Cold War History

Office of Management

You are here

In the National Park Service’s National Historic Landmark Theme Study titled Protecting America: Cold War Defensive Sites, author John S. Salmon suggests, “Two facts dominated the Cold War Era, which is defined for the purposes of this theme study as the period between 1945 and 1991: the United States and the West vied against the Soviet Union and its satellites in a global political and military struggle for supremacy, and the threat—sometimes seemingly the promise—of nuclear obliteration hung over all the Earth like the Sword of Damocles.”  As the agency responsible for the design, development and testing of nuclear weapons, the Department of Energy and its predecessor agencies played a central role in the struggles, threats, and promises that defined the Cold War. This web page is designed to link visitors to historical material for the sites, laboratories, and offices involved in this unprecedented effort. 

Argonne National Laboratory (ANL)

ANL played a primary role in reactor development for use by the military (including the USS Nautilus and development of portable reactors for military base camps) and was instrumental in the development of the nuclear power industry.

Argonne’s Nuclear Science and Technology Legacy

Jack. M. Holl, Argonne National Laboratory 1946-96. University of Illinois Press. Chicago, 1997.

Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL)

BNL played an indirect role in Cold War with promotion of peaceful uses of the atom, for example some of BNL's research looked at the aftermath of war (Gamma Forest) and close of the Cold War (Nuclear Non-proliferation).

BNL Cultural/Historical Resource Management

BNL History

BNL Historic Images

Hanford Site

Hanford played a primary role in the expansion of the nuclear weapons complex as the main supplier of fissionable plutonium for atomic bombs.

Michele Stenehjem Gerber, Legend and Legacy: Fifty Years of Defense Production at the Hanford Site. WHC-MR-0293, Revision 2, 1992.

Michele Stenehjem Gerber, On the Home Front: The Cold War Legacy of the Hanford Nuclear Site. 3rd Ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007.   

History of the Hanford Site (1943-1990) booklet from PNNL

Brief History of the Plutonium-Uranium Extraction Plant

Hanford History Project Resources

Idaho National Laboratory (INL)

INL played a primary role in the design, construction, and testing of prototype nuclear reactors for the research and development of nuclear energy as well as nuclear energy research for Cold War military applications.

INL Brief History

Introduction to INL History Proving the Principle

INL Fact Sheets including PDFs for Proving the Principle

Experimental Breeder Reactor-1 (EBR-1) Atomic Museum

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL)

LLNL played a primary role in nuclear weapon design and general scientific nuclear investigation (plutonium and uranium research) and supported the LANL nuclear weapons design and testing program.

LLNL and the Cold War

Short History of LLNL

LLNL Cultural Resources

LLNL History Timeline

Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL)

LANL played a primary role in nuclear weapons design, development and testing and played a primary role in the development of supercomputers used in those efforts.

LANL History

LANL Civil Defense

“Punched Cards to Petaflops”

LANL Historic Properties

Oak Ridge Reservation

Oak Ridge played a primary role in the production of enriched uranium for the weapons complex, the development of gaseous diffusion plants, lithium fuel development, and genetics and biological radiation research.

Y-12 History

K-25 Virtual Museum

Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) History

ORNL 50th Anniversary

Swords to Plowshares: A Short History of Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Oak Ridge Environmental Management History

Office of Legacy Management (LM)

LM sites played primary and support roles throughout the Cold War, including: milling uranium ore (Gunnison); processing feed materials for reactor fuel (Fernald); Project Plowshare tests (Gasbuggy); machining weapons parts (Rocky Flats); developing the demonstration reactor program (Piqua); and conducting radiation experiments (LEHR).                 

LM Historic Sites

Rocky Flats History

Fernald History

Weldon Spring History

LM Site Webpages

FUSRAP Database

Nevada National Security Site (NNSS)

NNSS played a primary role in the weapons testing program throughout the Cold War.

History of the NNSS

History of Atmospheric Nuclear Weapons Testing, 1951-1963

Montage of Nuclear Tests at NNSS

Video History of NNSS

NNSS Information from the Office of Science and Technical Information

Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant

Paducah played a primary role in the enrichment of uranium to up to 5.5%, which was then shipped to Portsmouth, OH or Oak Ridge, TN for higher enrichment; enriched uranium was also used in naval reactors and weapons for nuclear defense systems.

Paducah Virtual Museum: (coming soon)

Paducah Site Overview

Paducah Background

Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant History

Pantex Plant

Pantex played a primary role in the assembly and disassembly of nuclear weapons during the Cold War. Additionally, Pantex developed, tested, and fabricated high explosive components. 

Pantex History

WWII Pantexans

Pantex Cultural Resources

Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant

Portsmouth played a primary role in uranium enrichment for nuclear defense systems as part of the weapons complex

Portsmouth Virtual Museum

Portsmouth and the Cold War

Portsmouth Site Information

Portsmouth Background

Sandia National Laboratories (SNL)

SNL played a primary role in nuclear weapons design, development and testing and also played a primary role in satellite testing.

SNL History

SNL History Reports

SNL Historic Properties

SNL History Video

Savannah River Site (SRS)

SRS played a primary role in the production of plutonium and tritium for the weapons complex and national defense.

SRS Timeline

Savannah River National Laboratory History

SRS Fact Sheets