The Present Danger
THE POTENTIAL EFFECT of the radioactive iodine on thyroid function and mental development was very much on my mind at that moment, since in early September I had presented our findings on the relation between fallout from bomb-tests and declines in the S.A.T. scores at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association in New York. The likelihood that there would once again be widespread damage to the learning ability of children in areas reached by releases of radioactive fission gases, this time from peaceful nuclear plants either during normal operations or as a result of accidents such as the one at Three Mile Island, was in a way more disturbing than the evidence for rising infant deaths and later cancers.
The nation could survive if there were a few more infants that died shortly before or after birth. It could even survive if there were many more adults who would die of cancer or heart disease at age seventy rather than at eighty. But no nation could survive in the long run if it continuously damaged the mental ability of its newborn children, especially in an age where verbal and mathematical skills were increasingly essential to the functioning of a high-technology society. And since fewer children were being born, and the advances of modern medicine had increased greatly their chances of survival to adulthood even if they were physically and mentally handicapped, it would not take much more than a few generations for a nation with nuclear plants near its cities or sources of milk and water to destroy its health, its productivity, and thus its ability to compete with others who used less biologically damaging ways to meet their needs for energy.
Therefore, when I received an invitation to present my most recent findings at a meeting of the Connecticut Parent-Teachers Association in Hartford a few weeks later, I decided to accept. Hartford was not more than 40 miles northwest of the Millstone Nuclear plant, whose iodine 131 emission back in 1975 was officially listed as 10 curies by the NRC. This was almost as great as the amount admitted to have been released at Three Mile Island by the utility's own environmental consultants. For this reason, I decided to present my findings on the effects of Millstone as a way to estimate what the future health effects of the accident in Harrisburg were likely to be.
Strangely enough, it was through my concern about the possible effect of the October 1976 Chinese fallout discovered in southeastern Pennsylvania by the operators of a nuclear plant on the Susquehanna River not far from Three Mile Island that I first learned of the high releases from the Millstone reactor.
Apparently, as in the case of the Albany-Troy episode back in 1953, a heavy rainstorm brought down very large amounts of fallout from a nuclear cloud, setting off radiation alarms at the Peach Bottom Nuclear Power station near the Maryland border. That rainout had caused the evacuation of many of the workers from the plant. The EPA had failed to warn either the public, state health authorities, or the reactor's health physicists of the potentially high local fallout, hoping that it might not happen. Only when the plant supervisor got in touch with Thomas Gerusky at the Pennsylvania State Bureau of Radiation Control and checks were made at other locations such as the Three Mile Island plant did it become clear that the high iodine 131 levels were due to fallout, and not an accident at Peach Bottom.
When the iodine levels in the milk started to climb to a few hundred picocuries and no one had warned the public that pregnant women should not drink the milk, a colleague of mine at the University of Pittsburgh and I decided to hold a news conference to issue such a warning.
As it turned out, Gerusky decided not to order the cows to be placed on stored hay, even though some areas in Pennsylvania reached levels close to 500 picocuries per liter. Only in Massachusetts and briefly in Connecticut and New York did the health departments order dairy cattle to be switched to uncontaminated feed, and only in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, which obtained most of its milk from Massachusetts, did infant mortality continue its sharp decline in the following few months among all the New England states.
When a news story with my findings on the rises in infant mortality following this episode was published by the Washington Post-Los Angeles Times News Service in the summer of 1977, I received a phone call from a newspaper reporter in Connecticut, who asked me whether I had examined the possible effect of the Millstone plant releases on the pattern of infant mortality changes in New England. Someone had given him a copy of a recent annual environmental report for this plant, and he wondered whether I might be willing to look at it for him since he was unable to interpret its significance.
When the report arrived a few days later, I turned to the pages dealing with milk measurements. I could hardly believe my eyes. The control farms located in a direction where the wind rarely carried the gases from the stack showed levels of strontium 90 of only 5 to 7 picocuries per liter, similar to the rest of the East Coast. The concentrations in other nearby farms, however, reached values as high as 27 of these units, higher than those typical for Connecticut during the height of nuclear-bomb testing back in the early 1960s and similar to the highest concentrations measured by N.U.S. at Shippingport. For the people living within 10 to 20 miles of the plant, nuclear-bomb testing might just as well have never ended.
And when I looked at infant mortality in New England in preparation for a lecture at the University of Rhode Island, the familiar pattern I had seen at Dresden, Indian Point, and Shippingport once again confirmed the seriousness of these levels of fallout in the milk. While throughout the 1950s and 1960s all the New England states had shown the same infant mortality rate, following the onset of releases from Millstone in 1970, Rhode Island, directly downwind, suddenly stopped declining as rapidly as all the other states. By early 1976, before the October fallout arrived from China, Rhode Island had nearly twice the infant mortality rate of New Hampshire.
Shortly after I presented these findings at the University of Rhode Island, I received a telephone call from State Representative John Anderson of the Connecticut legislature, asking me whether I would be willing to undertake a more detailed study of the possible health effects of Millstone and the nearby Connecticut Yankee Reactor at Haddam Neck for the people of Connecticut. I agreed on the condition that he would send me the full environmental reports for the two plants for every year of their operation, together with the detailed annual vital statistics reports of the State of Connecticut.
A few weeks later a large box arrived containing the reports. The story they revealed was a repetition of what had taken place at Shippingport, except that this time the environmental and health data were much more detailed and extended over many years before and after the start of operation. Again, the strontium 90 levels in the soil and milk increased as one approached each of the two plants. The levels were a few times higher near the Millstone Plant, with its boiling-water reactor (BWR), than near the Haddam Neck plant, with its pressurized-water reactor (PWR), which was similar to Shippingport and Three Mile Island.
This time, however, data was available for every year of operation on a month-by-month basis, and it was possible to see how in the first few years of operation, the strontium 90 levels were no different near the plants from those in the rest of New England. But gradually, as the fallout from bomb testing was washed into the rivers and the ocean by the rains, the soil and milk levels declined all over New England, while they stayed high or even rose for the farms within a 10- to 15-mile radius of the plants.
On a number of occasions, when there was a particularly heavy fallout from a Chinese nuclear test, as in October of 1976, the records of the milk measurements showed the arrival of the fallout very clearly as a peak, particularly for the short-lived iodine 131 and strontium 89, and to a lesser degree for the long-lived cesium 137 and strontium 90. But what was even more disturbing were the even larger peaks of strontium 90 and cesium 137 in July and August of 1976, months before the bomb was detonated, not only in the local farms but as far downwind as Providence, Rhode Island.
Yet the summary in the front of the utility's environmental report for 1976 maintained, as it had every year, that the strontium 90 and cesium 137 in the milk was attributable to fallout from nuclear testing. It was sad to see that the once so hopeful nuclear industry now needed the continuation of nuclear-bomb tests to stay in operation.
To calculate the radiation doses to the bones of children, I used the high local excess values of strontium 90 in the milk along with the NRC's own calculational model given in NUREG 1.109. The results were of the order of a few hundred millirems per year, many hundreds of times the value of less than 1 millirad arrived at by the utility when the strontium 90 was left out of the calculations, and far above the maximum of 25 millirems per year that was proposed by the EPA as the maximum permissible value from the nuclear fuel cycle.
Thus it was no surprise that the EPA as well as the NRC issued statements after my reports had been sent to State Representative Anderson and Congressman Christopher Dodd, in whose district the Millstone Plant was located, which claimed that the high strontium 90 and cesium 137 levels in the milk near this plant were due to fallout and could not be attributed to releases from the plant. The EPA and NRC never even attempted to explain why the levels of these radioactive substances should increase as one approached the stack from every direction.
Instead, these government agencies, on whom the public depended for the protection of its health and safety, tried to mislead the public. They claimed that there was little strontium 89 present along with the strontium 90, as is always the case when fresh fission products escape into the environment, and that therefore the strontium 90 could not be due to plant releases.
But what the nonspecialist could not have known is that strontium 89 has a very short half-life of only 50 days compared with 30 years for strontium 90. While the long-lived strontium 90 continues to build up in the soil around the plant, the strontium 89 rapidly decays away. Thus, when the cows return to pasture in the spring and summer, the milk shows predominantly the accumulated strontium 90, and very little of the short-lived strontium 89.
In fact, it is just as in the case of a coal-burning plant, where both steam and dust are emitted from the stack. Clearly, one would not expect to see the surrounding area covered with water, which evaporates rapidly just as short-lived isotopes disappear. Instead, one would expect to find a high level of ashes accumulating, decreasing with the distance away in every direction, just like the long-lived strontium 90 particles in the soil and milk around a nuclear plant.
But the nuclear scientists and engineers in these agencies, taking advantage of the widespread lack of scientific knowledge among the general public, its representatives, and even the heads of their own bureaucratic organizations, acted to protect the national interest as they saw it. Thus, they used their expertise to mislead the public, firmly believing that the need for energy independence or the willingness to use nuclear weapons far outweighed any conceivable small impact on human health.
Having the detailed figures on the officially announced releases as well as the uncontested measurements of radioactivity in the milk around Millstone over the years, I could compare the releases directly with those from Three Mile Island. Over a period of five years, Millstone had released half as many total curies of radioactive gases of all types into the atmosphere as Three Mile Island did in five days, including roughly comparable amounts of iodine 131. According to the health statistics, infant mortality in Rhode Island, some 20 to 40 miles away, was twice as great as for the most distant states after Millstone had operated for five years. Therefore, in my first approximation, there would have to be at least a 50 to 100 percent rise in infant mortality and childhood cancers in the Harrisburg area, which would be followed in the decades to come by cancer rises among the older population, perhaps leading to as many as 4,000 to 8,000 extra cancer deaths in the next few decades.
There was no need to extrapolate from very high doses to very low doses, since the amounts released in both cases were comparable. Both for the Millstone and Three Mile Island releases, the doses were in the range of tens to hundreds of millirems per year, and they were due to comparable types of radioactive elements created in the course of nuclear reactor operations.
But precisely because the releases from Three Mile Island were not so very different in magnitude from what the NRC and EPA had set as permissible for normal nuclear reactor releases in the course of a year, it was clear to me that enormous efforts would have to be made both by the government health agencies and the nuclear industry to keep knowledge of the likely health effects of the accident from reaching the public or their elected representatives in Congress. And this is precisely what happened in the weeks after my talk in Hartford, when the long-awaited report of the Kemeny Commission was being prepared in its final form.
I had been approached by ABC to appear on the show Good Morning America to present my findings, which were apparently in sharp contrast to the conclusion of the Kemeny report, a draft of which was read to me by the producer. According to this draft, which had a discussion of potential health effects that was confined to only a couple of pages, the only effects were psychological, with no detectable increases expected on infant mortality or cancer rates. In effect, the Kemeny Commission had accepted the optimistic report by the NRC, the EPA, and HEW a few days after the accident.
Apparently no efforts had been made to look at the actual statistics on infant mortality and miscarriages that had shown significant rises as early as May and June, four to five months before the final draft was being prepared in September and October. Yet, if the commissioners had wanted to, they could easily have obtained the same data I had been able to find in the records of local hospitals and the reports of the U.S. Center for Health Statistics for every state in the United States. If there really had been no increase in stillbirths and infant deaths, this would surely have been the best way to reassure the people of Harrisburg and the rest of the world living near nuclear reactors, once and for all ending the concern about nuclear power, silencing the critics, and freeing the industry from the uncertainty that was leading to its rapid decline in the wake of Three Mile Island.
But this was clearly not the course chosen. The actual data would have shown an increase in mortality rates near the plant during the summer months, while they declined in nearby areas not reached by the plume so carefully recorded in the utility's own internal reports available to the Kemeny Commission. Such a pattern would have been as difficult to explain away as the peaks of strontium 90 infant mortality and cancer increases around Shippingport and Millstone in the past, hardly reassuring for a public that had by now learned to distrust deeply the public statement of utility officials and government scientists whenever it came to the health effects of low-level radiation from bomb fallout or nuclear facilities.
Not being able to allow the truth to emerge, the government and the industry resorted once again to the familiar tactics of suppression and attempts to discredit the critics, as I would learn in the days following the official release of the Kemeny Report in early November.
I was supposed to appear on Good Morning America the day after the Kemeny Commission report was published. All arrangements had been made when I received a phone call from the producer saying that the format of the show would have to be changed, that they would need to find someone who would represent the industry and government point of view to debate me, and that this would mean a day's delay in my appearance. The following morning, I received another call from the producer, who said that they had found someone who would represent the other side, and that the program was now scheduled for 8:15 A.M. the next day. My tickets had been paid for, the hotel room in New York reserved, and a limousine ordered to pick me up and take me to the studio.
But the opportunity to present the other side of the story to a nationwide audience in answer to the bland assurance of the Kemeny Commission broadcast the day before never came. Just a few hours before I was scheduled to leave for New York, a call came from ABC saying that there was a last-minute change in the schedule, and that they had to cancel my appearance. I remembered the enormous pressures that had been exerted by the Atomic Energy Commission on the producers of the NBC Today show back in 1969 when I was scheduled to appear to talk about the effects of bomb fallout on infant mortality. But this time, it seemed likely to me that the pressure came from a commercial nuclear industry fighting for its life, and apparently these forces were too powerful even for a large television network such as ABC.
A news conference had been arranged by a local citizens' group in Harrisburg for noon, following my scheduled appearance on Good Morning America, and so instead of flying to New York, I took the plane to Harrisburg early the next day. It was the same flight I had taken the morning of the first news conference, when the radioactive gases were causing my survey meter to give me the warning of the large gas releases that the industry did not want to become known.
The news conference took place in the same small room of the Friends' Meeting House where the first one had been called on the second day of the accident. Dr. Chauncey Kepford, who had been one of the first scientists in the area to warn of the danger of the Three Mile Island plant, long before it went into operation, summarized his findings that the radiation doses were much larger than had been calculated from the simplified mathematical models used by the NRC and adopted by the Kemeny Commission. Because of his efforts to warn the local group of concerned citizens to prepare their case against the plant, he had been fired by Pennsylvania State University, something that he had been able to prove in court when he had sued the university for damages. Now he had nothing more to lose, and so he was able to provide independent evidence that the health effects of the accident would be much greater than the public had been led to believe.
I then outlined the substance of my findings based on the state-by-state data in the U.S. Monthly Vital Statistics. The data showed sharp rises in infant mortality in Pennsylvania and the area of New York State outside New York City, while the rates continued to decline in the areas of Philadelphia and New York City, where the radioactive plume had not been carried by the winds. I also cited the evidence of higher infant mortality rates in the Harrisburg and Holy Spirit Hospitals (in the Harrisburg area) for the months following the accident as compared with the same period a year before.
To this I added the latest findings that the rate of infant deaths had also gone up as far away as the Pittsburgh area, toward which the radioactive gases had drifted in the early period of high releases as recorded in the records of the largest hospital (namely the Magee Women's Hospital, associated with the University of Pittsburgh). According to the records of the hospital, which accounted for about half the births in Allegheny County, the number of deaths for the three-month period of May, June, and July had gone up 93 percent -- from 27 in 1978 to 52 in 1979 -- while the births had remained essentially constant, rising only 2 percent -- from 2166 to 2221. Furthermore, detailed examination of the causes of death revealed that the excess was due to an unexplained increase in prematurity, underweight births, and respiratory distress of the type found in the Harrisburg Hospital. There had not been any epidemic of other diseases or problems associated with the delivery process.
I concluded by saying that the evidence was therefore very strong that in the first few months following the accident, a few hundred excess deaths above normal expectations took place in Pennsylvania, contrary to the claims of the industry and the Kemeny Commission that there would be no detectable additional cases of cancer, developmental abnormalities, or genetic ill-health as a consequence of the accident at Three Mile Island.
There were a few questions after I handed out copies of the U.S. Monthly Vital Statistics tables I had used, together with other tables and graphs summarizing the findings. The executive vice-president of the Harrisburg Hospital, Warren Prelesnik, who had given me the figures for his hospital, was present in the event that a reporter might wish to confirm the numbers, but no one inquired further, and the news conference broke up.
Television cameras representing the major networks had been present; some of the network reporters interviewed me separately immediately following the news conference. But neither that evening nor the next day was there any mention of these disturbing findings either on the local news in Pittsburgh or on any of the national television news programs. There were a few very brief local radio news items, but not a word of the news conference appeared in any Pittsburgh or Philadelphia papers.
It was as if an iron curtain had descended around the Harrisburg area, sealing off the people of the rest of the United States and the world from the news that would have warned them of a totally unexpected severe effect of low-level fallout. But neither the nuclear industry, the military, nor the state and federal governments committed to nuclear power wanted them to know. What so many people had feared would happen in a society committed to nuclear power had in fact taken place. The most important of all our civil rights, the freedom to learn of matters affecting our lives and those of our children through a free press, was being secretly subverted by an enormously powerful nuclear industry and a military establishment that had spawned and nurtured it, all in the interest of national security.
Since in our society there are so many independent magazines, newspapers, radio stations, and news services, unlike in a monolithic society such as the Soviet Union, there is no way to insure absolutely that a determined "dissident" scientist armed with publicly available government data can be prevented from having his message eventually reach the people. Therefore, the best way to prevent wide dissemination of undesirable information is to destroy the credibility of any individual seeking to reach the public and the scientific community at large. In this way, the message would either not be transmitted by wary news media or it would not be believed, especially if it was not reported in sufficient detail. This was, in fact, the tactic that was adopted following the news conference in Harrisburg. In the course of a detailed investigation for a story published in the June 1980 issue of the Canadian magazine Harrowsmith, one of its associate editors, Thomas Pawlick, a former investigative reporter for the Detroit Free Press, found out the following:
First to attack Sternglass was The Harrisburg Patriot newspaper. A November 1979 article by Richard Roberts questioned Sternglass' figures on infant deaths in the city, charging that they did not "jibe with the hospital's statistics" as supplied by Harrisburg Hospital corporate relations officer Ernest McDowell. In a later unsigned editorial, the paper skirted the limits of libel, charging that the scientist was "inept at gathering statistics, or worse, he simply fabricated them to fit his conclusion." The editorial added: "For a scientist to present grossly inaccurate data is inexcusable. But to fit the method of analysis to a conclusion makes the scientist's motives suspect. Sternglass seemed principally concerned about his talk with the extent to which his appearance was documented by the media." There was no rise in infant deaths, concluded the Patriot.
According to Harrisburg Hospital executive director Warren Prelesnik, who supplied the initial figures used by Sternglass, "no fabrication took place," and Sternglass' motives were far from suspect:
"Dr. Sternglass used figures from a Hospital Utilization Project (HUP) computer read-out supplied by us," says Prelesnik. "The first set of figures we gave him, which he used in good faith, excluded, I believe, one or two cases (the discrepancy mentioned previously). This happened because we interpreted the term `infant' differently than he did at first. We corrected this in a second set of figures I gave him on November 20, 1979. As for the figures quoted by Mr. McDowell, they came from a different source, that is, the hospital's Pediatric Mortality statistics."
The Pediatric Mortality statistics include not only infant deaths, but those of older children -- up to 11 years of age in one case -- as well as abortions and stillbirths. Averaged out, McDowell's figures would show little change after the accident. Only when infant deaths are isolated from the whole, as in Sternglass' report, does a post-accident rise show up.
The newspaper had undeservedly maligned Sternglass, whose claim of a rise in hospital statistics was correct. His figures for Magee Hospital in Pittsburgh were never questioned.
Nor did the article in the Harrisburg Patriot question or even refer in a single word to the highly significant numbers taken right out of the official U.S. Monthly Vital Statistics reports. But within a few weeks, nuclear industry spokesmen all over the world were quoting the Harrisburg Patriot editorial in attempts to discredit the paper which I delivered at the World Congress of Engineers and Architects in Tel Aviv, Israel, in December. This was especially the case in Sweden, where a great public debate on nuclear energy was in progress in connection with a referendum scheduled for early 1980.
But in the battle to restore my credibility, I received unexpected support from someone who had been on the inside of the Pennsylvania Department of Health, Dr. Gordon MacLeod. In fact, Dr. MacLeod headed the department during the period of the accident, having been confirmed in his position only twelve days before it occurred. He had been forced to resign shortly before the Kemeny Commission report was made public, and had returned to the University of Pittsburgh, where he headed the Department of Health Care Administration in the School of Public Health. As Pawlick described it in his Harrowsmith article:
In an interview with a reporter for The Washington Post [published February 2], MacLeod revealed that 13 babies (later corrected to 14) in three Pennsylvania counties in the path of the radioactive plumes had been born with hypothyroidism -- ten more than would normally have been expected to occur. This initial figure was later expanded to include a total of 27 post-accident hypothyroidism cases throughout the whole state.
This disclosure prompted the state Department of Health to release its own figures, which confirmed that a higher than normal number of cases of hypothyroidism had been noted in the county immediately downwind of TMI.
On March 30, 1980, Dr. MacLeod went further. In a controversial speech delivered at Pittsburgh's First Unitarian Church, he stated that "recent data collected by the Pennsylvania Health Department show an increase in infant mortality within 10 miles of Three Mile Island when compared with the same population in the same time period for the preceding two years." He pointedly noted that this information had not been made public by the health department.
The exact figures for the population within 10 miles were 20 infant deaths in 1977, 14 in 1978, and a jump to 31 after the accident in 1979 for the six-month period April through September, while the number of births remained essentially constant. This meant that there had been a doubling in the infant mortality rate.
But of even greater importance, despite the relatively small size of the numbers, was the fact that for the area still closer to the reactor, the zone within a 5-mile radius, the rate had increased even more. In 1977 there had been only 3 infant deaths in this zone, declining to only 1 death in 1978. But in the six months after the release of the radioactive gases, the number rose sharply to 7 deaths, in close agreement with the sevenfold rise in the updated newborn death rate at the Harrisburg Hospital. Pawlick told the story this way:
The Department of Health, its public credibility at stake, was forced to issue a news release April 2, in which it admitted that the rate of infant deaths per thousand live births "within ten miles of Three Mile Island" from April 1 through September 30, 1979 (after the accident) was 15.7, compared to a lower death rate of 13.3 per thousand for the entire state. The release, however, confused the issue by not comparing the April-September 1979 death rate with the same period in 1978. Instead, it recounted the figures for the period October 1978 through March 1979 (before the accident) -- figures for the winter months, which are normally higher than summer months anyway. The rate for this rather irrelevant period was 17.2 per thousand.
Suddenly, despite all the efforts of the nuclear industry, the NRC, the EPA, the Pennsylvania Department of Health, and the Harrisburg Patriot, my findings had been substantiated by the most credible of all sources, the Secretary of Health of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania at the time of the accident. Moreover, the Office of Vital Statistics of the Pennsylvania Department of Health had reluctantly confirmed his figures.
But the battle over the statistics at Three Mile Island was far from over; bigger guns would have to be brought into action. The very next day, The New York Times carried a story on these death rates headed: "No Big Change Found in Infant Death Rate Near Three Mile Island." It was a special interview with Tokuhata in which he claimed that studies just completed by his department found "no significant changes in these rates before and after the Three Mile Island Accident." As Pawlick pointed out, however:
The Department of Health news release and the New York Times story both neglected to cite the figures for people living within a 5-mile radius of the nuclear plant that failed, as well as to cite the figures for the same months in earlier years. In an April 7 letter to the Times' editor, Dr. MacLeod made up for this deficiency. He did not reveal his sources, but it is supposed they were former colleagues within the Department of Health. (Indeed, a secretary of Dr. George Tokuhata, director of the department's Bureau of Health Research, admitted that the department's February 2 and April 2 news releases cited figures "that weren't originally intended for the public or the press, but the material was leaked. Somebody leaked the figures and we had to confirm them.")
In his letter, MacLeod revealed that the infant death rates for those living within both a 10-mile and 5-mile radius of the stricken reactor had, indeed, risen sharply after the accident when compared to earlier years. In 1977, between April and September, the death rate was 6.7 per thousand within 5 miles of the plant and 10.5 per thousand within 10 miles. In 1978, the rates fell to 2.3 per thousand and 7.2 per thousand, respectively. But in 1979, after the accident, they jumped to 16.2 per thousand in a 5-mile radius of the plant and 15.7 within a 10-mile radius. MacLeod's figures substantially confirmed what Sternglass had been saying right along, that babies died in much higher numbers after the accident than they had been dying before it.
There was only one problem: The New York Times had refused to publish Dr. MacLeod's letter, which, with its crucial numbers, would have restored my public credibility.
Instead, the Times published a long article on the front page of its "Science" section by its reporter Jane Brody, on April 15, in which federal and state government spokesmen such as Dr. George Tokuhata tried to discredit both Dr. MacLeod's findings on hypothyroidism and my results on the rises in infant mortality.
What was particularly disturbing was the fact that neither Dr. MacLeod nor I was given an opportunity to reply to the statements of the spokesmen for the State of Pennsylvania and the U.S. Center for Disease Control in Atlanta cited in the Times article. MacLeod had received no call at all from Jane Brody, as I learned later, and the only questions I was asked had to do with the charge by Arthur Tamplin, the man who had been asked by the AEC to criticize my findings on infant mortality and bomb fallout back in 1969, that my studies were "incomplete."
Only three days later, still another attack was launched by the Times, this time on the editorial page. As Pawlick noted, the editorial was almost as insulting as the earlier editorial in the Patriot, accusing MacLeod of irresponsibility and me of "mishandling data," branding both of us as "Nuclear Fabulists" in its headline.
Thereupon, MacLeod sent another letter to the Times dated April 22, this time with a note to the editorial page editor, Max Frankel, asking whether The New York Times made it a policy to pillory individuals on its editorial page without giving them an opportunity to reply.
This time, MacLeod was told to call the science editor of the Times, William Stockton, who indicated that he had some problems with the letter, among which was MacLeod's listing of the actual numbers. Stockton also wanted to know why MacLeod did not disassociate his position on nuclear energy from mine, since he apparently was not opposed to nuclear power, something that MacLeod refused to do.
After further discussion, Stockton indicated that he would recommend publication of the letter only if MacLeod were willing to revise it. One alternative was to leave out the actual numbers that were subject to misuse, as well as a discussion of the sex ratio among the children born in the area cited by one of the federal government critics, which MacLeod had pointed out to have been completely erroneous. The letter as finally published by the Times on May 14 began as follows:To the Editor:
Your April 18 editorial accusing me of telling nuclear scare stories and dealing recklessly with statistics is flawed by errors or omissions and ignorance of the facts.
The editorial, based on Jane Brody's news story three days earlier, can only revive public distress over data handling by state and federal officials. Had Jane Brody or your editorialist interviewed me, I could have told them immediately that I am not opposed to the use of nuclear energy. And I could have repeated that it is premature to blame the clustering of thyroid defects and the increase in infant deaths on the accident at Three Mile Island; but it cannot be ruled out yet, as federal and state officials have tried to do.
More than a year after the nuclear accident I released raw infant-mortality statistics which were then six months old. My announcement prompted the state to release infant deaths per thousand live births within 72 hours. Although both statistical measures are at best crude monitors of infant deaths, they should have been made public months before. After all, public health data belong to the public.
After pointing out that the data published so far did not include the numbers for the babies exposed in the first three months of development, when the embryo is especially sensitive to radiation, he continued as follows:
Yet to be explained is why 5- and 10-mile infant deaths around Three Mile Island during the six months following the accident climbed sharply, compared with the same period in previous years. In fact, the increases in the 1979 infant death rates over 1978 were statistically highly significant. Such significant increases in infant death rates following a nuclear reactor accident warrant complete candor and disclosure, not delay and denial. Had a decrease in infant deaths occurred, I trust it would have been widely publicized.
Here then was the crucial statement indicating that the numbers were found to be statistically highly significant by independent statisticians whom MacLeod had consulted, contrary to the claims of both Tokuhata and the scientists at the Center for Disease Control. But the actual numbers that would have convinced many skeptical scientists and laymen of the truth of what I had been saying over the years were left out. But so was any remark that could have been used to support the industry's attack on my credibility.
Turning next to the question of the significance of the increase in hypothyroidism, MacLeod went on as follows:
Despite the shortcomings in Brody's article, she contradicts your editorial undermining me for recklessly linking thyroid defects to radiation released from the crippled reactors. She stated, "Dr. MacLeod, however, did not attribute the cases to the accident."
I had expressed concern about a three months' delay by the Pennsylvania Health Department in announcing an unusual cluster of 12 times the expected number of hypothyroid cases in the county immediately downwind of Three Mile Island. My advice was accurately reported at the time as made only to encourage early detection of thyroid deficiency from any cause in unscreened newborns lest an untreated infant become a cretin.
The credibility of an official denial that radiation from the accident could have any effect whatsoever on fetal thyroid glands was clouded by an error made by an epidemiologist from the Center for Disease Control. In the news article, Dr. Greenberg mistakenly states that Pennsylvania had fewer newborns with thyroid defects than "all the areas in North America with screening programs."
That simply is not true. In the February 1979 issue of Pediatrics, both Montana and Idaho had far lower rates of thyroid defects in newborns than Pennsylvania had following the nuclear accident. Also, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have lower rates of thyroid defects in newborn than all of Pennsylvania.
Again, there were no exact numbers, but the article MacLeod had referred to, published by Dr. Stephen LaFranchi of the Oregon Health Science Center, showed that Montana had only one case of hypothyroidism for nearly 12,000 births. This was a much lower rate than for Pennsylvania in the nine months following the accident, when there were 27 cases in 119,000 births, or 1 case in 4400 live-born infants, a rate that was almost three times greater than in Montana. Yet for the nine months prior to the accident, Pennsylvania health authorities had discovered only 17 cases for about the same number of births. This was 37% lower, and thus closer to the rate of Montana, where there were no nuclear reactors at all.
Significantly, LaFranchi's paper also showed that Alaska, where according to the EPA's own data the heavier Chinese fallout had come down in recent years, showed a much higher incidence of hypothyroidism than Montana, namely a rate of 1 for every 3778 births, lending still more support to the hypothesis that low levels of iodine 131 were responsible for the increase in Pennsylvania following the accident. Furthermore, there was direct evidence of much higher thyroid doses than had been measured by the dosimeters from studies of field mice or voles examined by a group of independent scientists from nearby Millersville State College, preliminary reports of which had already become available. The iodine 131 found in the thyroids of these animals were in fact comparable to those found by the Utah scientists following the "Baneberry" accident back in 1970.
MacLeod concluded his letter as follows:
I am especially concerned about those citizens in central Pennsylvania who have lost confidence in the credibility of official statements since the accident over a year ago.
MacLeod had drawn attention to the real problem: the fact that it was the credibility of public officials entrusted with the health and safety of the people that had been destroyed.
When Pawlick called Dr. Frank Greenberg at the Center for Disease Control to obtain his reaction, he was unable to explain his error. Asked why such a misstatement had been made, he at first said, "Well, we can't really compare one state against the other. . . ." According to Pawlick's story, he then put him on hold. His secretary subsequently came on the phone to report that "Dr. Greenberg has been called away on an emergency." She added that it would not be worthwhile to contact him later.
Continuing the report on his investigation, Pawlick then turned to the way that Dr. Gary Stein of the CDC in Atlanta and Pennsylvania's Dr. George Tokuhata attacked the state's own figures in the Times article, using them as a sort of statistical "straw man" while ignoring much of the data reported by MacLeod and me.
Among the claims made by Tokuhata was that the Harrisburg infant mortality figures could not be used because the heavy black population had an unusually high infant mortality. That was exactly the kind of argument he had used in trying to explain away the high infant mortality rate in Aliquippa near the Shippingport plant seven years earlier, and it was equally misleading to the present situation. In both cases, it was the change in infant mortality that mattered before and after the releases, not its absolute value. It was clearly absurd to explain a doubling of the infant death rate by a sudden doubling in the black population or in the number of black babies born. In Aliquippa, the infant death rate had declined sharply within a year after Shippingport had been shut down, and there was no exodus of black people from the area.
Tokuhata also charged that my analysis had been based on "the wrong number" for the July 1979 infant mortality rate, which had been listed incorrectly in the U.S. Vital Statistics as 271 when it should have been 185. He claimed that this was an error made by the Center for Health Statistics in Washington due to a mix-up of fetal with infant deaths, which he had discovered after reading my Three Mile Island paper, as his secretary had told me when she had called me on March 14 a few weeks before the first Times story appeared on April 3.
Again, the nuclear industry, in its attack on my findings at Three Mile Island, learned of this "error" amazingly quickly. Only three days after the phone call from Tokuhata's office advising me of the mistake in the official statistics that conveniently reduced the number of deaths for July to just above the U.S. rate, the "error" was cited by a young Westinghouse engineer in a radio debate with me in Pittsburgh, well before any public announcement or article had reached the Pittsburgh news media.
As it turned out, even this adjustment of the published vital statistics did not alter the overall pattern of unprecedentedly high infant mortality rates for the entire period of May through December 1979 in Pennsylvania and in New York State outside New York City. The figures in the U.S. Monthly Vital Statistics for Pennsylvania told the story: Whereas shortly after the winter peak, or in February and March, Pennsylvania had an infant mortality rate 15 to 26 percent below that of the United States, for every month thereafter it exceeded the U.S. rate, even after the alleged mistake in July was corrected. As explained to me in a letter sent by Tokuhata early in April of 1980, the erroneously high figure for July was compensated for by reducing the number listed for August by 86 deaths, thus keeping the running total from January to August correct. Since the monthly figures are only regarded as provisional in any case, this method of correction is used rather than one in which each monthly figure is revised. This reduced the listed figure for August to 119, however, when in fact the August figure would have been 205 if no mistake had occurred in July. The highest excess for Pennsylvania had therefore actually occurred in August, when the Pennsylvania rate exceeded that for the U.S. by 34 percent. But the total number of infant deaths for July and August combined was unchanged at 390.
Thus, contrary to Tokuhata's claim in Brody's article that when the correct number was substituted "there was no increase in infant mortality last summer," there was in fact a large excess over the winter quarter relative to the rate for the U.S. as a whole. This can be seen more easily in the table below:
Pennsylvania and United States Infant Mortality (0-1 Year old at death) 1979,
With corrections in July and August* (Data from the U.S. Monthly Vital Statistics)
Pa. Rate U.S. Rate Average Per Per Excess Pa. Pa. 1000 1000 Excess of Pa. Per Deaths Births Births Births of U.S. Quarter ------ ------ ------ ------ ------- -------- Jan. 216 13,112 16.5 13.8 +19 Feb. 147 11,892 12.4 14.6 -15% -8% March 141 13,589 10.4 14.1 -26% ----------------------------------------------------------------- April 166 12,520 13.3 13.2 + 1% May 198 13,201 15.0 12.6 +19% +8% June 163 12,293 13.3 12.9 + 3% ----------------------------------------------------------------- July 185* 14,680 12.6 12.5 + 1% August 205* 13,918 14.7 11.0 +34% +14% Sept. 199 14,275 13.9 12.9 + 8% ----------------------------------------------------------------- Oct. 208 13,161 15.8 12.9 +22% Nov. 182 13,271 13.7 13.1 + 5% +13% Dec. 175 11,871 14.7 13.2 +11% -----------------------------------------------------------------
* The figures for July and August actually listed in the U.S. Monthly Vital Statistics for these months are 271 and 119 respectively, which add up to the same total of 390 as the corrected numbers.
If the figures for the State of Pennsylvania had followed their decade-long pattern of infant mortality rates 5 to 10 percent below that of the United States in the summer of 1979, as they did in the three months before the accident (-8 percent), there would have been some 268 fewer infant deaths than the 1413 that actually occurred.
Moreover, when I added the figures for New York State outside New York City where the August excess over the low point in March was a startling 69 percent -- namely 20.1 versus 11.9 per 1000 births -- the total deaths above normal expectations for Pennsylvania and New York combined rose by 353 to the much larger figure of 621 for the accident at Three Mile Island. And no one had as yet suggested any errors in the published figures for New York State.
So great were the excess mortality rates for the rural and small-town areas of upstate New York that I decided to try to check them with yet another set of data, namely figures reported weekly by the larger cities directly to the CDC in Atlanta and published in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports.
What I discovered there confirmed the findings based on both hospital records and the Monthly U.S. Vital Statistics. In city after city in the path of the invisible gas clouds drifting west and north, infant mortality in July 1979 had risen sharply over the same month in the year before the accident.
For Pittsburgh, it was a jump from 5 to 17 deaths, a rise of 240 percent. For Syracuse, the deaths rose from 10 to 18, or by 80 percent. And for Albany, the change was from 6 to 10, an increase of 67 percent.
But when I examined the figures for areas such as Philadelphia and New York City, not reached by the most intense clouds of radioactive gases, instead of rising, infant mortality declined, as it has been doing since the mid-1960s, when the fallout from the U.S. and U.S.S.R. atmospheric bomb tests began to decline. For Philadelphia, the number of infant deaths in July declined from 61 in 1975 to 50 in 1979. For New York City the decline was from 136 to 127.
Thus, still another set of official data confirmed my original findings as well as the data MacLeod had forced into the open, and I knew that Tokuhata's attempt to mislead the public in the pages of the Times would eventually backfire, still further increasing the tragic mistrust of the public for its institutions.
As Pawlick's Harrowsmith story put it:
The statistical battle still drags on, but more than numbers are involved in the controversy. The public's right to know is also at stake, as MacLeod insists. So is the future safety of Pennsylvania residents, as radioactive gases such as krypton 85 are vented into the outside air during the TMI cleanup process. (In an April 16 letter to the NRC, the Roswell Park Memorial Institute's Dr. Irving Bross called the krypton venting "a criminal action" and warned that it would "produce at least 50 excess infant deaths in the area.")
But in the account of the aftermath of Three Mile Island, there was one ray of hope: There were at least a few public officials not corrupted by the power of the nuclear industry, who had the courage to speak their minds even if it meant that they might lose their jobs, as Gordon MacLeod had. As Pawlick described him:
Dr. MacLeod, sitting in a squeaky swivel chair in his linoleum-floored office at the University of Pittsburgh, is the very picture of academic reserve. Looking like he has been sent from Central Casting, he embodies arched-eye-browed, thin-lipped scientific respectability. MacLeod takes great pains to emphasize that he is not by any means anti-nuclear. He is simply pro-truth, and by now totally convinced that that was why he was fired.
"The (Pennsylvania) health department is being exceedingly restrictive with regard to the release of data," he says, his chair emitting a high-pitched squeak as he rocks gently, meditatively from side to side, weighing his words. "There is also a timing problem because of the anxiety among the population. In the case of the hypothyrodism they knew about the data from October of 1979 and it wasn't until three months later that the public and the medical profession were alerted.
"As for infant mortality, somebody [in the health department] had a hypothesis that the infant death rate would be affected within a 5- and 10-mile radius by the accident, and studies were launched and they are collecting data. If we have these kinds of figures for the six months after the accident [namely, those detailed in the April 2 health department press release], why haven't we gotten the preliminary data for the nine months yet? Only those children born later than September 1979 would have been exposed to radiation during the first trimester of pregnancy, that is, the time at which birth defects can occur. These later figures may be even higher."
According to Dr. Tokuhata, the results of a study of "pregnancy outcomes" for women who conceived between March 1979 and March 1980 will not be released before 1982. (Tokuhata also described several other post-accident studies in progress, including studies of the psychological effects of the accident on local residents. Although psychological data will doubtless yield much valuable information, their chief use to date seems to be to provide ammunition for industry defenders attempting to give the impression that any claims of health damage are really all in people's minds.)
"When I was called by former colleagues in the department and told these data, I asked if they were going to release them [the 5- and 10-mile radius data], and they said no, and I told them I was profoundly dismayed because the population is waiting to find out one way or the other," MacLeod continues. Any unusual patterns found in such studies "warrant complete candor and disclosure, not delay and denial," he insists, and delaying the release of data until 1982 could seriously hurt the "credibility of health professionals."
Ironically, it may have been his own attempt at candor and disclosure that cost him his cabinet post. "The Governor asked for my resignation on October 9, 1979," he recalls, noting that "the sequence of events" preceeding it was briefly as follows:
On October 4, copies of an environmental report prepared by the Governor's Commission on Three Mile Island and submitted later to the President's Commission on the accident were distributed at a meeting of the Governor's Commission members. The report quoted a Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resource employee, whose testimony MacLeod found riddled with "misstatements and misrepresentations." On the advice of fellow state commissioners, he decided to point them out to the President's Commission and to the head of the Department of Environmental Resources, Clifford Jones.
As an example of some of the points the DER report left out, MacLeod notes that: "The maximum airborne iodine concentration occurred in mid-April, in connection with replacement of the auxiliary building charcoal filters and probably a far higher release of radio iodine occurred at that point, and we don't have the raw data for that [in the DER report]. It doesn't mention it."
MacLeod dictated a letter noting the report's shortcomings and sent it to the Presidential Commission, then he telephoned Jones. "I said, `You've got a problem, Cliff, a man in your department who is misrepresenting the facts before the Presidential Commission, and this will embarrass the [Governor's] administration.' And he [Jones] got angry at me. That was Thursday. Then on Saturday I got a call from the governor's office to come in on Tuesday morning. He [the Governor] sort of uncomfortably asked me then for my resignation." Pressed for an explanation for the firing, MacLeod says Thornburgh "told me he had talked to Clifford Jones. I'm not sure whether it was a turf problem between the two departments, or what it was all about."
Asked about the firing, Thornburgh's press secretary, Paul Crithclow, said MacLeod was dismissed because "he had a great deal of trouble working with other cabinet officers and other administration officials." Without being asked, he volunteered the information that "his [MacLeod's] behavior during that period [that of the accident] was erratic," and insisted on reading extracts from the Times' "Nuclear Fabulists" editorial aloud over the phone.
MacLeod was replaced by H. Arnold Muller, a physician specializing in emergency medical care and the handling of battlefield casualties, with ten years of service in the military. Muller did not have any public-health background, but he did have a continuing financial connection to a project sponsored by the war college at a military base near Harrisburg.
At a meeting at the Pennsylvania Association of Hospital Auxiliaries at Hershey, Pennsylvania, early in May -- just before the venting of the radioactive gases in the containment building had been approved by the Governor -- he had said that fears stemming from the accident at Three Mile Island were unfounded. According to the story in the Harrisburg Patriot of May 7, Muller claimed that "there is nothing to indicate that there has been any illness whatsoever" as a result of the previous year's nuclear accident. Urging that the Three Mile Island accident should be put in proper context, he continued by saying, "Nobody died at TMI, nobody came close to dying." Referring to his experience in the case of automobile accident victims, he asked the women, "Where are all the crying people when a man dies on a street" as the result of a drunken driver? "There are none," he concluded.
Only a few days earlier, at a meeting on "The Roles of Local and State Health Departments in the Management of Radiological Emergencies" at the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health, Muller had indicated, to the astonishment of everyone present, that the state would release only the health data that he could understand and approve.
On May 19, this department issued a news release prominently reported in The New York Times the following day under the headline "Fewer Infant Deaths Near Three Mile Island." In this article, the crucial figures for the infant mortality rate within a 5-mile radius around the plant -- a rate that had increased sevenfold -- were left out. Just like the misleading data that had been handed out to the Harrisburg Patriot reporter on the day of the news conference in November by the head of public relations for the Harrisburg Hospital, the data here had been lumped together with miscarriages and stillbirths under the category of "perinatal mortality." These rates hardly changed at all, especially when compared for the entire year from January through December of 1978 and 1979, because the effect of growth retardation on lung function does not show up until just after birth.
Instead, it was clear to me that the UPI story printed in the Times misled the public by comparing the low infant mortality rate for the high socio-economic, white suburban area within 10 miles of the reactor, which had been far below the rest of the state before the accident, with the figures for the state as a whole: "The figures show the infant death rate (deaths under one year) to be 11.5 per 1000 live births within a 10-mile radius of TMI. The statewide figure for the same period of time [all of 1979] was 13.3 infant deaths per live births." This was exactly the technique used by Tokuhata to hide the large rise in cancer rates around Shippingport compared with their previously low values relative to the state as a whole seven years earlier.
But if the public had been able to see the actual tables released by the Pennsylvania Department of Health broken down by quarters, they would have seen otherwise. In the crucial summer months after the accident, when the infants in their mothers' wombs that had functioning thyroid glands at the time of the accident were born, the infant mortality rate within the 10-mile zone had doubled, exactly as MacLeod had learned from deeply troubled health officials in Harrisburg.
Thus, for July, August, and September, when death rates are usually at their lowest, infant mortality rates within 10 miles had been 4.9 in 1978, and 12.8 after the accident in 1979, a rise of 160 percent. Nor was there any reference to the summer increases for Pennsylvania as a whole as reported in the U.S. Monthly Vital Statistics, far above the rates for the rest of the United States.
Yet the state's news release signed by Muller, as quoted in the UPI story, concluded as follows:After careful study of all available information, we continue to find no evidence to date that radiation from the nuclear power plant resulted in increased number of fetal, neonatal or infant deaths.
Neither the UPI nor The New York Times had fulfilled their normal journalistic responsibility to the public to obtain comments from those who could have pointed out the misleading nature of the news release. In a matter of such great concern and importance for the future health and well-being of the children of Harrisburg and the entire world, was this too much to ask for?
Ironically, the willingness of The New York Times and the UPI to lend themselves to the attempt to cover up the full dimensions of the deaths at Three Mile Island was to be proven futile within a few months, as a result of the persistence of two television news reporters who became disturbed when they discovered a series of inconsistencies and anomalies in the tables of statistics released by the Pennsylvania Health Department in May of 1980. In going over the numbers for fetal deaths in the area within 10 miles of TMI for 1979, they noticed something that was mathematically impossible. They found that for the month of January, the average fetal death rate listed for the entire area was smaller than either the rate in the city of Harrisburg or the rate for the suburban area within the entire 10-mile zone taken separately.
Their suspicions aroused, they continued their detailed examination of the official figures and noticed that the rates of fetal deaths with and without therapeutic abortions for the suburban portion of the 10-mile zone were exactly identical month for month through all of 1979. This was very strange indeed, since it meant that there was not a single reported induced abortion for all of that year in the area closest to the reactor, where the concern of pregnant women was greatest.
Even stranger was the fact that for the city of Harrisburg, the table showed a difference between fetal deaths for the period April to September with and without induced abortions only for May. This meant that there was only a single induced abortion listed for the summer of 1979 in any part of the heavily populated 10-mile zone around Three Mile Island. Yet, another table in the released material showed 11 induced abortions in 1978 and 10 in 1977 for the same 10-mile area around the stricken plant during the same six-month period.
Deeply troubled by their findings, the two reporters went to see MacLeod about a possible explanation. He agreed that there was something wrong with the numbers as listed, and promised to check into the matter further, which he did by consulting a number of statisticians at the University and the State Health Department. None of the individuals he consulted could give an explanation, and one person who had access to the original data as kept in the State's computer said that the numbers were altered in the release.
Shortly thereafter, I happened to stop by at MacLeod's office, when he told me of these very disturbing facts. Apparently it had not occurred to either one of us that the data released might actually have been doctored in some manner when we first heard of the May 1980 news release issued by MacLeod's successor. It seemed incredible that someone might want to do something so glaring, yet when we examined the figures further, a whole series of gross inconsistencies emerged, all tending to reduce the number of deaths during the critical summer months when the U.S. Monthly Vital Statistics had shown the greatest rise of infant deaths both in Pennsylvania and upstate New York relative to the United States as a whole.
As to the sudden decline of therapeutic abortions in the Harrisburg area, MacLeod had called some of his physician friends in Harrisburg and learned that they had performed just about the same number in 1979 as in 1978. And when I looked at a summary for the Harrisburg Hospital sent to me earlier by Prelesnik, there were a total of 10 therapeutic abortions listed for April through September in 1978 and 21 for 1979, totally at variance with a 90% drop to essentially none for 1979 listed for this period in the May release of the Health Department.
Remembering the mistake of an excess of 86 infant deaths in July that was supposedly made and which Tokuhata said had been corrected in the U.S. Monthly Vital Statistics for August, I decided to check what the number of infant deaths were for July and August in the May 1980 Health Department release. Knowing the number of births which had apparently not been in error, it was a simple matter to calculate the number of infant deaths from the infant mortality rates listed. For July, using the rate of 11.9 deaths per thousand births and the 14,680 live births, one obtained 175 infants that had died according to the May 1980 release. For August, the listed rate of 10.2 and the 13,918 births gave 142 infant deaths, for a combined total in July and August of 142 plus 175, or 317.
But this was 73 deaths less than the 390 given in the U.S. Monthly Vital Statistics for the two months after the alleged error had been corrected. The number of infant deaths listed had quietly been further reduced so as to get a still lower rate.
For the three summer months of July, August and September, the U.S. Monthly Vital Statistics gave 589 infant deaths after the August correction had been made. But the figures released by Muller in May 1980 gave a total of only 501 infant deaths, 88 fewer than had been reported to Washington in 1979. Altogether these two adjustments reduced the number of infant deaths by 174, compared with the figures originally reported to Washington in the summer of 1979. This resulted in a low infant mortality rate of only 11.7 per thousand births instead of 13.7 for the summer quarter, bringing it down to below the U.S. rate for the summer quarter of 12.1. Thus it would be possible to maintain Muller's claim in the official release that "after careful study of all available information we continue to find no evidence to date that radiation from the nuclear power plant resulted in an increased number of fetal, neonatal or infant deaths."
The damage done to the developing infants at Three Mile Island will not be as easily swept away as a single public-health official, more concerned about trying to protect human life and health than a powerful technology gone out of human control.
I knew only too well how often this had happened before without the knowledge of the public. I knew how the budgets of public-health agencies, such as those of New York State, had been cut in order to stop the publication of the detailed annual health statistics that would allow other conscientious officials or independent investigators to alert the public to the danger of emissions from newly built nuclear reactors or fallout from distant nuclear detonations. The fragmentary summaries of data that replaced the detailed reports beginning in 1970 were a very inadequate substitute. I also knew that the budget of the EPA had been cut by the Nixon administration to force an end to the publication of Radiation Health Data and Reports in 1974. That was the year after the nuclear industry and the agencies that promoted it had learned from the Shippingport hearings how the detailed monthly data on strontium 90 gathered by the states could be used to pinpoint the new sources of radioactivity in the milk. Used intelligently, such detailed data might lead to costly damage suits, just as in the case for the fallout from Nevada.
After those who were primarily concerned about public health had been forced out of the NRC and EPA, it was a simple step to end the previously required monitoring of strontium 90 by the nuclear plants, ostensibly as an economy measure. Interestingly, however, the end of monitoring came in 1979, the same year in which the permissible doses to critical organs from the nuclear fuel cycle were reduced by a factor of twenty. Those scientists who knew that strontium 90 gave the greatest dose per picocurie of all substances released by nuclear bombs or nuclear reactors would no longer be able to protect the public precisely because the most crucial data was no longer being collected. And those few who wanted to warn the public risked the destruction of their scientific reputation and careers.
As I explained to Pawlick at the end of our interview, one of the greatest unanticipated threats of low-level radiation to the human body comes from its action on normal, life-giving oxygen molecules, turning them into powerful toxic agents. Among the most important systems they attack are the immune defenses of the body, which detect and destroy not only foreign bodies such as viruses and bacteria, but also ordinary cells that have somehow gotten out of normal control. These are the so-called malignant cancer cells, which multiply rapidly until they become so numerous that they inhibit the normal functions of vital organs, a condition that eventually leads to the death of the organisms as a whole.
In this sense, there is a close analogy between the human body and a complex human society. They can both be destroyed by outside forces, or they can destroy themselves if they lose the ability to recognize "super-normal" individuals with an unusual ability to propagate their kind in an unchecked manner.
In our rapidly changing science-based society, it is the freedom to investigate and communicate important scientific or public health findings quickly and widely -- no matter how disturbing or controversial -- that is the key element in the protective system needed to alert a society to potentially dangerous developments before they become irreversibly destructive.
The rapid growth of a powerful military and commercial nuclear technology was largely unchecked by the normal protective processes of free communication and public discussion. As a result, the unique economic and political forces of the industrial, military, and scientific organizations to which the atom gave birth are like a malignant cancer in our society, unrecognized and unchecked while it developed under the cover of secrecy to its present enormous size. If we continue to allow our government, which brought this technology into being for purposes of national security, to continue in its efforts to aid and abet the suppression of the freedom of publication in this vital area, then the crucial early warning system that our society needs to survive will have been destroyed.
In the name of national security, our scientists and engineers have created Frankenstein's monster, capable of destroying life in this world. Ironically, in order to realize the dream of ending all wars and developing the peaceful atom that would atone for the horror of Hiroshima and make up to mankind for the threat of destruction that would forever hang over the world in the years to come, they needed to ally themselves with the military, political, and economic interests that alone could supply the enormous financial resources needed to realize their dream. Indeed, Eisenhower had tried to warn the nation of this danger at the end of his presidency.
The alliance of science and technology with the military and political forces is, of course, as old as civilization itself, since only through the fear of powerful enemies would the public provide the necessary funds to develop costly new technologies, all the way from better steel for swords to gigantic missile systems capable of pinpoint accuracy in delivering nuclear bombs to their targets.
But when the testing of nuclear weapons and the leakage from commercial reactors were found to have unanticipated serious biological effects on the population, it became necessary to secretly subvert the very freedom of publication and continued correction of errors on which the success of modern science and technology itself has been based.
In their understandable desire to see the blessings of the peaceful atom come about in their lifetime, and concerned not to endanger the sources of capital for the research and development essential for the advancement of science and technology required by modern society, those involved with the development, promotion, and regulation of nuclear technology and the protection of public health were too often willing to participate in the effort to hide the consequences of nuclear testing or normal and accidental releases from nuclear reactors, especially when the requirements of national security were cited to them in periods of international tension.
Ironically, the need to believe that peaceful applications of the atom were possible played into the hands of those in the military who wanted to use nuclear weapons in limited wars, since both required the assumption that low-level radiation from distant, worldwide fallout or from nuclear plants was essentially harmless. Thus, the most concerned and idealistic scientists who had worked on the bomb and who later dedicated themselves to the realization of the peaceful benefits of the atom, because they were willing to believe the harmlessness of very small amounts of radiation and the negligible magnitude of the doses from nuclear reactor operations, were in effect contributing to the increased likelihood of nuclear war.
Thus, the deeply felt hope for safe, clean, and economical nuclear power kindled by the nuclear scientists tragically aided the plans of leaders of the nuclear nations to find ways to use nuclear weapons in all types of military confrontations. Only the continuing denial of the seriousness of worldwide fallout would give credibility to these threats.
Only a few months before Three Mile Island, James Reston, writing in The New York Times, asked what "the present danger" facing our nation really was:
Is it a military threat from the Soviet Union or an economic threat from some of our allies who are outworking and outproducing us?
In short, is the threat external or internal? What worries the world about the United States today: that it is spending only 117.3 billion dollars this year on defense -- the highest peacetime military budget in our history? Or that the United States is spending more of its economic and moral capital than ever before and losing confidence in itself and the confidence of the free world?
Reston went on to quote Lincoln from an address given in Springfield, Illinois, on January 27, 1837. Lincoln's words now take on a particularly strong relevance:
At what point shall we Americans expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it? Shall we expect some trans-Atlantic military giant to step the ocean and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest with a Bonaparte for a commander, could not by force take a drink from the Ohio or make track on the Blue Ridge in a trial of a thousand years.
And then came this most strangely prophetic passage:
At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us it must spring up amongst us: it cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of free men we must live through all time or die by suicide.
As Reston concluded, "it could be, of course, that Mr. Lincoln is out of date in this nuclear world, but at least his point is worth debating. The `present danger' may be the failure to debate what it really is."
But when vital information is secretly kept from free people, they are no longer free, and there can be no meaningful debate of the most crucial problem facing our nation and the rest of the people of this world, namely whether we shall learn how to live through all time by finding a way to end the nuclear cancer threatening our nation, or die by nuclear suicide.
If we have any moral or ethical obligations at all as human beings, they surely include the obligation to insure the survival of our species and thus the opportunity for our children and their descendants to develop to the fullest the miraculous potential of the human mind. As the French philosopher-scientist Jean Rostand has phrased it so eloquently on behalf of humanity as a whole, "The duty to survive gives us the right to know."
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