Monday, May 10, 2010

Disastrous Stewardship: Hollifeld

Even well intentioned policies can fail to accomplish lofty goals because the personal demons that drive them into political careers may not be consistent with the lofty ends of policies which they advocate. Contradictions are a part of the human condition, and stories which point them out should be viewed as cautionary tales.
At the end of World War II, the World War II establishment, referred to as the Manhattan Engineering District, became an anachronism. Administratively the Manhattan Project was subordinated to the United States Army, and the District's head administrator was a Major General, Leslie Groves. Even Groves believed that management of the US atomic energy program should be shifted to civilian control. However, Groves favored the May-Johnson bill which while creating a facade of civilian control over the US atomic energy program, still left a considerable measure of military control in place. However there was considerable Congressional support for greater civilian control than provided by the May-Johnson bill. There was wide agreement on this, and through the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, the United States Congress acted to put the American Nuclear program under civilian, rather than military control. Congress in voting for this act, was lead in no small measure by Liberal California Congressman, Chester "Chet" Hollifield. The Act called for,
A program for the control of scientific and technical information which will permit the dissemination of such information to encourage scientific progress, and for the sharing on a reciprocal basis of information concerning the practical industrial application of atomic energy as soon as effective and enforceable safeguards against its use for destructive purposes can be devised;

and added
the dissemination of scientific and technical information relating to atomic energy should be permitted and encouraged so as to provide that same interchange of ideas and criticisms which is essential to scientific progress,

But the act contained a fairly long and detailed account of what was called restricted data, which could include
any document, writing, sketch, photograph, plan, model, instrument, appliance, note or information involving or incorporating restricted data-

Defined so broadly, even gossip wich touched on a restricted matter could be considered a violation of restrictions. The act further defined
The term "restricted data"...means all data concerning the manufacture or uti1ization...the use of fissionable material in the production of power...

The Act established a civilian Atomic Energy Commission that was to manage both military and Civilian aspects of Atomic Energy. The AEC was established as a part of the Executive Branch of the Government. The Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy (JCAE) was also established in 1946 with the purpose of preparing legislation for related to atomic energy to Congress. The committee was unusual in that the House of Representatives and the Senate traditionally formed separate committees, and each body was also traditionally jealous of its purgatives. The joint committee was empowered to receive restricted information from the AEC, and to restrict information about its own deliberations. This meant that the committee did not need to worry about public knowledge of

Holifield was to remain a fixture on the Joint committee from 1946 until he left congress in 1974. He was a champion of the use of atomic energy in the generation of electricity throughout his career, and he was determined to use his position on the joint committee to further that cause.

Holifield is often described as the Joint Committee Chaiman. In fact he was chairman on three separate occasions, but the chairmanship rotated. But among Joint committee members, Holifield was the best informed about issues at the AEC and nucear policy matters. Holifield also appears to have exercised control over the joint committee staff.

The joint committee had very considerable power in the development of nuclear technology for military purposes. This power could and was exercised to disrupt the usual military chain of command and give military officers power and influence. The most conspicuous example was that of Hyman Rickover. Holifield was in a position to operate as Rickover's political patron. Not only was Holifield a member of the joint committee, but he was also a member of the House Military Operation Subcommittee. Rickover was both Director of the Naval Reactors Branch in the Bureau of Ship and Chief of the Naval Reactors Branch, Division of Reactor Development of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission.

Any patronage relationship operates in both directions, the patron supplies support to his client's aspirations, while the client can be counted on to support the patron's overall exercise of power. Thus Rickover was a very powerful ally of Holifield, who owed much of his power to Holifield's support. In addition to their power relationship, Rickover and Holifield also shared a vision of a nuclear future, with reactor produced electricity. Neither could be said to have a horse in the breeder race, although Rickover did show an interest in a breeding project involving thorium in a light water reactor. Rickover took something of a conservative view of nuclear power. He appears to have regarded most of the problems of nuclear power as having been solved by his team. Since Holifield was anxious to move nuclear power technology forward, he was willing to accept the Rickover-Shaw view of nuclear safety. Milton Shaw was a protegee of Rickover, and while I have as of yet been unable to document Rickover and Holifield's role in Shaw's appointment to the AEC, it is not a big leap that they did play a significant role. Shaw had risen to prominence in Rickover's team, and he was indoctrinated in the Rickover system. Shaw appears to have been a central member of Holifield's AEC regime, and does not appear to have ever offered resistance to Holifield's wishes. It is not clear to what extent Shaw was Rickover's client in his AEC role, but Shaw acted in areas in which Rickover had no direct interest, although Rickover most likely had views. Alvin Weinberg suggested that Milton Shaw acted on orders, but Weinberg offered no hint about whom gave Shaw orders.

There is one final member of the Holifield AEC team, James T Ramsey who was nominated by President Kennedy in 1992 to serve as an AEC Commissioner. Ramsey came from the Joint Congressional Committee staff, and was a friend of Holifield. In practice Ramsey was responsible for coordination between the AEC and the Joint Committee. It is probably not unfair to describe Ramsey as another Holifield client, and one who had been seconded from the Joint Committee. to the AEC, and that he acted as Holifield's personal agent on the AEC.

The Joint Committee's power over the AEC lay in its role in the appropriation process. Through appropriations, the Joint Committee had the ability to veto AEC projects and policies that it did not like. In theory the AEC was part of the Executive Branch of the Government, but until the end of the first Nixon administration, the AEC in many respects was administered more as if it were under Congressional rather than Executive control. Between 1972 and 1974, the Nixon Administration moved to break up Holifield's power over the AEC. Ramsey was not reappointed to the AEC, Rickover had had his wings - or perhaps more appropriately his fins - clipped. Newly appointed AEC chairman Dixie Lee Ray out maneuvered Milton Shaw by stripping him of authority over nuclear safety, and Shaw resigned. Finally at the end of 1974, Holifield, his power over the AEC spent, resigned from Congress.

When the Atomic Energy Act was under consideration in 1946 its was intended to shift control of atomic energy from the United States Military to Civilian leadership. But as it eventually emerged, the attempt to demilitarize atomic energy weakened the role of science and scientists in the development of American atomic energy policy, and handed Congress unique and constitutionally questionable powers in the field of atomic energy. In practice power over the American nuclear establishment and national policy devolved to a small circle surrounding Congressman Chet Holifield. My view is that the control over United States nuclear policy by this small group was a disastrous failure, that it ignored the advice of the scientific community in its pursuit of private goals. That the consequence of their attitude toward scientists was to jeopardized the reputation of nuclear power as a socially acceptable form of energy. In addition the decisions of the Holifield clique tended to inhabit the emergence of advanced nuclear technology that could solve the problems that lead to public concern about nuclear power. The Holifield clique's attitude toward proposed efforts to promote the evolution of nuclear technology had the effect of further eroding public confidence in science.

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