Atomic Health Physics and civil defense

If you, like me, find artifacts from the early Atomic Era fascinating, there’s an incredible wealth of material for you to peruse online at the Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU) Health Physics Historical Instrumentation Museum Collection. The ORAU foundation has preserved a vast range of artifacts relating to the history of radiation, from the first issue of Le Radium (1904), the first scientific journal dedicated to radiation edited by Pierre Curie’s assistant Jacques Danne, to a Hot Wheels toy of Homer Simpson’s nuclear waste truck (early 1990s).

Canadian Mounties vs. Atomic InvadersThat entire collection is held at the Professional Training Programs (PTP) training facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Browsing the rich content they’ve digitized is a lot easier than touring that facility, I’m sure. My favorite sections are the posters, specifically the Atomic Movie Posters and the Health Physics Posters. The former are luridly awesome, and the latter are bizarrely childish considering that “Health Physics” was the vague term coined for proper radiation protection procedures.

The phrase was only four years old in 1947 when the posters were made. It seems to be still in use today even though I’ve never encountered it outside the confines of old posters. As always with these early Atomic artifacts, the remedies suggested seem … understated, much like putting troops in foxholes a few miles away from ground zero in an atomic bomb test at the Nevada Proving Grounds then marching them towards the mushroom cloud after the flash.


Footage of the Desert Rock exercises was used in civil defense videos throughout the 50s. Those videos make a point of emphasizing security protocols — mainly Geiger counters assessing when an area’s radiation levels were deemed “safe” — to protect the people involved in these tests, but at the same time they want to convey the survivability of an atomic blast. This video from the Federal Civil Defense Administration is called “Let’s Face It” and judging from the guy facing a faceful of shockwave in the face at 10:15, I fear they might mean it literally.

You can see the setup for a Desert Rock atomic test starting at the 6:30 point. It’s interesting to see the raw video and how that kind of footage was then used for public consumption.


2 thoughts on “Atomic Health Physics and civil defense

  1. A cursory glimpse at Wikipedia didn’t turn up much. Do you know anything about the after effects on the soldiers participating in these tests?

    Apparently, there was a huge spike in leukemia cases in the surrounding states.

  2. My grandfather worked at the test site. My mom says he never talked much about what he did there, but he did die at 56. My mom watched some mushroom clouds from their back yard in Indian Springs, when she was visiting him.

    My uncle has leukemia, and he lived full time with their dad for two years during that time.

    Apparently in around 1990 they offered settlements of about 50K to people with certain types of cancers that lived “downwind”

    Nobody has ever followed up with most residents…my mom has never been contacted or anything.

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