Radioisotopes as political instruments, 1946-1953

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The development of nuclear «piles», soon called reactors, in the Manhattan Project provided a new technology for manufacturing radioactive Isotopes. Radioisotopes, unstable variants of chemical elements that give off detectable radiation upon decay, were available in small amounts for use in research and therapy before World War II. In 1946, the U.S. government began utilizing one of its first reactors, dubbed X-10 at Oak Ridge, as a production facility for radioisotopes available for purchase to civilian institutions. This program of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission was meant to exemplify the peacetime dividends of atomic energy. The numerous requests from scientists outside the United States, however, sparked a political debate about whether the Commission should or even could export radioisotopes. This controversy manifested the tension in U.S. politics between scientific internationalism as a tool of diplomacy, associated with the aims of the Marshall Plan, and the desire to safeguard the country's atomic monopoly at all costs, linked to American antl-Communlsm. This essay examines the various ways In which radioisotopes were used as political instruments -both by the U.S. federal government In world affairs, and by critics of the civilian control of atomic energy- in the early Cold War.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)219-239
Number of pages21
StatePublished - 2009

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • History and Philosophy of Science


  • Atomic energy
  • Biology
  • David lilienthal
  • Lewis strauss
  • Manhattan project
  • Medicine
  • Radioisotopes
  • United states atomic energy commission (AEC)


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