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Cold War legacy endangers nuclear workers

Weapon plants unsafe despite revelations of secret experiments, lax safety standards

Sunday, October 24, 1999

By Karen MacPherson, Post-Gazette National Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Five years ago, reporter Eileen Welsome won a Pulitzer Prize unearthing the names of 18 people who were injected with plutonium in the 1940s without their knowledge by federal government scientists.

Welsome's discovery transformed bureaucratic numbers given to the now-deceased victims into flesh-and-blood human beings. CAL-3 turned out to be a Texas Pullman porter named Elmer Allen. HP-3 was a shy, nervous housewife in New York state named Eda Schultz Charlton. CAL-1 was an easy-going California housepainter named Albert Stevens.

Welsome's 1993 series in The Albuquerque Tribune shredded the 50-year-old shroud of secrecy surrounding the medical experiments in the nation's nuclear weapons program from the 1940s to the '70s and sparked massive public outrage.

That outrage pushed the Clinton administration to create the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments, which did its own digging into hundreds of federally-sponsored human radiation experiments.

The committee's exhaustive final report was released on Oct.3, 1995, the same day the verdict was announced in the O.J. Simpson trial. Clinton's dramatic apology to all those subjected to the experiments was consigned to a short sound bite on the evening news; the issue seemed to vanish from public consciousness.

But the moral and ethical issues and the human and environmental consequences of the nation's nuclear weapons program have never gone away. They grow larger and more urgent with continuing reports of nuclear plant workers sickened by their jobs.

A series this year by the Post-Gazette's Block News Alliance sister paper, The Blade of Toledo, Ohio, chronicled how the U.S. government has risked the lives of thousands of workers over five decades by knowingly permitting them to be exposed to unsafe levels of beryllium, a critical material in the production of nuclear weapons.

The Washington Post has reported allegations of dangerous health, safety and environmental practices at the U.S. Department of Energy's Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Paducah, Ky.

"The question we're asking now is a connect-the-dots question," said Dan Guttman, former executive director of the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments. Guttman is now a lawyer involved in lawsuits brought by nuclear weapons plant workers.

"The whole [government] impulse," he said, "to keep things secret. Did it just continue on in relation to nuclear workers? And, if that's the case, is there an unbroken pattern where the government didn't simply fail to give information about health hazards, but knowingly deprived workers up front of the ability to get protection and good data?

"The president has already accepted the premise [in the advisory committee's final report] that, if there was a cover-up and people got sick, they shouldn't have to sit around bearing the burden of proof. That principle is being put to the test in the whole worker issue," Guttman said.

Tara O'Toole, who was the Energy Department's assistant secretary for environmental health when the advisory panel's work was done, believes that one of the main lessons of its report was the need to "continually and aggressively probe the ethical norms, ... to make sure that we are keeping up with the demands of a changing society."

Yet O'Toole, who now works on bioterrorism issues at Johns Hopkins University, is disturbed that this doesn't seem to be happening and points to beryllium as an example. During her DOE tenure, O'Toole had pushed for a more stringent exposure standard for beryllium, which was waylaid by the politically connected contractors who run the agency's weapons production plants.

"It seems to me that, by now, DOE should have taken action to reduce the number of people exposed to beryllium, reduced the exposure standard and avidly followed those who were exposed," she said. "DOE has done some of that, but not enough."

She also points to another example, noting that the new departmental reorganization will exempt the nuclear weapons labs from safety oversight.

"There is a lot of dangerous stuff going on in production areas and the national labs that needs to be looked at," she said. "But they have just decided on the [Capitol] Hill that safety oversight of Los Alamos [National Laboratory], which has one of the worst records on safety, is no longer going to take place.

"What drives me crazy is that this extremely important political move, with very important consequences down the ages for tens of thousands of people, doesn't get covered [by the media]," she said.

But there may be a brighter public spotlight placed on the whole subject -- at least temporarily -- with the publication last week of "The Plutonium Files" (Dial, $26.95), written by Welsome in the years after she won her Pulitzer Prize.

In the 490-page book, she relied on hundreds of thousands of pages of documents gathered by the advisory committee as well as her own interviews and reading to tell the story of the frantic effort by federal scientists, military officials and bureaucrats from the 1940s through the '60s to conduct hundreds of medical experiments intended to discover the safe level of radiation exposure.

The search was key to ensuring the safety of the scientists working with nuclear materials in designing weapons, as well as the workers who produced the weapons and military personnel on the nuclear battlefield.

While the decision to conduct human radiation experiments was motivated by high ideals, scientists and physicians frequently forgot those ideals in the way they conducted their tests. Most experiments were done as part of a secret program, a large majority of the experimental subjects were poor or minorities, and most were kept in the dark about the true nature of the medical procedures they underwent.

In addition, many experiments were repetitive and poorly done. As Welsome put it, "Perhaps worst of all, the experiments were not just immoral science; they were bad science."

The advisory panel study was supposed to be the final word on federally sponsored human radiation experiments. In its 925-page concluding report, the committee did find that many experiments were unethical. Yet it also declared that, with few exceptions, no single individual was to blame and that no one needed medical monitoring. The panel also recommended federal compensation for only a handful of people, including the 18 people injected with plutonium.

"Although many of the experimental subjects and their relatives were disappointed by the government's response, the American people nevertheless gained a vast amount of knowledge from the documents about the Cold War," Welsome writes.

"It's as if a submerged continent has risen to the surface. There are peaks and valleys and still lots of shadows, but the contours are much better understood. Much of the information is disturbing, shocking and will serve as a cautionary tale about the corrupting power of secrecy, the danger of special-interest groups, the excesses of science and medicine and the need to monitor closely the activities of civilian and military weapons makers."

Meanwhile, the controversy continues today.

"Since 1945, there's been an effort to get some kind of international control over the bomb," she said in an interview. "But the test ban treaty [recently defeated in the Senate] is still an issue. Also, the question of how the bomb tests affected the health of nuclear workers was an issue in 1945, and the workers' health is still an issue today.

"And the atomic veterans began arguing in the late 1960s that they were exposed to dangerous amounts of radioactivity that caused many of them to develop cancer. Lo and behold, we're still talking about that issue today."

Welsome cited a study released last week by the National Academy of Sciences showing higher than normal rates for leukemia and prostate and nasal cancer among soldiers exposed to radiation during Nevada atomic tests in the 1950s, although they don't have an increased risk of death.

O'Toole says the advisory committee report "was only the beginning of what the Cold War has meant to us as a people and how we view our government. I also think it was the beginning of the story about people's ambivalence towards technology and, in particular, technology in the hands of a powerful entity like the U.S. government. ...

"The main thing is that you have to be thoughtfully skeptical that you are doing the right thing," she said. "You need to have an awareness of the need to truly ponder the ethics of what you are doing when you are dealing with powerful technology."

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