P A R T IVThe "Peaceful Atom"
11The Battle of Shippingport
Dwight Eisenhower stood in the Oval Office of the White House and waved what his press secretaries had dubbed a "neutron wand." The date was May 23, 1958, a year in which the United States would detonate seventy-seven atomic tests, but one that would also see the first tentative test ban agreement. The ceremonial shaft, which had been topped with a futuristic phosphorescent bulb, passed through an electric eye as Eisenhower waved it. The President thus tripped a circuit that fired up America's first commercial atomic reactor--at Shippingport, Pennsylvania, three hundred miles west of the White House.
Shippingport, he said, "represents the hope of our people that the power of the atom will ease mankind's burdens and provide additional comforts for human living." The global impact was hard to overstate. Shippingport embodied a fervent promise that the technology that had obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki would at last serve some useful peacetime purpose.
Eisenhower had set the stage four and a half years earlier. In December of 1953, just prior to the first hydrogen bomb blasts in the Marshall Islands, Eisenhower told the United Nations that America was committed to turning its nuclear sword into a plowshare. Atomic power would generate electricity to help build a better world. "The United States," he said, "pledges before you--and therefore before the world--its determination to help solve the fearful atomic dilemma--to devote its entire heart and mind to find the way by which the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life." As Eisenhower introduced the "peaceful atom," nuclear weapons testing continued in Nevada and in the Pacific.
Nuclear reactors had been in use in the U.S. since the early 1940s. Their chief function had been to generate plutonium for use on Nagasaki, and in later tests. But as a by-product these reactors also generated large quantities of heat. By harnessing this heat to boil water, steam would be created to turn turbines and generate electricity. Given the apparently infinite power of the atom, there seemed no reason why nuclear electricity could not also be infinitely inexpensive, or--as its supporters would later put it--"too cheap to meter." A new industry had been born.
But America's private utilities were skeptical. With a few exceptions its generally conservative executives were worried about the dangers of a nuclear accident and the risks of sinking so much capital into an untested technology. It was only with government-insurance guarantees, fuel subsidies, and lavish research-and-development help that commercial atomic power moved ahead. Even at that, private utilities did not become heavily involved until faced with the threat of being squeezed out of business by federal competition in the form of the Tennessee Valley Authority and other government-owned utilities. To this day TVA remains the nation's single largest reactor buyer. As Sam Day, former editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, told us: "The private electric companies did not jump into nuclear power. They were kicked in."
1. Harry Black, Pittsburgher Magazine.
2. Dwight Eisenhower, "Address Before the General Assembly of the United Nations on Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy," New York City, December 8, 1953. (In Public Papers of the Presidents.)
3. Sam Day, interview, June 1981. See also, Irwin Bupp and Jean-Claude Derian, Light Water (New York: Basic Books, 1978), p. 35.
Gofman and Tamplin
One enthusiastic backer of the peaceful atom, however, was Duquesne Light. As its Shippingport turbine approached full capacity, Duquesne executives saw the fulfillment of a dream. "We went out and found the best contractors," said the company's Earl Woolever more than a decade later. "We built the station following the most exact requirements in less than four years."
In general the plant, located thirty miles northwest of Pittsburgh, seemed to operate trouble-free. Built with strict supervision from the legendary Hyman Rickover, and in the backyard of the giant Pittsburgh-based Westinghouse Corporation, which would become a center of the nuclear industry, Shippingport seemed destined to set the tone for all commercial reactors to follow. "We never had any trouble with it," Woolever boasted to The Pittsburgher Magazine years later. It "ran like a top."
The apparent success at Shippingport was heartening news to the nascent reactor industry. Despite his Republican philosophy of a free-market approach, Eisenhower was pouring billions of tax dollars into the development of atomic power. Kennedy and Johnson would follow (by 1980 the Department of Energy would estimate that government subsidies to commercial atomic power would total thirty-nine billion dollars.) The AEC's early predictions that there would be twelve hundred reactors in the United States by the year 2000--two dozen for each state of the Union--began to gain credibility.
In the early sixties, as the test ban treaty took hold, scientists who had devoted long years to fighting for it went back to their laboratories with a sense of pride, accomplishment, and relief. For most of them there was no hint of any further controversies over radiation.
But the furor over bomb testing and the accompanying fallout had sown the seeds of distrust. As early as 1956, just three years after Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" speech, the United Auto Workers (UAW) intervened against the construction of the Fermi fast breeder reactor, proposed for the town of Monroe, forty miles south of Detroit.
Led by Walter Reuther and his assistant Leo Goodman, the UAW challenged Detroit Edison's plan as being ill-conceived and untested. The union took the utility all the way to the Supreme Court before losing 7-2. But Justices Hugo Black and William O. Douglas issued a minority opinion full of portent. Allowing an unproven technology to go ahead with such force, they said, was "a light-hearted approach to the most awesome, the most deadly, the most dangerous process that man has ever conceived."
In the early 1960s, as the debate over fallout peaked in the last days of atmospheric testing, the Atomic Energy Commission undertook its first systematic investigation of the health effects of atomic radiation. Nearly eighteen years after the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the commission in May of 1963 announced the establishment of a "comprehensive, long-range program exploring in greater breadth and depth . . . man-made environmental radioactivity and [its] effects upon plants, animals and human beings."
The program would be conducted at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory under the direction of Dr. John Gofman. Gofman seemed the perfect choice. He had been a graduate student under Glenn Seaborg, an atomic pioneer later to become chairman of the AEC. Gofman himself was a brilliant nuclear chemist whose pioneering research helped make possible the discoveries of plutonium and an isotope of uranium, without which atomic reactors would not have been possible.
Gofman had since become a medical doctor and a nationally known health researcher, holding a number of prestigious awards for his work on heart disease.
Most important of all--from the AEC's standpoint--Gofman was an atomic loyalist. During the days of the test ban campaign he had served on the commission's "Truth Squad," which toured the country in the path of Linus Pauling and others, attacking their antitesting opinions.
But soon after taking charge of the AEC's radiation health program, Gofman was submerged in controversy. Summoned to Washington to "discuss radioactive iodine," he found himself in the midst of a heated discussion about Harold Knapp, an AEC scientist whose study of fallout in southern Utah had shown levels of radiation far in excess of commission standards. The real purpose of the meeting, Gofman said later, was to find a way to suppress Knapp's findings, which would, "in effect, make the AEC reports over the past ten years look untrue." After dissecting Knapp's research, Gofman and three other committee members could find nothing wrong with it. They recommended publication of his paper.
AEC commissioner James Ramey responded by trying to cancel the entire Lawrence Livermore health program. He failed to kill the whole project, but did succeed in reducing its budget.
Soon thereafter Gofman was joined in his research work by Dr Arthur Tamplin. Tamplin had come to Lawrence Livermore from the Rand Corporation. With his doctorate in biophysics he was a veteran of high-level research on the space program and nuclear weaponry. He had welcomed the shift to health work. "Instead of finding out better ways to kill people," he remembered, "I was now finding ways to save their lives."
They began researching the anticipated health effects of Operation Plowshare, a peaceful atom offshoot. It was aimed at using nuclear explosions to dig canals, tunnels, harbors, fuel-storage caverns, river diversions, and the like.
But the program ran afoul of the dangers of radiation. An attempt to use hydrogen bombs to build a port in northern Alaska was scrapped when it was shown the fallout would threaten nearby Eskimos. Plans for blasting natural-gas storage domes into Pennsylvania and Colorado mountainsides were also stopped by citizen opposition.
Inside the AEC, Gofman and Tamplin were coming to some hard conclusions. "By 1967," they later wrote, "we had become thoroughly convinced that the entire approach to the handling of public health and safety aspects of nuclear energy development was erroneous." They expressed their belief that projects such as those envisioned in Operation Plowshare would make "an irreversible contribution of pollution of the earth" and should be abandoned.
For their trouble Gofman and Tamplin soon became known to the AEC hierarchy as "the enemy within." In 1969 they lived up to that reputation by urging a tenfold reduction in the AEC's maximum permissible radiation doses to the general public from nuclear reactors.
The recommendation stunned backers of the peaceful atom. Gofman's and Tamplin's findings had enormous weight; they resulted from six years' work by men recognized as experts in their field, conducting a major project initiated by the AEC itself.
Before 1969 only a tiny handful of scientists had considered the issue of leaking reactors at all. The leaks in general came from the breakdown of fuel sheathing in the controlled but superhot reactor core. As cooling water flows around the core, it picks up radioactive isotopes, itself becomes radioactive, and carries that through the maze of pipes and valves around the plant.
Some of the emitters then escape through the plant stacks as gases and particulate matter, in particular lethal isotopes of iodine, strontium, cobalt, carbon, cesium, and noble gases. Some--particularly tritium--are also flushed out with waste water and into local rivers and the oceans. Some neutrons and gamma radiation also penetrate the containment vessel that tops the reactor. Such releases are an ongoing aspect of normal power reactor operations.
Both the scientific community and the public had been assured that reactor leakage would be virtually nonexistent, and at any rate would pose no serious health threat. Now John Gofman and Arthur Tamplin were saying otherwise. At a major symposium in San Francisco in October of 1969 they warned that emissions from commercial atomic power plants considered "acceptable" could in fact kill large numbers of people. "If the average exposure of the U.S. population were to reach the allowable 0.17 rads per year average," they warned, "there would in time be an excess of 32,000 cases of fatal cancer plus leukemia per year." And the deaths would occur "year after year."
Thus they recommended an immediate lowering of the legal exposure limit by a factor of ten, to 0.017 rads.
The paper was greeted by a storm of outrage. AEC and industry supporters argued that Gofman's and Tamplin's fears were baseless. The tightening of standards, they added, would cost billions of dollars and was simply a financial impossibility for the fledgling industry.
But the two scientists persisted in presenting their findings to the public. In the late fall of 1969, after testifying in front of a Senate subcommittee, Tamplin was ordered by his superior at Lawrence Livermore to submit all future public speeches and writings to the AEC for prior review. It was not for censorship, he was told, but only to give the commission time to respond.
On that understanding Tamplin submitted a paper he had been asked to present at a Boston meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). It was returned to him heavily censored. When Tamplin protested, he was quickly informed that a strong contingent within the AEC had wanted to fire him outright, but that he would be allowed to deliver the paper if he went to the AAAS meeting on his own time, at his own expense.
Soon John Gofman intervened on Tamplin's behalf, and a compromise was reached. Tamplin went to the meeting under commission auspices. But he deleted from his paper a call for a five-year moratorium on reactor construction.
Two weeks later seven of the twelve people on Tamplin's staff were removed from his supervision. His project on estimating internal radiation doses from nuclear facilities was taken away from him. And the following June four more staff members were cut, leaving him one coworker. The actions were not political, said the AEC, but "were taken for reasons related to budgetary reduction allocations, of resources to programs of highest priority and a judgement of relative scientific productivity." By 1975 Tamplin could hang on no longer, and he resigned.
Two years earlier John Gofman had also resigned. His own budget had been slashed, his research and writings were being constantly subjected to AEC scrutiny, his public utterances open to commission harassment.
By the early 1970s the stakes had indeed grown enormous. In 1969, when Gofman and Tamplin issued their call for stricter health standards, ninety-five reactors were already operating, under construction, or on order in the U.S. In 1976 the number would peak at 219. Richard Nixon would by then have labeled nuclear energy the keystone of "Project Independence," designed to make the U.S. free of its need for foreign oil.
"What surprised us beyond belief," Gofman and Tamplin wrote in their book Poisoned Power, "was that from all over the country our colleagues in various aspects of nuclear energy, particularly nuclear electricity, expressed their shock and disbelief that such a massive cancer-plus-leukemia risk could conceivably accompany exposure to `the allowable' Federal Radiation Guideline." Indeed, twenty-five years after Hiroshima, a dozen after the first atmospheric test moratorium, "a whole new industry, nuclear electricity, was growing up in the country with all of its experts totally unaware of the true hazards associated with it."
4. Black, Pittsburgher Magazine.
5. Joanne Omang, "Study Says A-Power Has Gotten $40 Billion in U.S. Subsidies," Washington Post, December 26, 1980.
6. AEC, Nuclear Power Growth, 1974-2000, WASH-1139 (Washington, D.C.: AEC, February 1974).
7. Fuller, We Almost Lost Detroit, pp. 118-119.
8. AEC, San Francisco Operations Office, "Biomedical Studies Planned for AEC's Livermore Laboratory," press statement, May 31, 1963.
9. John W. Gofman and Arthur R. Tamplin, Population Control Through Nuclear Pollution (New York: Nelson-Hall, 1970).
10. Arthur Tamplin, interview, November 1980.
11. Gofman and Tamplin, Population Control, p. 111.
12. W. Boland, et al., "Radioecological Assessment of the Wyhl Nuclear Reactor," NRC Translation #520, May 1978.
13. John W. Gofman and Arthur R. Tamplin, Poisoned Power (Emmaus, Pa.: Rodale Press, 1971 ), p. 96.
14. R. S. Lewis, The Nuclear Power Rebellion (New York: The Viking Press, 1972), p. 102.
15. Gofman and Tamplin, Poisoned Power, p. 98.
Enter Ernest Sternglass
Among those scientists who had not considered the possible dangers of atomic power reactors was Dr. Ernest Sternglass. As a Navy technician about to be sent to the Pacific, Sternglass had welcomed the end of World War II--signaled by the atomic bombing of Japan--which "meant I wouldn't have to go fight there."
After the war he worked in the Naval Ordnance Laboratories, got his doctorate from Cornell, and in 1952 joined Westinghouse in Pittsburgh as a researcher. Like dozens of other leading American scientists, Sternglass also campaigned for an end to atmospheric bomb testing. When the treaty was finally signed in 1963, he--like most of his colleagues--"went back to my laboratory and didn't think about radiation issues for a while." In 1967 Sternglass joined the faculty of the University of Pittsburgh, where he headed up the newly created laboratory for radiological physics.
While at both Westinghouse and the University of Pittsburgh, Sternglass worked actively as an inventor. He played a key role in developing a number of radiation-related innovations, including an image tube used in the space program to send back pictures from the moon, and technology key to a new type of gas-cooled power reactor. When we talked with him in the fall of 1980, he was finishing work on a new method using a computer to take X rays without film.
During that interview Sternglass told us that the work of Alice Stewart had first alerted him to the dangers of small doses of radiation. "We all knew from the bombs that large doses could be dangerous," he said. "But when Dr. Stewart showed that small X-ray doses could harm infants in utero, that opened up a whole new way of looking at things."
Official researchers had made a crucial mistake in measuring the effects of radiation by looking primarily at damage to genes without also looking at the embryo. "A human fetus in the first trimester of development can be many times more radiation-sensitive than human genes," Sternglass said. "When the AEC failed to consider what fallout was doing to infants, they missed the most important effect of them all, and thus vastly underestimated the damage being done by the bomb tests."
In 1969 Sternglass published an article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, contending that some 375,000 American infants had died as a result of atomic bomb testing. The thesis rested on the idea that as medical technology was advancing, the rate of infant mortality dropped, essentially by a constant percentage each year. The better the technology got, the fewer babies were dying at birth. But when the bomb testing began, the rate of decline slowed. When the tests stopped, the rates began to drop again as they had before, in keeping with continued medical advances.
It was the "bump" in the line--a bump involving roughly 375,000 American babies--that Sternglass attributed to radioactive bomb fallout. Particularly important in that calculation was iodine 131, which could travel through the placenta and irradiate the tiny prenatal thyroid. By destroying cells in that crucial gland, in its early stage of development, radiation would cause stunted growth brain damage, and underdeveloped lungs that could make it impossible for the new baby to survive the first few days of life. Congenital deformities, underweight, hypothyroidism, and a breathing problem called hyaline membrane disease can be considered symptoms of I-131 poisoning because of fallout. They had, said Sternglass, slowed the downward trend of infant deaths below what should have been expected during the height of the bomb testing, and in so doing had killed those 375,000 American babies.
Sternglass's assertions came in the same year--1969--as Gofman's and Tamplin's recommendation of a tenfold reduction in exposure levels from atomic reactors.
As shocking as Sternglass's findings seemed, they were by no means the most radical estimates of death from fallout. In 1958--eleven years before Sternglass's article--Nobel prizewinner Linus Pauling had predicted that 140,000 people would die from each and every bomb test, a prediction that translated into literally millions of total deaths over time. Pauling also wrote that a single fallout product, radioactive carbon 14, from a single year's bomb testing--30 megatons of explosions--could cause 425,000 embryonic and neonatal deaths (deaths before one month of age), 170,000 stillbirths and childhood deaths, and result in another 55,000 children being born with "gross physical or mental defects." Russian scientist Andrei Sakharov added his own calculation that bomb-produced carbon 14 would kill ten thousand people for every megaton blown off in the atmosphere, a toll that translated into millions of deaths over time. As a "conservative estimate" Sakharov said that testing by the mid-fifties had caused half a million human deaths. "We cannot exclude the possibility that the total number of victims is already approaching 1 million persons," he added and that each year continued testing increases this number by 200 to 300 thousand persons."
A decade later Sternglass was pointing specifically at the American people. He was saying that as of 1969, based on national infant-mortality statistics, about 375,000 American infants had already died from the tests, and countless more American children and adults were suffering ill-effects. Because it dealt with hard statistics about American children, it was an assertion that cut to the very core of the nuclear industry.
Quickly the AEC searched its ranks for someone to refute Sternglass. It chose Arthur Tamplin at Lawrence Livermore. Tamplin dissected Sternglass's study and decided the case had been overstated. Fallout, he said, had killed about 4,000 American babies, not 375,000. The rest of the excess had been due to social factors, including poverty.
The AEC was pleased with Tamplin's findings, and urged him to publish his refutation of Sternglass in Science. But they asked him to omit the assertion that the bombs had killed four thousand infants.
Sternglass stuck to his figures--and does to this day. Over the decade-plus since publication of his first major article, he has been frequently attacked. One public-relations firm--Charles Yulish Associates--has published an entire volume aimed at refuting Sternglass; this book is primarily circulated among utility executives. The industry as a whole has devoted thousands of dollars to undercutting his reputation.
Nuclear opponents have also had their complaints. In the wake of Three Mile Island, Tamplin told The New York Times that Sternglass "never completes his studies. He doesn't go back several years to see what kinds of fluctuations might be expected, and he doesn't examine enough different areas to get meaningful data."
But as radiation continued to prove more dangerous than previously believed, and Sternglass persisted in his research, key confirmation of his major conclusions continued to surface. In 1969, for example, soon after issuing his estimates on the infant fallout toll, Sternglass attacked the theory of the antiballistic missile system (ABM). The multibillion-dollar proposal, then under serious consideration in Congress, would have placed nuclear missiles around American cities. In case of attack they would be fired into the air. The atomic explosions would then bring down incoming Soviet missiles, thus protecting American soil. Sternglass charged in Esquire magazine that such a system would jeopardize the survivability of future human generations. In "The Death of All Children," he argued that just as testing fallout had caused a rise in infant-death rates, radiation released by ABMs exploding over American cities would virtually guarantee that no future children would survive in them--or anywhere else on the planet. "A full-scale ABM system," he wrote, "protecting the United States against a Soviet first strike, could, if successful, cause the extinction of the human race."
Sternglass also outlined his case in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which printed his conclusions alongside a counter-article by Princeton physicist Freeman Dyson, who had worked on the hydrogen bomb. Dyson argued in favor of the ABM. But when he read Sternglass's article, he decided to write the Bulletin a letter. "The evidence is not sufficient to prove Sternglass is right," Dyson said. But "the essential point is that Sternglass may be right. The margin of uncertainty in the effects of world-wide fallout is so large that we have no justification for dismissing Sternglass's numbers as fantastic."
Sternglass's conclusions on the ABM also convinced U.S. congressmen Jonathan Bingham of New York and Lucien Nedzi of Michigan, who noted in the Congressional Record that his findings made a nuclear first strike "unthinkable." Bingham later said Sternglass's correlation of bomb test fallout to a rise in infant deaths "appears to be the only explanation currently available to explain the excess infant mortality in this country noted in recent years by the Public Health Service." Indeed, Bingham added, "no theory currently has much evidence to support it other than that now offered by Dr. Sternglass."
Sternglass also found later confirmation of some of his fallout conclusions from a most unexpected source--the U.S. Navy. In 1979 he and Stephen Bell, an educational psychologist, presented a paper before the American Psychological Association suggesting that the atmospheric tests were linked to a decline in college-entrance Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores among American teenagers. The argument hinged on the theory that test fallout had affected the mental capacities of children born downwind. The effects were particularly strong in Utah, said Sternglass and Bell, where average SAT scores among young adults seventeen to eighteen years after the bomb tests had plunged twenty-six points while the decline was much less in control states where fallout levels were much lower. The drop was additionally significant because it had occurred among a nonsmoking, nondrinking, and highly success-oriented Mormon population. Sternglass and Bell further predicted that once children who had been born after the test ban came of age, the scores would again begin to rise.
The paper met with harsh criticism from the nuclear establishment. Among other things, an increase in television watching and the consumption of junk food were blamed for the SAT declines.
But in 1980 a study commissioned by the U.S. Navy substantiated the thesis. The Navy was concerned that its increasingly complex weapons technology was outstripping the abilities of new recruits to manage it, and it worried about a decline in the mental abilities of American youth. Researchers Bernard Rimland and Gerald Larson agreed that radiation probably played an important role. In terms of the SAT, they said, the findings were "consistent to the hypothesis that the proximity to the tests or high rainfall downwind from the point of detonation should lead to the largest decline."
In fact, Rimland and Larson added: "The state having the largest drop in scores from children born during this two-year period [1956-58] was Utah, a fact which is consistent with Utah's proximity to the Nevada Test Site and the general northeastern motion of the fallout clouds produced by the Nevada tests." Thus they said, "Sternglass and Bell provide very convincing and disquieting evidence closely linking the SAT score decline to the cumulative effects of nuclear fallout." "I wish it weren't so," Bernard Rimland told us in a 1981 interview, "but I don't think anyone could look at the data and come to any other conclusion. Sternglass's work is very sound and very convincing."
But by the time Rimland and Larson had confirmed Sternglass's findings on fallout, another radiation source--atomic power reactors--had moved to center stage.
16. Ernest Sternglass, interview, October 1980.
17. Ernest Sternglass, "Infant Mortality and Nuclear Tests," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, April 1969. Vol. 25. See also, Ernest Sternglass, "The Death of All Children," Esquire, September 1969.
18. Pauling, No More War, p. 108.
19. Linus Pauling, "Genetic and Somatic Effects of Carbon-14," Science 128, No. 3333 (November 14, 1958).
20. Andrei Sakharov, "Radioactive Carbon from Nuclear Explosion and Nonthreshold Biological Effects," Soviet Journal of Atomic Energy (translated from Russian by Consultants Bureau, Inc., 227 W 17th St., New York City; January 1956).
21. Arthur R. Tamplin, "Infant Mortality and the Environment," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 25 (December 1969): 23-29. See also Metzger, Atomic Establishment, pp. 277-278. For an additional view on Sternglass's calculations, see Michael Friedlander and Joseph Klarmann, "How Many Children?" Environment Magazine 11, No. 10 (December 1969). The issue also contains a comment from Sternglass.
22. C. B. Yulish, ed., Low-Level Radiation: A Summary of Responses to Ten Years of Allegations by Dr. Ernest Sternglass (New York: Charles Yulish Associates, 1973). Attacking Ernest Sternglass has posed a particularly difficult problem for the nuclear industry. Most scientists have been dependent on the government or industry for their salaries and grants. As a tenured professor with patents of his own, Sternglass has been financially beyond the industry's grasp, leaving them only his reputation to attack.
23. Jane Brody, "3 Mile Island: No Health Impact Found," New York Times, April 15, 1980.
24. Sternglass, "Death of All Children."
25. Freeman Dyson, "A Case for Missile Defense," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, April 1969; and Dyson, "Comments on Sternglass's Thesis," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, June 1969, p. 27.
26. Richard S. Lewis, The Nuclear-Power Rebellion (New York: Viking, 1972), pp. 68-9.
27. Ernest Sternglass and Stephen Bell, "Fallout and the Decline of Scholastic Aptitude Scores," a paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Psychological Association, New York, New York, September 3, 1979.
28. Bernard Rimland and Gerald E. Larson, "Manpower Quality Decline: An Ecological Perspective," Armed Forces and Society, Fall 1981; and Rimland, interview, August 1981.
Showdown at Shippingport
In May of 1970 the Shippingport atomic plant was generally well accepted by the people of western Pennsylvania. So there were few objections when Duquesne Light opened hearings for a new reactor project to be built a few hundred yards away. The multireactor complex would be named after the area--Beaver Valley. It would be financed by a consortium of five utilities serving some 2.3 million customers. The first 850-megawatt unit at the plant would be on line by the mid-1970s.
Almost by chance Ernest Sternglass decided to take a look at the Environmental Impact Statement for Beaver Valley. To his surprise he found that the plant operators were planning to emit sixty thousand curies per year, an amount he termed "absolutely unthinkable."
"We already knew that small doses from fallout were causing problems with pregnant mothers and infants," Sternglass told us. "And here Gofman and Tamplin had pointed out that the allowed reactor dose of one hundred seventy millirems could kill thirty-two thousand people per year. And then to see that for Beaver Valley they were talking about regular releases of sixty thousand curies per year, which even without an accident meant a high dose for people all around the plant . . . well, it was totally unacceptable."
By this time plans to build Beaver Valley were well under way. In keeping with federal regulations, Duquesne Light had contracted with the Nuclear Utilities Services Corporation (NUS) of Rockville, Maryland. NUS specialized in site surveys for utilities preparing environmental assessments for nuclear reactors.
Beginning in January of 1971 NUS technicians worked their way through the Beaver Valley, monitoring game animals, testing river and well water, sampling the air and soil, and inspecting conditions at local dairy farms. In April of 1972 NUS's conclusions began finding their way into the offices of Duquesne Light. By the end of the year the utility had a full report to send to the media.
But the supervisor of the new plant, in an effort to convince Sternglass the project would be safe, sent him a copy of the report. Sternglass read it and labeled it "a bombshell." Among other things the NUS survey indicated that radiation levels in the vicinity of the existing Shippingport reactor far exceeded normal expectations--by as much as a factor of fifty thousand.
Sternglass quickly issued a paper accusing the operators of the nation's premier commercial reactor of misrepresenting how much radiation was leaking into the environment. In fact, said Sternglass, the NUS statistics showed that levels of strontium 90 in milk at six nearby farms "followed the rises and declines of the monthly power output of the Shippingport plant." The strontium levels only went down when the plant shut for repairs.
Sternglass also charged that the NUS study showed iodine 131 levels in local milk to be 21 percent above federal standards, a factor of at least ten above what was being found anywhere else in the eastern United States. Radiation levels in Ohio River bottom sediment also "rose and subsequently declined after the plant was shut for repairs."
And perhaps most significant of all, one monitoring station inside the town of Shippingport had shown radiation levels as high as 375 millirems per year--more than twice what Gofman and Tamplin had just predicted would create extraordinary cancer and leukemia deaths nationwide. Thus, said Sternglass, radiation from the Shippingport plant was killing people, lots of them.
Sternglass's paper shocked Duquesne Light into drastic action. Significantly the company did not attack his mathematics. After all, as put by Joel Griffiths who covered the story for the Beaver County Times, NUS had done a "thorough job. They found radioactivity in the air, milk, soil, drinking water and just about everywhere."
Duquesne did not challenge the presence of the radiation. Instead they blamed it on bomb fallout.
However the only recent tests had been staged by the Chinese. That fallout went everywhere, not just Shippingport. And Shippingport's radiation levels were far above the national average.
Thus the AEC's own Earth Sciences Branch, which conducted an in-depth investigation, soon concluded that "it is highly unlikely that the radioactivity was of Chinese origin. Most likely it was either of local origin or the result of inadequate sampling procedure."
Until Sternglass released his paper, Duquesne Light had enjoyed the reputation of operating "the safest nuclear power plant in the world" at Shippingport. In 1971, the year previous, it had actually recorded zero radiation releases from the plant stacks, the first time any commercial reactor had claimed such an accomplishment.
But NUS had contradicted that record and had thrown the multimillion-dollar Beaver Valley project into a political morass. Something had to be done. As Griffiths put it, "a sharp divergence of opinion" soon emerged between NUS, Duquesne Light, and the AEC. "Faced with a choice between attributing the radioactivity to Shippingport or NUS' incompetence, the AEC and others picked incompetence and began levelling various technical charges against the NUS reports."
And that, wrote Griffiths, put NUS "in a delicate position"--not unlike that of so many other atomic scientists whose data had somehow unearthed conclusions the nuclear industry did not want to hear.
NUS was an established and respected operation. It was staffed with scientific experts, and it had done radiation monitoring for more than thirty other reactor sites. To undercut their credibility was to jeopardize the licenses of many other expensive projects already under way, with potentially enormous political and financial consequences.
Under tremendous pressure NUS reevaluated its findings. In March of 1973 it reported that its high readings around Shippingport were accurate. But they said the radiation had come from Chinese bomb fallout.
That conclusion was rejected out of hand by none other than Dr. John Harley, director of the AEC's Health and Safety Laboratory. Harley promptly labeled NUS's work "incompetent" and said an investigation "would certainly turn up gross calculation errors or even that some doctoring of numbers had occurred. . . .
"I believe," he added, "the situation is very serious."
Three months later NUS had a startling new revelation to disclose. Throughout the entire controversy it had maintained that it was standard NUS policy to discard all samples. But now the company announced that somehow, in this one case, some of the soil originally tested around Shippingport had been unexpectedly found in a basement in Maryland. NUS "restudied" the samples.
Soon thereafter it "admitted" that its original sampling techniques--which had been applied at thirty-four other reactor sites--were simply in error. They said there was, after all, no extraordinary radiation around Shippingport.
29. Sternglass interview. See also, Anna Mayo, "Necrophiliac Nit-Pickers," Village Voice, September 11, 1973.
30. Ernest Sternglass, "Significance of Radiation Monitoring Results for the Shippingport Nuclear Reactor," Pittsburgh: January 21, 1973 (hereafter cited as "Shippingport").
31. Joel Griffiths, "State Panel Questions Radiation Safety," Beaver County (Pa.) Times, June 7, 1974 (hereafter cited as "Safety").
The Shapp Commission
But Ernest Sternglass had not merely publicized the news of NUS's original radiation readings. He had also charged that an extraordinary rate of infant deaths had surfaced in communities around the reactor. It was not the first time he had made such a charge.
In the fall of 1970--a year after Gofman and Tamplin published their findings linking cancer deaths to radiation releases from reactors--Sternglass had begun to look at infant-mortality rates near a number of plants. He soon found that the area around the Dresden reactor near Chicago had experienced a significant rise in infant deaths in nearby counties and in the huge urban area downwind. Surveys of the populations near reactors at Hanford, California's Humboldt plant, and Indian Point, near New York City, showed similar impacts, as did a study of the environs of the West Valley reprocessing and waste storage facility in upstate New York.
In July of 1971 the pattern of Sternglass's initial findings was given substantiation by Dr. Morris DeGroot, then chairman of the Department of Statistics at Pittsburgh's Carnegie-Mellon Institute. In his papers, and in interviews with us, DeGroot emphasized that his findings were only preliminary. But his statistics indicated a tentative correlation between reactor emissions and health problems at Dresden, Indian Point, and around the Brookhaven reactor on Long Island, New York.
DeGroot also studied the reactor at Shippingport, and did notice a rise in infant-mortality rates there. But they did not seem to be directly correlated to the recorded radioactive emissions.
Now, however, Ernest Sternglass charged that the revelations from the NUS findings confirmed that the emissions must have been larger than Duquesne Light was publicly acknowledging. And that there was, in fact, a correlation to infant-death rates nearby.
Nine miles downwind in the town of Aliquippa, Sternglass found a twenty-year high in infant-mortality rates. Rises in fetal mortality, underweight births, and leukemia were also evident. And communities down the Ohio River had suffered infant-mortality rises that corresponded with emissions from both Shippingport and the nearby Waltz Mills reactor.
Shippingport had now become front-page news. By April of 1973 Pennsylvania governor Milton Shapp was appointing a high-level commission to look into the affair. The commissioners included DeGroot, Dr. Karl Z. Morgan and Dr. Edward Radford, an expert in the health effects of radiation who would later chair the National Academy of Sciences Committee on the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation (the BEIR committee). Also on the Shapp Commission were Dr. Paul Kotin, of Temple University's School of Medicine, and Dr. Harry Smith, dean of the School of Management at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
Perhaps more important, the commission also had three staff members, all of them attached to the state of Pennsylvania. One was Thomas Gerusky, chief of the state's Department of Radiological Health. The second was his assistant, Margaret Reilly, who headed that department's Office for Environmental Survey. And the third was Dr. George Tokuhata, director of the state's Bureau of Epidemiological Research. All three would later become key figures in defending the nuclear industry at Three Mile Island.
The Shapp Commissioners concerned themselves first with the question of abnormal releases of radiation from the plant. Once the NUS findings had been revised, there was "no substantial evidence" that emissions had been greater than Duquesne Light had reported. But an "absence of comprehensive off-site monitoring" meant that Sternglass's assertions could not be denied, either.
Indeed Duquesne Light had been "derelict" in its radiation monitoring duties. Its programs were "inadequately designed" and a precise determination of how much radiation was leaking from Shippingport simply "was not possible."
As for NUS, the commission charged the company with "inadequate and careless methods" and found it "difficult to understand why at this late date NUS now finds its early reported high values were false when several different and independent types of analyses were involved."
In fact, reported the commission, there were indications from federal network studies that the initial "uncorrected" NUS figures may have been accurate. The federal studies had shown "high levels of Sr-90 in milk and of Sr-90 and Cs-137 in total diets of Pittsburgh residents." Commissioner DeGroot said it was "highly unlikely that NUS could have made systematic errors, all in one direction, in several different analytical techniques."
Commissioner Morgan was more direct. "There appears to be," he said, "a strong suspicion of dishonesty." He later added, "For a long period now the radioactivity levels in milk in that general area have been high according to the public health agency surveys, which are completely separate from the NUS survey. This has never been explained."
As for infant-mortality and cancer rates, the commission also reported mixed conclusions. And this may have been a function of the staff.
As deliberation on Sternglass's figures began, Dr. Tokuhata shifted the numbers according to DeGroot. He told the commissioners that some of the crucial local health statistics were "inaccurate" and reflected higher numbers of infant mortalities than actually existed. Some communities, he said, listed infant deaths that did not belong there because people came from elsewhere to use the hospitals, and were thus not actually town residents. After finding other "inadequacies" in the official data, Tokuhata vastly reduced the numbers on which Sternglass had based his conclusions.
Tokuhata then repeated the method of adjusting the statistical base for cancer death rates. Sternglass had charged that after a five-year latency period following the opening of the reactor, cancer death rates had increased in the Shippingport environs. But when Tokuhata presented the numbers to the commission, they included the entire decade of the 1960s, averaging in the first five years of reactor operations--when no latency period had passed--with the second five, when cancer rates did start to rise.
Thus the revised statistics gave the impression that the reactor had had no effects. And thus the commission concluded that there was no "systematic pattern" of deaths increasing with proximity to the plant.
There were other criticisms of Sternglass as well. Dr. Radford stressed that rising infant-mortality rates could have been attributable to additional social and environmental factors. In a letter to us Radford characterized Sternglass's methods as "quite incorrect."
But the commission remained deeply divided. DeGroot, for example, acknowledged the validity of Tokuhata's initial changes in the infant-mortality statistics. But he warned that the key comparisons were being made year-by-year and town-by-town. Thus he outlined to us in a series of letters and interviews that it was wrong for Tokuhata to subtract deaths for one year in one community without making similar corrections for other years and other communities that were serving as controls. Changing the numbers for just some towns, and just for 1971, would result in statistical changes going all one direction--down.
In a letter to us Tokuhata denied comparing altered 1971 Aliquippa-area numbers with unaltered figures for other areas in other years. He acknowledged that "time and staff constraints" did not allow making such changes for times or places other than the Aliquippa area in 1971.
But there was then some question as to what purpose the Aliquippa-area alterations could possibly serve. DeGroot worried that Tokuhata had only done "half the job" of correcting the statistics. He said that throwing infant deaths out of Aliquippa without correcting for area children born in nearby Pittsburgh hospitals--which were attractive to Aliquippa residents because they were generally believed to be of higher quality than local hospitals--would make the Aliquippa-area infant-death problem seem less serious than it really was.
Tokuhata had also made a point of comparing health statistics in the Shippingport area with the state averages. But infant-death rates around Shippingport had been significantly lower than the state average before the plant opened. Thus their correspondence to the state average actually represented a rise that could be attributed to the opening of the reactor. It was a statistical deception that would surface again at Three Mile Island.
Overall, the commissioners concluded that "no sufficient evidence" could be found to confirm charges of an escalated infant-death rate, but "neither can they be refuted from available data." The commissioners also said it was impossible to determine "whether the infant-mortality rate in Aliquippa is or is not higher than would be expected." But there was a "considerably higher" death rate there "when white infants are considered separately" from nonwhite infants.
And though the leukemia death rate for the five-mile area around the plant seemed to correspond to the state average, the death rate from other neoplasms was "slightly higher than the state average for the five-mile area and for the `on-river' communities."
In general the industry and the media took the Shapp report as a refutation of Sternglass's charges. "We found," Tokuhata told us in a 1981 interview, "that his allegations just were not true. The data simply did not back up his conclusions."
But two of the commissioners saw it differently. Sternglass had been criticized for basing his conclusions "only on crude published mortality data," said DeGroot in an appendix to the commission's final report. "But those are the only data available." The criticism, he said, "should more properly fall" on public-health agencies "that have neither collected nor published" the necessary statistics.
Dr. Morgan later told a congressional hearing that "some members of the public, perhaps even some members of the panel, interpreted our report to say that we had refuted the allegations of Dr. Sternglass. However, I did not put that interpretation on our report. And I think it is only fair to say that it is a fact that the levels of strontium and cesium in and about Pittsburgh and neighboring counties were higher than in other parts of the state and in other parts of the nation."
Morgan emphasized that he did not believe those levels were necessarily associated with Shippingport. But it was also clear that "the illnesses and infant mortality [were] higher than in other parts of the state and in other parts of the nation in these populations. One can attempt to give reasons for it, but I don't think a satisfactory answer was found."
One thing the commissioners did agree on was that Duquesne Light's radiation monitoring apparatus was totally inadequate. It thus recommended that "the government carry out comprehensive evaluation of radiation exposure of the public around nuclear facilities. Where the possibility of significant exposure exists, appropriate epidemiologic evaluation of the health of these populations should be undertaken." Toward that end it presented a long list of changes to make it possible to determine exactly how much radiation was leaking from Pennsylvania's nuclear power plants, and what effect it might be having on the public.
But six years later, just after the accident at Three Mile Island, Dr. Thomas Gerusky--who was in charge of radiation monitoring for the state and who had served on the staff of the Shapp Commission--admitted that "to the best of my knowledge, not a single one of those recommendations was implemented. There just wasn't enough money for the program."
Meanwhile Duquesne Light began building two reactors at the Beaver Valley site.
35. Ernest Sternglass, "Environmental Radiation and Human Health," in Proceedings of the Sixth Berkeley Symposium on Mathematical Statistics and Probability (held at the University of California, Berkeley, April-July 1971), pp. 145-221.
36. Morris DeGroot, "Statistical Studies of the Effect of Low-Level Radiation from Nuclear Reactors on Human Health," in Proceedings of the Sixth Berkeley Symposium on Mathematical Statistics and Probability, presented at the Conference on "Planning an Epidemiological Study of Pollution Effects," University of California, Berkeley, July 19-22, 1971. In a letter to Senator Edwin G. Holl (October 20, 1970), DeGroot wrote: "At the present time, a certain segment of the scientific community maintains the hypothesis that exposure of a population to radioactive gaseous discharges at the levels currently being observed for the Dresden plant increases the infant mortality rate for that population. After having carried out the statistical analysis mentioned here, I believe that there is substantial probability that increased exposure to radioactive discharges does cause an increase in the infant mortality rate."
37. Sternglass, "Shippingport."
38. Governor's Fact Finding Committee, "Shippingport Nuclear Power Station Alleged Health Effects" (State of Pennsylvania, 1974) (hereafter cited as Shapp Report).
39. Griffiths, "Safety," Dr. Karl Z. Morgan told Griffiths he thought Duquesne Light's radiation monitoring program was "worse than none at all" because whenever a high reading would surface, the utility "sat on it."
41. Shapp Report. See also, Sternglass, Secret Fallout, pp. 139-177.
42. Edward Radford, letter to authors, February 4, 1981.
43. Morris DeGroot, interviews, April and July 1981; DeGroot, letter to authors, May 13, 1981; and George Tokuhata, letter to authors, June 4, 1981.
44. Shapp Report.
45. George Tokuhata, interview, February 1981.
46. Morris DeGroot, "Comments," in Shapp Report.
47. Radiation Standards and Public Health: Proceedings of a Second Congressional Seminar on Low-Level Ionizing Radiation (sponsored by the Congressional Environmental Study Conference, the Environmental Policy Institute, and the Atomic Industrial Forum, Washington, D.C., February 10, 1978), p. 46.
48. Shapp Report.
49. Richard Pollock, "Business as Usual in Pennsylvania," Critical Mass Journal, December 1979, p. 7.
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