From the Archive: Public Awareness of Atomic Energy in the ‘50s

By Kelly Chatain

When “Little Boy” was dropped on Hiroshima, the world was dramatically introduced to the Atomic Age and by 1950 there were seven major laboratories in the United States conducting research on the peacetime uses of atomic energy. Nothing was known about the public’s awareness of atomic energy or their response to living near these installations. It behooved the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), “the new Promethei”, to learn more if they wanted to make good administrative decisions concerning the development of the new field. Therefore, in 1950 they hired the SRC to conduct a survey that would help answer the following questions:

  1. Is there a social problem issuing from the nature of people’s perceptions of atomic energy?
  2. What are the relationships, if any, of the presence of a nearby atomic energy installation to these perceptions?
  3. What other socio-psychological factors are associated with these perceptions?
Question #12 from the Survey.

Question from the AEC Survey

A national sample would not have provided enough respondents living near the laboratories, so the study team drew a sample from communities around the installations and then matched two sets of communities with similar demographics which were not located near an installation. Even so, the low population density surrounding most of the labs resulted in loosely constructed ‘areas’ with matched sample sizes, instead of specific towns or communities. And the resulting data did not support conclusions on a particular town or community’s opinion.

The questionnaire design was problematic because of the lack of structured knowledge on atomic energy. It wasn’t possible to anticipate how much the respondents knew or what questions would trigger that knowledge. The study team settled on a hybrid approach merging the ‘write-in’ form (for taking answers verbatim) and the ‘fill-in’ approach (for structured responses) by putting the questions on the left side and the writing space, loosely structured, on the right side. This allowed for more freedom in recording answers as respondents made connections during the interview.

At the dawn of the Cold War Era, knocking on people’s doors and asking them about atomic energy was not a straightforward endeavor. For a number of reasons, the interviewers were not allowed to tell respondents they were conducting the study on behalf of the AEC and left it at the SRC and the University. In addition, interviewers were required to notify law enforcement authorities that they would be conducting interviews in the area and to not communicate with news organizations. When speaking with respondents, interviewers walked a fine line between probing and not appearing to be soliciting classified information.

The study report concluded that there was no great difference in the overall interest in or knowledge of atomic energy between those living near installations and in the matching areas. In fact, both were generally low, while there was still a positive outlook for the future of the field. Interestingly, the report went on to make a very specific point that even though respondents are taking atomic energy in stride, they still know very little about it, their attitudes being “not founded on understanding, but on faith”. They cautioned that this faith is an individual characteristic which could change significantly when personal experience with atomic energy changes. It would occur when more applications for daily use were developed or, regrettably, if a major catastrophe should occur. Do you think the point was born out over the years?

The Details:

  • Directed by Dr. Charles A. Metzner
  • Funded by the Atomic Energy Commission
  • Conducted in August 1950, interviews 20-60 minutes in length
  • Final cost: $65,749.30
  • 1,276 respondents, approximately half from areas surrounding Oakridge, Argonne, Brookhaven, Los Alamos, Hanford, Berkeley and Ames, the other half from two sets of matched areas.

References:

  • University of Michigan. Survey Research Center. Public Response to Peacetime Uses of Atomic Energy: a Study of People Reactions And Information Based On a Sample Interview Survey In Comparable Communities With And Without Major Atomic Energy Activities. Ann Arbor, 1951, p.1.
  • “Instructions for Interviewing”, Public Thinking Regarding Atomic Energy-Project 53, SRO Archive