4Test Fallout, Political Fallout
Out in the Pacific, hydrogen bomb tests seemed far away from American communities. But the nuclear explosions there were producing unprecedented quantities of fallout--dropping on people around the world.
A 1951 two-page Life magazine photo spread hailing "Operation Greenhouse" at Eniwetok must have sounded rather glorious to most readers: "Finally at sunup one April morning a blinding flash and shattering rumble came from the tiny atoll. The AEC was busily engaged at its mid-ocean proving ground in testing its latest products. . . ."
The first blast in May, code-named George and detonated from a tower on Eniwetok, proved to be a crucial building block for achieving the H-bomb. "Without such a test no one of us could have had the confidence to proceed further along speculations, inventions, and the difficult choice of the most promising possibility," Edward Teller later wrote. In the process thousands more American servicemen were exposed to atomic-fission products from nearby explosions.
After the George test, U.S. Navy seaman Artie Duvall was aboard a ship ordered to ferry scientists to the blast site. The scientists wore protective garb; the Navy seamen wore jeans, and many had their shirts off in the tropical sun. Duvall and his crew took sick and began vomiting. "It was like having some terrible flu," he remembered. They were ordered to sick bay. The next day, Duvall recalled, a wardroom briefing occurred, with an officer telling the men that they had "received a lethal dose of radiation." A physician recommended weekly blood tests--which were never conducted.
Duvall developed skin cancer, and in 1962--unable to obtain dosimetry records--began a long battle with the government. A decade later he had a heart attack, followed by major heart surgery. He was forced to sell his house. The VA rejected his claim for service-connected benefits, telling him, "There is nothing that indicates that your heart condition is medically attributed by your physician to the history of radiation."
Duvall reminisced, "We had no knowledge at all of atomic bombs. I had no fear at all of radiation. I didn't even really know what radiation was."
At Eniwetok, when the military did raise the matter of health hazards of radiation, it did so in its customary fashion. Air Force Colonel Louis Benne--a decorated fighter pilot who received the Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross Air Medal with twelve oak-leaf clusters, and Purple Heart--recalled his introduction to radiation at Eniwetok as he lay dying from internal bleeding on May 11, 1978, at the age of fifty-six: "When we arrived at Eniwetok . . . or even before we left Hawaii . . . we got a briefing that said that a lot of people were concerned about the roentgens that we would be exposed to on these atomic shots . . . The Army said there was nothing to worry about because there was no doubt in their minds that five roentgens a month is nothing . . . and even 20 is nothing. . . . Well, the funny thing is, blowing of the wind shifted and everyone got about 10 to 15 roentgens, so they had to up the roentgens to 20 on the first shot and, of course, we still had some shots to go. So, anyway, Dorothy, it was a big joke."
Of course to Dorothy Benne, who tape-recorded her husband's statement, it seemed a very sad joke.
Another Operation Greenhouse veteran, Vernon Lee Hawthorne, was still a teenager when he boarded an Army troopship for Eniwetok. By the time he died at age thirty from pancreatic cancer at a VA hospital in Amarillo, Texas, the years of suffering had taken a severe financial as well as emotional toll on his family. "The last year he was alive, we had a total income of $400," recalled his widow Bettye Hawthorne Fronterhouse. In the face of continued VA denials of claims for benefits, "my children and I came close to starving." One son developed prostate trouble; another had four tumors removed including one from the jugular vein; the youngest son underwent surgeries for a two-pound mass tumor in his groin. Four of five grandchildren required treatment for anemia. A grandson developed a tumor in his scrotum like his father's, a granddaughter developed a tumor on her back. The ills had no precedent elsewhere in the family tree.
Bettye Fronterhouse told a citizens' commission in Washington, "My husband should have had a right to know when he went there that he might die 10 years later from cancer at 30 years old and never have a chance to see his children grow and his grandchildren. Because we had plans for our future, but it was wiped out, taken away from us."
1. Life, June 25, 1951, pp. 28-29.
2. York, The Advisors, p. 77.
3. Atomic Veterans' Newsletter, November/December pp. 10-11. For evidence linking radiation to heart disease, see Arthur Elkeles, M.D, "Alpha-ray Activity in Coronary Artery Discase," Journal of the American Geriatric Society, May 1968, pp. 576-583.
4. Ibid., p. 11.
5. Ibid., p. 10.
6. Atomic Veterans' Newsletter, spring 1980, p. 2.
7. Atomic Veterans' Newsletter, November/December 1979, p. 8.
8. Michael Marchino, "A Wrongful Death," Progressive, November 1980, pp. 9-10.
9. Citizens' Hearings, pp. 24-26.
Perfecting the H-Bomb
In the northern section of Eniwetok Atoll, on the island of Elugelab, the U.S. constructed a large laboratory building in 1952. Placed in the lab was a bulky mechanism nicknamed Mike that included fission weaponry and deuterium frozen into liquid form. The cylindrical apparatus was twenty-two feet long, with a diameter of five and a half feet, weighing a total of twenty-one tons. On the first day of November 1952 the laboratory's contents exploded with a force of over ten megatons--nearly one thousand times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. With the blast, proof existed that a hydrogen bomb was within reach. U.S. Government records listed Mike as the first detonated "experimental thermonuclear device." The island on which it was situated disappeared.
The experience "so unnerved Norris Bradbury, the Los Alamos director," said a later narrative of the Mike explosion, "that for a brief time he wondered if the people at Eniwetok should somehow try to conceal from their colleagues back in New Mexico [at Los Alamos] the magnitude of what had happened."
With the gigantic hydrogen explosions in the Pacific Ocean the fledgling Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California was gaining great importance--as was one of its prime movers, Edward Teller. Fellow physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, an opponent of H-bomb development and a rival of Teller's, came under growing attack.
America was at an apex of the cold war. The arms race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and the fears of internal subversion fomented by McCarthyism, made the AEC less prone than ever to tolerate dissension within its own ranks. That repressive atmosphere intensified in April 1953, when President Eisenhower signed an executive order launching an unprecedented far-reaching investigation into the "loyalty" of federal employees. Two months later, with great fanfare, the government executed Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, convicted as spies who had conspired to give American atomic secrets to the Soviets.
In 1954 the AEC held hearings on the matter of Robert Oppenheimer's security clearance. Oppenheimer's consultancy with the AEC was soon to expire, but this didn't prevent the AEC chairman, Lewis Strauss, from carrying on what many scientists considered a "witch hunt" against him. On the basis of information supplied by the FBI, Oppenheimer was accused of guilt by association because of his long-known early contacts with Communist Party members in the 1930s.
A two-year-old statement to the FBI by Teller, questioning Oppenheimer's loyalty and character, had a major influence on the hearings. Teller, although not openly attacking Oppenheimer's loyalty, cited his opposition to development of the H-bomb--implying that Oppenheimer had a "defect" in his personality. The AEC then filed a report stripping Oppenheimer of his security clearance. Chairman Strauss wrote the majority report echoing Teller's charge that Oppenheimer had "fundamental defects" in his character.
The same year that Oppenheimer was purged from the AEC, America's nuclear weapons testers returned to the Marshall Islands with hydrogen explosives portable enough to qualify as bona fide bombs. From February to May six varieties of hydrogen bombs were detonated during "Operation Castle." The first and largest, code-named Bravo, was fifteen megatons.
The American troops participating in Operation Castle were the first to get a close look at the H-bomb in action.
Marv Hyman was aboard the U.S.S. Curtis on March 1, 1954, when the Bravo shot inaugurated the hydrogen bomb. The ship's crew was kept below decks for three days as Bravo's fallout fell, Hyman recalled in 1980. "We were so well-indoctrinated, we were told not to say anything," recollected Hyman. But Navy denials did not change what had occurred. "I don't know how far away we were--they never told us. There was no way to get out of the fallout when the wind came right back at us. They set up a sprinkler system on deck." Seawater was used.
"For three or four days we weren't allowed outside. They closed all the ports and hatches. Then they said it was `low enough' to go out. They let us go on the islands in the Eniwetok and Bikini atolls and go swimming. I saw dead sea life all over, floating around by the millions." Later, sailing into San Francisco, the U.S.S. Curtis remained radioactive, Hyman said. "They wouldn't let us off the ship for three days."
Navy seaman Robert Smith was twenty-three years old when he arrived at Bikini Island for Operation Castle. "We did not know nuclear weapons tests had already been conducted in this area. We even went swimming there," Smith recalled in 1979 from his home in Del, Oklahoma. "At the time, most of us did not even know what an H-bomb was."
10. For a revealing planning document for the 1952 hydrogen tests at Eniwetok, see "Thermonuclear Research at the University of California Radiation Laboratory," Director of Military Application, AEC 425/20, Washington, D.C., June 13,1952; quoted in York, The Advisors, p. 82.
11. Announced US Nuclear Tests, p. 6.
12. McPhee, Curve of Binding Energy, p. 77. A key American designer of nuclear warheads, Theodore Taylor, later mused: "The theorist's world is a world of the best people and the worst of possible results." (McPhee, Curve of Binding Energy, p. 87.)
13. Douglas T. Miller and Marion Nowak, The Fifties: The Way We Really Were (New York: Doubleday, 1977), p. 405.
14. For accounts of the Rosenberg case that challenge the government's charges, see Walter Schneir and Miriam Schneir, Invitation to an Inquest (New York: Doubleday, 1965); Robert and Michael Meeropol, We Are Your Sons (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975).
15. Carolyn Kopp, "The Origins of the American Scientific Debate over Fallout Hazards," Social Studies of Science (1979): 411 (hereafter cited as "Debate over Fallout Hazards").
16. P. M. Stern, The Oppenheimer Case: Security on Trial (New York: Harper & Row, 1969). See also D. J. Keveles, The Physicists (New York: Knopf, 1978), pp. 380-382.
17. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, September 1954, pp. 275-277.
18. More than a quarter century after Operation Castle there were indications that the U.S. Government was not unreservedly proud of it. When, in cooperation with the nation's nuclear weapons design labs, the Department of Energy published an official list of American nuclear tests through the end of 1979, the listing of Operation Castle omitted "yield range" for four of the test series' six hydrogen blasts. The omissions occurred for hydrogen weapons tests code-named Romeo, Union, Yankee, and Nectar--which exploded at a combined power of over thirty-two megatons, according to a U.S. Government report declassified at the end of 1972. See Announced US Nuclear Tests, in comparison to "Joint Force Seven" cited in York, The Advisors, p. 86.
19. Arizona Daily Star, April 13, 1980.
21. Atomic Veterans' Newsletter, November/December 1979, p. 7
As the U.S. Government readied Operation Castle, it informed the chief of Rongelap Atoll about the nuclear tests scheduled for a farther west part of the Marshall Islands; no precautions were recommended. Eighty-six people were living on Rongelap when the Bravo H-bomb exploded. Winds were heading in their general direction.
Like other people living on Rongelap, magistrate John Anjain noticed white flecks that looked like snow falling around them; soon the ground was covered with a layer of fallout over an inch thick.
"We saw a flash of lightning in the west like a second sun rising," Anjain said as he talked of memories still vivid in 1980. "We heard a loud explosion and within minutes the ground began to shake. A few hours later the radioactive fallout began to drop on the people, into the drinking water, and on the food. The children played in the colorful ash-like powder. They did not know what it was and many erupted on their arms and faces."
On the neighboring Rongerik Atoll, U.S. monitoring equipment capable of measuring one hundred millirads per hour went off scale. The Americans put on extra clothing and ducked inside a tightly closed building; within thirty-four hours, all twenty-eight Americans on Rongerik were evacuated.
Back on Rongelap, which was closer to the Bravo blast, the people were not removed until more than two days had passed from the time the fallout first hit. "Our people began to be very sick," John Anjain remembered. "They vomited, burns showed on their skin, and people's hair began to fall out."
The AEC's own reports later conceded severe health damage, admitting to eighteen deaths among nineteen children in the Marshall Islands who received one-thousand-rad thyroid doses from U.S. hydrogen bomb tests in the area. (Comparable dosages of radiation were absorbed by young children living in St. George, Utah, in 1953, according to secret estimates by top AEC officials--who calculated that thirty cases of cancer would be expected to develop among St. George residents as a result.) Out of twenty-two Rongelap children exposed to the fallout from the Bravo test, nineteen have had thyroid nodules surgically removed.
Nor was the damage confined to thyroids, as Anjain knew from grief-stricken personal experience. His son Lekoj, one year old when the fallout settled on Rongelap in 1954, was nineteen years old when he died of leukemia.
In 1957, amid widespread publicity, Rongelapese were allowed to return to their atoll. But Rongelap women still experienced a stillbirth and miscarriage rate twice that of other Marshallese women who had not been exposed to the fallout. And radiation in their bodies increased rapidly. A 1961 Brookhaven study found body radiation levels had risen to sixty times normal for cesium; strontium 90 levels rose sixfold.
Other Marshall Islanders were also affected. A day after the Bravo test mistlike fallout reached Utirik Atoll, about 275 miles east of the test site at Bikini. After two more days passed, the U.S. Navy evacuated Utirik's 157 residents.
In a press release after the Bravo explosion the AEC declared: "During the course of a routine atomic test in the Marshall Islands, 28 United States personnel and 236 residents were transported from neighboring atolls to Kwajalein Island according to a plan as a precautionary measure. These individuals were unexpectedly exposed to some radioactivity. There were no burns. All were reported well. After completion of the atomic tests, the natives will be returned to their homes."
The Marshall Islands were in the category of a protective "trust territory" arrangement engineered by the United States Government. The U.S. had signed a United Nations trusteeship agreement under which the American government had pledged to "promote the social advancement of the inhabitants, and to this end shall protect the rights and fundamental freedoms of all elements of the population without discrimination; protect the health of the inhabitants . . ."
Some Rongelapese, like other Marshall Island natives, became bitter. "The American people used the Marshallese people as though they were animals," charged Mitsuwa Anjain, who was twenty-nine years old and mother of five when the Bravo fallout arrived at Rongelap. "While I am still alive, I can never forget what a horrible fate the American people inflicted on the Marshallese people."
Almira Matayoshi was eighteen years old when the fallout rained on her home in Rongelap. We interviewed her in Hawaii in 1980, with the help of a translator. A friendly woman in her mid-forties, Matayoshi had lost four babies at birth after the bomb explosion--one of which came into the world with no arms or legs. "The people who are testing don't care about people on Rongelap and did not care then," she said. "I will not forget what happened to the people of Rongelap." And Nelson Anjain, fifty-two, a Rongelap tribal chief, told us: "The U.S. has to think about what it did to the people of Rongelap. Department of Energy came to the islands, knew everything was contaminated, but did not tell us. . . . They come and check people but no report, no nothing."
For 166 natives of the Bikini isles, where the United States detonated twenty-three atomic and hydrogen bombs over a period of a dozen years, a never-ending nightmare began with the first nuclear blast in 1946. At that time, reflecting the American government's promises, United States News reported: "Experts are sure the radioactive danger is temporary, and eventually the islanders will be permitted to return."
Relocated to the barren Rongerik Atoll in 1946, the Bikinians lived through food shortages as they tried to adapt to new surroundings within one-half square mile of dry land. Malnutrition followed for years. In 1948 they were shuttled to Kili Atoll.
During the 1970s, after a widely fanfared return of Bikinians to their home islands, high concentrations of radioactivity were still found to be present in the land and food of the atoll. The U.S. Government removed the 140 residents of Bikini in 1978 after determining that dangerous amounts of strontium 90 and cesium 137 were being absorbed into their bodies.
In 1981 the New York Times News Service noted, "No one lives on any of the islands in the Bikini atoll." Elected Bikinian legislator Henchi Balos issued a March 1981 statement lamenting that "our land is radioactive." Said Balos: "We never wanted to leave. If we cannot go back to Bikini, the United States must pay for taking and destroying our homeland, for the hardship and suffering we have experienced and for its failure to care for us."
22. Giff Johnson, "Micronesia: America's `Strategic Trust,'" Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, February 1979, p. 11.
23. Citizens' Hearings, pp. 76-77.
25. Johnson, "Micronesia," p. 11.
28. Citizens' Hearings, pp 76-77.
29. Chicago Tribune, April 1-5, 1979, published as booklet "Radiation," p. 11.
30. Michael M. May, Director, Lawrence Livermore Laboratory to Glenn T. Seaborg (AEC chairman), November 29, 1965; reprinted in Health Effects of Low-Level Radiation, April 19, 1979, Vol. 2, p. 2120.
31. Giff Johnson, "Paradise Lost," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, December 1980, p. 28. The article quotes a 1977 federally funded study by Brookhaven National Laboratory, stating: "Recently about 50 percent of the exposed Rongelap people showed hypothyroidism without clinical evidence of thyroid disease, a finding that probably portends trouble ahead."
32. Citizens' Hearings, pp. 76-77.
33. Johnson, "Micronesia," p. 12.
34. Ibid., p. 11.
35. Marshall Islands: A Chronology--1944-1978 (Honolulu: Micronesia Support Committee, 1212 University Ave., Honolulu, HI 96826), p. 4.
36. "United Nations Trusteeship Agreement for the United States Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands," Article 6; reprinted in Greg Dever, M.D., Ebeye, Marshall Islands A Public Health Hazard (Honolulu: Micronesia Support Committee), p. 25.
37. Marshall Islands: A Chronology, p. 4.
38. Almira Matayoshi, interview, May 1980.
39. Nelson Anjain, interview, May 1980.
40. United States News, February 1, 1946, p. 26.
41. Johnson, "Micronesia," p. 10.
42. Ibid., pp. 14-15. See also, Johnson, "Paradise Lost," pp. 25-26; New York Times, October 13, 1980.
43. The Oregonian, New York Times News Service, March 16, 1981.
The Lucky Dragon
GIs and natives of the Marshall Islands were not the only victims of Operation Castle. Twenty-three fishermen aboard the Japanese fishing boat Lucky Dragon were sailing eighty miles east of the Bravo shot when it was fired. Within days they were tormented by symptoms of acute radiation exposure--itching skin, nausea, vomiting. When they arrived back in Japan two weeks after the Bravo test, the entire crew remained sick; a Geiger counter revealed their bodies contained radiation from the hydrogen bomb sixteen days after it had exploded. The boat's rear crew compartment gave off readings of one tenth roentgen per hour.
The tuna aboard the Lucky Dragon were extremely contaminated with radioactivity. This, as it turned out, was not unusual. In 1954 Japan monitoring programs showed that "a total of 683 tuna boats were found to have contaminated fish in their holds," nuclear physicist Ralph E. Lapp wrote in his book The Voyage of the Lucky Dragon. "Some 457 tons of tuna fish were detected above the `worry limit' and were discarded, either by dumping at sea or by burial in deep ditches in land. About one out of every eight boats inspected had contaminated fish on board."
As a nation dependent on fish for food and commerce, the high radiation levels in tuna caused outrage throughout Japan. And the conspicuous dousing of the Lucky Dragon with fallout had caused great publicity and political sensitivity. The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission responded with a public-relations sideshow. Dr. John Morton, director of the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission, visited the stricken fishermen at the hospital and proclaimed them "in better shape than I had expected." The Japanese considered Morton's remarks an insult.
After a second hydrogen bomb test AEC chairman Lewis Strauss returned from the Pacific test site and issued a statement to "correct certain misapprehensions" about the effects of the Bravo test. The exposed islanders and Japanese fishermen were recovering rapidly, Strauss claimed.
Seven months after the Bravo test one of the Lucky Dragon's twenty-three crew members died; the rest were still being hospitalized. Intensive care included frequent blood transfusions; low sperm counts indicated sterility. In 1955 the U.S. Government paid two million dollars in restitution for damage to the Lucky Dragon, its crew, and its cargo. The widow of Lucky Dragon fisherman Aikichi Kuboyama later told Ralph Lapp: "To a third person it might almost seem good to die if your death brings such sums of money. But I can't buy the life of my husband with money."
Reflecting on the Lucky Dragon crew members three years after their encounter with radioactive fallout, Lapp observed: "The true striking power of the atom was revealed on the decks of the Lucky Dragon. When men a hundred miles from an explosion can be killed by the silent touch of the bomb, the world suddenly becomes too small a sphere for men to clutch the atom."
But, in the midst of the controversy over the H-bomb test effects in spring 1954, AEC Chairman Strauss assured the American public there would be no significant impacts on the continental U.S. The "small increase" in radiation, he said, was "far below the levels which could be harmful in any way to human beings, animals and crops."
The AEC chief's pronouncement provoked disbelief among independent scientists. Particularly disturbed was Dr. A. H. Sturtevant, chairman of the genetics department at the California Institute of Technology. In an address to the Pacific division of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Sturtevant declared there was "no possible escape from the conclusion that bombs already exploded will ultimately produce numerous defective individuals." He further stated that an estimated "1,800 deleterious mutations" had already resulted from fallout.
The AEC was stunned that the nuclear weapons testing program was being openly questioned by a prominent scientist like Sturtevant.
By early 1955 the AEC released a written response to Sturtevant's charges. Pointing to a "rather wide range of admissible opinion in this subject," the AEC dismissed the geneticist's assessment. The AEC failed, however, to do any of its own calculations of genetic mutations--thus ignoring the scientific basis of Sturtevant's conclusions, which were derived from the work of the AEC's own Division of Biology and Medicine.
Comparing fallout hazards with other sources of radiation like medical X rays and "background radiation," the AEC concluded that fallout "would not seriously affect the genetic constitutions of human beings." With respect to the dangers to individuals from isotopes like radioactive strontium and iodine, the governmental report claimed that the levels of these nuclear products were too "insignificant" to pose any problem.
44. Ralph E. Lapp, The Voyage of the Lucky Dragon (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958), pp. 81-83.
45. Lapp, Voyage of the Lucky Dragon, p. 178.
46. Roger Rapoport, The Great American Bomb Machine (New York: Ballantine, 1971), p. 59.
47. "Statement by Lewis L. Strauss, Chairman U.S. AEC," AEC release, March 31, 1954.
48. Lapp, Voyage of the Lucky Dragon, pp. 192-193.
49. Ibid., pp. 197-198.
50. "Statement by Lewis Strauss," March 31, 1954.
51. A. H. Sturtevant, "Social Implications of the Genetics of Man," Science, September 10, 1954, pp. 406-407.
52. "A Report by the United States Atomic Energy Commission on the Effects of High Yield Nuclear Explosions," AEC release, February 15, 1955.
Continuing Tests in Nevada
The furor in Utah that had resulted from fallout two years earlier prompted the AEC to exercise more caution as the continental atomic testing program--which excluded H-bombs during its first decade--restarted in February 1955 after a break of twenty months. But the AEC immediately received counterpressure. In a letter written three days after the first of fourteen nuclear shots slated for "Operation Teapot" at the Nevada site, Senator Clinton Anderson of New Mexico complained that he had been kept waiting for a week to witness the test series' premier blast, as one postponement after another was forced by poor weather conditions.
Senator Anderson was in the midst of a personal feud with AEC chairman Lewis L. Strauss. As head of the congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, Anderson could cause trouble. "I do not advocate taking any real risk with public health and safety," the senator said. But his message was clear: If the AEC was willing to let weather interrupt testing schedules at the Nevada Test Site, then the tests might be banished to the far-flung Pacific.
AEC commissioner Willard F. Libby fumed that confining tests to the Pacific would "set the weapons program back a lot." But disregarding weather conditions in Nevada would bring more fallout to the St. George area--"which they apparently always plaster," in the words of AEC Chairman Strauss.
"I have forgotten the number of people at St. George," Strauss said. Informed that forty-five hundred people were living in the town, Strauss ruminated, "So you can't evacuate them."
"St. George is hypertensified . It is not a question of health or safety with St. George, but a question of public relations," commented AEC fallout expert Dr. John C. Bugher. "You remember the uproar at St. George last series." After that experience, Dr. Bugher recollected, "We regarded southern Utah as a forbidden zone for future fallout in this series."
But the AEC decided that the people of Utah were less important than the atomic testing schedule. Former Rear Admiral Strauss, into his second year as chairman, concurred with a suggestion by commissioner Thomas Murray to "get on with the test."
"I don't think we can change them at this stage of the game," said Strauss, referring to Nevada testing criteria.
A forty-three-kiloton blast, code-named Turk, proceeded as planned at the Nevada Test Site. So did ten more blasts in the Teapot series, totaling 114 more kilotons.
At an AEC meeting midway through Operation Teapot spirits seemed to have improved. "People have got to learn to live with the facts of life, and part of the facts of life are fallout," Commissioner Libby said.
"It is certainly all right they say if you don't live next door to it," responded Chairman Strauss.
"Or live under it," chimed in K. D. Nichols.
Vowed Commissioner Murray: "We must not let anything interfere with this series of tests--nothing."
At the site about eight thousand troops--from the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps--participated in Operation Teapot, observing from trenches officially described as being one and a half to five miles from the atom bomb explosions. But Major Donald H. Anderson of Northridge, California, a twenty-year veteran of the Air Force, remembered being still closer--one thousand yards from ground zero--when the nuclear shot Bee was fired on March 22, 1955. Formerly trained as an instructor of the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project at the Sandia Base in Albuquerque, Anderson was among "about 200 or 300 of us" closest to the blast, listed at eight kilotons. "Upon detonation, we were in trenches 1,000 yards from ground zero."After detonation, we had to dig our way out of the trenches which had collapsed on us. For about 10 or 15 minutes, I was blinded by the blast. . . . Then we were told we had to advance forward from the trenches to a location where toilet paper was lying on the ground. Not everybody who was in the trenches (about 200 or 300 people) advanced to the toilet paper marker which was about 200 or 300 yards from ground zero. About a dozen other people and I went down to it all the way. Then, an emergency jeep came up and an officer told us to get out of there--we did not belong there. He took our names and told us to report to an officer at camp. We had to go back for decontamination testing at Camp Desert Rock about 9 a.m. We reported to an officer who was threatening us with court martial because we did what we were instructed to do! No action was taken. Our film badges were not returned to us and we were not advised of the amount of radiation we had received.Major Anderson later developed cancer, which he linked to "the radiation exposure I received while in the military."
I believe it was the commander or his adjutant at Camp Desert Rock who talked to us and threatened us with court martial. At no time did they tell us there would be any possibility of subsequent illness as a result of complying with their orders to advance down to the toilet paper laid out on the ground. We were close enough to see parts of the tower that had been reduced to molten metal. . . . We were told that something went wrong with the detonation--that it was larger than expected.
An official report of the 1955 atomic exercises, issued by Marine headquarters, declared that "the realism engendered by coming face-to-face with an actual nuclear detonation adds a great deal to the benefits derived, and augments the total fund of training and experience of the Marine Corps." As an additional note of envisioned battlefield "realism" some servicemen sat in tanks, moving toward the nuclear blast point after detonation--with radiation readings up to twelve roentgens metered in the tanks.
As usual Las Vegas newspapers presented the nuclear tests in optimistic terms: "ATOMIC WARHEAD NEWEST YANK DEFENSE WEAPON"; "`BABY' A-BLAST MAY PROVIDE FACTS ON DEFENSE AGAINST ATOMIC ATTACK." Often the news stories glorified anticipated military benefits, with themes replayed by media across the country. In California the Oakland Tribune announced "ATOM BLAST TESTS SMOKE SCREEN TO CURB RADIATION." When the government unveiled a taller detonation tower--five hundred feet instead of the previous three-hundred-foot height--the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported, "Use of taller towers from which atomic devices are detonated at the Nevada Test Site introduces an added angle of safety to residents living outside the confines of the Atomic Energy Commission's continental testing ground, nuclear scientists believe."
Military spokesmen continued their public reassurances. "The time after a detonation of nuclear devices is a period of caution, but a safe period if experienced personnel equipped with proper safeguards are used," Major Earl R. Shappell, a radiological safety officer, told reporters. "Our Army clearing teams can frequently move with impunity into the general firing area within hours following a blast." A few days after Major Shappell's explanation the National Broadcasting Company telecast its first TV coverage of an atomic bomb test.
Meanwhile millions of American schoolchildren were being taught to hide under desks in air-raid drills, as though such measures would provide appreciable protection in case of nuclear attack. Imagery of atomic holocaust became part of American life. According to authors Douglas Miller and Marion Nowak in their study of the fifties, "For kids, to whom the whole bomb-culture message was a thing to be inhaled like air, defense security could not help but get garbled up with terror."
With few exceptions Americans remained frozen in silence as the nuclear age progressed. It was only in the later years of the 1950s, with Red-baiting on the wane and scientists beginning to speak out about biological dangers of fallout, that implications of the bomb were questioned.
Meanwhile, the Nevada testing continued, and atomic blasts became fairly common sights for people living throughout the West. One nuclear test explosion was visible from eleven western states. The thick fallout clouds mostly moved through the targeted downwind corridors in rural areas of Nevada, northern Arizona, and Utah. But sometimes, with shifting winds at various altitudes, large cities were contaminated, as in March 1955 when an atomic shot sent radioactivity directly to Las Vegas.
Within six hours of that explosion "the cloud dropped invisible bits of matter that gave a total radiation of 174 milliroentgens in North Las Vegas," reported the Associated Press, which usually did not deviate from the official government perspective on nuclear events. "Normal background radiation is 2 milliroentgens, but the Atomic Energy Commission said the fallout was not harmful. The AEC has set a safety minimum of 3.9 roentgens, or 3,900 milliroentgens, per year for civilians offsite. Test personnel are allowed to absorb that much in a 13-week period." The Las Vegas Review Journal stated flatly: "Fallout on Las Vegas and vicinity following this morning's detonation was very low and without any effects on health." A front-page follow-up article relayed the AEC's commendations for the "matter of fact manner" in which Las Vegans responded to the fallout dusting.
54. AEC Commissioners Meeting Minutes, February 23, 1955, pp. 117-118.
55. Rosenberg, Atomic Soldiers, p. 71.
56. AEC Commissioners Meeting Minutes, February 23, 1955, pp. 117-118.
57. Ibid., p. 119.
58. AEC Commissioners Meeting Minutes, March 14, 1955, p. 122.
59. AEC Commissioners Meeting Minutes, March 14, 1955, p. 115.
60. Ibid., pp. 115-116.
61. Ibid., pp. 116-117.
63. AEC Commissioners Meeting Minutes, March 14, 1955, p. 121.
67. Atomic Veterans' Newsletter, spring 1980, p. 14.
70. U.S. Marine Corps, "Report of Exercise Desert Rock VI," 1955, p. V11-2.
71. Rosenberg, Atomic Soldiers, p. 71.
72. Las Vegas Review-Journal, March 29, 1955; Las Vegas Sun, March 13, 1955; Oakland Tribune, March 13, 1955; Las Vegas Review-Journal, March 11, 1955.
73. Las Vegas Review-Journal, March 27, 1955.
74. Las Vegas Review-Journal, March 29, 1955.
75. Miller and Nowak, The Fifties, p. 54. Added Miller and Nowak: "Adults, more accomplished at psychological defense, had an easier time of it. They could dodge the great fears and moral questions with more deftness than their offspring."
76. Las Vegas Sun, March 13, 1955.
77. Los Angeles Times, Associated Press, March 23, 1955.
78. Las Vegas Review-Journal, March 22, and March 24, 1955.
The Fallout Debate
As the spring 1955 nuclear test series continued, a heated controversy arose. Alarmed by increasing radiation in their home state, two scientists from the University of Colorado Medical Center went public. "For the first time in the history of the Nevada tests, the upsurge in radioactivity measured here within a matter of hours has become appreciable," said Dr. Ray R. Lanier, director of the university's radiology department. University biophysics department head Dr. Theodore Puck joined with Lanier in the public statement issued March 12.
Colorado's governor Edwin C. Johnson immediately asserted that the two scientists "should be arrested," adding: "This is a phony report. It will only alarm people. Someone has a screw loose someplace and I intend to find out about it." He termed their statements "part of an organized . . . fright campaign."
Meanwhile AEC media aides phoned Denver news outlets with a statement that the "trenchant reading in Colorado had absolutely no significance for public health."
While insisting that "it is not our desire to alarm the public needlessly," Dr. Lanier said, "we feel it is our duty" to sound a warning. Drs. Lanier and Puck particularly infuriated the nuclear testing establishment when they publicly stressed that gamma-ray readings (and X-ray comparisons) did not provide the full health-hazard picture. Said Dr. Puck: "The trouble with airborne radioactive dust is that we breathe it into the lungs, where it may lodge in direct contact with living tissue." Thus, he explained, internal exposure from alpha or beta particles was "very different from having it lodge on skin or clothing where it can be brushed or washed off."
The two Colorado scientists had dared to puncture the popularized myth that Geiger counter readings told the whole radiation danger story; that myth was based on the unspoken supposition that people would not breathe. Dr. Lanier also pointed out the absence of any "safe minimum below which danger to individuals or their unborn descendants disappears. Or at least we do not know what it is."
At the same time, more than a few scientists, particularly those not on government payrolls, were voicing intensified concern about cumulative fallout effects. Dr. M. Stanley Livingston, chairman of the Federation of American Scientists and a physics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, supported the embattled Colorado scientists in a television interview. Livingston said scientists were growing apprehensive "that we may soon reach a level of radiation in the atmosphere which would be dangerous genetically to the future of the race."
But within the AEC the cold war made it very difficult for scientists to question the testing program. Oppenheimer's banishment had set a powerful example. "There developed what I consider to be a strange psychological frame of mind," Dr. Karl Z. Morgan, director of the Oak Ridge Health Physics Lab during that era, reflected in 1980. "It became unpatriotic and perhaps unscientific to suggest that atomic weapons testing might cause deaths throughout the world from fallout." Morgan found many of his AEC colleagues holding "onto untenable and extremely shallow arguments . . . comparisons with medical and natural background exposures as if they were harmless."
The press gave only limited coverage to scientists who challenged the wisdom of atomic testing. Those complaining about radioactivity were routinely accused of ignorance, hysteria, or involvement in Communist manipulations.
The Los Angeles Examiner published a March 1955 column by International News Service writer Jack Lotto, headlining it "ON YOUR GUARD: REDS LAUNCH `SCARE DRIVE' AGAINST U.S. ATOMIC TESTS." "A big Communist fear campaign to force Washington to stop all American atomic hydrogen bomb tests erupted this past week," Lotto reported. He repeated the persistent argument that during the past ten years the radiation dose from the testing "has been about the same as the exposure from one chest x-ray."
In a U.S. News & World Report article called "The Facts About A-Bomb Fallout," AEC Commissioner Willard Libby cited "evidence" from AEC research which implied that bomb fallout would "not likely be at all dangerous." Although the article did not explicitly claim to represent the AEC view, many scientists believed it had been approved in advance by the AEC.
That article caused a flurry of written protests from prominent scientists. Linus Pauling, a 1954 Nobel prize winner in chemistry, complained vigorously to Commissioner Libby. Another Nobel laureate, geneticist Hermann Muller wrote to the AEC, saying that he was "shocked" by the article. Bruce Wallace, of the Cold Spring Harbor Biological Laboratory, was "dismayed" that the AEC had misinterpreted his work in the magazine piece. Dr. Curt Stern, of the University of California in Berkeley, warned the AEC that the article would only serve to increase distrust of AEC credibility.
Major newspapers echoed the AEC's argument in the debate. One source of unequivocal disclaimers was nationally syndicated commentator David Lawrence. "Evidence of a world-wide propaganda is accumulating. Many persons are innocently being duped by it and some well-meaning scientists and other persons are playing the Communist game unwittingly by exaggerating the importance of radioactive substances known as `fallout,'" Lawrence wrote in spring 1955. "The truth is there isn't the slightest proof of any kind that the `fallout' as a result of tests in Nevada has ever affected any human being anywhere outside the testing ground itself."
"The Nevada tests are being conducted for a humanitarian purpose--to determine the best ways to help civilian defense--and not to develop stronger weapons of war," Lawrence contended authoritatively in another column. "The big bombs are not tested in this country, but in ocean areas far away from this continent. The Communist drive, however, is to stop all tests, and many persons are being duped by the campaign into thinking all the tests held in Nevada are injurious and will hurt future generations. There isn't a word of truth in that propaganda."
But profound issues of long-term atomic fallout effects could not be so easily dismissed.
79. Los Angeles Examiner, March 13, 1955; Los Angeles Times, March 13, 1955.
80. Los Angeles Examiner, March 13, 1955.
81. Albuquerque Journal, March 22, 1955.
82. Los Angeles Examiner, March 13, 1955.
85. Albuquerque Journal, March 14, 1955.
86. Karl Z. Morgan, "History of Developments in Nuclear Safety and the Development of International Standards," unpublished article submitted to Energy Department's Office of Consumer Affairs, December 1980, p. 2.
87. Los Angeles Examiner, March 24, 1955.
88. US News & World Report, March 25, 1955, pp. 21-26.
89. Linus Pauling to Willard Libby, March 30, 1955, Historian's Office, U.S. Department of Energy.
90. Hermann Muller to E. Green, March 29, 1955, A. H. Sturtevant Papers, California Institute of Technology, AHS-CIT, Archives Box 11, Folder 3.
91. Bruce Wallace to Hermann Muller, April 5, 1955, AHS-CIT, Archives Box 11,. Folder 3.
92. Curt Stern to John Bugher, March 28, 1955, GWB/BDR-CIT, Archives Box 96, Folder 1.
93. Washington Post, March 1955.
94. Chicago Daily News, March 25, 1955.
Cancer, Genetics, and Fallout
In the autumn of 1955 AEC Chairman Strauss was caught suppressing a scientific paper by Hermann Muller on the genetic effects of radiation. In 1927 Muller had been the first to discover that exposure of plants and animals to X rays causes an increase in genetic mutations. Twenty years later he received the Nobel prize for his work in genetics.
Muller's 1955 paper assessed the worldwide fallout exposure to people's gonads and the genetic damage this could cause. He submitted it for presentation at the first United Nations meeting on "peaceful uses of the atom," scheduled for Geneva later that year. In May the AEC accepted Muller's abstract. When he tried to submit his full paper in July, the renowned geneticist was told that it had been taken out of the program by the U.N. because of "space limitations."
Two months later The Washington Post revealed that the AEC, not the U.N. had excised Muller's paper. Then the AEC admitted to blocking the paper because Muller had mentioned the Hiroshima bombing, a subject "definitely inadmissible" at a conference about the "peaceful" uses of atomic energy. As AEC chairman, Strauss apologized for the "regrettable snafu" and promised to publish Muller's paper in printed proceedings of the event. A few weeks afterward, Strauss stated on the TV show Face the Nation that "some irresponsible statements that had been made on the subject were liquidated in the course of the conference."
The Muller incident so enraged George Beadle, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, that he wrote a lengthy editorial in Science magazine titled "Liquidating Unpopular Opinion." Prior to publication of his essay, Beadle sent a draft to Gerard Piel, publisher of Scientific American. After reading both the draft and the final version, which had been toned down, Piel wrote back remarking on "what skulking deceit and dishonesty had been involved in Admiral Strauss' handling of the matter."
Beadle's Science editorial asserted that "Chairman Strauss has consistently maintained that fallout from tests of nuclear weapons have been so low that they could not bring harm to human beings. Muller has repeatedly presented reasons for believing such complacency to be unjustified . . . could it be that Muller's persistence in disagreeing with the chairman of the Commission was a factor in barring his report?"
By the late summer of 1956 the issue of fallout was being covered on nation-wide television at the Democratic National Convention. The Democratic Party was campaigning to halt H-bomb tests. Presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, relying on the information of AEC critics, cited the genetic and strontium 90 hazards from tests. Nuclear testing advocates Edward Teller and Ernest O. Lawrence responded with a joint statement depicting radioactive fallout as "insignificant."
Institutional differences over dangers of fallout became quite clear during the election. On one side was the AEC and its scientists, such as Commissioner Willard Libby, Shields Warren, John Bugher, Teller, and Lawrence. The other side included several prominent scientists from the California Institute of Technology--Linus Pauling, E. B. Lewis, A. H. Sturtevant, and George Beadle. Although Stevenson lost the election, his campaign provided a national forum for the fallout debate.
Another event in 1956 also had major impact. British physician Alice Stewart found the first firm evidence that low-level radiation causes cancer in human beings. "At the time," Dr. Stewart told us, "radiologists considered low-level radiation to be in the range of fifty to one hundred rems. We were able to demonstrate that the flicker from one X-ray photograph to a fetus could initiate a cancer. This was a tiny fraction of the amount considered safe."
Stewart's findings were received with disbelief by radiologists and the international nuclear industry. If she was correct, then physicians were causing cancer among children--and the nuclear industry was doing the same.
In 1958 Stewart and her colleagues at England's Oxford University published their classic paper on effects of fetal X rays, now one of the most often cited studies in the world. Stewart found that X rays during the first three months of pregnancy increased the risk of cancer by ten times. With each X ray taken, there would be an increase in the cancer risk.
In June 1957 Linus Pauling estimated in a Foreign Policy Bulletin article that ten thousand persons had died or were dying from leukemia because of nuclear tests. A month earlier Pauling's colleague E. B. Lewis had published a more detailed analysis in Science. Using four sets of data, Lewis showed that there was no safe level of exposure; leukemia incidence seemed to be directly proportionate to the amount of the radiation dose. These articles documented the absence of any "safe" dose of radiation. And the pair of C.I.T. scientists also broke new ground by estimating the number of deaths from strontium 90 fallout.
The AEC countered Lewis in a later article in Science by Austin Brues, the commission's director of Biology and Medicine. Brues argued that the evidence wasn't strong enough to support Pauling or Lewis, calling their approach one of "superficial simplicity." Instead, Brues insisted, facts corroborated the existence of a "threshold" dose of radiation, below which no biological damage would occur.
The Joint Committee on Atomic Energy hearings in 1957 proved to be a watershed in the fallout debate. Dr. Ralph Lapp cut short a trip to Japan to appear before the committee. His opening presentation pointed to "reckless and non-substantiated statements" made by the AEC. He called attention to claims by the AEC's New York Health and Safety Lab chief Merrill Eisenbud, who had announced that "the total fallout to date from all tests would have to be multiplied by a million to produce visible deleterious effects in areas close to the explosion itself."
Eisenbud took the stand in his defense, putting qualifications on his earlier statement. Eisenbud claimed to have been "talking about the immediate gamma radiation from the fallout which occurs in the eastern United States within a matter of a day or so after detonation in Nevada." He then accused Lapp of taking his statement "out of context."
Lapp quickly responded from the audience by multiplying the amounts of radiation exposure calculated by Eisenbud to be present in the Troy/Albany area after the Simon bomb test in 1953 by a million times. It amounted to an average exposure of ten thousand roentgens. Stunned by this calculation, Senator Clinton Anderson asked if such a dose "would kill everybody in sight." Eisenbud, red-faced, answered with a meek "Yes."
In 1958 the U.S. tested sixty-four weapons aboveground, the Soviet Union twenty-four, and Britain five. This was the highest rate since the first tests began. After two and a half years a U.N. study by eighty-seven scientists confirmed allegations by critics of A-tests.
Meanwhile strontium 90 levels in milk were rising dramatically, according to the AEC's own data. The northern Great Plains--particularly the Red River Valley dividing North Dakota and Minnesota--were fast becoming the most strontium-90-contaminated area in North America. Strontium 90 in the region's milk supply was far in excess of the AEC's own safe limit for human consumption.
Reacting to the stepped-up nuclear testing, the National Council on Radiation Protection (NCRP) recommended doubling the "maximum permissible body burden" of strontium 90. Other test advocates like Edward Teller began to contend publicly that radiation from fallout "might be slightly beneficial or have no effect at all."
During this period Dr. Karl Z. Morgan attended an NCRP meeting where Teller gave a speech about fallout. "To my amazement, and certainly to the amazement of others, Ed [Teller] was claiming that since naturally occurring radiation played a part in the evolutionary process, the increase in fallout would simply speed up the evolution." Was Teller speculating that fallout would weed out the weak in the society to enhance the development of a superrace?
Linus Pauling was the first to sound the alarm concerning the dangers of carbon 14. This radioactive form of carbon exists in nature and is easily absorbed by plants and people. But the incremental increase of carbon 14 from test fallout concerned Pauling. By 1958 he estimated that carbon 14 from "the bomb tests . . . will ultimately produce about one million seriously defective children and about two million embryonic and neonatal deaths, and will cause many millions of people to suffer from minor heredity defects."
Pauling and others realized that it was not enough to exchange scientific papers with the AEC in order to stop the continuing radioactive fallout from testing. The circle of scientists necessary to alert the people of the U.S. and the world had to become much larger.
On April 23, 1957, Nobel peace prize winner Albert Schweitzer made a radio speech that inspired Pauling to take a first important step in recruiting scientists of the world. Schweitzer concluded his speech by saying that "the end of further experiments with atom bombs would be like early sunrays of hope longed for by suffering humanity." AEC Commissioner Willard Libby responded with the standard AEC line: "Exposures from fallout are very much smaller than those which would be required to produce observable effects in the population."
Three weeks after Schweitzer's speech Pauling addressed an audience at Washington University in St. Louis, the headquarters of the Committee for Nuclear Information--an active antitesting organization recently cofounded by Dr. Barry Commoner. That afternoon Pauling sat down with Commoner and Edward Condon of the committee and told them of his idea for a petition campaign to enlist American scientists in opposition to nuclear testing. With their help Pauling drafted "An Appeal by American Scientists to the Governments and People of the World," urging that "an international agreement to stop testing of nuclear bombs be made now."
"Each nuclear test spreads the added burden of radioactive elements over every part of the world," read the petition. "Each added amount of radiation causes damage to the health of human beings all over the world and causes damage to the pool of human germ plasm such as to lead to an increase in the number of seriously defective children that will be born in future generations . . ." Within two weeks the signatures of two thousand American scientists were collected and released in the midst of the 1957 hearings of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy.
President Eisenhower, in a press conference shortly after Pauling publicized his appeal, implied that the scientists' petition was the work of an "organization" that didn't necessarily have the best interests of the nation in mind. When later asked to clarify his statement, Eisenhower backed off and replied, "I said that there does seem to be an organization behind it. I didn't say a wicked organization."
Two days later Pauling told a reporter that "I would like to see signatures of thousands of Russian scientists, of scientists of all countries of the world to this appeal." The response was an immediate outpouring of signatures from scientists all over the globe. By January 1958 Pauling had collected 11,021 signatures from 50 nations--including 216 from the Soviet Union, 701 from Britain, and 1,161 from Japan. Pauling personally delivered the petition to the United Nations secretary general, Dag Hammarskjold, on January 15, 1958. By the end of the year the U.S. and the Soviet Union agreed to a voluntary moratorium on testing--a move to enhance negotiations for a test ban treaty.
Attacks against Pauling and his so-called "organization" intensified. Syndicated columnist Fulton Lewis, Jr., estimated that such a petition drive would have cost $100,000, and he demanded to know who had funded the campaign.
The Nobel prize winner was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. According to Pauling, "the cost of gathering the 7,500 signatures of scientists outside the U.S. amounted to about $250.00 . . . for stationery, postage and secretarial help. . . . My wife and I have expended altogether about $600 on the appeal and petition." Pauling's "organization" consisted of his wife and a circle of friends.
Congress was unable to prove that Pauling's petition was a Communist conspiracy. But Pauling's detractors in the government assured that he would no longer receive a penny of federal money for his research. More than two decades later Pauling had received no federal government funds for his work. However in 1962 Pauling received a second Nobel prize--this one the peace prize for his efforts to end nuclear testing.
Antibomb protests during the late fifties included small-scale sit-ins at missile bases, and refusals to participate in New York City air-raid drills. The most dramatic civil disobedience against nuclear explosions occurred as activists attempted to steer their ships into the Marshall Islands test zones. In 1958 four pacifists in a thirty-foot ketch--christened the Golden Rule--tried to set sail from Hawaii for Eniwetok; they were arrested by the U.S. Coast Guard. A similar expedition the same year, by the crew of the Phoenix, sailed toward the Bikini testing area; U.S. authorities halted that demonstration as well.
Other tactics against the nuclear tests took hold, widening the pressure campaign participation beyond scientific experts and pacifists. Less than a year after its founding in November 1957, the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE) had enlisted 130 chapters and twenty-five thousand members in opposition to the tests.
With public mistrust of the AEC deepening, near the end of his presidency Dwight Eisenhower created the Federal Radiation Council to "advise the president with respect to radiation matters." Although appearing to represent public-health interests, the FRC was dominated by advocates of nuclear testing. Two out of six members were from the AEC and Department of Defense. The council's director, Paul Tompkins, came directly from the nuclear weapons program. One of the first acts of the council was to increase the amount of sanctioned strontium 90 exposures from testing by six times.
On September 1, 1961, during the height of tensions over Berlin, the voluntary moratorium on testing was broken by the Soviet Union. The U.S. followed suit by resuming atomic tests later that month. During the next year the two countries conducted the most intense series of aboveground tests in history. In 1962 more than one hundred nuclear weapons exploded and sent radiation into the atmosphere. By the summer of 1962, iodine 131 in milk across the United States was reaching dangerous levels.
As fallout quantities approached "safe" governmental limits, the AEC looked to the Federal Radiation Council for help. By September 1962 the council announced that the U.S. Government's radiation guidelines didn't apply to fallout--in essence, giving the AEC a blank check to contaminate the earth as it deemed necessary. "I-131 doses from weapons testing conducted through 1962 have not caused undue risk to health," the council contended. Two years later the panel secretly raised its guidelines for radioactive iodine by a factor of twenty, to accommodate "underground" nuclear tests.
The Federal Radiation Council's director, Paul Tompkins, justified the increase by claiming "we had to take our choice between that much iodine or a predictable level of malnutrition from pricing the milk off the market. We made the choice . . ."
In St. Louis, where fallout readings were very high during the 1962 tests, the Committee for Nuclear Information vocally denounced the persisting nuclear blasts. In an effort to blunt the criticisms the AEC transported a group of children from St. Louis to New York and measured them for radioactive iodine. The AEC's Merrill Eisenbud reported that "tests completed at the New York University Medical Center indicate that the amount of radioactive iodine entering the thyroid glands of children has not approached the danger level." Eisenbud did not mention that iodine 131 has an eight-day half-life. By the time the children reached New York and were analyzed, almost all of the radioactivity had decayed--with the damage already done in the meantime.
In 1960, fifteen years after the first nuclear testing, the AEC had finally established a Fallout Studies Branch. Harold Knapp was working in the AEC general manager's office at the time. Asked to join the Fallout Studies Branch in 1962, Knapp's first task was to review the AEC's rebuttal to a series of criticisms by Ralph Lapp. Knapp found that the rejoinder, written by the prestigious General Advisory Committee of the AEC, "didn't answer anything" and was a "wholly inadequate response." Particularly, Knapp found that the issue of radioactive "hot spots" raised by Lapp deserved further exploration.
AEC officials were continuing to assume uniform distribution of fallout--a woefully inaccurate assumption, ignoring variations in fallout patterns, owing to weather conditions and other factors. "For three months I held them off on a daily basis," while working to come up with a better response, Knapp recollected in a 1981 interview. He found evidence that agreed with Lapp's claims about hot spots. The paper, sent to the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, elicited praise for its candor.
Knapp decided to make a systematic and detailed analysis of the problem of fallout by first looking at radioactive iodine. To his surprise "no systematic approach to the study of fallout had been done before." The monitoring data were "spotty," and evidently there was no real consistent approach to the collection of radiation samples.
"They had inadequate measuring techniques. It takes four days for the radioiodine to build up to a maximum in milk. Within two weeks everything is gone. Either they would analyze the sample too soon or wait too long."
In examining milk data for the 1953 tests, Knapp discovered, "by pot luck someone was measuring the right thing at the right time" for St. George, Utah. Knapp estimated that during the 1950s the dose to the thyroid from iodine 131 in cow's milk was ten times the Federal Radiation Council standards.
Knapp's report was sent upstairs to Charles Dunham, director of the AEC's Division of Biology and Medicine. It was immediately classified. Dunham sent the paper to Gordon Dunning, AEC deputy director for operational safety, who suggested that a special AEC committee, composed of "qualified scientists with specialized backgrounds," be established to comment on the report.
Four of five reviewers favorably commented on Knapp's paper and urged its release. The only unfavorable review came from the Nevada Test Site's off-site radiological safety officer, Oliver R. Placak. Over Dunning's objections, the AEC assistant general manager for research, Spoford English, reluctantly okayed release of the Knapp report.
The basic point of Knapp's research was that after more than ten years of atomic weapons testing at the Nevada site, the AEC had never actually bothered to methodically assess the impact of fallout on people living nearby. The Knapp report, issued in early 1963, warned that "At the Nevada Test Site, over 1,000 kilotons equivalent of Iodine-131 were released before we obtained any reliable data on Iodine-131 in milk in off-site communities following deposition from specific shots." The amount was more than five thousand times as much as had been released at a 1957 accident at the British reactor at Windscale, which caused a national emergency to be declared because of milk contamination.
The broad outlines of the fallout disaster came into focus even while atmospheric nuclear testing persisted. Two decades later Robert Minogue, research director for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, told us: "High AEC officials knew very well the biological effects of low-level radiation in the 1950s. They can't use ignorance as an excuse." But, as grim evidence mounted, the nuclear policymakers tried to keep the truth from the public.
95. Kopp, "Debate over Fallout Hazards," p. 412.
96. George W. Beadle, "Liquidating Unpopular Opinion," Science, October 28, 1955, p. 813.
97. Kopp, "Debate over Fallout Hazards," p. 412.
98. Beadle, "Liquidating Unpopular Opinion," p. 813.
99. New York Times, June 21, 1956.
100. Alice Stewart, interview, November 1980.
101. Alice M. Stewart, et al., "A Survey of Childhood Malignancies," British Medical Journal (1958): 1495-1508.
102. Linus Pauling, "How Dangerous Is Radioactive Fallout?" Foreign Policy Bulletin, June 15, 1957, p. 149.
103. E. B. Lewis, "Leukemia and Ionizing Radiation," Science, May 17, 1957, pp. 965-972.
104. Austin Brues, "Critique of the Linear Theory of Carcinogenesis," Science, September 26, 1958, pp. 693-699.
105. H. Peter Metzger, The Atomic Establishment (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972), pp. 97-98.
106. New York Daily News, March 20, 1955.
107. Metzger, Atomic Establishment, pp. 97-98.
109. J. A. Young and R. W. Perkins, "Fallout from Nuclear Testing--A Position Paper with Recommendations to the EPA," Battelle Pacific Northwest Laboratories, Richland, Washington, September 19, 1979, Table 1.
110. United Nations, "United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, 1958 Report," New York. See also New York Times, August 11, 1958.
111. AEC, "Strontium Program Quarterly Report," New York Operations Office, February 24, 1959.
112. Metzger, Atomic Establishment, p. 99.
113. Edward Teller, "The Compelling Need for Tests," Life, February 10, 1958, pp. 64-66.
114. Karl Z. Morgan, interview, November 1980.
115. Vast amounts of carbon 14 are produced by hydrogen bombs and large nuclear reactors. A beta-emitter with a half-life of about five thousand years, carbon 14, can be incorporated into the DNA of cells, creating significant biological damage. Another of the worrisome fallout isotopes is strontium 90, which is chemically similar to the nutrient calcium and therefore is taken up in soil, plants, and animals, as calcium is. The principal "pathway" for radioactive strontium is the ingestion of contaminated food, particularly milk, leafy vegetables, fruit, and root vegetables. Once it enters the body, strontium eventually lodges in the bone, particularly the growing bone tissue of children, where half of it remains for twenty-eight years. Once inside the bone tissue it emits beta particles, which can eventually lead to such diseases as leukemia or bone-marrow cancer.
116. Linus Pauling, No More War (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1958), pp. 74-75.
117. Albert Schweitzer, "A Declaration of Conscience," Saturday Review, May 18, 1957, pp. 17-20.
118. Pauling, No More War, p. 169.
119. Ibid., p. 160.
121. Ibid., p. 172.
122. Ibid., pp. 173, 174-178.
123. Ibid., p. 171. (The Fulton Lewis, Jr., broadcast was on February 12, 1958.)
124. Ibid., p. 175.
125. Miller and Nowak, The Fifties, pp. 63, 80, 413.
126. Ibid., p. 413.
127. Background Material for the Development of Radiation Standards, Federal Radiation Council Report No. 2 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1961). (Paul Tompkins was formerly deputy director of the AEC's Office of Radiation Standards.)
128. Young and Perkins, "Fallout from Nuclear Testing," September 19, 1979.
129. Estimates and Evaluation of Fallout in the United States from Nuclear Weapons Testing Conducted Through 1962, Federal Radiation Council Report No. 4 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1963).
130. New York Times, September 18, 1962.
131. Federal Radiation Council Report No. 5 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1964).
132. U.S. Congress, House and Senate Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, Environmental Effects of Producing Electric Power, (91st Cong., 1st sess.), October-November 1969, Part 1, p. 409.
133. Metzger, Atomic Establishment, p. 107.
134. Harold Knapp, interview, February 1981.
138. Charles L. Dunham, "Draft Document Average and Above Average Doses to the Thyroid of Children in the United States from Radioiodine from Nuclear Weapons Tests," AEC Memo, October 24, 1962, files of House of Representatives Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and investigations, Washington, D.C.
139. Gordon Dunning to N. H. Woodruff, AEC Memo Re: Knapp Paper, files of House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.
140. U.S. Congress, House and Senate Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, Fallout, Radiation Standards and Countermeasures, (88th Cong., 1st sess.), August 1963, Part 2, pp. 914-1082.
141. Harold Knapp, "Observed Relations Between Deposition Level of Fresh Fission Products from Nevada Tests and Resulting Levels of I-131 in Fresh Milk," AEC Report, March 1, 1963, files of House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.
142. Robert Minogue, interview, February 1981.
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