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Reactors designed by Argonne National Laboratory

Argonne's Nuclear Science and Technology Legacy

Historical News Releases

Argonne Historical News Release About the Historical News Releases
This is an archived Argonne News Release Item about the lab's nuclear energy legacy.
For similar items: Nuclear Energy Historical News Releases
For more information, please contact at Argonne.

Nuclear energy: The civilians take charge

ARGONNE, Ill. (Jan. 1, 1996) -- Argonne National Laboratory celebrates its 50th anniversary in 1996, but it was actually a key presidential decision 49 New Years Eves ago that shaped the future of Argonne and the entire national laboratory system.

Before he left the Oval Office to celebrate New Year's Eve on Dec. 31, 1946, President Harry S Truman signed an executive order that transferred the wartime Manhattan Engineering District, the project that developed the atomic bomb, from military to civilian control, effective that midnight.

The president's signature opened the path to today's system of government-sponsored research and development -- a system that has produced advances in virtually every area of science and technology over the last five decades. These advances have in turn led to countless industrial and commercial benefits that have touched the lives of every American.

The Manhattan District was established during World War II as part of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to "carry on special work assigned to it." That meant military-related research, including the first controlled and sustained nuclear chain reaction that led to the atomic bomb.

Led by Gen. Leslie Groves, the Manhattan Engineering District brought together many of the finest scientific minds of North America and Western Europe. Many young American scientists and engineers worked for and studied under these nuclear pioneers.

Truman's decision to transfer this research from military to civilian control made it possible for those scientists and their young proteges to focus on non-military research. For those studying the nuclear chain reaction, that meant research into peaceful uses of the atom, particularly nuclear power plants and nuclear medicine.

The first use of nuclear energy to produce electricity came in 1951, at an Argonne reactor located in Idaho. The year 1953 marked the first successful tests of a submarine prototype reactor, also developed by Argonne, which led to today's fleet of nuclear-powered submarines.

Nuclear power is also key to space exploration. It is the only available compact source of reliable, long-term power in space.

Possibly the best-known non-power nuclear application is nuclear medicine, the use of radioactive isotopes to diagnose and treat diseases such as cancer. Today about half of all hospital patients are diagnosed or treated using some form of nuclear medicine.

Radioisotopes occur naturally only in limited quantities, but they can be created in large quantities through nuclear reactions. Through research, radioisotopes can now be tailored for particular applications based on an isotope's chemical behavior and the type and energy of its radiation.

More than 10 million nuclear imaging procedures are performed each year in the United States. Virtually all major hospitals around the world have nuclear medicine departments.

Nuclear imaging techniques allow physicians to assess whether an organ or body system is functioning properly without using "invasive" procedures requiring surgery. These imaging techniques, which rely on short-lived radioisotopes, can often help physicians determine the nature and location of a disease much earlier than with other methods of diagnosis.

Industry uses radioisotopes to monitor and control thickness when making plastics, paper and photographic films, to inspect metals and machines for flaws and cracks, and even to look for leaks in the Alaska pipeline.

Most of these everyday applications of the technology of nuclear energy were developed through the government's national laboratory system, of which Argonne was the first part. And it all began with the stroke of President Truman's pen on New Year's Eve 49 years ago.

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Last Modified: Wed, September 25, 2013 9:20 PM