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Obituaries

Ralph E. Lapp, 87; Nuclear Power Expert

September 15, 2004|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Ralph E. Lapp, who helped create atomic weapons from the early days of the Manhattan Project and then spent his life informing the public about the dangers of fallout but touting the relative safety of nuclear power, has died. He was 87.

Lapp died Sept. 7 in Alexandria, Va., of pneumonia following surgery.

A native of Buffalo, N.Y., Lapp was a graduate of the University of Chicago, where he also earned his PhD. He was studying cosmic rays, showers and bursts at the University of Chicago in the early years of World War II. He worked with equipment set up in the press box of the campus' Stagg Field, high above a mysterious research facility, dubbed "Metallurgical Laboratory," under the stadium's stands.

"One day, while lugging down a Geiger counter," he wrote in his 1953 book "The New Force," "I ... soon found myself inside the stands amid other white-jacketed men."

Those men included Enrico Fermi, Leo Szilard and other scientists working on the first nuclear chain reactions for the top-secret Manhattan Project, which would produce the atomic bomb. Lapp joined them and, from 1943 to 1945, became their associate physicist and assistant laboratory director.

"Mine was a very modest role in the atomic energy picture," he wrote in his book. "It was my good fortune to be in on many big events in atomic energy among outstanding men."

Lapp was also one of nearly 80 atomic scientists who signed a petition in July 1945 urging President Harry S. Truman not to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

When Congress created the first Atomic Energy Commission in 1946, Lapp became assistant director of the Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago, one of four research centers established by the legislation.

He was also liaison to the armed services on military applications of atomic energy, which took him to Bikini Atoll as a consulting scientist in 1946.

Lapp's experience in observing and measuring radiation helped him get civil defense consulting work during the Cold War.

In the late 1940s, he worked for the War Department, the Research and Development Board, the Office of Naval Research and the Nuclear Science Service.

Later, through the energy management system Quadri-Science Inc. and then his own Lapp Inc., the physicist spent half a century advising the public to protect itself from nuclear warfare by constructing underground fallout shelters and reining in nuclear arms buildup. At the same time, though, he stressed that nuclear energy was safe and essential for a modern society.

Among Lapp's most noted books was "The Voyage of the Lucky Dragon," published in 1958, about the Japanese tuna boat floating 85 miles off Bikini on March 1, 1954. That morning, the United States tested its hydrogen bomb, far more deadly than the atom bombs exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Lapp's book detailed the saga of the effect of radiation fallout on the 23 fishermen who happened to sail too close to Bikini and the political fallout from the blast in the fishing industry and international relations.

"All this is ... recounted with simplicity and meticulous care, without any attempt at melodrama," commented former Times book editor Robert Kirsch in his 1958 review. "It is the tone of the telling as well as the implications of the story which make this one of the most powerful sea stories of modern times."

Lapp had the ability to explain complex scientific information in an interesting and easily understood narrative, which gave his 20 books mainstream appeal.

Among them were "Atoms and People" in 1956, "Radiation: What It Is and How It Affects You" with Jack Schubert in 1957, "Arms Beyond Doubt: The Tyranny of Weapons Technology" in 1970, "The Radiation Controversy" in 1979 and "My Life with Radiation: Hiroshima Plus Fifty Years" in 1995.

As the Cold War waned, Lapp turned his attention to reassuring people about the safety of nuclear energy and what he considered an exaggerated fear of radiation as a cause of cancer.

"The human body is actually a radioactive source as a result of ingestion of food and drink that come from a mildly radioactive Earth," he told the Christian Science Monitor. "In 1981, the radiation exposure of all Americans to 73 operating reactors is only one hundred thousandth of the medical [X-ray] exposure."

In a lifetime, he told the Toronto Star in 1991, the average person receives 20 times more radiation from the Earth and sky than an average worker gets from an entire career inside an American nuclear station.

No other energy source, he said repeatedly, could equal nuclear power for its high performance and low environmental impact.

In 2002, Lapp received the Alvin M. Weinberg Award from the American Nuclear Society for "lifetime achievement in providing public understanding of the social implications of nuclear energy."

Lapp is survived by his wife of 48 years, Jeannette, and two sons, Christopher and Nicholas.

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