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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Oral Histories

Masao Tomonaga’s Interview

Masao Tomonaga is the honorary director of the Japanese Red Cross Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Hospital and a hibakusha, an atomic bomb survivor. He studied internal medicine and hematology at the Nagasaki University Medical School. Currently, he runs a retirement home for older hibakusha. In this interview, Dr. Tomonaga discusses his experience surviving the bombing of Nagasaki. He outlines the immediate physical impacts the bomb had on people’s bodies, the long-term physical impacts, such as cancer, and the psychological harm. He also discusses the simulation Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs conducted to see what a one-megaton nuclear detonation would look like in a modern city today.

Gary Petersen’s Interview

Gary Petersen is the former vice president of federal programs for TRIDEC, the Tri-City Development Council, which works to promote economic growth for Washington State’s Tri-Cities (Pasco, Kennewick, and Richland) area. Before TRIDEC, he worked at the Hanford site for Battelle, serving as news manager, and in the International Nuclear Safety Program at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. In this interview, Petersen discusses the studies Hanford conducted in biology and health physics, the continuing cleanup of the Hanford site, and the future of radioactive waste disposal. Additionally, he discusses his involvement in producing the book Nuclear Legacy: Students of Two Atomic Cities, that looked at the connections between Richland, WA and Slavutych, Ukraine through the perspectives of American and Ukrainian students.

Liane Russell’s Interview

Liane B. Russell is a renowned geneticist. Born in Vienna, Austria, she and her family managed to flee the country after its annexation by Nazi Germany. After moving to the United States, Russell became interested in biological research. In 1947, she and her husband, William L. Russell, moved to Oak Ridge. In this interview, Russell explains her experiments on the effects of radiation at Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s “Mouse House,” including the discovery that the Y chromosome is sex-determining. She describes her work with the environmental movement and the efforts of Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning, which she co-founded. She also recalls winning the Enrico Fermi Award from the Department of Energy and a visit to communist East Germany in the 1980s.

Hélène Langevin-Joliot’s Interview

Hélène Langevin-Joliot is a French nuclear physicist. She is the granddaughter of Nobel Prize winning physicists Marie and Pierre Curie and the daughter of Nobel Prize winners Irène and Frederic Joliot-Curie. In this interview, she discusses the challenges Marie and Pierre overcame to study science, and their scientific collaboration that led to their discovery of polonium and radium. Langevin-Joliot discusses her parents’ contributions to the global development of nuclear physics during the 1930s, their decision to remain in France during the Nazi Occupation, and Frederic’s role leading the postwar French Atomic Energy Commission. Langevin-Joliot concludes by addressing her own experiences in the field of nuclear physics, particularly the difficulties of being a woman in science.

Alfred Zeltmann’s Interview

Al Zeltmann grew up in Brooklyn, New York. After being drafted into the Army during World War II, he was assigned to the Special Engineer Detachment and arrived at Los Alamos in 1944. After the war, he stayed at Los Alamos, and worked as a physical chemist at the Los Alamos laboratory for nearly 40 years. In this interview, he recalls his Manhattan Project work, including on the “RaLa” experiments with Gerhart Friedlander, and describes the relationship between the military and civilians on “The Hill.” He also remembers receiving some unusual instructions from a mail censor after his wife complained he “wasn’t very warm” in his letters.

Jim Walther’s Interview

Jim Walther is the director of the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque, NM. He begins this interview by discussing his working relationship with Jim Sanborn, the sculptor behind the renowned exhibits “Atomic Time” and “Critical Assembly.” He continues with a discussion of health physics, the history of nuclear reactors, and other innovations from the Manhattan Project. Walther also talks about the portrayal of nuclear issues in popular culture. He concludes by asserting the importance of studying the Manhattan Project and other nuclear issues.

Jay Shelton’s Interview

Jay Shelton is an American physicist and science and math teacher. In this interview, he recalls his experiences from nearly three decades as a high school teacher in Northern New Mexico. He provides an overview of how radiation works and how alpha, beta, and gamma rays differ. Shelton explains the health risks associated with radiation and stresses the importance of quantitative analyses of risks from certain radiation sources. He argues that the general public often overplays many of these risks. He also goes over changes in public perception towards radiation. For example, he points out that radiation was believed to have health benefits prior to the 1930s. Throughout the interview, Shelton describes how a variety of scientific instruments work, including Geiger counters and oscilloscopes, and expounds on the importance of a hands-on approach in science education. He also discusses his personal collection of scientific artifacts, including Revigators and other nuclear-related objects.

Kathleen Maxwell’s Interview

Kathleen Maxwell was a physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project for the Kellex Corporation in Jersey City, New Jersey. The only female scientist in her division, she assisted in troubleshooting various operational, technical, and chemical challenges related to uranium enrichment. In this interview, she discusses the details of her work, as well as the long hours and secrecy. Maxwell describes her laboratory’s concerns over the effects of radiation exposure, and recalls that scientists underwent routine screenings, regular check-ups, and even took out extra insurance policies. She also reflects on the decision to drop the atomic bomb and the urgency of the project: “I have never been so absorbed in any one thing in my life.”

Theodore Rockwell’s Interview (2005)

Theodore “Ted” Rockwell was born in Chicago in 1923. As a graduate student at Princeton University, Ted was recruited to work as an engineer at the Y-12 plant in Oak Ridge, TN in late 1943. Rockwell was assigned to the “Tiger Team” at Oak Ridge, which responded to problems that arose in the Y-12 Plant. After the war, Rockwell continued his career in nuclear technology, becoming Technical Director for Admiral Hyman Rickover. In this interview, Ted explains how the electromagnetic separation process of the calutrons worked at the Y-12 Plant and how the gaseous diffusion process at the K-25 Plant worked. He discusses his duties in the Manhattan Project and his work with Admiral Rickover in the years after the war. He also explains why he thinks safety concerns over nuclear reactors, nuclear waste, and radiation are usually blown out of proportion.

David Fox’s Interview

David Fox’s father, Dr. Marvin Fox, studied physics at Columbia University under Isidor Rabi and Harold Urey. Marvin Fox worked at the Radiation Laboratory at MIT and at Columbia during the Manhattan Project. After the war, he served as Chairman of the Reactor Department at Brookhaven National Laboratory, where he helped build the Graphite Research Reactor, the first reactor dedicated to peaceful uses of atomic energy. In this interview, David Fox describes his father’s work on the Manhattan Project and at Brookhaven, his idealism about technology, and how the onset of the Cold War affected him.