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Peacetime use of radioisotopes at Oak Ridge cited as Chemical Landmark

The production and distribution of radioactive isotopes for peacetime uses at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) will be designated a National Historic Chemical Landmark by the American Chemical Society in a special ceremony in Oak Ridge, Tenn., on March 6.

Bruce E. Bursten, Ph.D., president of the Society, will present a commemorative plaque to Thomas Mason, Ph.D., the director of ORNL. Bursten said the distribution of radioisotopes, which began in 1946, demonstrated the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, providing medical, scientific, and industrial benefits to society. These important activities at ORNL are among those that ultimately led President Eisenhower to make his famous Atoms for Peace speech to the United Nations in 1953. Because of its pivotal role in making nuclear energy a powerful tool for peaceful purposes, ORNL is clearly worthy of a National Historic Chemical Landmark. Bursten is Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. The University of Tennessee and Battelle jointly manage ORNL for the U.S. Department of Energy.

The American Chemical Society (ACS), the worlds largest scientific society, sponsors the landmarks program. Only 60 chemical landmarks have been recognized nationwide in the fifteen years since the inception of this program. This makes ORNL a site of distinction, for contributions that reach far beyond the boundaries of scientific circles, touching many lives over many decades, said Judy Benham, Ph.D., chair of the ACS Board of Directors.

Clinton Laboratories, now Oak Ridge National Laboratory, was built during World War II as part of the Manhattan Project; it was the site of the worlds first operational nuclear reactor, called the Clinton Pile or the Graphite Reactor. But the end of hostilities in August 1946 left the fate of the lab in doubt as it was not at all clear whether the government would fund peacetime atomic research.

The production and distribution of radioisotopes became part of the answer to the question of what would happen after the end of World War II. Accordingly, on August 2, 1946, Eugene Wigner, the laboratorys director, stood in front of the Graphite Reactor and presented a small container of carbon-14 to the director of the Barnard Free Skin and Cancer Hospital of St. Louis. Wigners presentation marked the beginning of the peacetime uses of atomic energy.

In the first year alone, the facility made more than a thousand shipments of radioisotopes, mostly of iodine-131, phosphorus-32, and carbon-14. Over the years, thousands of shipments left Oak Ridge, destined for use in research laboratories and medical centers. These isotopes had numerous scientific and medical applications as well as industrial and agricultural uses.

Perhaps the most common uses of radioisotopes are in medicine, for diagnostic and therapeutic purposes. Nuclear medicine began in the post-War years with doctors using iodine-131 to diagnose and then treat thyroid diseases, a very successful therapy.

Radioisotopes of carbon, cesium, cobalt, and many other elements have been used in cancer therapy. Technetium-99 has a multitude of uses in diagnostic imaging, and other radioisotopes are used as tracers in biological systems. These tracers are generally short-lived radioisotopes.

Plant hybridizers used radioisotopes to induce mutations in developing new horticultural varieties and to study the absorption of nutrients in plants. Radioisotopes have a number of industrial uses; one isotope, americium-241, for example, is used in smoke detectors.

The designation ceremony takes place on March 6 at 2:00 p.m. in the conference center, Tennessee Rooms A&B at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn. A second, identical plaque will be placed at the American Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge.

The American Chemical Society established the chemical landmarks program in 1992 to recognize seminal historic events in chemistry and to increase awareness of the contributions of chemistry to society. In 1995, the ACS designated the Chemicals from Coal Facility of Eastman Chemical Company in Kingsport, Tenn., as a National Historic Chemical Landmark.

Other landmarks named through this prestigious program have included the invention of Bakelite, the discovery of penicillin, the development of Tide laundry detergent, and the work of historical figures, including Joseph Priestley, Antoine Lavoisier, and George Washington Carver, among others. For more on the Landmark program, please visit


Contact: Charmayne Marsh
American Chemical Society

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