By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
A plane lab caused a stir 52 years ago
Placeholder Image

It probably wouldn't go over as big today, but when Lockheed Corp. announced a research facility for an atomic-powered airplane would set up housekeeping in Dawson County, it was major headlines.

That was in 1956, years before nuclear reactor accidents at Three-Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1975 and Chernobyl, Russia, in 1986.

In the 1950s, people were still somewhat nervous about nuclear power, having seen the magnitude of the destruction a bomb left in Japan just little more than a decade earlier. No massive protests developed, however, and local civic and government leaders couldn't wait to line up solidly behind Lockheed's announcement with great fanfare.

A four-mile-square chunk of woodlands became the Dawson County site because of its isolation, Lockheed and Air Force officials said at the time. Dan Haughton, Lockheed vice president, said, "Plans call for the use of atomic reactors, which will be basically the same kind as several others in use in various sections ... there will be no harmful nuclear radiation at the boundaries of the site during the operation of the facility, nor will you be able to see any of the facilities from the boundaries. In case of an accident at the reactors, which is highly improbable, there will be no danger to the people living in the vicinity of the site."

Those comforting words seemed to soothe any worries Dawson Countians might have had. This was a top-secret project, but Air Force and Lockheed people described the work as testing airframes and anti-radioactivity for a nuclear-powered airplane.

The buildup to the announcement was suspenseful, to say the least. Months before Lockheed and the Air Force revealed their plans, rumors already were circulating. Roscoe Tucker, who dealt in real estate in Dawson County, was surveying huge tracts of land.

Word leaked that Lockheed and the Air Force were involved, but they cited security reasons for not talking. Other rumors had it that a guided missile plant would be constructed on the site, a four-lane highway would be built between Marietta and Dawsonville, and 15,000 people would be employed.

Finally, top-level officials set a date for an official announcement, April 9, 1956, in Gainesville's Civic Building, as the Civic Center was called at the time. John Jacobs Jr., Gainesville-Hall County Chamber of Commerce president, presided. In addition to local leaders, dignitaries included Gov. Marvin Griffin, 9th District Rep. Phil Landrum and Air Force Gen. Bruce Holloway.

The facility ended up working about 500 people, most of them scientists and technicians rather than local folks, but the impact on Dawson County and Northeast Georgia was huge, though temporary. Only two years after the laboratory began operations in 1958, the Air Force canceled plans for an atomic-powered airplane. It already had cost the government $2 billion.

The Georgia Nuclear Laboratory, as it was called, continued to operate, however, contracting with various government agencies for other nuclear-related studies. But in 1970, the nuclear reactor was fired up for the last time, and Lockheed suspended operations. The company removed its nuclear reactors and fuel from the site, which was decontaminated in 1972.

That same year, the city of Atlanta paid $2 million for the site for a future airport. Georgia Forestry Commission continues to manage the area, known as Dawson Forest, for Atlanta. The state owns an adjacent 5,000 acres that is designated a Wildlife Management Area.

Over the years since the nuclear facility shut down, residual radiation fears have surfaced. The state has investigated the most hazardous sites within the forest, and federal inspectors also combed over them.

More than radiation, some Dawson Countians and others in North Georgia fear more the possibility of Atlanta building a second airport on the site. Far more controversy boiled up several years ago when various studies considered the site for an airport.

For now the place is a picturesque peaceful patch of woodlands that provides a respite from the rampaging development that otherwise has changed the face of Dawson County, no longer isolated. As for contamination, remnants of an abandoned liquor still might rattle some scientist's Geiger counter as much as any remaining radiation.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. His column appears Sundays and on First published May 18, 2008.