US admits years of atomic radiation tests on people

Simon Tisdall, Guardian, 30 December 1993, page 11

The new energy secretary has revealed decades of experiments on unwitting victims, and nuclear blasts in the air over civilians, reports Simon Tisdall in Washington

The door to a secret chamber of nuclear horrors is slowly being prised open in the United States, revealing government-ordered radiation experiments on retarded children, pregnant women, and convicts and a range of other clandestine atom-age projects which have shocked and frightened the American public.

In the course of the last month the steady drip of newly released records from the department of energy, the agency which has overseen America's military and civilian nuclear complex since the dawn of the nuclear era, has turned into a torrent.

Collectively, the records conjure up a nightmarish picture. They show how successive administrations, determined at all costs to keep ahead of the Soviet Union in the cold war nuclear arms race, repeatedly and perhaps illegally placed thousands of unsuspecting Americans at serious and lasting physical risk.

The government's human experiments, undisclosed atomic weapons tests, and deliberate radiation releases over populated areas began in 1945 after the atomic strike on Japan in August of that year. In some cases they have continued almost until the present day. They remained hidden for so long because of what Hazel O'Leary, President Clinton's new energy secretary, calls a culture of deception.

"We were shrouded and clouded in an atmosphere of secrecy," Ms O'Leary said recently. "And I would take it a step further. I would call it repression."

Having taken control of the energy department earlier this year, Ms O'Leary has clearly been shocked by what she found in its archives. In an unprecedented move she ordered the review of an estimated 32 million documents for possible declassification. Many have already been released. She also ordered a sweeping investigation into radiation experiments on humans.

Then, on Tuesday, Ms O'Leary took another extraordinary step for a senior government official. She said compensation for victims of the atom age programmes would have to be considered. "My view is that we must proceed with disclosing these facts and information regardless of the fact of whether it opens the door for a lawsuit against the government. "We ought to go forward and explain to the Congress what has happened and let Congress and the American public determine what would be appropriate compensation," Ms O'Leary said. For America's defence establishment, it is as if a whistle-blower has suddenly become the boss.

So far, the department of energy records and related research by congressional and journalistic investigators have brought the following US government projects to light.

At least 19 mentally retarded boys were fed radioactive milk mixed with cereal in experiments conducted by scientists from Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1940s and 1950s.

The experiments, funded by the atomic energy commission, were not fully explained to the boys' parents. They were told, in a letter, that "we are considering the selection of a group of our brighter patients, including your son to receive a special diet". The boys were told they were participating in a science club.

About 800 pregnant women were dosed with radioactive iron in a government-backed experiment at Vanderbilt university in Tennessee in the late 1940s. The objective was to gauge its effect on foetal development. A follow-up study found a higher than normal cancer rate among the women's children.

In experiments conducted at jails in Oregon and Washington states the testicles of more than 130 male inmates were exposed to high levels of radiation from X-ray machines. The prisoners were paid for their trouble, but according to Robert Alvarez, a senior aide to Ms O'Leary, the risks were not fully explained to them. "These prisoner studies were clearly unethical." Mr Alvarez said this month. The experiments continued until the early 1970s. There have been no follow-up studies since the prisoners were released.

Eighteen patients with apparently dangerous illnesses were injected with high concentrations of plutonium at laboratories managed by Chicago and two other universities in experiments between 1945 to 1947. The injections were apparently made without the patients' informed consent.

Similar experiments using injections of radioactive calcium were conducted on terminally ill cancer patients in New York.

The purpose was to measure the rate at which radioactive substances are absorbed by human tissue.

A congressional report, drawing on department of energy material, disclosed this month that government scientists deliberately exploded atomic bombs in the atmosphere over the US in order to examine the spread and effects of radioactive fallout.

The report identified 12 such tests, including one in 1950 in New Mexico after which radiation particle levels were carefully measured in the town of Watrous, 70 miles away. At the time, scientists said there was no risk to people, even though their purpose was to develop a weapon that would kill enemy soldiers through radioactive fallout.

In fact, according to the Los Alamos national laboratory, nerve-centre of America's nuclear weapons research, there were about 240 experiments in which radiation was deliberately released into the atmosphere between 1944 and 1961 in New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Washington state, and perhaps elsewhere.

"Releasing these amounts of radiation on people in an area in secret is a little hard to swallow," said Senator John Glenn, the former astronaut, who is pushing for the release of other government departments' records, including those of the Pentagon.

All of this has come on top of Ms O'Leary's startling announcement on December 8 that the government conducted 204 previously undisclosed underground nuclear tests in the US between 1963 and 1990.

Among this total are 18 unannounced tests undertaken during the Reagan and Bush administrations. Independent experts said they were at a loss to explain exactly what these later tests were for, or why they were kept secret.

Ms O'Leary said that between 600 and 800 people were subjected to government radiation experiments; she has set up an public telephone inquiry service called the Human Experimentation Hotline. In its first day in operation last week the hotline was swamped with calls from worried families.

The number of Americans intentionally exposed to radioactive atom test fallout, and its lasting after-effects, is unknown.

But a study of high fall-out downwind areas in Utah, for example, has found childhood leukaemia rates which are 2.5 times the national average.

In part, the human experiments were an attempt to tackle incurable diseases, scientists of the period have said. It is also pointed out that there existed a great deal of honest ignorance about the effects of radioactive substances.

Much of the macabre "evidence" of human experimentation has been preserved. About 20,000 irradiated pieces of people are kept at a national human tissue depository in Spokane, in Washington state.

Environmentalists and others say that Ms O'Leary and her staff - some of whom were formerly active opponents of the energy department and the nuclear establishment - have opened a Pandora's Box.

And the scale of the problem is staggering. A report by the federal environmental protection agency estimated recently that more than 43,000 military and industrial sites in the US are or may be contaminated by radioactivity.

Ms O'Leary says that by opening the files she hopes to set an example for other nuclear powers and to improve the department of energy's public image as it begins its domestic post-Soviet nuclear clean-up. But most of all, she said recently, she wants the truth to come out.

When she learned of the human experiments she was "appalled and shocked and it just gave me an ache in my gut and my heart," Ms O'Leary said.

Chilling, too, was the publication this week of a 1950 memorandum to senior atomic energy commission officials from a radiation biologist who worked for the agency. The memo, written by Dr Joseph Hamilton, warned that human experimentation was probably unethical, possibly illegal, and perhaps a breach of the Nuremberg Code of 1947. If the information became public, Dr Hamilton said, there would be a lot of criticism "as admittedly this would have a little of the Buchenwald touch".


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