Harnessing Atomic Power for Good: A Half-Century of Nuclear Energy Studies

James E. Martin Rarotonga

James E. Martin

Associate Professor Emeritus, Environmental Health Sciences


James E. Martin's life embodies something of the American dream. He was born during the Great Depression, raised in a Tennessee farmhouse with no plumbing or electricity, and educated in a one-room schoolhouse. He enrolled in junior college on a whim but by his mid-twenties had a degree in physics and was monitoring atomic tests for the US government.

The retired environmental health sciences professor led a career spanning some of the modern age's most tumultuous discoveries and following the twists and turns of nuclear energy in public policy, practice, and opinion—from nuclear weaponry after World War II to nuclear power and medicine. He earned a BA in physics in 1956 from Vanderbilt University, which qualified him for a graduate fellowship in radiological physics from the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), including an internship at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. In 1957 he joined the US Public Health Service (USPHS). "Within three weeks, I was chasing radioactive fallout clouds in Nevada," Martin recalls. A few months later, he was in the South Pacific measuring radiation levels in the environment, food, and water pathways after nuclear weapons tests.

The Atomic Energy Act was amended in 1954, allowing access to radioactive materials that previously had been limited to AEC activities. Various research departments at the University of Michigan took advantage of this opportunity, creating the (now defunct) Fission Products Laboratory. The Michigan Memorial Phoenix Project, created by alumni to honor Michiganders killed during World War II, also seized the opportunity to advance peaceful uses of the atom. With a gift from the Ford Motor Company, a nuclear reactor added to the back of Phoenix Memorial Library in 1955 would expand our ability to do such research. 

At the EPA, Martin authored multiple national radiation safety standards, including environmental standards for nuclear power plants.

 In the 1950s, the School of Public Health, as a service to states struggling to handle fallout from weapons tests, began offering courses in radiological health, which garnered national attention. The Health Physics Society held its first annual meeting at the university in 1956. In 1958 the US Congress—largely in response to concerns about radioactive fallout—funded the Public Health Service for a substantial commitment to education in radiological health, and Michigan's School of Public Health was one of the first programs selected to receive those funds. The USPHS directed Martin to Michigan, where he received his MPH and PhD in 1965.

After graduation, Martin returned to the South Pacific and directed the USPHS environmental radioactivity laboratory in Honolulu, Hawaii. From there, the USPHS sent him to Washington, D.C., where he participated in the launch of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. While at the EPA, Martin authored multiple national radiation safety standards, including environmental standards for nuclear power plants.

The US halted atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons in the early 1960s, and Martin's focus shifted to nuclear power plants and medical uses of radiation. He expanded this expertise through an interagency assignment to lead the Colorado State Health Department's efforts to create a hazardous waste program. There, he navigated legislative bureaucracy and took on powerful business interests in successfully establishing the state's first hazardous waste disposal site. At the end of his assignment in Colorado, Martin was invited by an old friend— Environmental Health Sciences professor Arnold Jacobson—to consider teaching at Michigan. In 1982 Martin moved into academia, joining the Environmental Health Sciences faculty to augment its graduate training program in radiological health. "It was one of the better moves I ever made," he remembers.

As a professor, Martin passed on his expertise in radiological health to a new generation of students, many of whom serve in prominent government positions: Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, recently named Under Secretary for Nuclear Security and Administrator for the National Nuclear Security Administration at the US Department of Energy; Jason Eggart, Radiation Protection Manager at Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant, part of the Tennessee Valley Authority; and Kelly Grahn at the Illinois Department of Nuclear Safety. Martin published three editions of Physics for Radiation Protection and authored a second book, Principles of Radiological Health and Safety, both of which are tailored for graduate education in radiation safety. 

Following the catastrophic nuclear accident in Chernobyl, Russia, in 1986, US Secretary of Energy Admiral James Watkins created an Advisory Committee on Nuclear Facility Safety to review and ensure the safety of the US nuclear weapons complex. Senator James McClure recommended Martin for the committee, which visited every major nuclear facility in the country to conduct safety reviews.

 In addition to teaching, Martin continued to serve in leadership capacities at the state and federal level. In the 1980s, Governor Jim Blanchard of Michigan appointed Martin to chair the state's Toxic Substance Control Commission, an oversight agency created to provide leadership and coordination among state agencies with activities concerning toxic substance control.

Following the catastrophic nuclear accident in Chernobyl, Russia, in 1986, US Secretary of Energy Admiral James Watkins created an Advisory Committee on Nuclear Facility Safety to review and ensure the safety of the US nuclear weapons complex. Senator James McClure recommended Martin for the committee, which visited every major nuclear facility in the country to conduct safety reviews.

Along with other schools of public health, Michigan discontinued its radiological health program with Martin's retirement, after the Public Health Service discontinued funding in 2002. Neither Michigan nor other schools of public health have radiological health programs, though the university maintains a health physics track in the Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences within the College of Engineering.

Martin continues to reside in Ann Arbor with his wife of 54 years, Barbara. He sees radiological health as continuing to be an important part of public health. "We've learned a lot, some of it the hard way, in assuring that nuclear energy and radiation can be used safely," he says.

Martin constructs a model of North Campus, measuring the accuracy of wind-tunnel readings against those on North Campus itself to ensure safety around the Phoenix Memorial Reactor.

A nuclear test in the South Pacific in 1962 photographed by Martin.

Images photographed by Martin capturing the initial seconds of the blast in the nuclear test.

Images photographed by Martin capturing the initial seconds of the blast in the nuclear test.

Images photographed by Martin capturing the initial seconds of the blast in the nuclear test.

This article first appeared in the spring 2018 issue of Findings, the magazine of the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

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