Harold M. Agnew

Harold M. Agnew

Harold M. Agnew, Physicist Present at Birth of the Nuclear Age, Dies at 92


Harold M. Agnew, fourth from left, with other group leaders involved in the atomic bomb project. He later flew on the first atomic strike against Japan and helped perfect the hydrogen bomb.

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By WILLIAM J. BROAD Published: October 1, 2013
Harold M. Agnew, the last surviving major figure to have been present at the birth of the nuclear age — who helped build the world’s first reactor and atomic bombs, flew on the first atomic strike against Japan, filmed the mushroom cloud, helped perfect the hydrogen bomb and led the Los Alamos National Laboratory at the height of the cold war — died Sunday at his home in Solana Beach, Calif. He was 92.

He had recently been given a diagnosis of chronic lymphocytic leukemia, his family said.

Dr. Agnew, a physicist, was no giant of discovery, but he was ingenious technically and wielded great influence for decades as a presidential adviser and a gregarious hawk, as restless and unpredictable as the tumultuous age he helped define.

“We did pretty good,” he remarked during a 1992 flight between Moscow and Kiev, Ukraine. “We brought a quick end to a devastating war and maintained the peace, and eventually saw democracy prevail. That’s something you can hang your hat on.”

In a statement, Charlie McMillan, the current director of Los Alamos, the birthplace of the bomb in the mountains of New Mexico, called Dr. Agnew “a national treasure,” saying the United States “will be forever in Harold’s debt.”

Harold Melvin Agnew was born in Denver on March 28, 1921, the only child of a stonecutter of Scotch-Irish heritage. A natural athlete, he pitched his softball team to a Denver championship. He majored in chemistry at Denver University, graduated Phi Beta Kappa in

1942 and won a scholarship to Yale.

But the secret wartime effort to build an atomic bomb intruded on his studies. Early in 1942 he was assigned to Enrico Fermi, the Italian Nobel laureate who was helping to lead the project at the University of Chicago. Dr. Agnew did what he called “grunt work,” making scientific measurements and getting a hefty dose of radiation.

Redirected because of the health danger, he helped stack tons of graphite bricks and uranium into a neat pile at a university squash court.

On a blustery Chicago day, Dec. 2, 1942, Dr. Agnew and a few dozen other people gathered to see if the pile could sustain a chain reaction. Recording pens jumped as atoms split in two. The success meant that, in theory, the human race now had the means to illuminate cities or level them. He was 21.

Dr. Agnew arrived at Los Alamos in March 1943 with his wife, Beverly. The couple shared a bunkhouse with another couple and a man who cooked nothing but Chinese food, even for breakfast. Amid the tall pines and deep canyons, Dr. Agnew helped build and run a particle

accelerator whose data helped demonstrate the merits of various bomb designs.

When the world’s first nuclear blast lit up the New Mexico desert before dawn on July 16, 1945, Dr. Agnew was already far away, preparing for the bombing of Hiroshima. He was “aching” for the run to Japan, he recalled, because so many friends had died in the war. He autographed the bomb.

On Aug. 6, he boarded a B-29 bomber that accompanied the Enola Gay, which was carrying the bomb code-named Little Boy. Dr. Agnew and two other scientists measured the size of the shock wave and thus the bomb’s power.

Afterward, he and his colleagues took turns peering out a small window at the mushroom cloud and the ground damage. Dr. Agnew filmed the devastation with a 16-millimeter Bell & Howell movie camera he had taken along. He was the only person to witness the whole undertaking, from reactor to weapon to Hiroshima.

After the war, he studied with Fermi at Chicago and received his Ph.D. in physics in 1949. Returning to Los Alamos, he joined the hunt for a technical edge over the Soviet Union, which had exploded its own atomic bomb in 1949, surprising the West.

The first hydrogen bomb, tested successfully in 1952, weighed a staggering 65 tons. Dr.

Agnew helped perfect lighter H-bombs that were deliverable over long distances.

In the 1960s, serving as scientific adviser to the supreme allied commander in Europe, he led the development of protective devices for nuclear arms that kept them under tight presidential control.

Returning to Los Alamos, Dr. Agnew was named head of the weapons division, which developed the warhead for the Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile, among other arms. In 1970, he became director of the lab, with a staff of about 7,000. Meanwhile, political radicals at the University of California, which ran Los Alamos, labeled him a war criminal and tried him in absentia.

In 1978, Dr. Agnew advised President Jimmy Carter against seeking a comprehensive ban on nuclear testing. He argued that such an East-West stoppage would have ended the development of new arms and, more important, reduced confidence in the potency of the existing arsenal. The White House eventually dropped the ban idea.

Upon retiring from Los Alamos, Dr. Agnew sought to encourage the growth of civilian nuclear power. In March 1979, he became president of General Atomics, a San Diego-based maker and developer of innovative reactors.

From 1982 until 1989, he served as a science adviser to the White House under President Ronald Reagan. After the cold war, in 1991, he participated in the first meeting between American bomb makers and their Russian counterparts, seeking ways to reduce arsenals. In 1992, he urged the United States to buy bomb-grade uranium from scrapped Soviet nuclear arms to bolster the shaky Russian economy and reduce the risk of nuclear war, accident and theft. In August of that year, the White House announced a plan to buy at least 500 metric tons of the material in a deal worth several billion dollars.

The Russian bomb uranium was diluted into fuel for nuclear reactors that make electricity, turning a major danger into a peaceful bonanza.

Dr. Agnew is survived by a daughter, Nancy E. Chapman; a son, John; four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

He also left a towering reputation at Los Alamos. Late in life, Dr. Agnew noted with pride that cars could occasionally be seen there bearing bright orange bumper stickers reading, “Harold, come back.”

Charles Varnadore

Charles Varnadore

Charles Varnadore, Whistle-Blower at Lab, Dies at 71

After Charles D. Varnadore complained about safety at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, where he worked as a technician, his bosses moved him to an office containing radioactive waste. When an industrial hygienist recommended that either he or the waste be moved, he was put in a room contaminated with mercury.

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Mr. Varnadore fought back, publicizing questionable safety practices at Oak Ridge, a federal nuclear research center that had helped develop the atomic bomb, and his own treatment, which he characterized as retaliation for his outspokenness.

His complaints drew national attention, and he found allies in the federal government.

“I’m going to see that there’s a new day here if it’s the last thing I do on this job,” Steven Blush, an Energy Department official, told CBS News in 1992.

Later that year, the department verified 16 of 26 safety violations identified by Mr. Varnadore, and it ordered Martin Marietta Energy Systems, the contractor the government had employed to run Oak Ridge, to fix all of them.

Mr. Varnadore’s complaints also led to stronger laws and practices governing employees who dare to blow the whistle on powerful employers.

His death at 71 on March 7 drew little notice, however. It went unreported except for a classified advertisement in The Knoxville News Sentinel, and the ad made no mention of any whistle-blowing. Even a former lawyer of his, Ed Slavin, had no idea that Mr. Varnadore had died until learning about it recently. He then told The New York Times.

Mr. Varnadore died at his home in Lenoir City, Tenn., said his wife, Frances. Asked about the cause, she said, “He got tired of fighting.”

His difficulties began in 1990, after he returned to work following colon cancer surgery. He found that his replacement had shortcomings in handling lab samples, and he pointed this out to his superiors. He also complained about his new assignment, operating mechanical arms to handle radioactive materials; he had been blinded in his left eye as a child and had poor depth perception.

“I tried it and made a hell of a mess,” he told The Houston Chronicle in 1993. “I didn’t think it was right for me to make this mess and have other people exposed to it.”

Mr. Varnadore began to receive negative performance evaluations after many years of good ones. He was shunted from assignment to assignment so frequently that he was nicknamed “the technician on roller skates.” In March 1991, he was given a storage room as an office to write reports and keep records of his work as a roving technician. The room contained bags and drums of radioactive waste, as well as bags of asbestos and chemical waste.

Later that month, he appeared on the “CBS Evening News” and expressed his concern about elevated cancer rates among Oak Ridge personnel. In November that year, he filed the first of several whistle-blower complaints to the Labor Department, invoking federal statutes promising immunity.

In February 1992, the department’s wage and hour division ruled in his favor, a judgment that was strongly supported by an administrative judge in June 1993.

“The only conclusion which can be drawn from this record is that they intentionally put him under stress with full knowledge that he was a cancer patient recovering from extensive surgery and lengthy chemotherapy,” the judge, Theodor P. Von Brand, wrote in his decision. “Under the circumstances, he was particularly vulnerable to the workplace stresses to which he was subjected.”

Judge Von Brand sent the matter to the labor secretary, Robert B. Reich, so that damages could be assessed against Martin Marietta. Instead, Mr. Reich dismissed some of Mr. Varnadore’s charges on the ground that they had been filed too late, and he dismissed others because he did not believe that they had been proved conclusively. A panel appointed by Mr. Reich found that while there had been retaliation against Mr. Varnadore, it was not pervasive. It threw out the rest of Mr. Varnadore’s claims, and in 1998 a federal appeals court supported these high-level reversals.

Martin Marietta denied permitting any safety or environmental irregularities. While it did not deny the existence of radiation, mercury and other chemicals in Mr. Varnadore’s offices, it said they were not present in quantities large enough to be dangerous.

Martin Marietta merged with Lockheed in 1995 to become Lockheed Martin. Five years later, it was replaced at Oak Ridge by UT-Battelle, a partnership between the University of Tennessee and Battelle Memorial Institute.

It could be said that Mr. Varnadore lost his case. But Nahum Litt, the Labor Department’s chief administrative law judge from 1979 to 1994, said in an interview that there was a larger lesson to be learned: It is hard to succeed as a whistle-blower.

Most top officials, Mr. Litt said, do not like whistle-blower protection laws. “It didn’t seem to matter how persuasive the evidence might be,” he said.

Mr. Slavin, the lawyer, saw victories in the Varnadore case, nonetheless. One was the Energy Department reforms. Another was a new willingness among nuclear workers to report abuses. “No other whistle-blower will ever be treated that way again,” Mr. Slavin said in an interview.

Charles Douglas Varnadore was born in Tullahoma, Tenn., on March 24, 1941, and after high school, he followed his grandfather and father to Oak Ridge. Known as Bud, he worked at the complex’s massive K-25 plant, which used a gaseous diffusion method to enrich uranium. He combined technical expertise with excellent manual dexterity and often fixed executives’ cars. When K-25 ceased operation in 1987, he was laid off.

He then applied to be a technician in Oak Ridge’s analytic chemistry division and was accepted. His first job was to analyze soil samples from nuclear plants that were being decommissioned. He soon complained that some soil samples were not refrigerated, as was required, and that as a result, pollutants were allowed to evaporate before they could be analyzed. The Energy Department confirmed in 1992 that Martin Marietta had repeated problems preparing soil samples.

Mr. Varnadore also complained that a secretary had been told by her supervisors to put radioactive samples on the front seat of a pickup she was driving. In March 1991, he was assigned to a “home base” — a term for offices used by technicians — that contained the radioactive material. After the industrial hygienist advised that either he or the material be moved, Mr. Varnadore was placed in a room that had been a mercury reclamation center. Visible mercury, which is poisonous to the nervous system, was in several places in the room.

After the Labor Department began investigating his accusations, one question that arose was whether his bosses had threatened to send Mr. Varnadore back to the first office, the one with the radioactive material. Mr. Reich ruled that the threat — if it had been made — did not matter, because the return move never happened.

Mr. Varnadore retired around 2000. In 2003, he was one of 23 people convicted in federal court of conspiring to deal guns without a license. His wife said he had been trying to sell his gun collection. He served 27 months in prison.

Besides his wife, the former Frances Simmons, Mr. Varnadore is survived by a stepson, Chip Bishop.

Published in The New York Times on August 6, 2013