The Culture of Secrecy and the Nuclear Age




The nuclear age began in a shroud of secrecy that was the Manhattan Project. It comprised three facilities in three different states. The primary site, Los Alamos in New Mexico, was established in 1942 with no reference on a map, no post office, no publicity. Although its physical presence was unknown, it was here that a team of international scientists, supervised by General Leslie Groves of the Army Corps of Engineers, worked to develop the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.



Besides Los Alamos, which remains a primary nuclear weapons research and development laboratory, the Manhattan Project required the construction of two ‘secret cities’. These ‘cities’ built in 1943 for uranium isolation at Oak Ridge in Tennessee and for plutonium production at Hanford in Washington State, were referred to as such because of their sheer enormity; and the construction effort was, at that time, the largest in US history. William Laurence, the journalist hired by the Manhattan Project to chronicle its discoveries notes that “[t]here was one strict rule: no mention was ever made of the work going on in the plants, and, as far as one could determine, the women did not have the slightest inkling of what their menfolk were doing” (Laurence 1946: 110). In each location, rural communities and/or native nations were literally packed up and moved out (see Laurence 1946: 104-113). Although tens of thousands of people were directly affected, either through dislocation from home or relocation to work, the Manhattan Project was kept a secret.

There are other, numerous conditions of the secrecy that characterized the Manhattan Project, but paramount among them was the bureaucratic culture that was in part instituted by Groves and which still operates today in the US Department of Energy (DOE) and in other international nuclear agencies. Groves’ style of militarized bureaucracy required restricted access to information, censorship, and the development of an ambiguous language. In his mind secrecy and security were synonymous. To this end, he instituted the practice of ‘compartmentalization’, whereby the knowledge of different aspects of nuclear weapons production was divided and separated. Groves claimed that “[the] compartmentalization of knowledge, to me, was the very heart of security. My rule was simple and not capable of misinterpretation – each man should know everything he needed to know and do his job and nothing else” (quoted in Hilgartner 1982: 26).

Secrecy has been the defining culture of the nuclear age. The ‘compartmentalization’ of the Manhattan Project has spread its tentacles into modern day practice, albeit in a more subtle way. If compartmentalization as a primary function of secrecy means to be discouraged from an understanding of the whole picture, then that practice persists. Although access to information has increased in recent years, there are still mountains of classified documents in US government vaults. In the UK, the government is able to legally guard information relating to nuclear weapons and power production under its Official Secrets Act.

Restricted access to information has powerful public and ecological impacts. Because of governmental and corporate secrecy, as well as a management culture which discourages proper documentation, information about the health and environmental effects of nuclear weapons and nuclear power production is not easily obtainable. In China, for instance, no specific official information is available about the health and environmental effects of nuclear technology. In Russia, data are often incomplete, reports rarely detail research methodologies, and many analyses are questionable.

The compartmentalization of current research and development regarding the US nuclear arsenal, euphemistically called the Stockpile Stewardship Program, is also indicative of a secrecy culture. Described as a means to “maintain the safety and reliability” of US nuclear bombs, independent research clearly suggests that the program is instead a means of developing and modernizing nuclear weaponry. This would explain why the cost of ‘maintaining’ the nuclear stockpile is a greater expense today than during the height of the Cold War. According to Stephen Schwartz, Director of the US Nuclear Weapons Cost Study Project of the Brookings Institute in Washington DC, the US government is spending more on the Stockpile Stewardship Program than it did during the nuclear arms race with Russia. Stockpile Stewardship currently costs US taxpayers an average of 4.5 billion dollars each year (see Schwartz 1998).

Furthermore, there are new weapons that are emerging from current nuclear weapons research. Two that have originated from the Stockpile Stewardship Program are the B-61 ‘Mod 11’ and the BIOS bomb. Characterized as ‘earth penetrating’ weapons, the ‘Mod 11’ has been deployed at the Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri and the BIOS or “Bomb Impact Optimization System” is still in a development phase. Building new bombs, whether or not along the parameters of a previous design, is something that the informed public opposes. Qualitative improvements in the designs and applications of nuclear weapons is the fundamental mission of Stockpile Stewardship. According to a recent analysis of the DOE budget, only 10% of the Stockpile Stewardship program is dedicated to maintaining the “safety and reliability” of the nuclear arsenal, the remaining 90% is spent on modernization.

Other current weapons developments include a return to the ‘Star Wars’ genre in the US Defense Department. Even after a failed missile test over the Pacific in January 2000, David Leavy, spokesperson for the National Security Council, said that the US government is “committed to the development of a limited national missile defense system designed to counter emerging threats from rogue states” (January 30, 2000 New York Times). Far from increasing international security, building a national missile defense is in violation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and could very easily jump-start a high tech nuclear arms race.

Compartmentalization and secrecy are also implicated in a general lack of knowledge about the hazards of nuclear processes. Recent events would suggest that knowledge of ‘the whole system’ is lacking both on the level of the labor force and even in the elite fraternity of nuclear scientists. Still today in nuclear weapons labs, the military production network, and in nuclear power stations across the globe, many workers either are not given the entire picture of nuclear processes, or due to security clearances, are not privy to the overall mission of a particular project that they might be actively engaged in. The September 1999 criticality event at Tokaimura in Japan proved with deadly consequences what happens when people who are working with radioactivity do not understand the full extent of the dangers. The secreting away of essential information can be the only rationalization of workers manually transferring a liquid cocktail of uranium and nitric acid in steel buckets. These men could not have known the dangers that they were dealing with, and as a result, they unwittingly caused fatal harm to themselves and continuing radioactive contamination to the people and the environment of the Ibaraki Prefecture.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) contamination levels at Tokaimura were assessed as grade 4 on the IAEA classification system. Three Mile Island was classified as grade 5 while Chernobyl topped the charts at grade 7. Shaun Bernie of Greenpeace International notes that the Tokaimura accident “demonstrates the lack of a safety culture within the nuclear industry globally, and illustrates the inherent hazards of nuclear technology… This is not an isolated incident. Yesterday (October 6, 1999), 29 workers were exposed to elevated radiation levels as a result of a leak of radioactive material at the Wolsung nuclear power plant in South Korea” (Greenpeace Press Release, October 7, 1999).

Meanwhile in the UK, workers have been accused by the UK Nuclear Installations Inspectorate of routinely falsifying safety checks for plutonium/MOX fuel that has been sent to Germany, Switzerland and most recently Japan. The practice of falsification at British Nuclear Fuels’ Sellafield Plant has resulted in a halt in reprocessing operations, and the possible and complete shut down of all reprocessing activities at Sellafield. Regarding those who have participated in a culture of secrecy around issues of safety, have the workers and senior management at BNFL done these things as a result of a full understanding of the consequences? It is hard to believe that MOX falsifications were understood as something irresponsible and dangerous. Like Tokaimura, the lack of safety regulations is indicative of a culture of ‘just safe enough’ instead of a culture of infallible safety, which nuclear materials require.

The problem of ‘not knowing the whole picture’ can also be said of current public discourse relating to the nuclear debate. There continues to be secrecy surrounding issues of knowledge, which is further accentuated by the lack of media attention that the nuclear debate is given. The nuclear issue is raised in the media only when things go wrong. Yet, the nuclear age defines so much of global culture as it swallows up the precious resources of nations and degrades the health and well being of all people. Although in the US, UK and elsewhere, grade school and high school students are often given industry-sponsored tours of their local nuclear weapons and power facilities, there is no part of a national curriculum, on either a secondary or university level, that prepares young people for the hazards and consequences of growing up in the nuclear age.

Secrets and lies, half-truths about present day practices, ambiguous definitions of new nuclear processes: all these contribute to keeping the public ill-informed and, therefore, ill-equipped to challenge the nuclear status quo.

There have been some notable advances in openness on the part of the US DOE. In 1996, then-Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary instituted mechanisms for whistleblower protection and released classified documents that detailed secret medical experiments with plutonium and other radioisotopes on innocent people (see Welsome, 1999). In January 2000, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson finally admitted that nuclear weapons workers may have become unwell due to radiation exposure in their working environments. The DOE is currently hosting worker hearings at US nuclear weapons plants in order to give a voice to those who have been adversely affected by the manufacture of nuclear bombs. While these are positive steps, the prevailing nuclear culture is one of continuing compartmentalization and secrecy.

Retired four-star General Eugene Habiger told TV journalist Dan Rather of 60 Minutes in a February 2000 interview that “The fact that we have not been able to get down to lower and lower levels of nuclear weapons is troubling to me. We need to move on, and get down to lower levels.” Dan Rather introduced the interview by stating that, “the tension between the United States and Russia is greater now than at any time since the end of the Cold War. And just about the only people who seem to be alarmed by that are the American missiliers, and their Russian counterparts.”

Moving away from practices of secrecy is about coming of hiding; that is, bringing out the hidden words, the hidden meanings, the hidden fears that exist in a world populated by people and nuclear weapons. Dr. Andreas Toupadakis, who recently resigned from his post as staff researcher on Stockpile Stewardship at the Livermore Labs in California, made an appeal in February 2000 to weapons scientists and all who maintain the military production network. He called on them to cease their work, to come out of hiding. He writes:

“Let’s not comfort ourselves that someone else, man or God, is watching out for humanity. The train is now on the bridge and is going very fast. The first compartment is full of scientists and educated people who profess that they know what they are doing. The middle compartments are full of people, nearly six billion people! The last compartment is loaded with ammunition, violence and death. The compartments are held together very tightly. I am appealing to all who read these words to come out of the nuclear train now. You will hear this appeal again and again, every time you look in the mirror of your soul, every time you look in the eyes of your children and in the eyes of people you love, and yes every time you look at a flower and at a bird. Come out.”

The Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty is an important mechanism for ensuring the progress of nuclear disarmament. It provides an opportunity for the world to get off the global nuclear train, to quit hiding and to quit withholding vital information that pertains to the health and well being of all people, the planet and future generations.

What you can do:

  • Support nuclear scientists and nuclear workers to withhold their skills from weapons and power production and instead use their knowledge and expertise to work towards ‘clean-up’ and the safe isolation of radioactive materials from the environment.
  • Organize public hearings and ‘nuclear truth commissions’ around nuclear weapons and/or nuclear power facilities in your local area.
  • Stay informed about current nuclear debates and engage in public education to inform citizenry of the effects of the global nuclear trade.
  • Support local, national and international anti-nuclear campaigns to keep the spotlight on nuclear technology.


(Original Article-

References Cited/Further Reading

Bernie, Shaun. Greenpeace International Press Release. ‘Radiation Exposure of Population Higher than Government Estimates’, Tokyo, Japan, October 7, 1999. Contact

Harrison, Michael. ‘Sellafield crisis as BNFL is given safety ultimatum’. The Independent, February 19, 2000, London.

Hilgartner, Stephen et al. Nukespeak: The Selling of Nuclear Technology in America. New York: Penguin Books, 1982.

Laurence, William. Dawn Over Zero: The Story of the Atomic Bomb. London: Museum Press, 1946.

Scmitt, Eric. ‘Testing a Missile and a Treaty’. New York Times, January 30, 2000.

Schwartz, Stephen (ed). Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of US Nuclear Weapons Since 1940. Washington DC: Brookings Institute Press, 1998.

Toupadakis, Andreas. ‘Open Letter to the Director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory: The Reasons for My Resignation from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’. February 16, 2000.

Welsome, Eileen. The Plutonium Files: America’s Secret Medical Experiments in the Cold War. New York: Dial Press, 1999




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