5Continued Testing: Tragic Repetitions
While the fallout debate raged during the mid-1950s, the U.S. nuclear weapons testing program continued to escalate. American servicemen and civilians were, more than ever, in the radioactive line of fire. The government gave scant priority to the health and safety of its own citizens.
The practice of exploding atomic weapons underwater was a case in point.
The first time the United States set off an atom bomb beneath the ocean surface, at the 1946 Baker test in the shallow Bikini lagoon, the military vessels had been shellacked with unexpectedly tenacious, and long-lived, radioactivity. The U.S. Government scuttled plans for a follow-up deep-water explosion to climax the first series of atomic tests at Bikini.
There was no official acknowledgment that dangers of sub-ocean-surface nuclear explosions had prompted the indefinite postponement. However, an analysis published in Science Digest in summer 1947 said such detonations involve "some highly unpredictable phenomena." In fact, remarked author John W. Campbell, "no one has the slightest idea of what might happen if an atomic bomb were set off at a depth of half a mile in sea water."
The Atomic Energy Commission, in a report to the National Security Resources Board, later conceded that "if a bomb is exploded in water, such as the  Test Baker at Bikini, there will be considerable amounts of residual radioactivity, depending upon wind, currents, tides, and the size of the body of water."
American military officers, briefed by the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project during the late 1940s, were warned that underwater nuclear tests entailed special risks. The secret handbook used in the course cautioned that radioactive mist from an underwater nuclear blast could be expected to spray "serious contamination over a large area."
On pages marked "RESTRICTED" the government's own experts elaborated on the dangers. Dr. Herbert Scoville, Jr., who later became deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, wrote: "In an underwater detonation the nuclear radiation effects are quite different from those resulting from an air burst and are of considerably greater magnitude." Scoville recalled that the only underwater nuclear test up until that time, in the lagoon at Bikini, had left enormous quantities of radioactivity--"estimated to be equivalent to thousands of tons of radium shortly after the detonation. This is a billion times the radioactivity from a gram of radium. Such is the truly fantastic radioactivity associated with an atomic bomb detonation."
And, Scoville pointed out, in Bikini's lagoon "intensities above tolerance were measured for almost a week." Even "nontarget vessels" were severely contaminated.
But nine years later the United States exploded a thirty-kiloton nuclear bomb two thousand feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean--just five hundred miles southwest of San Diego.
1. Rather, the official explanation as United States News reported it was that the deep-water explosion set for Bikini was axed "chiefly because of the danger to military security in tying up the needed technical man power and equipment at this time." (United States News, September 20, 1946, p. 19.)
2. John W. Campbell, "Why Atom Test 3 Was Canceled," Science Digest, July 1947, p 7.
3. The H Bomb, p. 35.
4. Dr. Herbert Scoville, Jr., "Nuclear Radiation Effects of Atomic Bomb Detonations," "Medical Indoctrination Course," Armed Forces Special Weapons Project, Army Medical Center, Washington, D.C., undated, late 1940s, p. 4.
7. U.S. DOD, Prototype Report, DOD Personnel Participation, Operation Wigwam (Washington, D.C.: Defense Nuclear Agency, 1980), p. 12. Wigwam blast location was 28 degrees 44 minutes north latitude and 126 degrees 16 minutes west longitude.
For those who heard about the 1955 deep-water test ahead of time, it didn't sound like much to worry about. Government public-relations specialists saw to that. In the five months between President Eisenhower's approval of the detonation and the day it actually occurred, Pentagon image-makers busily prepared for the unusual nuclear blast, tagged "Operation Wigwam."
About sixty-five hundred people, almost all of them servicemen, were scheduled to be there, so secrecy was out of the question. But the AEC barred news correspondents from observing Operation Wigwam. And, although the bomb was thirty kilotons--more than twice the size of the Hiroshima atomic weapon--the government succeeded in depicting it as rather small. The San Diego Evening Tribune informed its readers that the Wigwam bomb was "thought to have had an energy equivalent of 1 to 5 kilotons, certainly smaller than 20 kt."
Internal government documents about Operation Wigwam remained classified for more than twenty years. In 1980 the California-based Center for Investigative Reporting was able to study official records and films of the underwater test. The team of journalists concluded that "the planners' major concerns were for the scientific and military results of the test; concern for the possible hazards facing the thousands of men stationed at the blast site appears to have been secondary."
When the A-bomb exploded on May 14, 1955, it sent huge shock waves and gigantic walls of seawater at thirty ships with more than six thousand servicemen aboard--many of whom had no idea they were participating in an atomic test. A confidential document declared that the men were subjected to "extremely hazardous respiratory conditions." And the Center for Investigative Reporting found that nearly 40 percent of interviewed Operation Wigwam veterans recalled having no radiation-detection badges during the nuclear test. Out of thirty-five Wigwam veterans located, seventeen had illnesses they attributed to radiation exposure during the blast.
Twenty-four years after the Wigwam test Elroy L. Runnels faced television cameras in Honolulu and remembered: "We weren't told anything of the . . . gravity of the situation." Two days after Runnels's filmed statement he was dead--a leukemia victim. He had been seventeen years old while aboard the U.S.S. Moctobi in the Operation Wigwam armada.
One of Runnels's last efforts, from his deathbed in late summer of 1979, was to file a class action lawsuit against the U.S. Government, charging it intentionally endangered him and the other servicemen involved in Operation Wigwam. And because the government continued to stay mum about possible risks, Runnels maintained, his leukemia "festered undetected until it had advanced to an acute, severely debilitating state."
Elroy Runnels's charges exposed basic inconsistencies in the government's accounts of the nuclear test. Despite the Navy's contention that no servicemen were closer than five miles to the blast, the logs of Runnels's ship showed it as being well under a mile from the bomb detonation. He was not informed that he had participated in a nuclear test until several weeks after Operation Wigwam was over.
Nor was Operation Wigwam the last American underwater nuclear explosion. In the summer of 1958 two nuclear blasts went off beneath the sea at Eniwetok. And on May 11, 1962, a test code-named Swordfish exploded with a force of twenty kilotons, under the Pacific Ocean at a spot 360 miles southwest of San Diego. About five thousand Navy servicemen were at the Swordfish test, which subjected them to what the Defense Nuclear Agency has termed "extremely low-yield" radiation.
For the most part America's nuclear testers were content to detonate new warheads above sea level in the Pacific Ocean. In 1958--a dozen years after the first atomic test in the Marshall Islands--the United States was exploding massive thermonuclear (hydrogen) bombs amidst those scenic isles. One Eniwetok blast, dubbed Oak, went off with a force of 8.9 megatons on June 28, 1958. Two months later the last nuclear weapons test occurred in the Marshall Islands.
The Pentagon moved on to other parts of the Pacific Ocean--Christmas Island and Johnson Island areas--where in 1962 thousands more American servicemen were exposed to nuclear test radiation. Over a span of more than sixteen years, beginning with Operation Crossroads in 1946, the United States exploded 106 nuclear weapons in various parts of the Pacific.
8. Dan Noyes, Maureen O'Neill, David Weir, "Operation Wigwam," New West, December 1, 1980, p. 28.
9. Ibid., p. 27.
10. Ibid., p. 29.
11. ABC-TV, 20/20 program broadcast, March 5, 1981, transcript p. 7.
12. Ibid., p. 6.
13. Ibid., p. 3.
14. Honolulu Star-Bulletin, September 4, 1979.
15. San Francisco Chronicle, United Press International, September 7, 1979.
16. Honolulu Advertiser, September 7, 1979.
17. The Oregonian, Associated Press, December 13, 1979.
18. Among the megaton-range explosions at Johnson Island was the 1.4-megaton Starfish Prime blast set off via rocket at an altitude of 248 miles on July 8, 1962. "For some time thereafter," Science magazine reported nineteen years later, "physicists puzzled over a resulting series of odd occurrences. Some 800 miles away in Hawaii, streetlights had failed, burglar alarms had rung, and circuit breakers had popped open in power lines. Today, the mysterious agent is known as electromagnetic pulse (EMP). Physicists say a single nuclear detonation in near space would cover vast stretches of the earth with an EMP of 50,000 volts per meter." A few such nuclear detonations could shut down electrical power grids and communications systems for thousands of miles around. (William J. Broad, "Nuclear Pulse (1): Awakening to the Chaos Factor," Science, May 29, 1981, pp. 1009-1012.)
The "Clean" Bomb
At the Nevada Test Site atmospheric nuclear bomb tests continued until mid-1962. Leukemia and cancer deaths rose noticeably as mushroom clouds continued to darken the horizon.
For residents downwind, radioactive fallout--as AEC Commissioner Willard Libby had predicted in closed session--had indeed become a fact of life. Living in rural range lands of Nevada's Railroad Valley north of the test site, Martin Bardoli was just beginning elementary school in 1956 when he was diagnosed with leukemia. He died before the end of the year. Believing the fallout clouds were responsible, Martin's parents circulated a petition and sent it to their senators and the Atomic Energy Commission.
In a responding letter Senator George Malone warned against alarmism about fallout. And, the senator added, "it is not impossible to suppose that some of the `scare' stories are Communist inspired."
AEC chairman Lewis Strauss replied by quoting former President Truman: "`Let us keep our sense of proportion in the matter of radioactive fallout. Of course, we want to keep the fallout in our tests to the absolute minimum, and we are learning to do just that. But the dangers that might occur from the fallout involve a small sacrifice when compared to the infinitely greater evil of the use of nuclear bombs in war.'" Such reasoning did not convince the bereaved parents.
Health matters remained low priority for the nation's nuclear weapons testers. When the AEC's Advisory Committee on Biology and Medicine convened in January 1957, panelists discussed how best to counter public statements being made by independent scientists failing to toe the government line on fallout dangers.
Two months later the AEC distributed its assurances-filled Atomic Tests in Nevada booklet to thousands of downwind residents. With two dozen or so atomic explosions during Operation Plumbbob slated to begin soon at the Nevada site, new methods of cultivating trust among residents went into effect.
Federal administrators discovered that "good public relations in the off-site area were more difficult to maintain" than during the test series two years earlier, an in-house government report lamented. But the U.S. Government's evaluators had some encouraging news. Innovations for gaining the confidence of residents seemed to pay off. "The single fact that off-site monitors (many with families) lived in communities went a long way in establishing good public relations."
Amid customary heavy and laudatory publicity American troops maneuvered beneath mushroom clouds of the 1957 tests.
Stationed in southern Nevada, Marine Major Charles Broudy placed a long-distance call to his wife on July 4, 1957. Excitement and urgency in her husband's voice were apparent to Pat Broudy as she listened from their home in Santa Ana, California, about three hundred miles away.
"You've got to get the kids up and face the east tomorrow morning around four Nevada time," she would always remember his telling her. "You'll see a miracle."
After the "miracle"--a massive atomic explosion named Hood that official logs peg at seventy-four kilotons--Charles Broudy returned home. An often-decorated pilot whose awards included a Distinguished Flying Cross, Broudy was a career Marine with a top-secret clearance. He said little about the nuclear tests.
Nineteen years later he was diagnosed with lymphoma, a radiation-linked cancer. "He suffered terribly," recounted his widow, "but was convinced that his government would take care of him in his final days and would take care of his family after his death."
However, after the drawn-out death occurred, the Veterans Administration denied service-connected benefits to his widow and children. Pat Broudy undertook detailed research. Aided by Princeton University physicist Frank von Hippel, she found that the Hood shot had exposed her late husband to about seventy thousand millirads of radiation--more than five thousand times above the thirteen-millirad dose the government said his film badge read at the test blast.
But the Veterans Administration continued to turn down the Broudy family's appeals. "I buried my husband and swore to avenge his death if it takes the rest of my life, and well it may," Pat Broudy said in 1981.
In response to a growing public awareness of the threat of nuclear fallout, President Eisenhower introduced the notion of the "clean" bomb. At a press conference on June 5, 1957, he declared that "we have reduced fallout from bombs by nine-tenths." Nevada test detonations were continuing in order "to see how clean we can make them."
A few weeks later, three top American atomic scientists, including Dr. Edward Teller, met with President Eisenhower to support the "clean bomb"' rationale for further nuclear testing. Teller told reporters the meeting occurred to inform Eisenhower "what we are accomplishing in the current weeks and what we hope to and plan to accomplish in the coming years, if we can continue to work." Teller made the comment a few hours after a thirty-seven-kiloton nuclear bomb named Priscilla had exploded in Nevada.
"Clean bomb" verbiage sought to put a relatively pretty face on the testing program. "This was done to counter the increasing public protests in the late 1950s against radioactive contamination resulting from atmospheric nuclear test explosions," a later article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists remarked. "In addition, the possible development of an `absolutely clean' bomb was used as an argument against a nuclear test ban, then under negotiation with the Soviet Union."
After his June 1957 meeting with Teller and other physicists, President Eisenhower shared his enthusiasm with the nation. "What they are working on is . . . the production of clean bombs," Eisenhower proclaimed. "They tell me that already they are producing bombs that have 96 percent less fallout than was the case in our original ones, or what we call dirty bombs, but they go beyond this. They say: `Give us four or five more years to test each step of our development and we will produce an absolutely clean bomb.'" The New York Times headline, for the article conveying the President's statements, revealed one of the significant motives behind the announcement: "EISENHOWER WARY OF ATOMIC TEST BAN."
But promises about cleanliness of nuclear bombs did not decontaminate the radiation still rising from Pacific Ocean and Nevada test sites in 1958--during which the U.S. exploded seventy-seven nuclear weapons. Even America's major metropolitan areas were not exempt from intensely radioactive fallout clouds. Rapid-fire atmospheric nuclear tests in Nevada, plus Russian atomic detonations, sent radiation readings to the highest ever recorded in Los Angeles by the end of October 1958. Government officials announced that the fallout on Los Angeles was "harmless." Yet privately the National Advisory Committee on Radiation termed the L.A. radioactivity "an emergency."
Panel members met in secret session on November 10, 1958, to discuss the problem. "If you ever let these numbers get out to the public, you have had it," said Lauriston S. Taylor, head of the Atomic Radiation Physics Division of the National Bureau of Standards.
The average radiation dose in Los Angeles hovered at the maximum levels deemed "permissible" according to federal guidelines--and some citizens received more than that amount. Taylor admitted that references to permissible levels "carry the implication that we know what we are talking about when we set them. But in actual fact, they really represent the best judgment we would exercise now in the total absence of any real knowledge as to whether they are correct or not."
U.S. surgeon general Dr. LeRoy Burney commented, "If I were in Los Angeles, I would consider I was insulted for somebody in the Federal Government . . . to say, `This is nothing to be alarmed about.'"
The huddled government scientists observed that radiation dosages at least as high as those besetting Los Angeles had been found the previous year in Salt Lake City. But twenty years would pass before residents of either city learned about what was said at that closed governmental meeting.
By the time the provisional nuclear test moratorium began in November 1958, the United States had set off 196 nuclear bombs, while the Soviet Union had detonated 55.
For nearly three years the world got relief from atmospheric nuclear tests--except for a few fired by France in 1960 and 1961. Amid growing world tensions--the Berlin and Cuban crises in particular--the Soviets resumed testing with a huge nuclear explosion in September 1961, and the U.S. soon followed that example. But the movement for a formal test treaty continued.
19. Even when the bombs weren't exploding, the radiation burden was being increased because of test-site activities. From 1955 to 1958, and again in 1962, the government conducted dozens of "safety experiments" --sometimes labeled "plutonium dispersal" in official logs--sprinkling deadly plutonium particles to the winds in the southern Nevada desert. At the time, the general public was unaware those tests were going on. The Environmental Protection Agency discovered in 1974 that soil in the two states contained the nation's highest plutonium concentrations. The thickest blankets of plutonium in Utah were found in northern parts of the state--including Salt Lake City. (U.S. Energy Research and Development Administration, Final Environmental Impact Statement, Nevada Test Site, Nye County, Nevada (Washington, D.C.: ERDA, September 1977), pp. 2-88 to 2-91; Health Effects of Low-Level Radiation, April 19, 1979, Vol. 1, pp. 65-66.
20. Deseret News, April 24, 1979; Life, June 1980, pp. 38-39.
21. Life, June 1980, p. 38.
22. Ibid., p. 39.
23. AEC Advisory Committee on Biology and Medicine Meeting Minutes, January 16-19, 1957, pp. 4-6.
24. AEC, Atomic Tests in Nevada.
25. AEC, "Plumbbob Off-Site Rad-Safety Report," 1958, p. 19.
26. Pat Broudy to authors, January 2, 1981.
28. Atomic Veterans' Newsletter, p. 19.
29. Broudy to authors, January 2, 1981.
30. New York Times, June 25, 1957.
32. Wim A. Smit and Peter Boskma, "Laser Fusion," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, December 1980, p. 34.
33. New York Times, June 27, 1957, cited in Smit and Boskma, "Laser Fusion," p. 34.
34. Deseret News, April 24, 1979.
39. For a list of nuclear tests by all nations, see Melvin W. Carter and A. Alan Moghissi, "Three Decades of Nuclear Testing," Health Physics, July 1977, pp. 55-71.
Fallout in New York State
By 1963 an atmospheric nuclear test ban was in final stages of negotiation between the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain. Carrying through promises of the 1960 campaign, President John Kennedy had made it respectable for people to question fallout from testing.
In a July 1963 speech televised to the nation Kennedy urged Senate ratification of the test ban treaty: "The number of children and grandchildren with cancer in their bones, with leukemia in their blood, or with poison in their lungs might seem statistically small to some, in comparison with natural hazards, but this is not a natural health hazard--and it is not a statistical issue. The loss of even one human life, or malformation of one baby--who may be born long after we are gone--should be of concern to us all. Our children and grandchildren are not merely statistics towards which we can be indifferent."
On August 20, 1963, Edward Teller testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in opposition to the test ban treaty. "From the present levels of worldwide fallout, there is no danger," he said. "The real danger is that you will frighten mothers from giving milk to their babies. By that, probably more damage has been done than by anything else concerning this matter."
Across the Capitol, at a Joint Committee on Atomic Energy hearing, University of Utah scientists Robert Pendleton and Charles Mays presented evidence that because of the 1962 tests approximately a quarter-million young children in Utah may have been exposed to average thyroid doses of 4.4 rads. Their analysis had compelled the state of Utah to dump several thousand gallons of milk--which contained radioactive iodine levels eight times above the official Federal Radiation Council guidelines. Dr. Mays estimated that as a result of the Harry test in 1953, seven hundred infants in St. George received radiation doses to their thyroids 136 to 500 times higher than existing permissible levels. Those doses could cause death, genetic mutation, brain damage, and hypothyroidism among other diseases.
Underscoring this point, witness Eric Reiss, cofounder of the St. Louis Committee for Nuclear Information, added that "in the period 1951-62, a number of local populations, especially Nevada, Idaho, and Utah . . . have been exposed to fallout so intense as to represent a medically unacceptable hazard to children who may drink fresh locally produced milk."
On the next day a University of Pittsburgh Medical School professor of radiology, Dr. Ernest Sternglass, presented testimony. His work evoked the greatest amount of concern from the Joint Committee. In a 1963 paper in Science magazine, Sternglass had calculated that the latest two years of nuclear testing fallout exposed everybody living in the Northern Hemisphere to a radiation dose of two hundred to four hundred millirads, roughly equivalent to a pelvic X ray. Citing Dr. Alice Stewart's findings of a 50 percent increase in childhood cancer risks from fetal X rays, Sternglass estimated that there would be an additional eight hundred childhood cancer deaths in the U.S. from the 1961-1962 tests alone.
Sternglass had applied those estimates to the Troy/Albany area in upstate New York--where average radiation doses went as high as a few thousand millirads as a result of fallout from the 1953 Simon test in Nevada. Sternglass calculated a doubling in child cancer risks for the residents of Troy/Albany.
Sternglass submitted his findings on fallout effects to Science magazine for publication. In its early days, Science had strongly questioned the atomic establishment. In 1955 the magazine vigorously attacked Lewis Strauss for scientific suppression and had published E. B. Lewis's papers opposing the "threshold" concept of radiation safety.
But now the editorship of Science had passed to Philip Abelson, a physicist deeply involved in the government's nuclear program from the Manhattan Project on. Abelson also served on the AEC's General Advisory Committee and on its Project Plowshare Committee, which was promoting "peaceful" uses of nuclear explosives. Not surprisingly, Abelson rejected Sternglass's article on fallout contending that "there is really no evidence of the functional relationship between the number of X-rays taken and cancer mortality."
Sternglass soon resubmitted his paper with comments from Dr. Russell Morgan, one of America's foremost experts on X rays and the effects of low-level radiation. Morgan praised Sternglass's paper and voiced support for Alice Stewart's findings of definite links between X rays and cancer--findings which by then had been confirmed by Dr. Brian MacMahon of Harvard. Within a month after resubmission, Science was forced to accept Sternglass's paper.
But in March of 1964 the magazine printed a letter from James H. Lade of the New York State Health Department attacking Sternglass's findings. Lade wrote that "the cancer report files of this department reveal no increase in the incidence of cancer or leukemia over the past 10 years in children of the Albany, Troy and Schenectady areas--who were 15 years or younger in 1963--as compared with children of this age elsewhere in upstate New York."
A key phrase in Lade's argument came when he said the Albany area's leukemia rate appeared normal "as compared with children of this age elsewhere in upstate New York." The entire upstate New York region had received heavy fallout on April 26, 1953, but measurements there had been classified as secret by the AEC. "Under these circumstances," Sternglass reasoned, "there would of course be little or no difference in leukemia rates between Troy, Albany, Schenectady and elsewhere in upstate New York." Lade's new information actually "showed that beginning in the fourth to fifth years after the 1953 rainout, the yearly number of reported leukemia cases quadrupled," according to Sternglass.
Unable to pry loose any further data from New York State's uncooperative health department, Ernest Sternglass presented an update of his Troy/Albany paper to the Health Physics Society's annual meeting, held in Denver in June 1968. Reports of Sternglass's findings received wide publicity in the U.S. and abroad. A month after the annual meeting R. E. Alexander, chairman of the Health Physics Society public-relations committee, sent a letter to the society's board members, complaining that the "publicity about the paper of E. J. Sternglass . . . was damaging to the nuclear industry."
Continuing his research, Sternglass began poring through U.S. vital statistics for the three upstate counties in New York. While copying the numbers he noticed that births had increased by only about 50 percent while leukemia cases went up by more than 300 percent. What was even more striking, fetal deaths stopped declining while intense fallout was taking place; seven years after testing, fetal deaths resumed a downward trend. He then began a detailed comparison of actual measured fallout levels made public by the AEC, with fetal and infant death rates in New York State. "Each time the levels of the short lived isotopes, such as I-131 and Strontium-90, shot up to their highest peaks, there was a sharp rise in fetal mortality within a year."
The first large jumps in fetal deaths were "followed by a second slower rise culminating between three and five years later," Sternglass discovered. The second peaks were especially high "probably because each of the enormous fusion bombs . . . produced hundreds of times as much Strontium-90 . . . in order to get a `bigger bang for a buck,' as U.S. Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson put it. Edward Teller and his weapons engineers had surrounded the hydrogen bombs with cheap, abundant Uranium-238. As a result, the total explosive force could be doubled . . . but the levels of Strontium-90 in the bones of living creatures vastly increased."
By fall 1968 Sternglass had estimated that atmospheric nuclear testing caused the deaths of 375,000 babies--in the United States alone--before their first birthdays between 1951 and 1966.
Sternglass discussed his research with colleagues in the Federation of American Scientists. They agreed to hold a public meeting in Pittsburgh on October 23, 1968. Meanwhile, Sternglass submitted copies to Science and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
Pittsburgh television reporter Stuart Brown contacted Science editor Philip Abelson for his comments on the Sternglass paper. Contrary to the standard procedure of keeping editorial correspondence confidential, Abelson read statements from scientific reviews of Sternglass's paper responding to Lade on the Troy/Albany situation. Abelson then advised Brown against using Sternglass's findings on the air. A few weeks later Science returned the Troy/Albany and infant-mortality papers with a rejection notice.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, after a review of Sternglass's infant-mortality paper, agreed to publish it in their April 1969 issue. Sternglass later learned from the magazine's managing editor, Richard S. Lewis, that the Bulletin withstood pressure "both before and after publication in the form of long distance phone calls from Washington from individuals who claimed to be long-term Government friends of the journal." The callers informed Lewis that publication of the Sternglass article was a "grave mistake."
40. Ernest Sternglass, Secret Fallout, pp. 27-28.
41. U.S. Congress, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, (88th Cong., 1st sess.), August 12-27, 1963.
42. Fallout, Radiation Standards and Countermeasures, June 1963, Part 1.
43. Ibid., August 1963, Part 2.
44. Ernest J. Sternglass, "Cancer: Relation of Prenatal Radiation to Development of Disease in Childhood," Science, June 7, 1963, pp. 1102-1104.
45. Stewart, et al., "Survey of Childhood Malignancies," pp. 1495-1508.
46. Sternglass, Secret Fallout, p. 21.
47. Ibid., p. 23.
48. J. H. Lade, "More on the 1953 Fallout in Troy," Science, March 6, 1964, pp. 994-995.
49. Sternglass, Secret Fallout, p. 43.
50. Ibid., p. 52.
51. Ibid., pp. 56, 57, 63.
52. Ibid., p. 65.
53. Ibid., p. 73.
54. Ibid., p. 75.
55. Ibid., p. 97.
In retrospect there is chilling irony in the atomic bomb's--and the nuclear industry's--origins. Stopping Nazi barbarism provided the initial rationale for the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb. At the Nuremberg trials some Nazi scientists and other functionaries were charged with grotesque experiments on humans; the Nuremberg judges rejected excuses and rationalizations.
But since then, in the United States, "we have already accepted the policy of experimentation on involuntary human subjects," concluded Dr. John W. Gofman, a pioneer in radiation research who codiscovered the fissionability of uranium 233 and helped isolate the world's first milligram of plutonium.
"In the mid-'50s--when the toxi[ci]ty of low-dose radiation was still uncertain--we were testing nuclear bombs in the atmosphere and launching the Atoms for Peace Program," Gofman recalled in a 1979 statement. "It should have been clear to me, even then, that both atmospheric bomb-testing and nuclear power constituted experimentation on involuntary human subjects, indeed on all forms of life."
With extraordinarily blunt self-criticism Gofman--a physicist and medical doctor--went on: "I am on record in 1957 as not being worried yet about fallout and still being optimistic about the benefits of nuclear power. There is no way I can justify my failure to help sound an alarm over these activities many years sooner than I did. I feel that at least several hundred scientists trained in the biomedical aspect of atomic energy--myself definitely included--are candidates for Nuremberg-type trials for crimes against humanity through our gross negligence and irresponsibility." And, Gofman added, "Now that we know the hazard of low-dose radiation, the crime is not experimentation--it's murder."
People viewing such an assessment as unfair or excessively strident might find it less so after visiting small towns like St. George, Utah, or Fredonia, Arizona, or Tonopah, Nevada. The pain, for many, has just begun.
Before dawn on January 27, 1981--exactly thirty years after the first mushroom cloud ascended from the Nevada Test Site--lifelong Utah residents gathered at the steps of the state capitol and lit candles in memory of dead relatives and friends. Around the state other memorial candles flickered in the darkness.
At the operations center for the Nevada Test Site daylight brought simply the beginning of another working day. An Associated Press reporter phoned for comment on the candlelight observances downwind. He took notes, and wrote in an article sent across the nation a few hours later: "The Department of Energy maintains there is `no positive evidence' of a link between fallout and the cancer cases, said Dee Jenkins, test site spokeswoman."
We called Dee Jenkins and asked for clarification. Had she been accurately quoted?
Yes, she replied. "There is no positive link between low-level radiation and cancer cases."
We asked whether the downwind residents had received "low-level radiation" exposure during the atmospheric testing years.
"I'm not qualified to answer that question," she responded after a pause. Our request for a clarifying official statement was never answered.
Three decades after the first fallout clouds from Nevada, in some respects not much had really changed at federal agencies making pronouncements about nuclear testing.
And, with some exceptions, American mass media have continued to be influenced by substantial pressures to treat nuclear weapons testers with deference.
In 1957 The Reporter magazine published an exceptional in-depth article, "Clouds from Nevada," by investigative reporter Paul Jacobs. Raising basic questions about the safety of nuclear tests, the article was a classic instance of prophetic journalism that--if heeded at the time of publication--would have prevented a great deal of fallout-induced harm yet to come. Twenty years later Jacobs set about working on a documentary film to update the story.
Jacobs died from cancer in 1978, before completion of the project. Associates at New Time Films, based in New York, finished the movie, titling it Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang. The result was a devastating chronicle of life and death downwind from the test site.
To the nuclear industry, that was the problem. The movie was clearly dangerous. And so when the Public Broadcasting Service scheduled Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang for national telecast, the Atomic Industrial Forum--an advocacy organization for nuclear energy corporations--swung into action. It mounted an intensive nationwide drive against the film, denouncing it as biased and unfit for broadcast. In addition stations in some localities received letters from regional reactor-committed electric utilities, urging that the film not be broadcast.
"After the Atomic Industrial Forum wrote to PBS to protest, the censorship then took place on a local level," the film's associate producer, Penny Bernstein, told us. When the evening scheduled for telecast came, public TV stations in nine of the nation's twenty-four largest television areas refused to air Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang. Some, like the five public stations in New Jersey, said they could not find broadcasting time for the film--ever. Other stations postponed it to less popular time slots.
In St. Louis, where public television station KETC scheduled the movie and then yanked it at virtually the last minute, a Post-Dispatch editorial expressed doubt that the program would have been treated the same way if it had down-played radiation risks. Most likely, the newspaper concluded, the TV station sought to avoid controversy "only because the show questioned the safety of radiation and because government and industry . . . have invested millions in promoting nuclear power (with its accompanying radiation) as safe." Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang won the only Emmy award that the Public Broadcasting Service received for 1979. But as of late 1981 PBS--heavily reliant on government and corporate funding--had not provided any money to the documentary movie's producers for a follow- up film they had proposed.
56. John W. Gofman, An Irreverent, Illustrated View of Nuclear Power (San Francisco: Committee for Nuclear Responsibility, Main P.O. Box 11207, San Francisco, CA 92401; 1979), p. 227.
58. Ibid., pp. 227-228.
59. The Oregonian, Associated Press, January 28, 1981.
60. Dee Jenkins, interview, February 1981.
62. Paul Jacobs, "Clouds from Nevada," The Reporter, May 16, 1957, reprinted in Health Effects of Low-Level Radiation, Vol. 1, pp. 45-64. Jacobs was one of the few people to write about the Nevada testing's destructive impact on downwind residents as early as 1957 for a national readership. Another was Ralph Friedman, a free-lance journalist who had written for the U.S. Army weekly Yank during World War II. The Nation published Friedman's reportage--headlining it "NEXT DOOR TO GROUND ZERO"--in autumn 1957. The federal government, Friedman concluded in his article, "has done a top-flight Madison Avenue public-relations job in playing down all issues relating to radiation." But, he noted, "AEC publicists have the painful task of double-dealing. They tell the isolated stockmen and miners that they have nothing to worry about . . . They then tell the people of the cities that the tests are `safe' because the fallout comes to rest in `virtually uninhabited desert terrain.'" (Ralph Friedman, "Next Door to Ground Zero," Nation, October 19, 1957, pp. 256-259.) When we asked Friedman what the response was to The Nation article, he replied: "None--as far as I could see." (Friedman, interview, March 1981.)
63. For a eulogy to Paul Jacobs see Saul Landau and Jack Willis, In These Times, April 11-17, 1979.
64. Jack Willis and Saul Landau, Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang.
65. "PBS Stations Yield to Industry Pressure, Decline to Air Program on Effects of Nuclear Radiation," ACCESS, March 26, 1979; Penny Bernstein to authors, January 27, 1981.
66. Bernstein to authors, January 27, 1981.
67. "PBS Stations Yield to Industry Pressure."
68. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 3, 1979.
69. Bernstein to authors, January 27, 1981.
Underground Nuclear Tests
One of the most pervasive--and erroneous--beliefs about the U.S. nuclear testing program is that its radioactive fallout ended when the Limited Test Ban treaty took effect in 1963. When the nuclear tests went underground, people assumed the weapons-testing radiation threat disappeared. This comforting notion, carefully nurtured by the government, is false.
In 1979 the U.S. Government admitted that more than 35 of approximately 330 "underground" nuclear blasts sent radioactivity outside the boundaries of the Nevada Test Site, during the 1960s and early 1970s. And the DOE's test site manager, General Mahlon Gates, said that the government still was not sure it had made public all the atomic tests that occurred in Nevada. Prior to that announcement governmental spokespeople were admitting to only half as many underground test mishaps venting radioactivity off-site. "During 18 weapons tests which accidentally released radioactivity during the period, 1962-1971, very, very, small releases occurred," DOE media liaison David Miller said in December 1978.
While understating the number of underground tests spewing radioactivity beyond site boundaries, officials were even more determined to belittle the severity of those ventings. "We didn't believe it was a health hazard then and don't believe it is today," Miller insisted. But that kind of assurance sounded more than a little familiar. In St. George, Irma Thomas--who had lived through the atmospheric testing days as a middle-aged woman--told us the underground nuclear testing continued to infuriate her. "I don't trust all that stuff about how safe it is," she said. "We've heard that before."
Across the Arizona border, in the town of Fredonia where the leukemia epidemic killed four people including her husband, Rose Mackelprang reacted to the underground testing with gentle anger: "I don't think that we really should have to have any more radiation, I think we have plenty without adding to it all the time. We have about all that we need."
In 1980 we visited the Nevada Test Site, touring the windswept expanse of desert, accompanied by federal officials. Signs at heavily guarded checkpoints now say "U.S. Department of Energy." As always it is a military operation.
Amid the ugly pockmarks of the test site, where craters give off the appearance of a moonscape from the air, the austere yet ecologically intricate desert seemed transmuted, and profoundly violated.
For the record, Nevada Test Site representatives were resolute--speaking of preparedness, national defense, a strong "military posture." But an old hand at nuclear testing said, after asking us to turn off our tape recorder, "No head of state, in the world, has ever seen a nuclear bomb explosion. To me, that's scary." He added: "I don't think anyone who has ever seen a nuclear explosion has ever not asked the question--My God, what have we done?"
When the 1980s began, nuclear detonations under the Nevada desert--ranging up to 150 kilotons each--were occurring at an average rate of once every three weeks. After the Reagan administration gained power in 1981, it pledged to increase that pace.
A cone-shaped crater, measuring several hundred feet deep and a quarter-mile across, was left by the hydrogen "device" code-named Sedan. Eighteen years after it was created by the 104-kiloton thermonuclear blast, the crater--graced with an overlook platform and an explanatory sign--had become a monument to the destructive force of nuclear weaponry. But when it was detonated, as an experiment in possible excavation uses of nuclear energy, Sedan sent intense radiation all the way to the Eastern Seaboard. Probably little would have been learned about this planned disaster had not some University of Utah graduate students and their outspoken professor been visiting a canyon about twenty miles southeast of Salt Lake City.
On July 7, 1962, radiologist Dr. Robert C. Pendleton was with students on a field trip in Big Cottonwood Canyon. "We were measuring levels of radioactivity in different environmental situations," Dr. Pendleton remembered. "A cloud of radioactive material came over and all the measurements began to go nuts. I recognized that we were getting fallout and took the students off the hill and back down in the valley." The fallout had multiplied normal radiation readings a hundredfold.
There had been no warning from the government--only "the usual announcements that atomic shots were taking place," according to Deseret News environmental reporter Joseph Bauman. Although the federal government was content to let the matter rest, Dr. Pendleton was not: "We found radioactive iodine in all of the children, milk and vegetation that we measured in the whole northern section of the state."
Pendleton's determination to analyze impacts of the Sedan fallout caused the Utah Department of Health to divert thousands of gallons of milk--laced with radioactive iodine 131, a voracious destroyer of human thyroids--that would have been otherwise consumed by Utah residents. The action partially deflected health damage to Utahns from the Sedan test fallout. But it angered the White House--which "responded by ordering the Public Health Service to clear its radiation reports through the White House press office," The Deseret News reported seventeen years later on the basis of newly declassified federal documents.
As long-secret records came to light, the Salt Lake City newspaper published an interview with Dr. Pendleton about aftermaths of ostensibly nonatmospheric nuclear testing in July 1962. Radioactive iodine, cesium, and strontium increased "very markedly" after the Sedan blast, Pendleton recalled. "We told Governor George D. Clyde there was a risk, but the [U.S.] Public Health Service was telling the State Division of Public Health a different story." The federal policy of dismissing radiation alarms prevented use of precautions that could have helped guard people from exposure. As Pendleton observed, "Public relations statements that there was no harm in the fallout clouds were reprehensible."
During the 1960s, as Pendleton continued warning of radiation damage from underground nuclear tests, official hostility toward him grew. The conflict escalated in 1963 with the publication of a Science magazine article on Utah's summer 1962 iodine 131 levels. Pendleton and two colleagues pointed out that the thyroids of many thousands of Utah people were seriously threatened by nuclear detonations in Nevada the previous summer--with children in their first two years of life put at the greatest risk of all.
In 1964 a follow-up article in Science made clear that the country as a whole remained in jeopardy from ventings of underground nuclear tests. Dr. Edward A. Martell, formerly employed by the U.S. Government to monitor fallout, documented findings that underground nuclear blasts were responsible for significant levels of iodine 131 in milk from the Pacific Northwest and the Midwest to the southeastern United States.
"Even underground tests which are largely contained below ground with only a limited release of radioactive gases and vapors cannot be overlooked as sources of Iodine-131," Martell wrote. He added: "Control of Iodine-131 fallout will be more effective if we control its sources rather than the distribution and consumption of fresh dairy products. . . . The high frequency of venting of radioactive products from previous underground tests suggests that either there was no serious attempt to contain them, or that containment is difficult and uncertain."
To a casual observer the scientific debate over iodine 131 from underground testing might have seemed somewhat academic. But in a community like Pleasant Grove--located near Provo, Utah, in the fallout path of Sedan and other tests several years earlier--the issue appeared much less abstract. During the late 1960s seven children in that town of about five thousand people died from leukemia--a rate more than ten times higher than the national average.
Pendleton found himself faced with cuts in federal research funds because he was coming up with Utah radiation readings deemed "too high." Some of the most ominous nuclear tests were being executed under the category of Plowshare explosions to develop nuclear technology for functions like excavation. "Surely each person to be showered with radioactive dust from engineering tests should be fully informed of this possible hazard, and should be given a chance to decide whether the risk is justified," Pendleton told a Science Digest interviewer in 1967. He went on, "While we are making such strong efforts all over the nation to clear up the air and remove pollution, we have an agency proposing to release massive quantities of radioactive air pollution to drift down over the inhabitants of the country without even asking a by-your-leave as to whether they may do so."
In 1981 we asked Robert Pendleton to comment on his two-decade altercation with nuclear weapons testing authorities. Continuing his research as director of the Radiological Health Department at the University of Utah, Dr. Pendleton seemed weary of the struggle. He declined to discuss past cover-ups and coercion directed against him.
70. U.S. Congress, House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, Testimony of General Mahlon Gates, U.S. DOE manager of the Nevada Test Site, and Richard E. Stanley, acting director of the U.S. Environmental Monitoring and Support Laboratory," Las Vegas, Nevada, April 23, 1979, unpublished transcript.
72. Washington County News (Utah), December 14, 1978.
74. Irma Thomas, interview, February 1980.
75. Rose Mackelprang, speech to National Conference for a Comprehensive Test Ban, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, December 12, 1980.
76. DOE official, who requested anonymity, during tour of Nevada Test Site, interview, February 1980.
77. David Jackson, DOE spokesman, interview, September 1980.
78. Deseret News, May 23, 1979.
79. The Tribune (Salt Lake), May 17, 1980.
80. Deseret News, May 23, 1979.
82. The Tribune, (Salt Lake), May 17, 1980.
83. Deseret News, April 24, 1979.
84. Deseret News, January 27, 1979.
85. Robert C. Pendleton, et al., "Iodine-131 in Utah During July and August 1962," Science, August 16, 1963, pp. 640-642.
86. E. A. Martell, "Iodine-131 Fallout from Underground Tests," Science, January 10, 1964, pp. 126-129.
87. Ibid., p. 129.
88. The Tribune (Salt Lake), May 17, 1980.
89. Heath, "Subject: Leukemia."
90. Deseret News, January 27, 1979.
91. Nelson Wadsworth, "Underground A-Tests May Be Making Us Radioactive," Science Digest, September 1967, pp. 15, 17.
92. Robert Pendleton to authors, January 19, 1981.
More Radiation Clouds
In the late 1960s and beyond, the kind of additional fallout that underground testing critics had labored to prevent did indeed occur--with several subsurface nuclear tests shooting radioactivity across the U.S. and into Canada.
From 1966 to 1975 the federal officer responsible for monitoring of off-site fallout from underground detonations was Colonel Raymond E. Brim, chief of operations for the Air Force Technical Applications Center. On December 8, 1968, a thirty-kiloton Plowshare blast named Schooner sent up a storm of radioactivity over the Nevada Test Site. As usual Brim's agency began to monitor the fallout.
"This effluent cloud was tracked continuously by Air Force planes until it reached the border of Canada where standing orders prevented tracking outside the United States," Brim revealed more than a decade afterward. "I remember a few days later an article appeared in the New York Times which reported an increase in radiation detected in Canada. When we read the article, we knew that it was the cloud we had tracked to the border." But, at the time, Brim and his colleagues kept silent. And, with neither the U.S. nor Canadian governments willing to state definitely that the American test was the cause of increased radiation levels in Canada, the matter dropped, unresolved, from public sight.
The Schooner test clouds also dropped radiation across the continent. "It didn't register anywhere east of the Mississippi because the AEC had no monitoring stations east of the river," according to Brim--who termed the government's strategy "a clever adaption of the switch-the-monitors-off ploy."
While working for the Air Force, Brim went along with the Pentagon program and held his peace. During the first several years after retirement, however, Colonel Brim mulled the implications of underground testing radiation leaks. On August 1, 1979, he testified at a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.
"There is indisputable evidence on record that shows that the people, not just of Utah and Nevada but of a much wider and more encompassing area of the United States, were unknowingly subjected to fallout of radioactive debris that resulted from ventings of underground and cratering tests conducted at the Nevada Test Site," Brim told the congressional panel. "Because of weather and wind patterns, this debris was frequently carried much farther than has been reported to the public."
Although Brim's testimony came at an open hearing on Capitol Hill, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the nation's other most influential newspapers did not print a word about it.
More than a year later, in January 1981, Brim declared flatly that "Americans were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation from `safe' underground tests all through the 1960s and 1970s, and remain in danger today." In an article published by The Washington Monthly magazine, Colonel Brim charged: "Just as the risk of fallout continues, so does the conscious government effort to cover up the situation. Department of Energy officials fully understand that underground testing can't fully contain radiation, yet downplay the information or even withhold it from the public. Exactly as they did in the 1950s, officials refuse to reveal information necessary for those who live near radiation accidents to protect themselves."
It was a strong statement from someone who--for nearly ten years--served as the Pentagon's top officer in charge of monitoring leaks from underground nuclear tests. "Today it seems incredible that straight-faced government spokesmen could proclaim that standing downwind of an open-air nuclear explosion was perfectly safe," Brim went on. "It seems equally incredible that people believed the claims. Yet that twin mentality continues to operate, with Washington making what will, in years to come, be considered preposterous claims about the safety of underground tests, and most people nodding their heads in agreement."
The Nevada Test Site's current manager, Mahlon Gates, made a public appearance before a 1979 congressional hearing, ostensibly making a clean breast of past underground test radiation ventings. Colonel Brim observed, however, that Gates's "estimate of the total amount of radiation downwind of a test site in the period from 1951 to 1969 . . . worked out to less than a quarter of the radiation the Public Health Service recorded after a single blast on the same site."
Indicative of the kind of present-day hazards--and governmental deceit--Brim alluded to was the underground nuclear test Baneberry. When it vented on the morning of December 18, 1970, Baneberry sent a mushroom cloud of radioactivity eight thousand feet into the air. Ten years later the U.S. Government's official log of nuclear tests was still claiming that only "minor levels of radioactivity" were detected off-site from the Baneberry explosion.
But Colonel Brim, who was responsible for off-site monitoring during the Baneberry test, has pointed to evidence "that a dangerously high concentration of Iodine-131, a radiation byproduct, was found in the milk of Utah and Nevada cows which had eaten vegetation exposed to Baneberry's fallout. Deer and sheep as far as 400 miles from the test range had abnormal concentrations of iodine in their thyroid glands, and the thyroid of a fetus from one sheep contained five times more iodine than the thyroid of its mother."
Favorable weather conditions mitigated the Baneberry fallout impact. Dr. Robert Pendleton calculated that if the accident had happened in summertime the result for Utah residents could have been "a very significant radiation dose to the thyroid."
Baneberry radioactivity rode the winds to the Northwest, Midwest, and New England, also reaching Canada. The following spring Dr. Ernest Sternglass and associates accumulated data on where the fallout had descended. They compared the findings to U.S. Monthly Vital Statistics reports on mortality of infants born after the vented test blast. "In all of the states where the total radioactivity rose highest--Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Nevada, Washington, Nebraska, and as far away as Minnesota and Maine--infant mortality also rose sharply during the first three months after the test," Sternglass discovered. "Across the rest of the U.S., the pattern of general decline continued."
The fetal deaths for Bannock County in southeastern Idaho, directly in the path of the December 1970 Baneberry fallout, rose to their highest level in 1971, compared with any of the five previous or five following years. That year there were twenty-one officially recorded fetal deaths in Bannock County--62 percent higher than the average annual total for the years 1966 to 1976.
Was the Baneberry underground test venting a fluke unlikely to be repeated? The United States Government says yes. But a 1974 confidential U.S. military memo, written by nuclear testing program officer Captain William Gay, says otherwise. Made public through efforts by Senator Edward Kennedy in 1979, Captain Gay's memorandum stated that "on the basis of past experience at NTS [Nevada Test Site], a rather high incidence prevails for a release of radioactivity like Baneberry." The Gay memo added that "the risk is not like one in a million or so low as to be comfortable. Ventings have happened and will probably happen again."
Captain Gay, director for tests in the Atomic Energy Commission's Division of Military Application, also wrote in the memo: "Considering past experience, massive venting can be expected in about one [ratio blanked out by censors] events." Even after the decision was made to declassify the document in 1979, the American people apparently could not be trusted to hear a candid official estimate of the chances for future disastrous ventings of underground nuclear bomb tests.
93. U.S. Congress, House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, "Testimony of Raymond Brim, Retired Colonel, U.S. Air Force, Washington, D.C., August 1, 1979, unpublished transcript.
95. Raymond E. Brim and Patricia Condon, "Another A-Bomb Cover-up," Washington Monthly, January 1981, p. 48.
96. "Testimony of Raymond Brim."
97. Brim and Condon, "Another A-Bomb Cover-up," p. 45.
98. Ibid., p. 46.
99. Ibid., p. 48.
100. Announced US Nuclear Tests, p. 30.
101. Brim and Condon, "Another A-Bomb Cover-up," p. 47.
102. Deseret News, January 27, 1978.
103. Sternglass, Secret Fallout, p. 181.
104. The Baneberry fallout split into three general trajectories after venting. The westernmost segment went over the Idaho Falls area of southeastern Idaho, passing directly over Bannock County. (Deseret News, January 27, 1978. See also, EPA, "Final Report of Off-Site Surveillance for the Baneberry Event, December 18, 1970," Western Environmental Research Laboratory, SWRHL-107r, February 1972, especially pp. 31, 51.)
105. Bannock County and overall Idaho fetal death statistics are contained in anthropology master's thesis by Edward B. Beldin, Idaho State University, "A Bioanthropological Approach to the Effects of Air Quality on Human Health, with Emphasis on the Incidence of Stillbirths in Two Southeast Idaho Cities," 1978.
106. Ibid. When put in ratio to live births, the Bannock County fetal deaths in 1971 were even more anomalous in comparison with preceding and subsequent years.
107. Health Effects of Low-Level Radiation, Vol. 1, p. 125.
Irradiated Test Workers
Bennie F. Levy was thirty-two years old when he began working at the Nevada Test Site in 1951, the first year of nuclear explosions there.
Born and raised on an Arizona cattle ranch, he had left college to volunteer for the Air Corps soon after Pearl Harbor, helping to service B-24s and other Allied bombers at Pacific Ocean bases. After the war, he became an ironworker, on jobs at dam construction along the Colorado River, then electrical transmission lines in the Southwest. A member of the Structural Ironworkers Union, he was laboring on a dam project in the Pacific Northwest when he first heard about a big new source of employment.
"I was in Walla Walla, Washington, when I got a letter from a friend in September 1950 to come to Las Vegas, Nevada, that there was a big job breakin' here," Levy recalled in an interview.
In autumn 1951 Levy's career as a Nevada Test Site ironworker got under way. "We were workin' a lot around radiation," he told us. "We asked, `Is it safe to go in?' They say, `Oh, yeah, it's safe, nothing wrong with it, it's safe.'"
Levy and other ironworkers built towers the atom bombs would be perched on for detonation. In early 1952 he helped set up a test for the first time. "We got everything ready and then we came home." From the town of Henderson, nearly a hundred miles away, he watched the orange light glow of the atomic blast. "It was pretty. It was a pretty shot. They were all pretty."
The work settled into a routine. After a nuclear detonation a few ironworkers would be directly involved in retrieving instrumentation from ground zero. On a rotating basis Levy and fellow ironworkers "were recovering the data for the scientists. And we'd go in anywhere from thirty minutes to an hour after the event, after the shot. And the fallout--we went right through it." Levy paused. "Of course we were `rad-safed' with cotton coveralls and a little cap." How about protection for mouth and nose? "Never wore a respirator," he replied.
During the early and middle 1950s Levy personally went on the reentry mission dozens of times--"at least thirty, forty, maybe more than that." And, as a matter of course, along with coworkers he ate lunch in "forward areas" hot with radioactive particles, including plutonium. "On occasion," he remembered, "monitors would come by with Geiger counters and get readings on my lunch pail or tools. This common occurrence leaves no doubt in my mind that I was breathing and swallowing radioactive debris all the time. We had no facilities to wash our hands or face, and we could not leave the contaminated areas for lunch as that would take an extra thirty minutes."
Bennie Levy had been employed at the test site for about a year when--unbeknownst to him or his fellow workers, or the general public--Atomic Energy Commission policymakers met to discuss their working conditions. In the words of then-secret AEC minutes, "the commissioners expressed concern that workers might be exposed to radiation hazards for too long a time." At a follow-up meeting two weeks later, AEC records show, the commissioners heard that "the means used to determine the intensity and duration of exposure are not always as reliable as might be desired and in general it cannot be said that exposure problems at the test site have been completely solved."
But test site employees like Bennie Levy heard nothing of the sort from official quarters. They continued at their high-paying jobs, believing their work shored up national security. Yet Levy noticed a few odd things. "Although we were assured that there was no danger, I thought it was a bit curious that supervisors and AEC personnel did not remain in the area. I questioned them on various occasions and was told that they did not have to remain."
When the nuclear testing program shifted underground in the early 1960s, Bennie Levy took part in drilling tasks. In the process, "I was involved in operations which caused me to be exposed on many occasions." Often the underground shots leaked badly, scattering radiation, "but we continued to work in these same areas as if there was no danger at all."
And caverns left by the nuclear blasts seeped radiation for days--even years--afterward.
Mounting cancer and leukemia deaths among test-site workers became conspicuous to those who had labored side by side. But the government conducted no health study of test-site employees. "In fact," according to Levy, "any suggestion that radiation had caused cancer was fought bitterly. In my own craft, the ironworkers, I do not need to be told that cancer has been caused by radiation. I have seen my fellow workers die before my very eyes."
In the late 1970s, after more than twenty-five years of employment at the test site, Levy left the job and began to research the health of people with whom he had worked. Levy documented that, out of only 350 fellow ironworkers at the test site, two had died of leukemia. Among 350 men, even a single instance of leukemia would have been unusual under ordinary circumstances.
By 1981 he had accumulated a list of 132 men who died of cancer or blood diseases, out of 3,100 construction-trades employees working in highly contaminated forward areas at the Nevada Test Site. Three men on the list--Clarence Crockett, Robert Sendlein, and Warren Snyder--died of multiple myeloma bone-marrow cancer during 1977 and 1978. And in just three months of spring 1981 three who worked in the test-site drilling division died of brain cancer.
Eighteen of the men on Bennie Levy's list died of leukemia, a rate of approximately five times the normal. Two others--caught in thick radiation clouds after the Baneberry underground test venting--died of acute myeloid leukemia.
In 1981 the U.S. Government was still denying that the Baneberry blast's radiation caused the leukemia that killed those two workers, test-site guard Harley Roberts and welder William Nunamaker. They had been among eighty-six workers taken to the site's center for treatment after being covered by radioactive clouds that erupted out of the shaft. The two leukemia deaths, out of eighty-six individuals, vastly surpass normal rates of incidence.
"We just would like it to be on record that we know our husbands died of leukemia by radiation," widow Louise Nunamaker told a congressional subcommittee in 1979 as she sat next to Dorothy Roberts. "I saw a very well, healthy man die, a beautiful person that loved his country, served his country in the war and also was in the field from 1957. . . . I don't think anyone will know the hell we have been through with the testimony and [the government's] saying that the records of my husband have been destroyed and so forth and so forth. Things we know are untruths. It was very, very difficult for both of us."
Bill Nunamaker, his widow recalled, "never said anything until his deathbed. He said, `Mother, you know what I died from. Go get them.'"
Louise Nunamaker and Dorothy Roberts tried. When the DOE turned a deaf ear to their entreaties, they went to federal court with a lawsuit. But the two widows had meager financial resources to use against a courtroom adversary with virtually unlimited funds. When a reporter for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner asked the U.S. Justice Department's head attorney on the case, William Z. Elliott, how much the government was spending to defeat the Nunamaker/Roberts suit, he replied, "As much as it takes to win."
109. Bennie Levy, interview, December 1980.
114. AEC Commissioners Meeting Minutes, September 23, 1952, p. 504.
115. AEC Commissioners Meeting Minutes, October 7, 1952, p. 536.
116. Levy, interview, December 1980.
118. Final Environmental Impact Statement, Nevada Test Site, pp. 2-99, 2-106. In addition to leakage from "drillback" operations, the EPA has conceded that craters left by Sedan and other subsurface blasts have continued to seep radiation. (EPA, "Off-Site Environmental Monitoring Report for the Nevada Test Site and Other Areas Used for Underground Test Detonations," Las Vegas, 1977, 1978.)
119. Levy, interview, December 1980.
120. Joe Naves and Raymond Browers.
121. "Deceased Nevada Test Site Workers," list provided by Levy, 1981.
122. Levy, interview, June 1981.
123. The usual rate of leukemia among a comparable number of American males as determined for the Smoky bomb test participants study cited in Chapter 2, would be less than four cases--in contrast to the eighteen instances of leukemia found by Levy among test-site building-trades workers.
124. Los Angeles Herald Examiner, March 11, 1979.
126. U.S. Congress, House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, "Testimony of Louise Nunamaker and Dorothy Roberts," Las Vegas, April 23, 1979, unpublished transcript.
128. Los Angeles Herald Examiner, March 11, 1979. In 1980 and early 1981 a total of 263 suits were filed in U.S. District Court on behalf of former Nevada Test Site workers, seeking compensation payments for cancer and other radiation-linked illnesses. (San Diego Evening Tribune, Associated Press, November 14, 1980; Las Vegas Sun, February 26 1981.) In 1980 the Nevada Test Site Radiation Victim Association came into existence with Bennie Levy serving as president. (NTSRVA, P.O. Box 18414-192, Las Vegas, NV 89114.)
No End in Sight
In autumn 1980 yet another underground test in Nevada sent radiation off-site. For residents it was a bad case of deja vu.
Utah governor Scott M. Matheson was disgusted. "This lack of communication is too much like what occurred between the state of Utah and the Atomic Energy Commission . . . 30 years ago," the governor asserted in a letter to the U.S. Department of Energy. "I object to the disregard for the rights of Utahns to know when there is even the possibility of risk for increased radioactivity in our state as a result of nuclear testing in Nevada."
Indeed, events had followed a classic pattern. The Energy Department waited twelve hours after detection of the September 25 radioactive leakage before alerting the Environmental Protection Agency, the federal department responsible for off-site monitoring of radiation. Despite public assurances by DOE that radiation "is not expected to leave the Nevada Test Site," the EPA later reported finding radioactive xenon gas near the California border.
Like Utah state officials, California authorities learned of the nuclear accident from the news media--about four hours after EPA was informed of the problem, and a full sixteen hours after on-site DOE personnel reportedly discovered the leak. Meanwhile less than eighteen hours after the mishap the radioactive gas traveled forty miles in a southwesterly direction and reached Lathrop Wells, a small Nevada town about ten miles from the California line.
EPA spokesman Chuck Costa acknowledged, when we interviewed him, that his agency did not have monitoring equipment available in California capable of detecting radioactive gases such as xenon. The only such EPA monitors were stationed in Nevada, he said. As for the delay in revealing the leak, Costa--EPA's deputy director for nuclear radiation assessment--said that "there was an obvious screw-up in communication over at DOE. They should have called us much earlier than they did."
When we asked DOE for comment, the response was tight-lipped. "We feel that they were notified in what we considered to be a timely manner," test-site spokesman David Jackson said. "That was the way it was, and I have no further comment.
The U.S. Government has remained especially anxious to retain its nuclear testing prerogative in Nevada. Federal officials would be hard pressed to find another state hospitable to such activities. After nuclear tests in 1969 and 1973 Colorado voters passed a referendum requiring ballot approval of any further atomic blasts within the state. In southern Mississippi two underground atomic explosions during the mid-1960s occurred near the town of Hattiesburg. A decade and a half later, an Associated Press dispatch noted, Governor Cliff Finch urged families nearby to evacuate "after the University of Mississippi reported that scientists had found radioactive and deformed toads, frogs, and a lizard above the Tatum Salt Dome, a shelf of salt used in the 1960s for nuclear explosions." Tests of one frog detected radioactivity one thousand times normal.
At Carlsbad, New Mexico, a 1961 underground nuclear test, named Gnome, sent radiation airborne. Two years later, in congressional testimony, Dr. Eric Reiss said that the Gnome test "delivered sufficient fallout to the vicinity of Carlsbad, New Mexico, to cause thyroid dose levels of from 7 to 55 rads to children."
There are strong indications the radioactivity caused second-generation genetic defects. Dr. Catherine Armstrong, a pediatrician in Carlsbad since 1950, told us that during thirty-one years of practice she noticed a startling upswing of serious congenital damage apparent at birth. That trend did not get under way until well after the underground atomic blast vented radiation in 1961.
"Young people coming along are having a noticeable increase of congenital abnormalities, much more than we used to have in this area," Dr. Armstrong said in a 1981 interview. "Congenital heart diseases" have been far more prevalent, along with increased bone defects, severely immature livers, and jaundice among newborns in the Carlsbad community. Dr. Armstrong noticed that those problems became conspicuous during the mid-1970s--years when many area residents who were small children at the time of the Gnome nuclear test began raising families. "It's got to be more than coincidental," she declared.
As with every presidency since Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the White House, the administration of Ronald Reagan eagerly embraced nuclear testing as part of national defense. The desert of southern Nevada has become the place where America culminates work on the nuclear weapons development assembly line. Even without detonation in combat, those atomic warheads have been endangering the lives of many Americans and of future generations around the world.
"Our nuclear program was built in the name of national security--protecting the lives of Americans," Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder commented in 1980. "One can't help but wonder, who was protected and at whose expense?."
129. The Oregonian, Associated Press, September 28, 1980.
130. The Tribune (Salt Lake), October 9, 1980.
131. DOE spokesman David Jackson and EPA official Chuck Costa, interviews, September 1980.
132. The Oregonian, September 28, 1980; Costa, interview, September 1980.
133. James Mahoney, California Department of Health Services, and Alvin Rickers, state of Utah, interviews, September 1980.
134. The Oregonian, September 28, 1980; Costa, interview, September 1980.
135. Costa, interview, September 1980.
136. Jackson, interview, September 1980. But nuclear health physics pioneer Karl Z. Morgan was far from complacent about the delay. "It's very important that appropriate monitoring be done. If you wait till the cloud has passed over, you miss entirely what was in it," Dr. Morgan said. (Morgan, interview, September 1980.)
137. Anna Gyorgy and Friends, NO NUKES: Everyone's Guide to Nuclear Power (Boston: South End Press, 1979), p. 443.
138. Boston Globe, Associated Press, May 26, 1979.
139. Fallout, Radiation Standards and Countermeasures, August 1963, Part 2.
140. Dr. Catherine Armstrong, interview, May 1981.
142. Patricia Schroeder, press release statement, April 12, 1980.
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