Posts Tagged ‘Department of Energy’

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H-bomb headaches

Friday, March 27th, 2015

Once again, the US government has gotten itself into a bad situation over the supposed secret of the hydrogen bomb. As The New York Times reported earlier this week, the Department of Energy (DOE) censors demanded that the physicist Ken Ford heavily redact a manuscript he had written on the history of the hydrogen bomb. Ford, however, declined to do so, and you can buy the unexpurgated text right now on Amazon in Kindle format, and in hardback and paperback fairly soon.

Ken Ford by Mark Makela for the New York Times.

Ken Ford by Mark Makela for the New York Times.

Ford was a young physicist working with John A. Wheeler during the 1950s, and so a lot of his book is a personal memoir. He is also (in full disclosure) the former head of the American Institute of Physics (my employer from 2011-2014), and I was happy to give him some assistance in the preparation of the manuscript, mainly in the form of tracking down declassified/unclassified sources relating to his story, and helped him get solid citations to them. Ken actually just recently came to Hoboken so we could iron out a few of the final citations in a Starbucks near my apartment. I knew he was having some issues with classification review, but I didn’t know he was going to play it like this — I am impressed by his boldness at just saying “no” to DOE.

Nothing I saw in his work struck me as anything actually still secret. Which is not to say that it might or might not be officially classified — just that the technical information is much the same kind of technical information you can find in other, unclassified sources, like the books of Richard Rhodes and Chuck Hansen, and people on the web like Carey Sublette, among others. And therein lies the rub: is information still a secret if it is officially classified, even if it is widely available?

This has been a tricky thing for the government to adjudicate over the years. The Atomic Energy Act of 1946 (and its revisions) charges the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), and later the Department of Energy, with regulating “restricted data” wherever it appears, wherever it comes from. According to the law, they don’t have any choice in the matter. But over the years they changed their stance as to the best way to achieve this regulation.

One of the earliest decisions of the Lilienthal AEC was to adopt a “no comment” policy with regards to potentially sensitive information published by people unassociated with the nuclear weapons complex. Basically, if someone wanted to speculate on potentially classified topics — like the size of the US nuclear stockpile, or how nuclear weapons worked — the AEC in general would not try to get in their way. They might, behind the scenes, contact editors and publishers and make an appeal to decency and patriotism. (Sometimes this got expressed in a comical fashion: they would have “no comment” about one paragraph but not another.) But they generally did not try to use threat of prosecution as the means of achieving this end, because they felt, correctly, that censorship was too blunt an object to wield very effectively, and that telling someone on the outside of the government that they had hit upon classified information was tantamount to revealing a secret in and of itself.

Howard Morland then-and-now. On the left, Morland and his H-bomb model, as photographed for the Washington Post in 1981 (at the time his book account of the Progressive case, The Secret that Exploded, was published). At right, Morland and me at a party in Washington, DC, just before I moved to New York. He is wearing his H-bomb secret shirt he had made in 1979 (which he discusses in his book). I felt very honored both to see the original shirt and to see the pose he imagined he might do with it before the press, to reveal the secret to the world.

Howard Morland then and now. On the left, Morland and his H-bomb model, as photographed for the Washington Post in 1981 (at the time his book account of the Progressive case, The Secret that Exploded, was published). At right, Morland and me at a party in Washington, DC, just before I moved to New York. He is wearing his H-bomb secret shirt he had made in 1979 (which he discusses in his book). I felt very honored both to see the original shirt and to see the pose he imagined he might do with it before the press, to reveal the secret to the world.

There were a few instances, however, where this “no comment” policy broke down. The best-known one is the case of United States v. Progressive, Inc. in 1979. This is the famous case in which the DOE attempted to obtain (and was briefly granted) prior restraint against the publication of a magazine that claimed to contain the “secret of the hydrogen bomb,” written by the journalist/activist Howard Morland. The DOE convinced a judge to grant a restriction on publication initially, but in the appeals process it became increasingly clear that the government’s case was on fairly shaky grounds. They declared the case moot when the researcher Chuck Hansen had a paper on hydrogen bomb design published in a student newspaper — in this case, it looked like an obvious attempt to back out before getting a bad ruling. Morland’s article appeared in print soon after and became the “standard” depiction of how the Teller-Ulam design works, apparently validated by the government’s interest in the case.

In this case, the issue was about the most egregious incursion of the Atomic Energy Act into the public sphere: the question of whether the government could regulate information that it did not itself play a part in creating. The “restricted data” clause of the Atomic Energy Act (after which this blog is named) specifies that all nuclear weapons-related information is to be considered classified unless explicitly declassified, and makes no distinction about whether said information was created in a laboratory by a government scientist or anywhere else in the world by private citizens. Thus nuclear weapons information is “born secret” according to the law (unlike any other forms of controlled national defense information), which in cases like that of The Progressive puts it in direct conflict with the First Amendment.

Ford’s book is something different, however. Ford was himself a government scientist and had a security clearance. This means he was privy to information that was most definitely classified as both “restricted data” and national defense information. He worked on Project Matterhorn B at Princeton, which was part of the hydrogen bomb effort in the early 1950s. He signed contracts that governed his behavior, both while working for the government and later. He agreed to let the government evaluate his work for classified information, and agreed he would not give away any classified information.

At left, the redacted Bethe article as published in Scientific American, April 1950. At right, the original draft, redacted by the Atomic Energy Commission (photograph taken by me at the National Archives, College Park).

At left, the redacted Bethe article as published in Scientific American, April 1950. At right, the original draft, redacted by the Atomic Energy Commission (photograph taken by me at the National Archives, College Park).

There is a historical parallel here, and a better one than the Progressive case. In 1950, the magazine Scientific American ran a series of articles about the hydrogen bomb. The first of these was by the gadfly physicist Louis Ridenour. Ridenour had no connection with nuclear weapons work and he could say whatever he wanted. But the second was by Hans Bethe, who was intimately involved with classified nuclear work. Bethe obviously didn’t try to publish anything he thought was secret. But the AEC got several passages deleted from the article anyway.

The passages removed were extremely banal. For example, Bethe said that it seemed like they would need to use the deuterium-tritium reaction to achieve fusion. This level of basic information was already in the Ridenour article that was published a month before. So why delete it from the Bethe article? Well, because Bethe was connected with the government. If Ridenour says, “tritium is necessary,” it doesn’t mean that much, because Ridenour doesn’t have access to secrets. If Bethe says it, it could be potentially understood by an adversary to mean that the deuterium-deuterium reaction isn’t good enough (and it isn’t), and thus that the Los Alamos scientists had found no easy short-cut to the H-bomb. So the same exact words coming out of different mouths had different meanings, because coming out of Bethe’s mouth they were a statement about secret government research, and out of Ridenour’s mouth they were not. The whole thing became a major publicity coup for Scientific American, of course, because there is no better publicity for a news organization than a heavy-handed censorship attempt.

I have looked over a lot of Ford’s book. It’s available on Amazon as a e-book, or as a PDF directly from the publisher. I haven’t had time to read the entire thing in detail yet, so this is nothing like a formal review. The sections that I imagine drew the ire of the DOE concern some of the early thinking about how the Teller-Ulam design came about. This is an area where there is still a lot of historical ambiguity, because tracing the origins of a complex technical idea is not straightforward even without classification mucking things up. (I am working on a paper of this myself, and have a somewhat different interpretation than Ken, but that is really neither here nor there.)

Ken Ford Building the H-bomb

There’s nothing that looks classified in Ken’s work on this to me. There are references to things that generally don’t show up in government publications, like “equilibrium conditions,” but the existence of these kinds of technical issues are common in the open literature on thermonuclear weapons, and a lot of them are present in the related field of inertial confinement fusion, which was largely declassified in the late 1990s.1

So why is the DOE pent up over Ford? It is probably not an issue of the content so much as the fact that he is the one talking about it. It is one thing for an unaffiliated, uncleared person like me to say the words “equilibrium conditions” and talk about radiation implosion and tampers and cryogenic cooling of plutonium and things of that nature. It’s another for a former weapons physicist to say it.

It’s also related to the fact that because Ken was a former weapons physicist, they have to review his work. And they have to review it against their official guides that tell them what is technically secret and what is not. And what is allowed by the DOE to talk about is not the same thing about what people on the outside of the DOE do talk about. So, for example, this is pretty much most of what the DOE considers kosher about thermonuclear weapons:

  • The fact that in thermonuclear (TN) weapons, a fission “primary” is used to trigger a TN reaction in thermonuclear fuel referred to as a “secondary.” 
  • The fact that, in thermonuclear weapons, radiation from a fission explosive can be contained and used to transfer energy to compress and ignite a physically separate component containing thermonuclear fuel.  Note: Any elaboration of this statement will be classified.
  • Fact that fissile and/or fissionable materials are present in some secondaries, material unidentified, location unspecified, use unspecified, and weapons undesignated. 

Now you can find a lot more elaboration on these statements in the works of Chuck Hansen, Carey Sublette, and, hell, even Wikipedia these days. (Fun fact: Howard Morland, of The Progressive case, is an active Wikipedian and contributor to that page.) And in fact there is a lot that has been released by the government that does lend towards “elaboration” of these statements, because it is impossible to full compartmentalize all of this kind of information in such neat little boxes.

But the job of the DOE reviewer was to sit down with the guide, sit down with Ken’s book, and decide what the guide said they had to do regarding the book. And in this case, it was about 10% of the book that the guide said they had to get rid of. And in this case, they are bound by the guide. Now, at a certain point, one has to say, if the guide is saying that lots of stuff that is already in Richard Rhodes’ Dark Sun, published 20 years ago, still needs to be kept under lock and key, well, maybe the guide needs to be changed. But there is arguably something of a difference between Rhodes (an outsider) writing things, and Ford (an insider) writing the same things. But it’s hard to see how any of this is going to matter with regard to national security today or in the future — it doesn’t seem like these kinds of statements are going to be what enables or disables future proliferators from acquiring thermonuclear weapons.

"How institutions appear / how institutions are." From one of my favorite comics published on Subnormality, by Winston Rowntree.

“How institutions appear / how institutions are.” From one of my favorite comics published on Subnormality, by Winston Rowntree. In this analogy, Ken is the beaver.

What’s amazing, again, is not that the DOE told Ken to delete things from his book. That is somewhat expected given how the classification system works. What’s amazing is that Ken told them to shove off and published it anyway. That doesn’t happen so often, that a once-insider won’t play ball. And it has no doubt put the DOE in a tough situation: they’ve set things up for a good story (like the one in the New York Times) about the silliness of government secrecy, and as a result have probably resulted in a lot of book sales that wouldn’t have otherwise happened. In this case, their attempt at preserving some form of secrecy has certainly resulted in them just calling more attention to the work in question.

What can they do to Ken? Well, technically, they probably could prosecute him under the Atomic Energy Act, or potentially the Espionage Act. But I’m pretty sure they won’t. It would be a public relations nightmare for them, would probably result in the release of even more information they deem sensitive, and Ken is no rogue agent. Which just goes to highlight one of the points I always make when I talk to people about secrecy: from the outside, it can look like government institutions are powerful and omnipotent with regards to classification. But they are usually weaker and more frail than they appear, because those who are bound by secrecy usually end up losing the public relations war, because they aren’t allowed to participate as fully as those who are on the outside.

Notes
  1. The Teller-Ulam design is perhaps better called the Equilibrium Super, to distinguish it from the Non-Equilibrium “Classical” Super design. In a basic sense, it refers to the fact that they were trying to achieve conditions that would result in a lot of fusion all at once, as opposed to a traveling “wave” of fusion along a cylinder of fuel. []
Redactions

The year of the disappearing websites

Friday, December 27th, 2013

I’m a big fan of digital 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 Science Society meeting, on US interest in 50-100 megaton weapons, was surprising to pretty much everyone I told about it, yet was based almost exclusively on documents I found in online databases. You can do serious research with these, above and beyond merely “augmenting” traditional archival practices.1

One of the most interesting documents I found in an online database — an estimate for the ease of developing a 100 megaton weapon in a letter from Glenn Seaborg to Robert McNamara. Knowing the estimated yield and weight of the bombs in question allows one to divine a lot of information about their comparative sophistication.

One of the most interesting documents I found in an online database — an estimate for the ease of developing a 100 megaton weapon in a letter from Glenn Seaborg to Robert McNamara. Knowing the estimated yield and weight of the bombs in question allows one to divine a lot of information about their comparative sophistication.

Like all things, digital history comes with its pitfalls. The completely obvious one is that not everything is digitized. No surprise there. That doesn’t really change the digital archival experience from the physical one, of course, since even physical archives always are missing huge chunks of the documentation. As with “regular” archives, the researcher compensates for this by looking at many such databases, and by looking closely at the materials for references to missing documents (e.g. “In response to your letter of March 5” indicates there ought to be a letter from March 5th somewhere). This doesn’t make digital archives less useful, it just means their role cannot usually be absolute. Being able to quickly search said databases usually more than compensates for this problem, of course, since the volume of material that can be looked at quickly is so much higher than with physical paper. And I might note that one of the best part about many of the digital archives for nuclear sources is that the documents often indicate their originating archive — which can point you to sources you might not have considered (like off-the-beaten-trail National Archives facilities).

But perhaps the biggest problem with digital sources, though, is that like so many things in the digital world, they somehow have the ability to vanish completely when you really want or need them. (As opposed to the normal online trend of things sticking around forever when you wish they would go away.) The fall of 2013 was, among other things, the season of the disappearing websites. At least three major web databases of nuclear history resources that I used on a regular basis silently disappeared.

Fallout from the 1952 "Ivy Mike" shot of the first hydrogen bomb. Note that this is actually the "back" of the fallout plume (the wind was blowing it north over open sea), and they didn't have any kind of radiological monitoring set up to see how far it went. As a result, this makes it look far more local than it was in reality. This is from a report I had originally found in the Marshall Islands database.

Fallout from the 1952 “Ivy Mike” shot of the first hydrogen bomb. Note that this is actually the “back” of the fallout plume (the wind was blowing it north over open sea), and they didn’t have any kind of radiological monitoring set up to see how far it went. As a result, this makes it look far more local than it was in reality. This is from a report I had originally found in the Marshall Islands database.

The first of these, I believe (it is hard to know exactly when things vanished as opposed to when I became aware of them — in this case, September 2013) was the DOE’s Marshall Islands Document Collection. This was an impressive collection of military and civilian reports and correspondence relating primarily to US nuclear testing in the Pacific. Its provenance isn’t completely clear, but it probably came out of the work done in the mid-1990s to compensate victims of US atmospheric testing.

I found this database incredibly useful for my creation of NUKEMAP’s fallout coding. It also had lots of information on high yield testing in general, and lots of miscellaneous documents that touched on all matter of US nuclear developments through the 1960s. It used to be at this URL, which now re-directs you to a generic DOE page. I e-mailed the webmaster and was told that it isn’t really gone per se, it’s just that “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.” Which was several months ago, right before the government shutdown. What I fear, here, is that a temporary technical disabling of the site — because they are re-shuffling around things on their web domains, as government agencies often do — will lead to nobody ever getting it back up again.

A photograph of an early Hanford reactor that used to be in the Hanford DDRS — one of my favorites, both because of its impressive communication of activity and scale.

A photograph of an early Hanford reactor that used to be in the Hanford DDRS — one of my favorites, both because of its impressive communication of activity and scale.

Next was the Hanford Declassified Document Retrieval System which in November 2013 (or so) went offline. It used to be here, which now gives a generic “not found” message. It used to have thousands of documents and photographs relating to the Hanford Site spanning the entire history of its operation. In my research, I used it extensively for its collection of Manhattan Project security records, as well as its amazing photographs. Again, I suspect it was a creation of the mid-to-late 1990s, when “Openness” was still a thing at DOE.

I’d be the first to admit that its technical setup seemed a little shaky. It required a clunky Java applet to view the files, and its search capabilities left a little to be desired. Still, it worked, and could be actively used for research. I got in contact with someone over there, who said it had to be taken down because it had security vulnerabilities, and that eventually they planned to get it back up again, but that “we don’t have a timeline for accomplishing that right now.” They offered to search the database for me, through queries sent via e-mail, but obviously that doesn’t quite cut it in terms of accessibility (especially since my database process involves many, many queries and glancing at many, many documents, most of which are irrelevant to what I’m looking for).

Will it get back up? The guy I talked to at Hanford said they were trying to resurrect it. But I have to admit, I’m a little skeptical. It’s not at the top of their agenda, and clearly hasn’t been for over a decade. If they do get it up, I’ll be thrilled.

d: Exploratory tunnel dug by a 25-foot-diameter tunnel boring machine at the proposed  Yucca Mountain, Nevada, repository for spent nuclear fuel. From the DOE Digital Archive.

Exploratory tunnel dug by a 25-foot-diameter tunnel boring machine at the proposed
Yucca Mountain, Nevada, repository for spent nuclear fuel. From the DOE Digital Photo Archive.

Lastly, there is the DOE Digital Photo Archive, which was a publicly-accessible database of DOE photographs, from the Manhattan Project through the present. Some of these were quite stunning, and quite rare. One of my all-time favorite photographs of the nuclear age came from this database. The archive used to be here, it now redirects to a generic page about e-mailing the DOE for photographs. Not the same thing. I got in touch with someone who worked there, who said that the database site “has been closed down,” and that instead I could trawl through their Flickr feed. They, too, offered to help me find anything I couldn’t — but that doesn’t actually help me too much, given how much serendipity and judgment play in archival practice.

As an extra “bonus” lost website, Los Alamos‘ pretty-good-but-not-perfect history website was also taken down very recently, and replaced with a single, corporate-ish page that skips from World War II to the present in one impressive leap and gives nothing but a feel-good account of the first atomic bombs. The site it replaced was more nuanced, had a reasonably good collection of documents and photographs, and covered Los Alamos’ history through the Cold War pretty well. It had its issues, to be sure, including some technical bugs. But even a buggy site is better than a dead one, in my opinion. A new site is supposedly in the works, but it seems to not be a high priority and no short-term changes are expected.

None of these sites were taken down because of anything objectionable about their content, so far as I know. The issues cited have been a mixture of technical and financial (which are, of course, intertwined). Websites require maintenance. They require upkeep. They require keeping technically-inclined people on staff, with part of their day devoted to putting out the little fires that inevitably come up over the years with a long-lasting website. Databases and interactive sites in particular require considerable effort to put together, and a lot of time over the years to keep up to date in terms of security practices.

I work on web development, so I get all that. Still, it’s a terrible thing when these things just vanish. Aside from that fact that some people (I imagine more than just myself) find them useful, the amount of resources essentially wasted when such a long-term investment (think of the man-hours that went into populating those databases!) is simply turned off.

What should scholars do about it? We can complain, and sometimes that works. A better solution, perhaps, is to keep better mirrors of the sites in question. This is particularly true of sites with any potential “national security implications.” When Los Alamos took their declassified reports offline after 9/11, the Federation of American Scientists managed to cobble together a fairly complete mirror. (The Los Alamos reports have since been quietly reinstated for public access through the Los Alamos library site.)

Los Alamos Technical Reports

I wish, in retrospect, that in the past I had considered the possibility that the Hanford and Marshall Islands databases might go down. Making a mirror of a database is harder than making a mirror of a static website, but it’s not impossible. (Archive.org does not do it, before you offer that possibility up.) For the specific reports, documents, and photographs that I actually use in my work, I always have a local copy saved. But there is so much out there that was yet to be found. I might try filing a FOIA request for the underlying data (it would be trivial for me to turn them into a useful database hosted on my own servers), but I’m not sure how well that will work out (it seems to go a bit beyond a normal FOIA).

After the Hanford database went down, I thought, what are the other public databases that my work depends on? The most important is DOE’s OpenNet database, which contains an incredibly rich (if somewhat idiosyncratic) collection of documents related to nuclear weapons development. Huge chunks of my dissertation were based on records found through it, as are most of the talks I give. If it went down tomorrow, I’d be pretty sunk. For that reason, while the government was going through its shutdown last October (I figured no one would be around to object), I made a reasonably complete duplicate of everything in OpenNet using what is known as a “scraper” script.2 Obviously as OpenNet gets updated, my database will fall out of sync, but it’s a start, and it’s better than nothing if it gets unplugged tomorrow.

The amazing thing about digital databases it that they take the archive everywhere at once, instantly. The terrible thing about them is that it only takes the pull of one plug to shut it down everywhere at once, instantly. Anyone who does research on nuclear history issues should be deeply disturbed by this rash of site closures, and should start thinking seriously about how to make copies of government databases they rely on. (Private databases are more complicated, for copyright reasons.) The government gave, and the government has taken away.

Notes
  1. Which databases, you ask? 1. The CIA’s online FOIA database; 2. Gale’s DDRS database; 3. the DOD’s online FOIA database; 4. DTIC; 5. ProQuest’s Congressional hearing database; 6. the JFK Library’s online files; 7. the National Security Archive’s online database; 8. the Nuclear Testing Archive (DOE OpenNet); 9. the OHP Marshall Islands Database; 10. the ProQuest Historical Newspaper database; 11. the UN’s website; 12. the searchable Foreign Relations of the United States. The only other significant non-online archival sources were the Hansen papers at the National Security Archive and some files from the JFK Library that they provided me over e-mail. []
  2. I whipped something together using Snoopy for PHP, which allows you to do all sorts of clever database queries very easily. []
Visions

Nevada Test Site’s “Arnold” OPSEC Videos

Friday, April 20th, 2012

OPSEC” is governmentspeak for “operations security.” In practice, OPSEC programs are usually devoted to coming up with creative ways to  remind employees to keep secrets, and investigate breeches of secrecy. Google Ngrams suggests the term was birthed in the mid-1970s or so, and has proliferated since then. In the earlier Cold War, these functions were just dubbed “Security” by the Atomic Energy Commission.

“Silence Means Security” — Cold War “OPSEC” billboard from Hanford Site. (Hanford DDRS #N1D0023596)-

The media output is of course what I find most interesting — the ways in which employees, in the name of OPSEC, are cajoled, and often threatened, into maintaining strict cultures of secrecy. This sort of activity is a common and integral part of a secrecy system, because if you aren’t “disciplining” the employee (to invoke a little Foucault) into acting contrary to the way they are accustomed to, the whole thing becomes as leaky as a sieve. It’s not a new thing, of course, and we’ve already seen a few historical examples of this on the blog.

Sometimes it is done well — strong message, strong artistic execution. And sometimes… it is done less well.

The DOE OPSEC logo from the Arnold OPSEC era. “Propugnator causae” is something like, “Defender of the Cause.”

In the category of “less well” falls a series of OPSEC videos the DOE Nevada Operations Office put together in what looks like the late 1980s or early 1990s, featuring the hapless character “Arnold OPSEC.” They are little film clips (non-animated) demonstrating poor, dumb Arnold OPSEC as he accidentally divulges classified information through clumsy practices.

The DOE has helpfully put all of these online for your viewing pleasure. A few of my favorites follow. (You will probably need QuickTime Player to view these.)

Arnold goes jogging (and blabbing) with his “new friends,” who happen to be Soviet spies! D’oh!

Arnold gets a cell phone the size of his head and uses it to blab about secrets while driving his sports car.

Arnold uses an “airfone” on a plane, brags how important he is to his girlfriend, and nefarious terrorists hear him, and then hijack the plane and keep him as an important hostage. Sometimes your days just don’t work out.

Arnold gives a tour of Nevada Test Site, and tells a bunch of obvious-shady visitors (check out those evil eyebrows) things he shouldn’t, so his supervisor (who is mysteriously missing legs) dresses him down.

Arnold takes work home to use on his new-fangled PC and modem service, “Prodigy,” and accidentally posts it all onto the new-fangled Internet. (And you thought WikiLeaks was a new thing!)

Arnold irritates everyone at the office by publishing their birth dates and Social Security Numbers. “Arnold just doesn’t realize the kinds of information that can be considered sensitive!” Arnold is both a leak and a jerk.

“Help make our security a sure-thing. Don’t gamble with OPSEC.” I find this one very perplexing. It’s not a real situation. It’s a metaphor, you know? Arnold is gambling with OPSEC, and hit the jackpot of, um, espionage. Then he is being served little black men by a blond woman whose dimpled rear has received a little too much artistic attention. So don’t, um, do any of that. Got it?

It’s a recurrent theme in these that new-fangled technology is the result of a lot of leaks. The Information Age did create a lot of challenges for places where information flow was meant to be restricted, not encouraged. Still, I can’t help but feel sorry for the poor employees who must have been forced to sit through these scoldings.

Visions

The Atomic Energy Commission Seal (1949)

Friday, April 13th, 2012

Jeffrey Lewis recently posted at ACW a rare piece of stationery that contains the seal of the General Department of Atomic Energy in North Korea. I thought it was interesting:

It’s basically the Juche Tower surrounded by some standard graphical representations of electron orbitals. (I also learned, from talking to a friend last week, that the North Korean missile names like Taepodong-2, Nodong, etc., are Western designations given based on the region in which they were first seen by intelligence agencies. The exception to this so far was the Unha-3 rocket that fizzled yesterday, which got its name from the fact that it basically had “Unha-3” written on the side of it. Unha apparently means something like Galaxy or The Milky Way. All of this was news to me, but I’m not a Korea-watcher. But I’m digressing.)

It got me thinking back to a topic I’m perennially interested in, which is the way in which atomic energy programs are self-represented. I have a long post in the works about the origins of the emblem/seal/logo of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has an interesting story behind it. But for today, I want to share some things I found in the National Archives relating to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) seal.

A cast-aluminum, painted version of the AEC seal. The Department of Energy’s History Office had one of these on its walls the last time I visited.

The AEC seal is one of those great totems of the atomic age. A largely symmetrical and stylized representation of an atom (the highly toxic beryllium, but who’s counting?), it is strikingly more straightforward than the seals of its successor organizations, the Energy Research and Development Administration and the Department of Energy:

ERDA’s seal is entirely misleading (unless one interprets that “sun” to be an exploding nuclear fireball, I suppose), while the DOE’s is a design-by-committee monstrosity. (You can imagine the committee meeting. “Let’s have sun, and an atom, and an oil well, and a windmill, and, uh, a turbine, I guess, and maybe, um, lightning? And all of it on a shield. With a bald eagle’s head on top of it. That would look so killer.”)

By contrast, the AEC seal is simple, efficient, and reasonably accurate. A real triumph of late-1940s government graphic design. It also reproduces well when reduced in size, which is more than you can say about the DOE logo:

So where’d it come from? One thing that I was surprised to come across in the AEC’s records is the fact that the famous AEC seal was created no sooner than January1949 — two years after the AEC was created (the AEC officially came into existence and took over from the Manhattan Project in January 1947, but was being organized and meeting as early as 1946). For the first few years, they didn’t use a seal at all, they just wrote “ATOMIC ENERGY COMMISSION” on everything.

Not exactly the historical revelation of the year, but it’s interesting how easily we take for granted something like this. I guess I had always assumed that the seal was born with the organization.

Read on to see an early draft design…