTA (easily noticeable by the NV in its document number) and isn’t online can be requested from the NTA as a PDF. Basically you can send the NTA a request for up to 100 documents per month,1 and they’ll send you them all on a CD-ROM as PDF files. They’re pretty quick about it and it’s a great deal (a flat fee for shipping and handling). The index isn’t great (dates, names, and titles only, with misspellings rampant — my favorite being “Heroshima” on one of them) so sometimes it pays to just request 100 documents of any interest and then sort through them to find the five or six that are actually valuable. But it’s a great resource, and their online files have increased a lot over the past few years.
  • Hanford Declassified Document Retrieval System: Hanford Site was the place where the United States built the first plutonium-generating nuclear reactors during World War II, and remained a major site of plutonium production until the 1980s. It’s also the most heavily radiologically polluted site in the Americas, and a truly massive and important site of Cold War science and politics. The Hanford DDRS has 130,000 or so records relating to life at Hanford over its whole span, including 77,000 photographs. It’s one downside (in my opinion) is its use of a clunky Java viewer to access to documents (which is slow, prone to locking up, and a pain to manipulate), but this is just another evidence of its 1990s provenance, and frankly I’m in the “be grateful for whatever you get” mode when it comes to government nuclear archives on the web. *NOTE: as of October 2013 this database is offline. I sent them an e-mail and they said that: “Our cyber security folks had to take down the archive to fix vulnerabilities found in the system. We want to put the archive back up on a .gov website again, but we don’t have a timeline for accomplishing that right now. In the meantime, we don’t have an external way to search the database, but will still fulfill any specific requests you have for documents from the archive.” After a little more prodding they told me that: “We looking to get the archive hosted again as a pilot on another .gov site. If it works out we’ll have lots of other public documents on there eventually too.”
  • The OHP Marshall Islands Document Collection: This is another of these 1990s government databases (ah, the 1990s, when the government put nuclear things online…), this time pertaining to nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands. It contains mostly official reports and official correspondence. It’s great if you want to know about specific test series — e.g. typing in “Castle” or “Argus” into the search field turns up a lot of interesting things. They are stored as plain PDFs which is excellent, and they seem full-text searchable. The search engine is a little buggy and will occasionally turn up a “file not found” page if you try to modify your searches, but if you keep going back to the main link, it works. *NOTE: as of September 2013 this database is offline. I sent them an e-mail and received this as a response: “Access to the HSS website has been disabled for individuals trying to access our website from the public facing side of the internet. We are working to put mitigation in place that will allow us to enable public access to our web site.”
  • CIA FOIA reading room: A large collection of declassified CIA documents, many of which concern technology assessments of the USSR and other nations. If you’re interested in CIA assessments of Soviet work, this is a really great place to poke around. They’ve improved the interface quite a bit in the last year or so, so it’s a lot easier to read and download documents.
  • LANL Reports and the FAS mirror: Los Alamos National Laboratory had a major effort in the late 1980s and early 1990s to digitize all of their declassified reports, going back to the earliest days of the laboratory, and put them on the web. This seems to have hit a snag in 2002 when all of said documents were put behind a security wall, despite being declassified. The Federation of American Scientists managed to cobble together what seems like a pretty extensive mirror of all of those reports, which is pretty great. At the moment, I seem to be able to access many (most? all?) of the LANL reports through the original LANL website (e.g. here is a link to The Los Alamos Primer on the original LANL website), but who knows whether that will survive whatever the next LANL scandal or regime change may bring.
  • LLNL Library External Catalog: Same as the above for LANL, but for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. This one lacks the historical depth of the LANL catalog, but does contain a lot of LLNL reports, speeches, and talks mixed in with their regular library holdings, and many of them are scanned as PDFs.
  • DOE Information Bridge: This is a Department of Energy search engine that holds mostly recent (1990s to the present) reports and papers relating to the whole gamut of DOE concerns. It can be pretty useful for finding DOE-originating technical publications, and does have some historical materials (it has a lot of LLNL reports from the 1950s, for example).
  • DTIC MultiSearch: This is a giant meta-search engine created by the Defense Technical Information Center, and searches the databases of a whole bunch of Department of Defense agencies. It’s filled with mostly recent technical reports, but it’s worth running searches on if you have really specific things you are looking for. It’s a bad place to start your research because the irrelevant stuff can be overwhelming if you are searching too broadly. Still, I’ve found some useful reports through this, so it’s worth having in the big list.
  • National Security Archive’s The Nuclear Vault: The National Security Archive is a non-governmental archive devoted to national security topics that is kept at George Washington University. They have one of the largest collections of FOIA’d documents in private hands, where said documents remain immune to being “reclassified” by suspicious censors whenever a scandal rolls around. They’re a great resource in general for people working on secret topics, and have a great website. This part of it concerns the nuclear world in particular, and has a great set of links to their many document collections concerning the bomb, and lots of amazing images. See their entry in the subscription-only section below for other holdings of theirs.
  • Stanford’s Joint Committee on Atomic Energy database: The Joint Committee on Atomic Energy (JCAE) was the Congressional oversight committee with authority in the vast arena of “atomic energy,” and one of the most powerful Congressional committees of all time. This online database contains searchable scans of all of their public hearings, which is pretty convenient. Note though that these do not include their copious “Executive” (unpublished, classified) sessions, which are only available online through Lexis Nexis Congressional (see the entry under the subscription-only section below).
  • The Nuclear Proliferation International History Project at the Woodrow Wilson Center has a lot of interesting documents online relating to nuclear proliferation and various national nuclear programs.
  • Priscilla J. McMillan has a nice, curated online archive of documents relating to J. Robert Oppenheimer and the hydrogen bomb that she uploaded in support of her book, The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Viking, 2005). I have found this useful both for research and for teaching.
  • NNSA FOIA Virtual Reading Room: The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has two online FOIA reading rooms, one for requests prior to 2000one for those after 2000. It is very hit and miss but there are some interesting things there regarding the early hydrogen bomb work. A major problem with the site is that many of the PDFs are slightly corrupted, so individual pages won’t render. This seems to be due to some fundamental problem with how they are processing or creating them on their end and I’ve not been able to find a way to fix these files. Presumably if one finds a file that one really needs the missing pages for, you should get in touch with them directly for a hard copy. To search them easily, use a Google search that limits your results to their site (e.g. “Family Committee“).


  • Digital National Security Archive: The National Security Archive’s Nuclear Vault gets a shout-out above, but they also have a subscription-only database for more intensive research. It’s a great database, skewing mostly towards non-proliferation and diplomatic concerns, but there are documents from all over the map in here. Worth petitioning your library to subscribe to if you’ve got a class working in these areas. I’ve found a lot of stuff in here that I hadn’t found elsewhere.
  • Lexis Nexis Congressional: (Or ProQuest Congressional? I can’t tell who owns this anymore.) This database was always the old standby for how to look up Congressional hearings on microfiche, but in 2008 or so they managed to digitize essentially all of their hearings as full-text searchable PDFs (!!) which is really a wonderful resource. These include the hearings of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy (JCAE), and also include the unpublished “Executive” (classified) sessions. Now this latter category is a complete gem and being able to access them through searchable PDFs, rather than clunky microfiche, is going to transform our understanding of the JCAE’s role in things, just because it’s so easy to search. To search only the unpublished records of the JCAE, do the following: in “Advanced Search,” make your first field be “AEJ” and searching in “all fields except full text”; make your second field be “unpublished,” and also set it to “all fields except full text”; set your third field is whatever word you want to search for in the full text, and set it to “all fields including full text”; lastly, make sure to set your range to a particular Congress or “Any Congress.” AEJ is the code for the JCAE, and all “Executive” sessions are labeled as “unpublished.” Another useful code is “UAH”, which limits your search to the House Un-American Activities Committee.
  • Galenet Declassified Documents Reference System: This is a subscription database that contains an odd smattering of declassified files, many relating to nuclear weapons planning and policy. Apparently it contains around 75,000 documents obtained from Presidential Libraries, which is probably responsible for its oddness.  It’s full-text searchable and I’ve found a lot of useful things here.
  • Center for Research Libraries: The Center for Research Libraries (CRL) is a subscription-based lending library that also contains a lot of things scanned and online, including a lot of collections that used to only be available on microfilm. The only downside is that they are broken into huge PDF chunks of hundreds of pages, and there isn’t much by way of secondary organization. So for me, this required downloading all of them, using Adobe Acrobat Pro to stitch them together into big files, and then breaking them up again into more coherent divisions (e.g. according to folders or reels). Still, nuclear beggars can’t be digital choosers, can we? Note that for all of the below files, the first folders of the first rolls all contain their finding aids, which are really necessary if you’re going to make any productive use of them. The quality of the scans is not universally great, as they are scans of microfilm, and the quality of the microfilm is not universally great. Three collections in particular jump out as exceptionally valuable for researchers of the Manhattan Project:
    • Bush-Conant File Relating to the Atomic Bomb: the files of OSRD/NDRC administrators Vannevar Bush and James B. Conant relating to the atomic bomb program, which look at the bomb project from a largely administrative point of view. They also contains files relating to the attempt to pass domestic legislation controlling the bomb, and to the international control of atomic energy. An amazing and vital file, and more or less the main source of information for my own first published article. A copy of its Finding Aid is available online here.
    • Correspondence “Top Secret” of the Manhattan Engineer District: This microfilm collection is related to General Groves’ role in the creation of the atomic bomb during World War II. Contains information about the international control of atomic energy, the Manhattan Project, diplomatic efforts, and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It’s not as large as the Bush-Conant file but still contains some interesting things. A copy of its Finding Aid is available online here.
    • Harrison-Bundy files relating to the development of the atomic bomb: This collection contains the files of George L. Harrison (no relation to the quiet Beatle) and Harvey H. Bundy (father of the more famous McGeorge Bundy), two of Secretary of War Henry Stimson’s special assistants on the matter of the Manhattan Project. It has a political and diplomatic slant, mostly eschewing the technical aspects. Still pretty important. A copy of its Finding Aid is online here.
    • Manhattan Engineer District history: (Often labeled as “Manhattan project [microform] : official history and documents.”) This is a really odd set of documents. Basically, while General Groves was making the Smyth Report for public release, he also set people on the task of making a classified history of the Manhattan Project. The goal was so that if someone came to him later and asked how they had done things, Groves would be able to quickly refer back to a basic summary of whatever division there was. It was not made for public consumption and is not even fully available because of security reasons, but it’s still an interesting document. It is the sort of gruff, administrative history you’d expect Groves to commission — everything he does was for a logical reason, of course, and was entirely warranted by the facts on the ground — but it’s a nice place to start, especially for the most obscure parts of the Manhattan Project. (I found it useful for my study of Manhattan Project patenting practices because it was the only place where actual statistics on the Patent Division were kept.) A somewhat abridged copy of its Finding Aid is online here.
  • ProQuest History Vault: A database of historical documents that was added to ProQuest in 2011. Apparently these are documents ProQuest acquired through University Publications of America. A search for “nuclear” brings up nearly 2,000 documents on a wide variety of topics, many of which are related to the National Security Council (NSC) and other high-level US nuclear policy.

Online papers of nuclear-related people (all free):

  • Samuel A. Goudsmit papers: Goudsmit was the scientific head of Operation Alsos, which went into Europe behind (and sometimes in front of) the Allied invasion with the goal of figuring out how close the Nazis had gotten to developing their own atomic bomb. He later wrote a popular account of this work. The papers include lots of files related both to Operation Alsos and his writing of the Alsos book. These are hosted by the Niels Bohr Library and Archives of the American Institute of Physics.
  • Linus Pauling papers: Pauling was a Nobel Prize winning chemist who also became a Nobel Peace Prize winning anti-nuclear weapons activist. These are hosted by the National Institutes of Health in collaboration with Oregon State University Libraries. See also the OSU Linus Pauling Online page.
  • The FBI Vault has the FBI files of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Katherine (Kitty) Oppenheimer, and the Cambridge Five. Their page on the Rosenberg Case has a large number of files as well, including Klaus Fuchs (most of the full file), Harry GoldDavid GreenglassGeorge Kistiakowski (misspelled online), J. Robert Oppenheimer (not his entire file), Morton SobellHarold Urey (not his entire file). (Those labeled as not their entire file have only parts of their file online, those which relate specifically to the Rosenberg case.) Unfortunately many of the really interesting FBI files (e.g. Robert Oppenheimer’s full file) are not online. The Robert Oppenheimer file is available on microfilm in a number of libraries, and the full Klaus Fuchs file can be purchased as PDFs on two CD-ROMs from the FBI for a mere $30 ($15 per CD). Just send a fax to the FBI’s FOIPA Public Information Officer with the request and they’ll very quickly reply. Note that I only know for sure that it’s “just this easy” for the Fuchs file, which is one that has been requested many times before. Requesting arbitrary FBI files takes a bit more work and can take a long time (a few years, sometimes) to process, depending on the collection. So I wouldn’t build that into your term paper plans unless it is Fuchs, and even then, I’d get started early on requesting the CDs.

Other generally useful nuclear websites (all free):

  • The Alsos Digital Library for Nuclear Issues: An annotated library catalog of nuclear books, articles, websites, and films.
  • The Nuclear Weapons Archive: A site with lots of information about specific bombs, specific nuclear test series, and the physics of nuclear weapons. (Not to be confused with the aforementioned Nuclear Testing Archive.)
  • Sonic Bomb: A similar site to the Nuclear Weapons Archive, but with more of an emphasis on videos and images. The test videos are pretty impressive and they’ve done a great job of tracking down some of the more obscure ones.
  • FAS Nuclear Resources: A worldwide portal to all sorts of nuclear weapons data and information, hosted by the Federation of American Scientists. The design is a little long in the tooth but parts of it are updated pretty regularly. See also the FAS Nuclear Information Project page.
  • Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists back issues: All full-text searchable and viewable through Google Books, all the way back to 1945. (Another useful Google Books collection is that of the back issues of Life magazine.)

So that’s my list so far. If I’ve missed something important, or something above goes dead, please let me know. I’ll note down here whatever changes I’ve made to it over time.

Updates: Added the Nuclear Proliferation International History Project (12/13/2011). Added Priscilla McMillan’s site (1/3/2012). Updated FBI Vault’s files on the Rosenberg Case (1/25/2012). Added ProQuest History Vault (5/30/2012). Added NNSA FOIA Virtual Reading Room (9/13/2013).

  1. My wife actually did research at the Nuclear Testing Archive some years ago for her dissertation and ended up requesting more than 100 documents, and was accused of “hogging the documents,” which we’ve always loved as a phrase and a petty crime. []

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4 Responses to “Web-based Primary Sources for Nuclear History”

  1. [...] are some other posters from the period at the Hanford DDRS database (part of my big list o’ links posted previously); just enter “N1D Security Poster” in to the basic search query (the [...]

  2. LAURA LYNCH says:

    Hi Alex, great website! … I’ve been here several times before … Carole Gallagher referred me … I was looking over your suggested “generally useful nuclear websites” and would like to suggest add an excellent resource website just being established … see info below…. thank you! please let me know if you have any questions.

    NUCLEAR FACTS • A work in progress, edited and compiled by Eve Andrée Laramée


    A list of films, books, and articles concerning these unseen workers of the nuclear industry.

    They are called Nuclear Nomads, Glow Boys, Radium Girls, Atomic Gypsies, Gamma Sponges, Liquidators, Luminizers, Jumpers, and Bio-Robots. They are the disposable laborers and migrant workers of the Nuclear Military/Industrial Nexus. An entire class of essentially undocumented workers travel from nuclear plant to plant. When they exceed their RAD (radiation exposure) limit at a facility, they migrate to another. This practice is tacitly accepted by the industry for as long as it has existed. Although warnings have been issued, the industry could not function without them. The labor laws that exist are not enforced.

    Slipping through holes in the system. Records are required to be kept, but frequently they are not. Personnel were not properly trained resulting in their own exposure to toxic amounts of radiation. There are ongoing failures to perform required radiological screenings or to implement corrective actions. Tragically, the questions that are raised go unanswered, and with the exception of a few whistleblowers, the vast majority of laborers – underpaid, overworked and exploited, have few incentives to share their stories.

  3. Merissa says:

    I love your blog! It keeps me from going crazy during quiet periods at work.

    I love reading around the IAEA’s online library. There’s one particular document discussing civilian nuclear accidents from Daghlian through Tokimura incident that I found especially interesting, but it might be a dry read for some.

  4. […] historical research. Which is to say, I’ve benefited a lot from the fact that there are a lot of great online resources for primary source work in nuclear history. These aren’t overly-curated, no-surprises resources. The paper I gave at the last History of […]

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