Inside Dawson Forest
A History of the Georgia Nuclear Aircraft Laboratory
By Dwayne Keith Petty
What if the remains of a former nuclear facility, once operated in isolation and under tight security, existed in your own back yard? For the
residents of Pickens, Forsyth, Cherokee, and Dawson counties, such a "what if" is instead reality.
Welcome to the Dawson Wildlife Management Area, a 10,000-acre tract of forest currently owned by Hartsfield International and overseen by the Georgia
Department of Natural Resources.
A pristine wilderness, serving campers, hikers, equestrians, and hunters, this stretch of land was also once the home of the Georgia Nuclear Aircraft
Laboratory (GNAL), a nuclear facility in conjunction with the Lockheed Martin Corporation, the United States Air Force and the Atomic Energy
With operations beginning in the 1950s until decommissioning in 1971, the Georgia Nuclear Aircraft Laboratory's primary goal was to create a nuclear
propulsion system for military aircraft.
The facility, spread out over several miles, included a hot cell building, a nuclear reactor site, and a cooling site for irradiated materials. These
three separate sites were connected by an onsite narrow-gauge railway system with rail cars that transported materials to and from the three facility
stations. The railway played a vital role in the mobilization of large components, systems, and products.
According to an anonymous source who worked for the Lockheed Nuclear Products Division from 1957 until 1960 in nuclear shielding, and afterward for
NASA and Huntsville's nuclear rocket program, the Dawsonville site was chosen for construction of the nuclear facility for several reasons. First of
all, the plant (also known as Air Force Plant 67) was "an easy commute for the technical and nuclear wizards of Marietta's Air Force Plant 6." The
site also afforded low population density and what was labeled a well-shielded area, basically meaning at the time,
very little else existed in the immediate vicinity.
The reactor itself, a 10 million watt reactor, was in a hollow of the forest. It was kept in a [concrete] pool when not in use and raised from the pit
when it was to be operated. During any test or irradiation procedures when the reactor was in operation, facility employees reverted to shielded
underground quarters. Once the reactor had been raised and turned on, or "flashed," employees waited for the procedure to end and the reactor to be
returned to its pool before again emerging from the shielded quarters.
It is important to note that the nuclear reactor at the Dawson Forest site was what is termed an air-shielded reactor. This means the reactor was
unshielded when removed from its storage pool. Each time it was used to irradiate a product of any kind, it also irradiated the surrounding landscape
and forest. After only a few uses, all the foliage surrounding the reactor area had died.
Lockheed continued research on nuclear-powered aircraft for several years. At the height of the Cold War, the United States government and military,
suspicious of Soviet advances in the same area, made this a top priority. In theory, a nuclear-powered craft could remain aloft for weeks without the
need to land and refuel. Such technology, in the minds of military strategists, would have been invaluable. The vision, however, was never realized.
As use of the facility changed, specialists in the field of nuclear study had recognized that various materials took on new properties when
irradiated, and Lockheed Nuclear Products was born.
During this phase of the facility's operation, products were loaded onto the rail cars and transported to the reactor site. Once exposed to the
reactor's radiation, the products would then be railed to the cooling site and retrieved by plant workmen.
One such product was wood. Transformed in strength and durability by the irradiation process, ordinary pine, infused with a type of resin or polymer,
would be loaded onto the facility rail cars delivered to the reactor site. The Lockheed Martin Corporation then marketed the resulting product.
As best as the former nuclear shielding expert could remember, the product was marketed under the name "Lockwood." Some of this wood product was
even used in the flooring of the Atomic Energy Commission in Germantown, Maryland.
Beginning in 1958, the Lockheed/ Dawsonville reactor site was also the location of extensive radiation studies and animal experiments. Conducted via
contract with the University of Georgia, Emory University, and the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, these studies subjected wildlife, both indigenous to
the area and introduced to the area, and the surrounding landscape to massive doses of radiation.
In his research report entitled The Effect of Neutron-Gamma Radiation on Free-living Small Mammals at the Lockheed Reactor Site, Jay H. Schnell
chronicles an experiment with various types of rats that took place in August of 1960 at the Dawsonville facility. In this experiment, researchers,
under the direction of Dr. Robert B. Platt of Emory University, released various populations of rats into the fields and forest surrounding the
reactor site. The rats, having been tagged, were later recaptured in baited traps after the area had been exposed to intense radiation in order to
document effects and mortality rates.
A rad is one measurement of radiation. A lethal dose of radiation for the rats was considered from 500 to 650 rads. This same dosage is also lethal
for human beings. During the experiments that Schnell describes, up to 7,394 rads emitted from the reactor into the experimental field. The reactor
operated for three weeks at varying radiation levels except on weekends and during personnel shift changes at midnight, 8 a.m., and 4 p.m.
The effects on the various rat populations introduced included increased mortality rate (often 100%), immobility, disorientation, and graying or
whitening of pelts.
In a separate report from this same period, entitled Some Effects of Neutron Gamma Radiation on Late Summer Bird Populations, Schnell documents the
results of the same irradiation process and experiment on Carolina wrens, bobwhites, yellowthroats, white-eyed and red-eyed vireos, and indigo
From July 26, 1960 until August 20, 1960, the percentage of these birds in the irradiated areas dropped dramatically. Schnell even estimates that some
of the subjects observed in the experiment received as much as 27, 700 rads of radiation during the study period. Eugene P. Odum of the University of
Georgia stated in 1965, "Experience with the unshielded reactor at Dawsonville, Georgia provides a good example [of the effects of radiation]. After
one of the high energy runs the entire population of marked cotton rats living in the adjacent field was exterminated--Small birds entering the
radiation field were also undoubtedly killed--"'
Other experiments of the time included simulation of the effects of nuclear war on the forest around the reactor site. In Code Red Alert: Confronting
Nuclear Power in Georgia, the authors state of the Dawsonville facility, "Further, studies were done using nuclear reaction energy levels 'giving
radiation doses up to supralethal' to simulate nuclear war without 'the heat and blasts associated with bomb tests.' The forest was irradiated in
two acute exposures in June 1959 and in August 1960, and it was recommended that the area be called a 'radiation subclimax' as the 'radiation
disturbed community is not in the normal successional pattern.'
A forest develops in an established pattern. In this case, the pattern was altered due to the high levels of radiation."
A subclimax area is a natural area that continues to suffer adversely the effects of a flood, fire, hurricane, etc. after the event (or climax)
itself. In the case of the Dawson Forest, the adversely affecting climax was the irradiation process.
Of the two acute exposures, the most detrimental effects from the reactor emanated into the forest environment during the middle two weeks of June
1959. At this time, scientific study dictated a release of neutron and gamma rays for the express purpose of documenting both immediate damage to pine
and deciduous trees and to study the long-term effects on tree growth, tree resiliency, and leaf cycles.
This study was one of two initiated by the Environmental Sciences Branch of the Division of Biology and Medicine of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission.
The other took place at Brookhaven National Laboratories on Long Island, New York.
In both instances, the necessity of the study originated via the potential threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Comprehensive understanding of
the ultimate effects of nuclear war was a top priority for the United States at the time, and in the folds of urgency, our nation's ability to
recover from such an attack was top priority.
In a study conducted through Emory University, Robert A. Pedigo stated, "One of the most urgent reasons for vastly increasing our inventory of
radiation sensitivities is that of intelligently planning for the problems which would arise in nuclear warfare. In this case the essential elements
of our renewable natural resources could have received drastic, in many cases lethal, doses [of radiation] and the efficiency with which society can
recover will be due in large measure to the reconstitution of our renewable natural resources."
One of the most important natural resources being forestland for the production of wood products, the Dawson Forest studies began.
The reactor operating at full power, the gamma-neutron field extended to distances beyond 3,000 feet from the reactor, depending on terrain,
effectively occupying some 300 acres in radius of the reactor. Total absorption rates of up to 100,000 rads of radiation during the extended operation
of the reactor are documented for trees closest to the reactor, with absorption rates declining as distance from the reactor increased.
In short, the physicists at GNAL successfully reconstructed the ground-zero detonation of a nuclear weapon using the reactor instead of a bomb.
The effects of this reconstructed warfare were disastrous on the forest. Trees closest to the reactor, especially pines, began to turn color and die
immediately. Archival photographs of the area show stands of pines that are almost identical in appearance to stands of pines infested with Southern
pine beetles seen today in Georgia; and even deciduous trees, though not killed, suffered dramatic effects due to the radiation.
During the two years that followed the June 1959 irradiation of Dawson Forest, hardwood trees shed their leaves an average of six weeks early during
the fall and began producing buds six weeks later in spring.
Even then, bud and leaf production was dramatically reduced due to the radiation stresses imposed on natural cyclical processes. In addition, both
lateral and radial growth of all trees within the test field suffered dramatically, and the gamma-neutron field area, extending an eventual
approximate mile in radius from the reactor, would remain a recovering wasteland and home to irradiation and animal experiments for the next several
A final tally of the irradiation processes from December 1958 until December 1960 shows an approximate 100,000 rads of radiation absorbed within a
1,000-foot radius of the reactor, with taper levels of rads extending up to 4,000 feet from the reactor. Of this radiation, most would have been
contained inside the test field; but neutron radiation, which is the type of radiation associated with fallout from nuclear weapons, could
theoretically have been lifted into the atmosphere and carried various distances according to existing wind patterns at the time of the irradiation
processes. Such, however, is not a matter of documentation and exists only as a matter of conjecture.
Today, decades after the Cold War, Red scares and blacklistings, air-raid drills, and H-bomb shelters, the remains of the Georgia Nuclear Aircraft
Laboratory are few but quite evident within the Dawson Wildlife Management Area. Numerous foundations of leveled buildings peer through weeds; the
clearly visible bed of the gauge rail leads to the Etowah River and deeper into the forest to the cooling area, fence-enclosed due to contamination;
abutments of two detonated bridges, once a part of the gauge railway, adorn the banks of the river; and the hot cell building stands intact near the
entrance to the management area.
According to Georgia Forestry Commission employee Nathan McClure, who managed Dawson Forest and Paulding Forest from 1991 until 2004, the latter
stands because of the immense difficulty and expense involved in demolishing 48-inch thick steel and concrete walls. Still, all openings to the
building, used for the examination and study of irradiated materials, have been sealed with concrete blocks overlaid with steel plates. Additionally,
two fences, the outer topped with barbed wire, surround the building, which was identified several decades ago as a radiation hot spot due to
remaining traces of Cobalt 60 and Europium 152.
McClure stated, "Our charge was to keep folks away from this building for a variety of safety concerns - mostly the hazards associated with getting
injured while climbing in, around, and through the building."
Aside from the visual aboveground remains, the remains of the underground facility at the reactor area also still exist. This was the area that
shielded physicists and workers during irradiation processes. It consists of three underground levels and a tunnel that led to a parking area for
employees during the time the plant was in operation. These underground compartments, which had to be continuously pumped during the 1950s and 1960s,
are now completely flooded due to the water table, and entrances are sealed with bulldozed mounds of dirt for the protection of individuals, although
according to McClure, "We have continuously had to seal up the 3 openings to the tunnel and underground area because folks occasionally dig them
As for the radiation dangers within the Dawson Forest today, little, if any, danger exists according to the Georgia Forestry Commission and Georgia's
Environmental Protection Division. Within the hot cell and cooling areas, some hot spots of Cobalt 60 and Europium 152 are present, but having already
spent their half-lives plus an additional decade and a half, their radiation levels probably pose no more threat than levels of background radiation,
radiation that occurs naturally in the environment. Still, as a precaution, the areas remain restricted to the public.
Additionally, the EPD has radiation monitors placed in questionable areas throughout the forest, and assessments are conducted every three months to
ensure continued public safety, and Etowah River water is tested on a regular basis for quality purposes. Such measures, however, don't necessarily
Though it seems difficult to get some people who are actually knowledgeable of the facility to talk about the Georgia Nuclear Aircraft Laboratory, its
impact upon local legend has been indelible.
Stories of accidents, sickness, and animal mutations persist. Hunters claim extra sets of antlers or absence of antlers on full-grown bucks, atrophied
legs, and albino pelts. At one point, the tale of a Cyclops deer circulated. Such stories remain by and large unsubstantiated, though science does
point to the fact that genetic mutations can be hereditary.
Of his thirteen years inside Dawson Forest, Nathan McClure jokes, "I've never seen any 5 legged deer or other strange creatures on the site."
Other residents of Dawson, Pickens, and Forsyth Counties remember the days of the red sky, in 1959, which many at first believed to be the end of the
world but later attributed to GNAL operations.
During this time, the sky in the vicinity was a deep crimson color, and some families gathered inside to pray, fearing the Apocalypse. Was this
phenomenon related to operations at the Georgia Nuclear Aircraft Laboratory? No one knows for sure, and though June 1959 does go down on record as the
period of most acute irradiation of the forest, those who remember the red sky do not remember dates for possible correlation.
It is, however, unlikely because any radiation emitted from the Dawson reactor would not have been visible to the naked eye.
Many mysteries still remain regarding the operation of the Georgia Nuclear Aircraft Laboratory, as its livelihood was shrouded in the necessity of
Even the facts of this article have taken four years of intermittent research to compile. What is certain is that the Georgia Nuclear Aircraft
Laboratory will remain a topic of conversation among the residents of north central Georgia, and though the danger associated with the facility may
have long passed, its legacy never will.