Atomic dust taints records

Radioactive matter found by researchers reclassifying secrets

Archives at College Park

May 12, 2000|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

Researchers from the National Archives, reclassifying millions of records holding some of the nation's most closely guarded nuclear secrets, have made a startling discovery -- some of the documents are themselves radioactive.

More than 50 years after the Manhattan Project ushered in the Atomic Age, researchers working for the Department of Energy found a gray dust on a few of the papers that turned out to be uranium, archive and Energy Department officials said.

While the contamination is limited to a few boxes, the Energy Department plans to conduct a sweep of the archives in College Park by the end of the year to check for contamination. Until then, archive and energy officials told the 50 researchers who are reviewing 1.2 billion pieces of paper over the next seven years to keep an eye out for anything that "looks suspicious."

The problem was spotted in January when a researcher, reviewing 50-year- old notes about radiation, noticed the dust and an envelope containing what looked like metal fragments. Archive officials asked their conservation lab, which usually works on ways to stop paper from deteriorating, to find out what it was.

The radiation dose was small and could not be detected outside the box, archive spokeswoman Susan Cooper said.

All 50 employees were doused in a special wash and checked for radioactivity. They now keep on hand a Geiger counter to detect radiation.

"We've notified all our reviewers to be careful," said Roger K. Heusser, director of the declassification project for the Department of Energy. "Most of these records are letters and reports in file folders. If you do see a packet of powder, it's pretty evident there is something unusual in there."

Archive and Department of Energy officials have been hesitant to talk about the matter, saying they did not want to blow out of proportion what they have deemed small incidents.

The contaminated records were among a huge stash that came from dozens of sources, from laboratories across the country to federal agencies in Washington, all a product of President Clinton's order in 1995 to declassify documents more than 25 years old.

In 1998, the Department of Energy commissioned a survey of some records other agencies were turning over to the archives for declassification and found "significant amounts" of sensitive information about the Manhattan Project, the effort to build the first atomic bomb, and nuclear weaponry.

In one instance, officials found in another agency's files complete design plans of several nuclear weapons that had never been marked classified.

Shortly afterward, Congress gave the Energy Department $7.8 million a year to train and hire the 50 reviewers who are sifting through records in the archives' classified stacks and in its public stacks, as well as in storage rooms at other agencies. The project is second in size only to the Department of Defense's initiative to review its classified records.

Energy officials say what has surprised them most about finding the radioactive material is that no one noticed it before sending the boxes off to the archives, suggesting that the originating agencies never opened the boxes to check for classified information.

The Department of Energy reviewers are also pulling a few records out of the archive's public stacks that have been viewed by people visiting the archives and are reclassifying them as "restricted."

Archive officials do not believe those records were contaminated.

"Everybody, including the Department of Energy, has been concerned that their records have been inadvertently turned over to the public," said Jeanne Schauble, director of declassification and processing at the archives. "The Department of Energy has a particular problem because of the continued sensitivity of their records. Nobody wants to give away details of the atomic bomb."

Critics of the effort say that the department is reclassifying too much material and that much information about bombs and nuclear power is commonplace and widely disseminated. They worry that fears about radiation will further slow the process, although department officials said they are on schedule.

"I had to wait many, many years just to get records declassified that I had worked on," said University of Chicago physics professor John A. Simpson, one of the last remaining scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project. "By now it is standard industrial technique to make these components. There are no secrets anymore."

"Some of these records that are 60 years old would actually help people to understand better why we want and need to resolve things internationally" rather than militarily, he said.

Uranium, a chemical element, is the foundation for the atomic bomb. In one of its forms, it is highly unstable and bursts open like a bag stuffed too full, Simpson said. The records from the University of Chicago and laboratories in Los Alamos, N.M., and Washington came into the possession of the Atomic Energy Commission. In the mid-1970s, the AEC's work was turned over to the newly created Department of Energy.

Richard Rhodes, author of "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" and "Dark Sun," said it should come as no surprise that some scientist or bureaucrat 50 years ago included a radioactive substance in a box of files. Scientists had much different perceptions then about radiation and knowledge of elements, he said.

Some argue that people today are paranoid about damaging effects those elements might have in small doses.

"They had a very different sense back then than we do today about some of these elements," Rhodes said. "Whether they were right or we are is an interesting question."

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