MIAMISBURG, Ohio, Feb. 17, 2023 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- The scientific workers were constantly reminded to leave “shop talk there.” They were told they could be sent to prison, to Alcatraz, if they talked about their work with uncleared persons. There were many signs on the walls, and a red-and-black flag flew outside upon security infractions, to remind employees to keep quiet. They took the signs, poems, and pictures seriously, knowing their work was in the interest of national security.
The time was just before the start of the Cold War in 1946, at the southern edge of Miamisburg, Ohio, between Dayton and Cincinnati. The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, predecessor to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) — built the first site to continue producing atomic weapon components after World War II.
The location was the secretive Mound Laboratory, which started to operate in 1948, when tensions with the Soviet Union were mounting. It was when the Soviet Union began blocking American broadcasts, and President Harry S. Truman issued the second peacetime military draft.
Propaganda: an organized spreading of certain ideas
The posters reminded workers it was up to them to keep their country safe, sometimes in morbid and humorous ways, as shown through this poem:
Talk with care, everywhere
Let’s do our best to see, no infractions in ‘63
Keep our secrets muzzled, and the enemy puzzled
Keep our work under lock and key-vital for security
Security now and forever, or peace of mind never
Security is like a chain, broken link-useless chain
Security assurance is independency insurance
America’s freedom is at stake when security rules we break
From security slips, grow enemy tips
Every second of every week, guard against a security leak
Robert C. Bowman Jr., a research physical chemist who worked at the lab from 1966 to 1985 in the Nuclear Operations Department, was focused on diverse nuclear weapons and energy technology projects. He said his non-management research position let him focus on technical work rather than monitoring and implementing employee procedures, but he thought all the security propaganda “were good reminders” to protect potentially sensitive and classified information.
“There were numerous generic warnings to remain alert and conscientious when handling secure material in addition to training,” he said.
After World War II, Mound Laboratory was built to be the primary source to make atomic weapons’ initiators. The effort was part of the Manhattan Project and was called the Dayton Project. An initiator is a source of neutrons that can, within a small component of sandwiches of polonium-210 and beryllium metals, be separated by layers of gold foil that are placed in the center of a weapon’s core for detonation.
Bowman said the U.S. built another facility near Columbus, Ohio, in the early 1950s in case Mound Laboratory was attacked, and that facility was ready to operate but was never used for production.
From the outside, the Mound site may have looked like a prison. It had an 8-foot security fence topped with razor wire, security guards, and SWAT-like teams walking the site whenever nuclear materials were present.
According to Bowman, besides the propaganda posters and poems, workers participated in periodic security-training meetings. During these meetings, workers were warned about the consequences of not securing classified information or materials.
“We were protecting ourselves, and we were protecting our neighbors,” Bowman said.
Notably, Mound Laboratory had its own research and development, chemistry, engineering, and biology departments, as well as a biology department concentrated on radiology effects. Years later, the facility could diversify its missions because it had these departments. During the Space Race, for example, nuclear technology invented at the Mound Lab, such as radioisotope thermoelectric generators, launched America into outer space.
The facility’s trained guards carried weapons, and workers showed a badge to enter and exit the site. There were also restrictions on the items employees could bring into the facility. All employees had to have “Q clearances,” which meant the employees were cleared for working on secret projects.
The workers were also required to badge in and out of the site and had strict limits on the items they could bring into work. Any visitors without a Q-level clearance had to be escorted everywhere inside the security fences.
“Some people keep having trouble talking about what we did at Mound, even after information became declassified in the 1970s, because we had been told [for so long] we couldn’t talk,” Bowman said. “It had just become the norm.”
A red-and-black flag was prominently flown on the site’s main flagpole to let workers know when a serious security violation occurred. Bowman said he heard stories that people who lived near the site thought a spill or major accident had happened the few times they saw the flag flown.
An unnamed former employee said, “All classified documents, components, and parts had to be stored in padlocked rooms or safes when not in use. Any breach of this rule caused the red-and-black ‘infraction’ flag to fly, and responsible employees were disciplined.” The unnamed employee continued, “You couldn’t carry certain documents from one building to another unless in a protective envelope.”
Another unnamed worker said, “Information was only shared among employees on a ‘need to know basis,’ and this wasn’t uncommon for DOE sites at this time. Work areas were restricted to only those directly involved with the work going on.”
Today, former Mound workers attend annual picnics, and there are efforts to record workers’ “oral histories” to capture their Cold War stories. However, many people continue to keep quiet about their experiences and work during that time.
“Unfortunately, most people don’t want to participate when approached about the oral history projects,” Bowman said. “Many people were surrounded with propaganda for 20 or 30 years, and they can’t remember what they can and can’t say. Although much of the originally secret information has been declassified over the past several decades, a lot of things are still classified today. So, the common attitude is best to just keep quiet rather than take the risk of sharing something that might still be classified.”
Excursion Destination – Come visit!
Today, Mound Cold War Discovery Center exhibits tell the historic laboratory site’s story. Visitors learn about lab workers’ long-held secrets and how they picked up where Dayton Project scientists left off. The museum has multiple kid-friendly programs, quarterly guest speaker sessions for history buffs, and monthly science and history seminars.
Museum goers can also see Mound-built components that NASA took on missions to the moon, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and the sun. These technologies helped NASA reliably power their instruments and keep them at operational temperatures.
The Mound Science and Energy Museum Association (MSEMA) is a nonprofit organization that was established to collect, preserve, and share the Mound Laboratory’s heritage and workers’ stories with the public. MSEMA partnered with Dayton History, a nonprofit that preserves, shares, and celebrates Dayton’s past, to design displays that educate visitors about site work. The name was changed from the Mound Science and Energy Museum to the Mound Cold War Discovery Center, which opened in April 2018.
For more information, call the museum at (937) 247-0402.