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Library lecture goes radioactive

Standing-room-only crowd hears about nuclear site in Dawson County

 Dr. James Mahaffey and his lecture on the Georgia Nuclear Aircraft Laboratory drew a large crowd to the Pickens County Library. Click here for a previous local story about the nuclear site.  

       Dr. James Mahaffey, acclaimed nuclear engineer and author of the new book Atomic Adventures, hit a nerve with his lecture about the defunct nuclear testing site in Dawson County that, like most things in the world of nuclear history, is shrouded by rumor, myth and classified information. 

      During the presentation, held at the Pickens County Library on Thursday, May 18th, Dr. Mahaffey outlined the rise and fall of the Georgia Nuclear Aircraft Laboratory that operated on part of a 10,000-acres tract in the Dawson Forest between 1957 and 1971. Today, ominous remains from the testing facility are still at the site – concrete foundations, an abandoned “hot cell” building, and a flooded underground control room. 

      GNAL was a joint project of the U.S. Air Force and Lockheed. The facility was developed to see if developing nuclear aircraft was a feasible project. Aircraft powered by nuclear power would provide “theoretically infinite energy,” and allow bombers to stay in the air for years at a time and make targets like Japan more accessible.  

     “Lockheed purchased the land and donated it to the project, so there was no problem getting a contract for the work,” Dr. Mahaffey said.  

     The facility would test the effects of nuclear reactors on “everything, to see what it [did] to people, what it [did] to mules, what it [did] to plastic and transistors and hydraulic fluid. All that was found out on that plot of land.”

     Testing was even conducted on the forest in that area. 

    Dr. Mahaffey discussed some of the property’s history and showed rare photographs of employees working inside the facility, aerial photos and maps of the property. 

     That tract of land, he said, has special history even outside the unusual testing site. He told the crowd the property is a confluence of three rivers, Shoal Creek, the Etowah River and the Amicalola River. Dr. Mahaffey said it also runs through a vein of gold, which made it “interesting during the Gold Rush of 1829.” The property was valuable but belonged to Cherokee Indians, who lived in houses and had farms at the time. The Indians started mining gold like whites in Dahlonega, but the state saw this property as a valuable revenue source and divided it up into 40-acre plots and sold it.   

     “This became the trail of tears,” he said. “[The trail] started right here on this plot of land.” 

Fast forward to 1957 when a new era dawned on the property, which was remote and unpopulated and considered ideal for a nuclear testing site. The Georgia Nuclear Aircraft Laboratory began operations.

Maps showed numerous buildings on the property, including the main stainless steel Radio Effects Facility, the REF, where the main reactor was located. It also showed a line that denoted the “lethal fence” that was 3,600 ft. from the reactor. 

     “If you were inside that [fence] when the reactor was cranked up you were dead,” Dr. Mahaffey said. 

     Other “exclusionary” areas were also marked, as well as the “absolute fence,” labs, machine shop, water treatment facility, water tanks, underground bunkers, warehouse, “hot cell” buildings where short-line trains could bring machines to be analyzed, cooling sites, a firehouse, a meteorological tower, and other buildings.

     “They were very concerned about weather,” he said. “They were running a naked reactor above ground and it was going to get into the air. Neutrons are like hydrogen, it’s a gas. It can get into the air and drift into neighboring towns.”  

       Ironically, the facility – meant to be top secret – was featured on the cover of Aviation Week in 1959. Dr. Mahaffey said this was an intentional ploy to trick the Russians into starting their own nuclear aircraft project and waste time and resources.

     Under the Kennedy administration military priorities shifted from away nuclear to missiles and other methods that were more efficient. With the decline in interest in nuclear aircraft, Lockheed used the facility to make irradiated wood for a period of time. GNAL was eventually dismantled at a cost of $75,000.

     Among local myths about the facility, including sightings of mutated animals in the area, residents have been concerned about radiation from Cobalt 60 buried on the property.  Dr. Mahaffey said with more than 10 1/2 half-lives having passed, radiation is “more or less gone.” The public event uses the property for recreation. The foundation of one of the buildings is used as parking for horse trailers for people who ride in the area.

       What’s not gone are first-hand accounts from former employees of the laboratory. At least two men in the audience had worked there while it was in operation. 

     If you want to know more about the site and his lecture, consider purchasing Dr. Mahaffey’s new book Atomic Adventures: Secret Islands, Forgotten N-Rays, and Isotopic Murder: A Journey into the Wild World of Nuclear Science, out June 6th. Atomic Adventures covers topics that didn’t quite fit in with his previous two books on nuclear energy. One entire chapter is dedicated to the Georgia Nuclear Aircraft Laboratory, called “AFP-67 of the Dawson Forest.” Other chapters include the atomic bomb project in Japan during WWII, cold fusion, fusion reactor project in Argentina in 1951. The book, available on Amazon, “unearths forgotten nuclear endeavors throughout history that were sometimes hair-brained, often risky, and always fascinating.”

     Dr. Mahaffey was senior research scientist at the Georgia Tech Research Institute and has worked at the Defense Nuclear Agency, the National Ground Intelligence Center, and the Air Force Air Logistics Center, focusing on nuclear power, nano-technology, and cold fusion. He is the author of Atomic Awakening and lives in Atlanta.

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