Security and the shaping of identity for nuclear specialists

History and Technology 27 (2):123-153 (2011)

Sean F. Johnston
University of Glasgow
Atomic energy developed from 1940 as a subject shrouded in secrecy. Identified successively as a crucial element in military strategy, national status and export aspirations, the research and development of atomic piles (nuclear chain-reactors) were nurtured at isolated installations. Like monastic orders, new national laboratories managed their specialist workers in occupational environments that were simultaneously cosseted and constrained, defining regional variants of a new state-managed discipline: reactor technology. This paper discusses the significance of security in defining the new subject in the USA, UK and Canada – wartime allies with similar political traditions but distinct trajectories in this field during the Cold War. The intellectual borders and content of the subject developed differently in each country, shaped under the umbrella of secrecy by disparate clusters of expertise, industrial traditions, and national goals. The nascent cadre was contained until the mid 1950s by classified publications and state-sponsored specialist courses. The early context of high security filtered its members and capped enduringly both their professional aspirations and public engagement.
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