America's Nuclear Secrets

Scenes from the nuclear theater of a long cold war:

In the 1940s and '50s, when Americans still trusted their doctors and their government, researchers subjected hundreds of ill-informed people to doses of nuclear radiation, in order to study the effect on human beings. Later on, in two experiments on the West Coast, 131 prison inmates, many of them black, had their testicles irradiated.

From 1963 on, the U.S. government conducted hundreds of unannounced nuclear tests. The Russians weren't fooled, but Americans were. Washington's last secret underground detonation occurred as recently as April 4, 1990.

By the 1990s, America was awash in nuclear waste. Tons of plutonium from arms factories and spent fuel from nuclear reactors were stored haphazardly and unsafely, sometimes threatening plant workers and nearby residents. The public still has not been told the true dimensions of the toxic mess.

Bits and pieces of this disturbing story have been leaking out for years in press articles, scientific studies and congressional hearings. But only now is the extent of America's nuclear secrets coming into focus. It is clear that the U.S. government behaved far more malignly and recklessly than most Americans ever suspected. The fact that Moscow's rival nuclear program was probably dirtier still, and even less humane, offers scant comfort. Some things cannot be explained away, even by the imperatives of national security.

The most conspicuous agent of revelation so far is Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary. Two weeks ago she blew the whistle on her own department, and the rest of the government's nuclear establishment, by disclosing that, over a span of 45 years, the United States had set off 204 unannounced nuclear explosions and conducted radiation experiments on about 600 human guinea pigs. The scientists who conducted those tests so long ago surely had rational reasons: the struggle with the Soviet Union, the fear of imminent nuclear war, the urgent need to unlock all the secrets of the atom, for purposes both military and medical. But in the aftermath of the cold war, and measured against today's more stringent ethical and procedural standards, the science of the early nuclear age can seem almost barbaric. "I said, 'Who were these people [conducting experiments] and why did this happen?'" O'Leary said in an interview with NEWSWEEK. "The only thing I could think of was Nazi Germany."

To date, O'Leary has told only part of the story, the tiny fraction that has emerged from a 32 million-page mountain of secret documents waiting to be declassified. Other parts have been dug up recently by local newspapers, notably the Albuquerque Tribune in New Mexico, and Westword, a Denver weekly. The General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, weighed in last week with the first conclusive evidence that the U.S. government had conducted radioactive-warfare tests in the atmosphere. But information is being pried out of the bureaucracy an inch at a time. O'Leary had to fight with the Pentagon through 17 drafts of disclosure documents in order to declassify the amount of plutonium contained in stockpiles throughout the country (33.5 metric tons). She even had to battle her own staff to release a report two weeks ago on the deteriorating storage facilities for spent nuclear fuel.

Many facts have been uncovered by Congress as well, including a subcommittee chaired in 1986 by Rep. Edward Markey of Massachusetts. His report was entitled "American Nuclear Guinea Pigs." After studying 31 experiments dating back to 1945, Markey wrote that U.S. citizens "became nuclear calibration devices for experimenters run amok." He also charged: "Too many of these experiments used human subjects that were captive audiences or populations...considered 'expendable': the elderly, prisoners, hospital patients, who might not have retained their full faculties for informed consent."

Starting in 1963, 131 inmates at two prisons in Oregon and Washington state were recruited for experiments paid for by the Atomic Energy Commission, a predecessor of today's Department of Energy (DOE). Each volunteer was paid about $200 and had to sign a consent form. "I hereby agree to submit to X-ray radiation of my scrotum and testes," said the form used in Oregon. The inmates were warned about the possibility of sterility and radiation burns, but the Oregon form says nothing about a risk of testicular cancer. After the experiment, the Oregon men were given vasectomies--"to avoid the possibility of contaminating the general population with irradiation-induced mutants," wrote the late Dr. Carl Heller, who ran the tests. For that reason, Roman Catholic inmates were not allowed to participate, Markey's report noted.

The men were given varied doses of radiation as high as 600 roentgen (today the largest recommended dose is six roentgen for an entire year). Those who received 15 roentgen or more became sterile temporarily. There is no evidence that any of them developed cancer as a result of the experiment. But none of the Washington prisoners has been tracked since the early 1970s; the inmates themselves didn't want continued medical scrutiny. In Oregon, where no follow-up tests were done either, some of the prisoners filed suit in 1976 demanding medical treatment. Eventually the Oregon state Legislature intervened, granting continued treatment to nine of the men and awarding them a cash payment. The nine men split a total of $2,215.

Last month The Albuquerque Tribune published a series naming five of 18 hospital patients who were given "tracer" injections of plutonium in a governmentsponsored study between 1945 and 1947. Many of the patients were expected to die soon, but some cases didn't work out that way. Elmer Allen, an impoverished 36-year-old railroad porter from Texas, got a shot of plutonium in his injured leg. Three days later the leg was amputated above the knee and taken away by researchers. Allen didn't die for another 44 years, but long life was no blessing to him. His daughter, Elmerine Whitfield, said he had seizures and was severely depressed. He drank too much. "I believe my father was aware something had been done to him," said Whitfield. But she insisted he never gave informed consent to the experiment. "I know he didn't understand plutonium," she said.

Scientists who worked in the dawn of the nuclear age defend the validity of the plutonium tests. "We should be extremely cautious about criticizing their work," says John Simpson, a retired astrophysicist who worked on health and safety issues as a group leader on the Manhattan Project, which developed the first atomic bomb. If research had not been done on humans, he says, "radioactive dangers would be greater throughout the world today."

Biophysicist Newell Stannard, an authority on the history of radiological research, says the plutonium tests were launched because several Manhattan Project workers in Los Alamos, N.M., had been exposed to the material. No one knew for sure how much damage the plutonium would do to them, or how quickly and thoroughly it would be expelled from their bodies. "There had been a lot of work with animals that showed rates of fecal and urine excretion of the plutonium, how much went to bone marrow and so on," says Stannard. "But there was this big question: will it be the same in man? The Manhattan Project said we've got to do experiments in terminal patients and see if the results are the same as in animals."

Stannard says that 11 of the 18 tests were done in Rochester, N.Y., by a respected internist, Dr. Sam Bassett; the others were scattered around the country. Were the patients fully informed? "I simply don't know," says Stannard. "I do know that Sam Bassett was a very straightforward, honest guy. I'm sure he told the patients he was going to do something." But plutonium research was a top-secret subject in those days. "I have a feeling Bassett told people they were taking something for the war effort," says Stannard.

Many other tests conducted on humans were benign and were performed quite casually, without a lot of red tape. "The level of acceptable informed consent has changed," says Dr. Merril Eisenbud, professor emeritus of environmental medicine at New York University Medical Center. He describes some of his own research. "Open-air [nuclear] weapons testing left iodine in the milk worldwide," he says. "One of my experiments was to determine the significance in terms of the dose absorbed by a child's thyroid. We used to get the children to come over from a pediatric clinic with their moms. We'd explain what we were doing, sit each child down and--using a scintillometer that didn't even touch him--measure radiation in the thyroid. We'd give the child a lollipop, and that was the end of that. Today you'd have to fill out so much paperwork that it would discourage people from participating in the test."

In the 1940s and '50s, many doctors weren't in the habit of explaining things to their patients. "Doctors weren't questioned," says Dr. Andrew Davis of Chicago, a frequent writer on radiation-health issues. "When you combine that with radiation technology, born of secrecy in the name of military security, it becomes easier to understand--if not condone--these experiments and accidents. Dr. Kildare could do no wrong."

in reality, of course, some researchers did numerous wrongs, as they are now defined. According to the GAO report, radiation was deliberately released into the atmosphere in at least a dozen secret tests in New Mexico, Tennessee and Utah between 1948 and 1952. The tests were part of an effort to develop a radiological weapon--or to defend against one, if the Soviets developed a death spray. At about the same time, the Hanford Nuclear Facility in Richland, Wash., was regularly showering its neighbors with radioactivity. A secret internal memo uncovered in 1986 described the infamous Green Run experiment, in which plant managers deliberately released a huge cloud of radioactive iodine131, to see how far downwind it could be traced. The cloud floated over Spokane and drifted all the way to the California-Oregon border, carrying hundreds (or perhaps thousands) of times more radiation than that emitted by the 1979 Three Mile island accident in Pennsylvania.

Now that nuclear testing has ended, at least in the United States, the government is left with a vast, pulsating landscape of atomic waste dumps to clean up. The people who developed nuclear reactors and weapons were no more prescient about future environmental hazards than they were about health risks. The storage of spent fuel and other nuclear materials was shockingly sloppy. "Every time you turn over a new document, there's a $5 billion problem," says Dan Reicber, a special assistant to O'Leary.

The DOE's nuclear-weapons complex, spread over 4,000 square miles in 13 states, appears to be particularly hazardous. Steven Blush, a DOE safety official who was forced out of his job last spring, wrote a lurid report charging that the bomb factories averaged three accidents a day in 1991 and '92. Most of the mishaps were minor, but a few of them posed potentially major health threats to factory workers and nearby residents, Blush charged.

One of the most conspicuous problem plants is the DOE's weapons facility at Rocky Flats, outside Denver. Starting in 1989, a federal grand jury collected evidence about alleged violations of environmental law there. Early last year the grand jury tried to indict DOE officials and executives of Rockwell International, a former operator of the plant, accusing them of participating in "an ongoing criminal enterprise". by ignoring environmental laws.

The local U.S. attorney declined to prosecute, and instead announced a plea bargain with Rockwell, which agreed to pay a fine of $18.5 million--slightly less than the annual performance bonus it received for successful stewardship of the plant. The grand jurors continued to press their case, and when the story leaked to Westword, they found themselves under investigation for violation of secrecy laws. Now the grand jurors are hoping to testify before Congress. "It's doubtful that you could find a bigger environmental criminal than the Department of Energy," charges their lawyer, Jonathan Turley, an expert on environmental law at George Washington University. "It hasn't changed with the new administration," he maintains.

O'Leary would dispute that. The secretary bucked her own bureaucracy by insisting that the DOE release a report on deteriorating storage sites for spent nuclear fuel. Aides warned that disclosure could cause liability problems. O'Leary insisted. "I want this done," she said. But there's a lot more to do. "It's as though you had a party every night for 45 years, and you never cleaned it up," says Thomas Grumbly, DOE assistant secretary for environmental restoration and waste management.

Grumbly is a worrier. He predicts that the figures currently quoted for the total cost of the cleanup--from $200 billion to $300 billion--may not even be close. "it could be a couple of times larger than that," he says. He frets about the notorious storage tanks at Hanford, where so many different wastes have been dumped that no one knows exactly what kind of witches' brew is in them. "Every time the phone rings after 10 o'clock at night, I think, 'This is it, we've had an event'," says Grumbly. Like his boss, he thinks the time has come for "throwing open the blinds" to shed some light on the nuclear-waste crisis. The government's complete disregard of the byproducts of its cold-war nuclear obsession has left us with "the single largest environmental and health risk in the nation," he says. It may also be the last of America's nuclear secrets--and perhaps the most dangerous of them all.