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."
He was dead, but his wife and children were alive, without any income. At the time, Mrs. Wahler hadn't made any connection between her husband's leukemia and radiation, until another pilot, who had come to the funeral, told her that some people thought such a connection existed.
"I started researching it then, and the more I got into it, the more convinced I was that radiation was involved." She applied for a pension, claiming her husband's death was service-incurred. The Veterans Administration denied her claim because the Atomic Energy Commission maintained that her husband had not received enough radiation to cause the leukemia. So she had appealed, been denied again, appealed again, and finally, after two years, was given the opportunity to present her case in person to a VA appeals board. The board reversed the previous denials after getting an opinion from an independent medical expert: enough doubt existed, they said, to warrant making the decision in her favor. The Atomic Energy Commission continues to insist, however, that Major Wahler could not have received enough radiation to have caused his death.
Before I left Mrs. Wahler that day, I asked if she knew what had happened to the other pilots in her husband's outfit. She mentioned a flier named Marvin Speer, who she had heard had leukemia. And she remarked, "I kind of hesitated when I wrote to some of my husband's former buddies, because I was putting fears in them, and this was brought to my attention, and I stopped writing."
In the case of Marvin Speer, Mrs. Wahler need not have worried about arousing fears. As I discovered weeks later, Colonel Speer had died in September, 1968, also from leukemia.
A third pilot in the group, Major Richard Partrick, talked to me in Albuquerque of the monitoring flights he'd made. Major Partrick's words are difficult to understand because the left side of his jaw and part of his larynx were removed in 1968 after it was discovered that he had cancer.
And still another pilot from the group, who wishes not to be identified, repeated many of the same details about the radiation missions, his hand occasionally reaching up to touch the suppurating lesions on his head, lesions which he has had for more than ten years and which do not respond to treatment.
The Atomic Energy Commission insists no connection exists between the deaths from leukemia of Major Wahler and Colonel Speer, nor between Major Partrick's cancer, and the radiation to which they were exposed. No one can assert positively, at this time, that these deaths and injuries are from the radiation.
Neither is there any unassailable scientific evidence that the abnormal number of deaths from leukemia in the quiet Mormon villages of Parowan, Paragonah, and Pleasant Grove, Utah, and Fredonia, Arizona, were the result of the fallout from the tests to which the towns had been exposed. The death rate from leukemia in Pleasant Grove is approximately 6 times higher than normal, while in Paragonah and Parowan, neighboring towns, 4 cases were diagnosed in a period when only 1.4 should have been anticipated. Fredonia and its neighboring town, Kanab, Utah, suffered what one medical expert described as a leukemia "epidemic."
But neither can the AEC accurately claim, as it does, that no possible connection exists between these events and its activities. It cannot justify such an assertion because (a) no one knows, including the AEC, the exact amount or the type of radiation to which these pilots and communities have been exposed and (b) not enough knowledge exists about the effects of low-level radiation. The AEC continues to make such statements as the one it issued in 1970 in response to a critical NBC-TV program: "Small doses produce no damage which scientists have been able to detect." Many eminent scientists would worry over the implications of such a pronouncement. Nobel Prize winners Dr. Joshua Lederberg and Dr. Linus Pauling both warn that if the present permissible dose occurred it would kill thousands of people every year, and they argue, amongst other things, that it may be too early to detect damage already caused by small doses of radiation. Even the AEC's staunchest supporters in the scientific community tend to put the case cautiously. Thus, Dr. Victor Bond, of the AEC's Brookhaven Laboratory, said in November, 1970, that "for purposes of radiation protection, in the absence of well-defined data otherwise, the cautious assumption must be made that any amount of exposure carries some probability of harm to a population, however small that probability may be."
"[N]ever before in the peacetime history of the United States has Congress established an administrative agency with such sweeping authority and entrusted with such portentous responsibilities," said the men who wrote the Atomic Energy Act of 1946. Under the terms of that Act, and its 1954 Amendment, Congress gave the Atomic Energy Commission total and exclusive control over every aspect of nuclear energy, including both its military and peaceful uses. It has at its disposal more than $2 billion a year, its own security force, the right to police its own activities, and the authority to classify any data which the Commission judges might threaten the national interest if they were to be released. In effect, the AEC is a government within the government.
The Commission also contributes more than $300 million yearly in subsidies to academic research at universities, scientific consortia, and AEC-owned laboratories operated by educational organizations. The AEC's total investment in research facilities is more than $3 billion.
In addition, the Atomic Energy Commission is charged with the responsibility for guarding the public safety from the dangers of radiation, for negotiating and administering international agreements involving nuclear energy.
Approximately 53 percent of the Commission's current budget is allotted for military applications. Since the first nuclear bomb was exploded in New Mexico, the AEC has conducted 512 announced weapons detonations, plus an undisclosed number of secret tests. The components for the nuclear weapons are produced at eight plants scattered over the country and operated by large corporations as AEC contractors.
The number of these weapons now stockpiled is kept totally secret, but obviously, must run into the thousands. Production continues and can be expected to continue indefinitely.
Plowshare, the AEC program for the peaceful use of nuclear bombs, was once the AEC's Wunderkind, hailed by Dr. Edward Teller. "Success in Plowshare," he said, "will bring as rich a harvest as man's ingenuity ever produced."
But success has been slow to come, and today the Plowshare program is reduced in scope and budget. Only $8 million of the operating budget was allocated to Plowshare last year. Of all the grandiose schemes to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes hardly a handful remain, and even these are in trouble, endangered by the opposition to them from conservationists and groups fearful of radiation dangers. Meanwhile, the AEC now expends about 20 percent of its budget on the reactor program, under which the AEC has the sole right to license the building of reactors and complete control over the sale of the fissionable material used in them. The program will continue to expand unless the AEC receives a serious setback in the controversies about nuclear reactors now raging all over the country.
The AEC—along with its congressional ally, the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, and the nuclear power industry—is committed to the widest possible utilization of nuclear energy. One of the proponents, Dr. Glenn T. Seaborg, AEC Chairman, believes that "not only do we need nuclear power, but this source of energy has, historically speaking, been discovered just in the nick of time.... In view of the world's growth and human expectations, to depend for our energy on the remaining supply of fossil fuels—as optimistic as we might be about their reserves—would be environmentally, economically and humanely disastrous."
HE AEC's perpetual optimism leads inevitably to a situation in which the agency is uncomfortable presenting anything less than the most jovial view of nuclear energy. Such a posture is characteristic, of course, of most public and private institutions as they seek to present themselves in the most favorable light. But in the case of the AEC, maintaining its image has sometimes meant risking the public's health: I was concerned over the Commission's record in 1957, and this past summer I found fresh cause for alarm.
In August, 1970, I asked the Atomic Energy Commission Public Information Officers at AEC headquarters in Germantown, Maryland, for several documents, including the "Official Use Only" report which I had first obtained in 1957. It is now declassified, together with reports on monitoring in earlier weapons-test programs, and was readily available. I had kept the original all these years, and now I read them side by side.
The comparison revealed, at first, only minor differences, softening in the second version the impact of the first. But when I got to the conclusion I discovered a much more serious change. A large portion of the original was deleted. Taken out was the section described as "probably the most significant summary in this report." The now-absent summary dealt with the fact that certain areas of Nevada and Utah were exposed to radiation far in excess of the standards set by the National Committee on Radiation Protection Standards. The deleted section said further that:
... in future tests, within such areas, blood changes in man might be demonstrable if systematic observations are made. It is possible also that the immunities of the population might be sufficiently reduced that measurable increased incidences of selected communicable diseases would be discerned by epidemiological investigations. The long-term implications of yearly exposure of a cross-section of the population to levels in excess of those considered to be maximum permissible for occupational workers certainly justify continued observation and maintenance of radiation health records, even though specific consequences cannot be foreseen at this moment.
That warning, that plea for "continued observation and maintenance of radiation health records," and the statements that some areas of Nevada and Utah had received excessive exposures-all those statements are now missing.
Where did the original page go? The AEC says it does not know who made the deletion or why it was done, although, as one AEC staff member told me, "It does seem like a pretty important change."
This was not the only time that the AEC had concealed, and in some cases disregarded, information that has threatened its interests. In many of these cases, to be sure, honest scientific disputes are involved. But each of them raises grave doubts in the mind of a layman about the AEC's regard for public safety. And one need not be a physicist or a biologist to worry, at the very least, over the way in which the AEC has dealt with unpleasant news and with the messengers who deliver it.
In 1960, for example, a physicist named Dr. Harold Knapp, then on the AEC staff, was investigating a phenomenon called "hot spots." Hot spots are areas of unexplained high radiation that occasionally occur throughout the country as an aftermath of above-ground weapons testing. Knapp was paying particular attention to evidence of I-131, radioactive iodine, which had been discovered in abnormal levels in milk produced near St. Louis, Missouri. In human beings I-131, like ordinary iodine, concentrates in the thyroid gland, where it may cause cancer. Knapp was anxious to compare the leveIs in Missouri with those in milk-producing areas near the Nevada test sites. But he discovered that the AEC had failed to monitor the milk in those areas. In 1953, for example, a test had deposited an unpredicted amount of fallout on the dairy region near St. George, Utah. A monitoring team sent there reported that "no standard procedures existed for preparing milk samples"; as a result "no details were obtained on time of milking, milking techniques, individual producers, etc." But it was decided to forgo attempting to collect such data because "extensive inquiry into such details would indicate the concern of the test program's rad-safe ["radiation safety"] group with the possibility of milk contamination and alarm an already worried community."
Knapp was able partially to overcome the lack of data from the early tests when milk monitoring procedures were set up to follow a weapons test in 1962. The purpose of collecting the data was to permit a calculation of how large the iodine 131 burden was to the thyroids of persons drinking milk after a nuclear detonation and to provide a standard for estimating the iodine 131 doses to children's thyroids from past nuclear tests.
Knapp's report horrified his superiors. Not only did he point out that, until 1962, "no systematic effort had been made to obtain fallout levels and milk levels at the same time," but also he concluded that, on the basis of the 1962 data, heavy doses of iodine 131 had been ingested by children in Utah from at least one earlier test and perhaps from others as well.
Pressure was applied to Knapp to keep him from publishing his report. Its technical validity was questioned, and in addition, its potential bad effect upon the AEC's public image was pointed out. One AEC official who opposed publishing Knapp's report worried at the time about "what reaction may we expect from the press and the public"; and Dr. Gordon Dunning, one of Knapp's superiors, told me in 1970 that the Commission believed that publication of Knapp's report "would lead to substantially larger numbers [of thyroid doses] than had been published from the various monitoring programs.... How did one explain this? Would it look like the Atomic Energy Commission and Public Health Service had not been doing their job?"
But Knapp insisted on the publication of his report; finally, the AEC convened a committee of scientists to review the report, pointing out to them that if the report were published, it "would make the Commission out to have been liars." The committee refused to block publication, and finally Knapp's report appeared, prefaced by an analysis of it by the committee members. But the AEC version did not include Knapp's conclusion that following a 1953 weapons test, the doses to the thyroid glands of infants in the St. George, Utah, area "would be in the range of 120-440 rads," doses which would have been very high indeed. Subsequently, Knapp published the full report, including his conclusions about St. George, in Nature magazine.
It is, of course, possible that Knapp's conclusions were inaccurate, but he was correct in at least one respect: the AEC does not know how much radioactive iodine it visited on St. George, Utah, and elsewhere in the country. And this, clearly, is information the Commission sought, unsuccessfully, to keep private.
UCLEAR explosions—weapons tests and huge cratering experiments—are the most awesome and frightening aspect of the AEC's operations; but almost everything associated with atomic energy is full of risk. The disposal of radioactive wastes from nuclear reactors and plants providing fissionable materials poses problems on a scale far greater than the Army's difficulties in ridding itself of nerve gas. The handling of these wastes has been the focus of yet another muffled controversy between worried scientists and the AEC.
In 1966, a special committee of earth scientists (from the National Academy of Sciences and the National Research Council) severely criticized AEC waste-disposal procedures and suggested alternative methods. The committee charged that the AEC was putting economic considerations ahead of safety, and that in some cases the Commission's officials were vastly overconfident of the ability of local environments to absorb wastes. Specifically, the committee members cited burial of radioactive material in places where too little was known about the shifting of the earth or about subterranean movement of water. And they were alarmed at the use of containers subject to erosion and fracture.
The Atomic Energy Commission "had a lot of problems with the report," said John Erlewine, an AEC official. In fact, the AEC tried for a time to suppress it. Erlewine justified the suppression to me by saying the report was "in house" and "outside the competence" of the scientists involved, and, he added, "we didn't think much of it."
It was not until a member of the scientists' committee charged publicly late in 1969 that the AEC had "persistently refused" to release the report, arousing senatorial pressure, that the Commission relented.
By that time, evidence had already been uncovered that confirmed the scientists' fears. The Dow Chemical Company, which operates the AEC's Rocky Plats plutonium manufacturing plant in Colorado, had been burying radioactive plutonium wastes in exactly the manner which the committee had warned against—in "artificial containers subject to corrosion, fracture and other forms of damage." Dow had buried metal drums, filled with either oil-saturated plutonium wastes or uranium wastes, within the area of the plant as far back as 1958. Drums of plutonium waste oil had also been stored on the surface of the ground inside the plant; some of these fractured and sprang leaks. In addition, the company had buried drums of uranium wastes outside the plant.
This might not have been known had it not been for another worrisome event, a disastrous $45 million fire which broke out in the plant on May 11, 1969. Ten days later, Major General E. B. Giller, Atomic Energy Commission Assistant General Manager for Military Applications, told a congressional committee, "I am relieved to report that there is no appreciable amount of plutonium outside the building" and "no known contamination off-site as a result of the fire."
General Giller's optimistic statements about the absence of plutonium outside the plant turned out to be both premature and incorrect: in January, 1970, a Colorado conservation group issued a report that Dr. Edward Martell, a nuclear chemist working at the National Atmospheric Research Center in Boulder, Colorado, had made an independent investigation and found plutonium traces in the soil outside the plant. (Dr. Martell charges that prior to his analysis of the soil, the Atomic Energy Commission had monitored primarily the air around the plant and neglected to check for radioactivity on the ground.)
Initially, Martell believed that the plutonium traces he found in the soil after the Rocky Flats fire were the result of the fire itself. But the Atomic Energy Commission, on the basis of an investigation made for it by the Public Health Service in August, 1970, announced that the plutonium had not come from the fire of 1969 or from an earlier fire, but instead from dust blowing around the oil drums, which had been leaking plutonium wastes into the ground.
I asked General Giller a few months ago whether he was satisfied with the safety precautions being taken at Rocky Flats.
"The answer is an unqualified yes," he replied.
"Had you been satisfied with the safety precautions before the fire?"
"We had been satisfied with the safety precautions before the fire. Certainly, in hindsight, we could have operated the plant differently, in which, for instance, the drums would not have been stored outside and we would not have leaked, meaning we would not have put plutonium from that source into the soil. But we must remember, of course, we're talking about extremely small amounts, and none of this constitutes a hazard to health."
But, as General Giller said himself, plutonium is one of the most dangerous radioactive substances, and it is an undisputed scientific fact that it takes only "extremely small amounts" of plutonium to cause lung cancer. A microscopic particle of plutonium can cause death if it lodges in the lungs. And the $45 million fire itself, which might have been catastrophic for nearby Denver, suggests that safety precautions at Rocky Flats were inadequate.
Representative Chet Holifield (Dem., Cal.), chairman of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, is aware of the dangers from plutonium, for he is one of the most knowledgeable legislators in the country on matters of nuclear energy. But at an executive session of the Joint Committee, held on April 10, 1970, Congressman Holifield decried Dr. Martell's independent investigation which turned up the plutonium traces as "scratching around in the sand."
The executive session was attended by two other congressmen, members of the Joint Committee staff, a group of high AEC officials, and two officers of the union representing the workers at the Dow Chemical plant. When it was disclosed that the company had hidden drums of radioactive wastes in the plant area, Holifield was enraged. "Maybe this is not putting one milligram of radiation above ground, but you know the problems this sort of thing can create from a public relations standpoint. It can be magnified many times by these sensationalists," he told the group. The chagrined AEC officials replied that they, too, had been ignorant of the hidden wastes until just before the executive session started. And the executive director of the committee staff conceded, "It was a very poorly supervised thing." One high AEC official said, "It is clear to us that we have a considerable amount of work to do and have to undo some things that were done in the past. This may turn out to be one of those situations. We have waste in Idaho that I think the final analysis will show we should dig up.... We are going to have a lot of clean-up operations to do for the long pull as a result of this."
Publicly, of course, neither the AEC nor the Joint Committee admits the enormous potential danger in the AEC's present practices of radioactive-waste management. That is why the AEC tried to suppress the report on waste disposal and why the true dimensions of the problem are revealed only when the minutes of an executive session are obtained; in the meantime, those who warn the public are "sensationalists."
ERHAPS the most complex dispute in which the AEC is now involved concerns the total amount of "low-level" radiation in the environment resulting from all man-made sources, including nuclear reactors. Two scientists today are doing battle with the AEC over this issue: Dr. John Gofman and Dr. Arthur Tamplin of the Livermore Laboratory in California. Their present conflict with the AEC began when they were asked to investigate the alarming predictions of another physicist, Ernest Sternglass, of the University of Pittsburgh.
In 1969, Sternglass presented an analysis suggesting 400,000 possible infant and fetal deaths in the United States as a result of fallout from the weapons tests of the 1950s. Sternglass' analysis set off a furor. A short time later, a request from the Atomic Energy Commission for a critique of the Sternglass thesis came to the Livermore Lab. The assignment was given to Arthur Tamplin, who had been at the Lab since April, 1963, under Gofman, studying the effects of radiation on man and the total environment. Tamplin concluded that Sternglass' estimates of the number of deaths were far higher than they ought to have been. Having criticized Steruglass, however, Tamplin then prepared his own estimates, which were that 4000 deaths might have been caused by the fallout. That figure was considerably lower, but high enough to unsettle the Atomic Energy Commission's Division of Biology and Medicine in Washington.
Faced with this damaging opinion, the Commission (and Livermore officials) proposed that Tamplin separate his criticism of Steruglass into two portions. The attack on Sternglass' calculations was to be published in some popular journal. Tamplin's own estimates of cancer deaths were to be published in a more esoteric, less widely read scientific journal. Gofman and Tamplin had come to another conclusion, even more disturbing to the AEC than Tamplin's figure of 4000 infant and fetal deaths. On the basis of their studies, they believed that the federal standard for acceptable radiation exposures was ten times higher than it ought to be and that it should be cut back; failure to do so would result in 32,000 additional cancer and leukemia deaths, they said.
In October, 1969, they presented this data at a meeting of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers in San Francisco, attended by a few science writers. Gofman and Tamplin followed this presentation with another, more widely publicized appearance before a Senate committee on November 18, 1969.
The AEC has totally rejected the Gofman-Tamplin thesis that permissible radiation standards be lowered by at least a factor of ten. If such a decrease did go into effect, the AEC would be forced to curtail most of its nuclear power enterprises, especially the nuclear reactor program.
Gofman and Tamplin are convinced that the Atomic Energy Commission and the Lab are trying to censor them, harass them, and deprecate their scientific work. Of the censorship, there is no doubt: a paper entitled "Nuclear Reactors and the Public Health and Safety," which Tamplin was scheduled to give at a Boston meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, was so heavily edited by Dr. Roger Batzel, chief of the Laboratory's Division of Biology and Medicine, that it bore little resemblance to Tamplin's original manuscript. Typically, the fourteen-line abstract of the paper was reduced by Dr. Batzel to the sentence, "Over the past two years a number of serious objections have been raised concerning the safety of nuclear power reactors."
Although the paper was finally presented in close to its original form, Dr. Batzel's editing of the manuscript demonstrates the Laboratory's basic policy difference with Gofman and Tamplin. Dr. Batzel told me that the Lab doesn't disagree with their scientific findings, only with the policy judgments they make from the data and the manner in which they seek public support for their position. Specifically, he is against their calling for a moratorium on building additional nuclear reactors.
The fundamental difference separating the Lab officials from Gofman and Tamplin arose again when Gofman was invited to testify before the Senate Subcommittee on Air and Water Pollution, chaired by Senator Edmund Muskie. When the invitation became known to Dr. Michael May, the current director of the Lab, he attempted to dissuade Gofman from appearing before the Committee on the grounds that Senator Muskie didn't understand nuclear energy problems and might use Gofman's testimony politically.
When Tamplin and Gotman have made public criticisms of the AEC, the Lab has refused to pay their travel expenses, and in addition, has docked Tamplin's vacation time, in one case even deducting from his vacation a Saturday and Sunday he spent at a seminar. However, when Dr. Edward Teller and Dr. Gerald Johnson went from the Lab to Alaska in order to describe the virtues of a Plowshare project, their travel expenses were paid and their vacation periods left untouched. When these scientists went to Pennsylvania in 1968 to assure worried citizens that another proposed Plowshare project was not hazardous, their expenses were paid and they did not suffer any loss of vacation time.
Dr. John Totter, head of the AEC's Division of Biology and Medicine, has said publicly of Gofman that he "was hired to make sure Plowshare could operate in a safe manner. He is now attacking Plowshare, and I see no reason that [we] should want to continue his services."
Gofman and Tamplin have found a foe as well in Joint Committee Chairman Holifield. The congressman used the floor of the House to say of them, "Undeterred by the rejection of their opinion by their scientific peers . . . they continue to do their own thing in the limelight of the mass media and public forums to exacerbate the public anxiety."
The two scientists argue that their scientific findings impel them to political action. In their book 'Population Control' Through Nuclear Pollution, they conclude from their experience that groups of scientists and laymen must be established specifically for the critical examination of technological decisions taken by industry and government. "It is evident that we are urgently in need of a mechanism for effective criticism of present day science and technology.... The scientists and others who compose such critical groups must be activists in the best sense of the word. They must necessarily interact effectively with members of Congress, with activists from many fields, and with pressure groups in the country."
The question of whether I was exacerbating the public anxiety troubled me when I returned to Nevada and Utah to talk with the people living in the area. I thought about it, too, as I sat and talked with the test-site pilots whom I had traced from the leads given me by Mrs. Wahler. But the issue was resolved for me when I read, late in the summer, the once "secret" and "confidential" reports on the safety precautions in effect during the 1951 and 1952 test series for the monitoring personnel.
Thus, the "secret" report on the 1951 tests, named Buster-Jangle, complains, in a minor key, that "instrument repair was at times unsatisfactory because there was not always a qualified man in charge." A more serious note is struck in the statement that the weapons tests "were crowded together with inadequate time for personnel to function efficiently" and that the radiation safety personnel "were somewhat confused as to whom they were actually responsible." In addition, "On innumerable occasions a decision on some point was needed from some person in authority and it would be found that the person had departed for Las Vegas or Los Alamos without leaving a responsible alternate."
But the real impact of the 1951 report is contained in the section dealing with the radiation exposures of the personnel involved in monitoring the tests.
Page 10 states that for personnel involved in the tests, "An exposure limit of 3-r was agreed on prior to the test.... The Division of Biology and Medicine agreed to an unpublicized exposure of 3.9-r, which was used to give the 3-r limit added flexibility where absolutely necessary." The report then goes on to state that 75 percent of the monitors exceeded the maximum exposure limit.
The "confidential" report on the 1952 series of tests indicates that the monitoring procedures may have been even worse than in 1951. "Each test brought a new group of operators inexperienced in the proper techniques," states the report, "and little use was made of the experience gained by members of the group on succeeding tests. Personnel were not assigned to the program until a few hours before it was necessary to dispatch them to their respective stations to perform duties in which they had been only briefly indoctrinated."
New equipment was also used in the 1952 monitoring. "The lack of trained personnel to operate and observe these units resulted in little knowledge gained," states the report. And when planes were used to bring samples back to the labs for analysis, "some samples contained activity greater than the counting limits of the counting equipment." Forecasts of fallout patterns were of little use in the 1952 series, especially since "airdrops are carried out even when wind forecasts are likely to be in error." Some communities were not included in the fallout prediction and so could not be notified when the fallout hit them unexpectedly, and sometimes even when the fallout was expected. "Unfortunately, the collection trays were lost," and so no adequate measurements could be made. In one test, a reduction was made in the number of samples collected and treated; the result, according to the report, was that "unfortunately, this procedure does not permit arrival times [of the fallout] to be obtained with great accuracy.... "
Five thousand soldiers were brought to the Nevada Test Site in 1951 to participate in one weapons test. The AEC says no harm was done to them, but no long-term studies were made of the men. But in the light of the safety reports, how much confidence can one have in the AEC's assertion? That question may need an answer soon: the Veterans Administration has started to get claims from some of those men or their families, charging disability as a result of their exposure.
Just as no complete records exist for the military personnel, no accurate records exist for the amount of radioactive fallout to which the people of Kanab, Fredonia, Paragonah, Parawan, and Pleasant Grove have been exposed. It has been demonstrated, again and again, that it is impossible to predict accurately the drifting patterns of radioactive clouds. And as the reports of the 1951, 1952, and 1953 tests indicate, often such drifting was not monitored in any way for radioactive content.
Elmer Jackson, who was born in Fredonia, Arizona, and now lives in Kanab, Utah, a few miles away, knows lack of monitoring to be a fact. He was caught in a radioactive cloud, and burned by it: his doctor believes that the thyroid cancer Jackson later developed results from the experience.
Early in the morning of March 17, 1953, at 5:20 A.M., a 16-kiloton bomb was exploded from the top of a metal tower at the test site. On the basis of the pre-shot weather forecasts, mobile monitoring units had been sent into the communities in the area around the test site. The cloud bearing the particles of radioactive metal drifted further east than the Atomic Energy Commission had anticipated, into an area more than a hundred miles away from where any monitoring team was stationed:
"Suddenly the cloud seemed to move just a little, and it started going in a southerly direction, so I thought, 'Well, it won't come this way,' so I continued on out, about three miles out. I gathered up about fifty head of cattle that were in the area and started moving with them, when the wind changed and blew that cloud swiftly. It just came with a rush and engulfed me and the cattle in the valley, and within just minutes my eyes started burning, the water was running out of them, and my face started burning....
"I think it's taken at least ten years off my life, and I've suffered for ten or fifteen years as a result of those burns, so I'd like to go back to the days when we didn't have that kind of trouble."
Other men and women living in Fredonia and Kanab would also like to go back to the "days when we didn't have that kind of trouble." Maureen Tait's husband died of leukemia in 1965, leaving her with five children. Mr. Tait was a crane operator, who worked in areas where fallout has been recorded. Rosemary Mackelprang's husband, who was school superintendent for ten years in Fredonia, died of leukemia in 1964. He, too, was out of doors a great deal, collecting rocks. Before he died, his widow says, "He often wondered if maybe some of the rocks had radiation in them that could have caused the leukemia. And we used to watch the atomic bombs go off and see the big flare, and we often wondered if maybe radiation carried out this far, if it had any effect on us. But the people from the bomb tests told us, 'You're so far away from everything, you don't have to worry.'"
Jessie Mackelprang's son, Graham, was fourteen when he died, in 1955, of leukemia. The family was living in Kanab at the time, but went away to their ranch, also located in a fallout area, as often as possible. In the summers, Graham lived outside from early dawn till dark. Mrs. Mackelprang is convinced that the weapons tests "started the leukemia in this country, but what can we do about it? We're just helpless; we're just small people. We have no money to pay an investigator to try and find out if that was true and if the government does it, what's the people to do? They're higher than we, so we just sit here and take it."
The government did investigate the leukemia outbreak in Fredonia, although it has never told the people the results of the investigation. The inquiry began after Dr. Richard Riley, who had been treating the cases, discussed them with a leukemia specialist in Salt Lake City, who felt the number of cases represented an epidemic. Riley, who is a radiologist, told an AEC doctor that he was convinced the cancer and leukemia cases were the result of fallout radiation. A team of specialists from the U.S. Public Health Service Communicable Disease Center in Atlanta came into the area, took blood samples from everybody in Fredonia and from a sample of the Kanab population. In January, 1970, a report on the investigation appeared in Hospital Practice: the Public Health Service was not able to pinpoint the cause of the leukemia and could state no more than that the leukemia epidemic was not the result of chance.
Ample evidence exists of the direct and immediate effects of large doses of radiation of the order inflicted upon the population of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But only now are some important data coming to light revealing the consequences of much lower doses of radiation: a recent report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association points out that a small group of Marshall Islands people exposed to lower doses of radiation from unexpected fallout after a Pacific weapons test are just today developing thyroid disorders. And the report concludes that now is the critical period to begin analyzing these disorders. Twenty-eight Americans were also exposed to unanticipated fallout during the test. No long-term study has been made of them. When I asked why, the doctor in charge of the Marshall Islands study replied that it would have been too difficult to keep track of the men.
Clearly there is a need for studies on a mass scale over a long period of time. And after the possible relationship between iodine 131 in milk and thyroid cancer in young people appeared in the forefront of scientific consciousness, the U.S. Public Health Service did begin a study, financed by the Atomic Energy Commission, of children's thyroids in St. George, Utah, where the heavy fallout of iodine 131 had taken place from the weapons-testing program.
Initially, the study indicated an increase in thyroid difficulties, but as the study progressed, through the high school years of the children, the data began to become very inconclusive. Now the young people involved have graduated from high school and the study is ending. But the teenagers ought to be watched for many more years; if their expectancy of developing thyroid cancer has been increased, even slightly, because of weapons testing, they are owed a continuous appraisal of their health by the government.
HE LIST of situations in which the Atomic Energy Commission may have endangered the public is extensive. More than one hundred uranium miners have died of lung cancer because of exposure to radioactivity in the mines. (Uranium is produced almost wholly for the AEC, although the mines are owned and operated by private companies.) The direct relationship between uranium mining and lung cancer was established many years ago in Europe and disputed by no one. The cancers are caused by radon gas which escapes into the mine's atmosphere when uranium is dug from the earth. The mines could be cleansed of the deadly radon, but at a cost so great that the mine owners are unwilling to pay it.
A revealing conflict over setting the proper standards for human exposure to radon developed a few years ago between Secretary of Labor M. Willard Wirtz and Congressman Holifield. Secretary Wirtz was convinced that the exposure standard set by the Federal Radiation Council was too high and so ordered that it be lowered to 30 percent of the Council's recommendations. His action brought forth a heated response from Congressman Holifield, who charged the Secretary with making his determination "on an emotional basis rather than on a scientific basis." In contrast to Congressman Holifield's view, Dr. Walter S. Snyder, associate director of the Health Physics Division at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, testified, in 1967, at a Joint Committee hearing on the uranium mining problem, that "when human life is in the balance, it would seem that conservatism in safeguarding these lives has much to commend it."
Meanwhile, the uranium miners continue to die from lung cancer, and others are exposed to radon gas. It seeps from under the floors of many homes built in Colorado on tailings from the uranium mines. Admittedly, to move the people from their homes into new residences would be very expensive; the government insists the risks are very small and therefore no action need be taken.
The most controversial, and potentially, perhaps, the most dangerous, of the AEC's current programs is its commitment to nuclear power reactors. Seventeen nuclear reactors are operating now, fifty-four are under construction, thirty-eight more are far along in the planning, and nine additional plants have been scheduled to be built. Within the next thirty years, the AEC expects to license 950 nuclear power installations, all dependent upon radioactive materials.
The proponents of nuclear reactors as a source of energy insist that the country faces a severe power crisis. In what the AEC sees as a dangerous diminution of conventional power sources, the agency sees itself as standing between the country and disaster: thus, it rejects any serious criticisms of its enthusiasm for building nuclear reactors. But serious criticism abounds.
"In principle, nuclear reactors are dangerous," Dr. Edward Teller, no foe of atomic energy, said in 1965 and again in 1970. "They are not dangerous because they may blow up. The explosion of a nuclear reactor is not likely to be as violent as an explosion of a chemical plant. But a powerful nuclear reactor which has functioned for some time has radioactivity stored in it greatly in excess of that released from a powerful nuclear bomb. There is one difference, and this difference makes the nuclear bomb look like a relatively safe instrument. In the case of an atmospheric nuclear explosion, the radioactivity ascends into the stratosphere.... A gently seeping nuclear reactor can put its radioactive poison under a stable inversion layer and concentrate it onto a few hundred square miles in a truly deadly fashion. This is why we must be exceedingly careful in constructing nuclear reactors. By being careful and also by good luck, we have so far avoided all serious nuclear accidents.... Nuclear reactors do not belong on the surface of the earth. Nuclear reactors belong underground."
But reactors are being built above ground. The Enrico Fermi reactor at Lagoona Beach, Michigan, experienced difficulties from the moment it began test operations. The plant, an experimental one, had been built despite the objections of the Commission's Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards.
"There is insufficient information available at this time," warned the committee in 1956, to assure that the reactor could be operated "without public hazard." But Lewis Strauss, then Chairman of the AEC, suppressed that warning, which might never have been made public except for its disclosure by another AEC commissioner, Thomas Murray.
The AEC's decision to sanction the Fermi reactor created a tremendous controversy, but all efforts to halt the construction failed. Then, in October, 1966, while the plant was going through a series of operating tests, a serious accident occurred. A portion of the reactor's uranium fuel source overheated and melted; radiation was released within the plant, and the reactor was immediately shut down. For a month scientists debated how to investigate the accident, fearing that any disturbance of the uranium could set off a runaway chain reaction culminating in an explosion, an event that could have released enough radioactive gas (according to one study commissioned by the AEC) to kill as many as 133,000 people living in the Detroit area.
After the accident, an official of the company operating the reactor said, "It's one of those accidents the consequences [of which] are so terrible, the probability has to be very, very small." But that "very, very small" probability did become a reality.
The Fermi reactor is now being tested again after being shut down for four years.
Another freakish accident occurred at the Windscale reactor in England in 1957; a large quantity of radioactivity was released, so that all milk and produce in a four-hundred-square-mile area around the plant had to be confiscated. In 1961, an accident in an experimental reactor in Idaho killed three people. And not even the AEC's own reactors are free from such accidents: on November 19, 1969, the Oak Ridge Research Reactor had a failure which occurred, according to an official report, "amazingly, from seven failures or errors in each of three identical channels, a total of 21 failures. The seven common mode failures that contributed to system failure were unpredictable or, if predicted might have been considered to be adequately monitored."
But the public health problem inherent in the operation of nuclear reactors is not limited to the possibility of an accident. There remains the persistent issue of low-level radiation.
The usual AEC response to those who seek to reduce the permissible radiation standards is to insist that only infinitesimal amounts of radiation will be emitted from the normal operations of a reactor and that these emissions will be harmlessly diffused into the atmosphere, within a few miles of the reactor's perimeter.
But that argument ignores the fact that the reactor is only one part of a total operation each component of which involves its own separate dangers. Reactors require radioactive fuel rods which must be shipped into the plant and then out of the plant to be reprocessed every few years; reactors produce radioactive wastes which must be stored or processed with all the attendant risks involved. Those two examples alone set up whole series of other dangerous operations. When to these are added the risks of food supplies being contaminated directly, and the introduction of radioactive substances into the total ecological cycle, the possible consequences of hundreds of reactors are staggering.
Dr. Paul Tompkins, the executive director of the Federal Radiation Council, dealt with the heart of the matter from the AEC viewpoint when he said that accepting the Gofman-Tamplin recommendations "might well price society out of business. To reduce radiation exposure tenfold would cost billions; it might even cost more than the Vietnam War. To comply, you'd practically rebuild all nuclear installations and the factories that use any sort of X-ray equipment. We'd have to review radiation exposure from wristwatches, TV sets and radium dials. Plus, I'm not completely sure it is now technically possible to monitor down to such a tight level."
Is it possible that nuclear energy as the cure for the power crisis may be worse than the disease itself? The risk benefit issue involved in that question needs to be debated thoroughly before the public can make a decision.
Unfortunately, in the atmosphere that now prevails within the Atomic Energy Commission, the agency's critics are characterized as "nuclear nuts" or "arch anti-nuclears" who make "doomsday forecasts" (to use the words of Howard Brown, a high-ranking AEC official). It seems unlikely that open debate will flourish—and that many actions crucial to the public safety will be taken—as long as the AEC continues in its dual role as proprietor and regulator of nuclear energy.
In May, 1957, Chet Holifield wrote the Reporter that he shared the "great concern about the moral and political issues" which had been raised in my article, "Clouds From Nevada." Recently Holifield refused to talk to me about "the moral and political issues." He believes that the public will "never" know enough about radiation, "because it's too complicated." However, the congressman assured a television audience, "that doesn't mean that precautions aren't being taken by those who know, to protect the person who does not know."