Precautions Are Being Taken By Those Who Know

An inquiry into the power and responsibility of the Atomic Energy Commission

It was very difficult to research an article about the Atomic Energy Commission at that time. In 1957, the cold war was still on, the United States was in a bitter nuclear weapons race with the Soviet Union, and the Atomic Energy Commission was considered sacred, the guardian of the only weapon that stood between us and the Communists. Scientists like Pauling, who were predicting wide-scale genetic damage from radiation, were derided and vilified. In those years, too, almost everything about the Atomic Energy Commission's activities was protected by security provisions. The Commission effectively controlled all information about itself.

Nevertheless, I went to Nevada to interview Crandall, and as I got into the story, talking with him and the people around Tonopah, I became as involved in it as Crandall himself. Gradually, as I drove from ranch to ranch in the wild Nevada mesas and to quiet Mormon villages in Utah and Arizona, the pieces of the story began to fit together. And then I managed to obtain a document which verified, in precise detail, many of the charges made by Crandall and other residents of the area.

The document was a report prepared by the U.S. Public Health Service on the Atomic Energy Commission's monitoring activities in the areas around the test site during the 1953 series of weapons tests. It revealed that while the AEC was saying publicly that there was no health hazard from the Nevada tests and that radiation levels were being adequately monitored and recorded, in fact there was great uncertainty within the Public Health Service over the effects of the tests. The report also indicated that the spread of fallout had been unpredicted in many cases, simply because the wind had shifted in a way that the AEC had not expected. The result of the wind shift was that large numbers of people had received doses of radiation in differing amounts.

The unit for measuring the amount of radiation to which the whole body, as opposed to a single organ, is exposed is called a "rad"; the present standards are that the average exposure of a given population should not exceed 0.17 rads and that no individual should be exposed to more than 0.5 rads. The current bitter controversy over nuclear reactors focuses on the 0.17 rad figure (sometimes given as 170 millirads). Those who oppose the AEC maintain that the 0.17 figure is much too high, while the AEC insists that it is low enough to protect public health adequately and that, in any case, the general population would never receive the 0.17 dosage, even from the operations of all the reactors now in existence or planned.

In my article "Clouds From Nevada," which appeared in the Reporter magazine May 16, 1957, I criticized the AEC for poor monitoring work, secrecy, the disguise of health hazards, and the Atomic Energy Commission's unrestrained use of its power. A few newspapers and wire services noted the story; the Washington Post printed an editorial praising it, and the Atomic Energy Commission blasted it and me. But the effect of the article was short-lived.

One day in late 1969, a newspaper in San Francisco, where I live now, carried a small item about the widow of an Air Force officer who had won a case against the Veterans Administration. Her husband had been one of the pilots who flew planes that monitored for radioactivity in the weapons tests about which I had written. He had died of leukemia. She lived in Santa Cruz, California, according to the article, and her name was Mrs. William Wahler.

Mrs. Wahler is a short, slender, energetic woman. Over a cup of coffee and a sandwich, she told me of her life with Bill Wahler and of his death from leukemia. Wahler had flown in the Eighth Air Force during World War II and had been awarded seven Air Medals. After his discharge in 1945, he reenlisted so he could continue flying. In 1951, he was assigned to Kirtland Air Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico, as a member of a special group of pilots trained to fly radiation monitoring and surveillance missions during the secret tests of nuclear weapons at Eniwetok, in the Pacific, and in Nevada. Some of the pilots in the group were trained also to drop the nuclear bombs used in the tests, both in Nevada and in the Pacific.

I asked Mrs. Wahler what kind of precautionary measures had been taken to guard the pilots against any overexposure to radioactivity.

"Well, they all wore film badges, but it was sort of haphazard in Nevada. The pilots didn't really have confidence in the men who were doing the tabulating; sometimes they'd skip taking the radiation exposure that day because the people weren't around at the right time or something like that. I guess everybody felt the levels they were exposed to were perfectly harmless. They didn't know enough at that time to realize they build up.

"When Bill was at Eniwetok, he had rest and recuperation in October, 1956, in Hawaii, and I noticed while we were together for ten days that he wasn't well. He seemed pale and listless, had no pep."

But after Wahler returned to the United States, he seemed completely recovered from whatever had caused his listlessness in Hawaii. In 1961, he retired from active duty, and the family moved to Santa Cruz, where he got a job as a social worker.

"He began to slow down, and he just seemed to be aging rapidly," Mrs. Wahler said. "Between Christmas and New Year's of 1966, we went to visit his brother in San Diego, and his brother said Bill looked like he'd aged a lot in the year since he'd seen him. A week later, he woke up in the middle of the night with a severe headache, and he said he'd had a terrible, wild dream. This went on for a week or two, and he'd have these dreams and these unexplained bruises on his arms and legs. So he went to the hospital, and three weeks later he was dead."

Presented by

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In