The Smyth Report and the launch of Soviet health physics

I’ve read way too much about the beginnings of what is euphemistically called “health physics” (rather than, say, “radiation protection science”) and what strikes me is the imbalance between the myriad reports, papers, and memoirs from USA and nothing at all from the Soviet Union. It is clear that the Soviet physicists, like their American counterparts, recognized the need to set up an entirely new disciplinary profession in line with the acceleration from clinical x-rays in the 1930s to atomic bombs and nuclear reactors from the 1940s. It is also clear that the Soviets rapidly set up a radiation protection infrastructure (though they seemed to have ignored it in practice, but that’s another story), and the question is: how? As always with early Soviet nuclear history, one is tempted to ascribe it all to atomic espionage, but there is no evidence for that. Instead, one source of information the Soviet scientists could have used, and probably did use, to conceptualize its initial health physics structure and ambit was the famous 1945 Smyth Report.

Smyth Report page

Issued publicly less than a week after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs, the Smyth Report was an aggrandizement of the Manhattan Project. Often it was coy about facts (the top secret ones), but just as often it was quite open. And its description of the Manhattan Project’s health physics launch is just what the Soviet atomic bomb pioneers needed. Here are some snippets:

In the summer of 1942 the importance of health problems became apparent and a Health Division was organized under Dr. R. S. Stone. … Besides the hazards present during construction and operation of a large chemical plant, dangers of a new kind were expected here. … Although the general effects of these radiations [alpha, beta, gamma, neutrons] had been proved to be similar to those of X-rays, very little detailed knowledge was available. Obviously the amounts of radioactive material to be handled were many times greater than had ever been encountered before. The health group had to plan three programs: (1) provision of instruments and clinical tests to detect any evidence of dangerous exposures of the personnel; (2) research on the effects of radiation on persons, instruments, etc.; and (3) estimates of what shielding and safety measures must be incorporated in the design and plan of operation of the plant. … To achieve its objective the health group worked along three major lines: (1) Adoption of pre-employment physical examinations and frequent re-examinations, particularly of those exposed to radiation. (2) Setting of tolerance standards for radiation doses and development of instruments measuring exposure of personnel; giving advice on shielding, etc.; continually measuring radiation intensities at various locations in the plants; measuring contamination of clothes, laboratory desks, waste water, the atmosphere, etc. (3) Carrying out research on the effects of direct exposure to radiation of persons and animals to various types of radiation, and on the effects of ingestion and inhalation of the various radioactive or toxic materials such as fission products, plutonium and uranium.

Smyth, Henry De Wolf. 1945. Atomic Energy for Military Purposes. Princeton University Press, New Jersey. pp. 90, 122-123, 149-150.

Thus did knowledge disseminate at the commencement of the new era. Of course, this benefitted not just the Soviets, but the French and the English and, later, many other countries.