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'The Plutonium Files' by Eileen Welsome

‘Plutonium Files’ sheds light on inhuman experiment

Sunday, November 21, 1999

By Karen MacPherson, Post-Gazette Staff Writer


The Plutonium Files

By Eileen Welsome



For 50 years, the scientists, military men and bureaucrats who ran the U.S. nuclear-weapons program kept their activities secret.

One of the nastiest secrets was an experiment designed to determine how much plutonium a human could safely handle. In that experiment, conducted in the mid-1940s, 18 people -- 17 American adults and one Australian child -- were injected with plutonium without their knowledge or consent.

Although the scientists defended it as necessary to ensure the safety of workers in the nuclear-weapons program, they also realized that it could create a public-relations nightmare if the story ever leaked.

When a congressional committee uncovered evidence of the experiment in the 1980s, there was indeed public outrage and disbelief that our government could conduct an experiment that seemed akin to what the Nazis did in World War II.

Yet the outrage never translated to action, and the experiment slowly faded from the public consciousness.

Then, six years ago, reporter Eileen Welsome unearthed one new, vital fact about the experiment -- the names of the people injected with plutonium -- and struck a national nerve.

In November 1993, The Albuquerque Tribune published her series, giving names and faces to people known until then only by numbers assigned them by the government.

With that simple step of transforming bureaucratic numbers into flesh and blood -- a step that took her years of research to accomplish -- Welsome touched off a firestorm of protest and activity that finally penetrated the cloak of secrecy surrounding the experiments.

Now Welsome, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her reporting, has used that information to tell a cautionary tale of secrecy run amok. Welsome piles on detail to show how doctors used their patients as guinea pigs. The result is a remarkably detailed history of a hitherto hidden world.

Combining prodigious reporting with deft writing, Welsome’s book reads like a novel. But it’s also a frightening portrait of how secrecy can subvert democracy to create a world in which nearly any ends justify the means.

In the interest of candor, I must reveal that I played a bit part in Welsome’s work. After her series ran in The Tribune, I was detailed -- in my role as Scripps Howards News Service’s Washington correspondent -- to question then-U.S. Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary about the experiments in December 1993.

Later, I spent years following the Washington end of the story -- the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments created by President Clinton in the face of overwhelming public outrage.

“The Plutonium Files” isn’t perfect. Welsome has a tendency to overwrite sometimes, and the book is in desperate need of an appendix charting and comparing the various doses of plutonium and other radioactive materials she mentions.

And it would have been helpful to have a list of players to help keep track of who did what to whom, although the index is helpful, as are the notes.

At its core, “The Plutonium Files” gives voice to all who were regarded as laboratory specimens in the name of national security. The 18 people injected with plutonium were far from alone. Hundreds of people were used in experiments by scientists working with the Manhattan Project and its successor, the Atomic Energy Commission.

To Welsome’s credit, she brings to life not only those people used in the experiments, but also the men who conducted them. These were men who were learning on the job about the human implications of working with nuclear materials, just as the United States was building -- overnight -- a huge nuclear industry. Welsome describes them as a “curious blend of spook, scientist and soldier.”

Unfortunately, as she shows, too many of them were carried away with the idea that their work was somehow more important than the Hippocratic oath.

“Perhaps worst of all, the experiments were not just immoral science; they were bad science,” Welsome writes.

Meanwhile, justice still hasn’t been done. Welsome is severely critical of the Clinton administration’s advisory committee, which did a fine job collecting documents about the experiments but refused to assign blame. The only victims who received federal compensation were the 18 people injected with plutonium.

Clinton did issue a dramatic, sweeping apology in October 1995, yet it was hardly noticed: the same day he apologized, the O.J. Simpson jury returned its verdict. As Welsome writes: “Not even the clever doctors of the Manhattan Project could have dreamed up such a diversion.”

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