Don Petersen, one of the old hands who was brought back to the lab to help with the search effort and who had testified at one of the outreach meetings about giving his own children trace amounts of radioiodine, told a reporter he would be willing to drink a solution of radioactive plutonium if it would help researchers. aThe abject terror of plutonium is unfounded,a he said.20 Patricia Durbin, the Berkeley scientist who worked for Joseph Hamilton and initiated the follow-up study of the plutonium patients, was still irritated when I contacted her by telephone at her home in Berkeley three years after the story broke. The controversy over the plutonium injections, she said, took a year out of her life. aWhen youare approaching seventy, you canat afford years out of your life.21 I spent the better part of a year in interviews, hearings, depositions, consultations with lawyers, writing reports and so on. I got tired of it.a Durbin said she and her colleagues hoped to publish a comprehensive scientific report on the plutonium experiment awhen the dust settled.a She said she would also like to see the rest of the plutonium patients exhumed. The data are so important, Durbin continued, that she and several colleagues considered having themselves injected with plutonium before their deaths and then donating their bodies to science.
Officials in the Department of Energy were quick to reject the offer. Lori Azim, an aide to Tara OaToole, the DOEas a.s.sistant secretary for environment, safety, and health, told a Rochester newspaper she couldnat imagine anyone endorsing that idea. aFrankly, weare not interested in that anymore.a22
When Energy Secretary Hazel OaLeary acknowledged that the federal government had conducted radiation experiments on its own people, thousands of callers flooded a hot line set up by the DOE: What was going on? Had we become a nation of paranoiacs? A country of guinea pigs? Or had OaLeary touched on something that resonated deeply with the American public?
Certainly the radiation experiments raised complex questions that go to the core of our society: the trust between a government and its people, the subjugation of individuals to the interest of the state, and the ethical dilemma a.s.sociated with the development of weapons of ma.s.s destruction.
But what OaLeary did in a dramatic and unexpected way was confirm the hunch that all was not well beneath the soothing no-harm, no-danger statements that accompanied the reports of nuclear blasts, spills, and accidents of the Cold War. Her admission produced an electrifying response, something akin to the emotions a person might feel after being subjected to a lifetime of vague allusions and abrupt silences and suddenly learning a dark family secret he or she had always suspected.
When the Nevada Test Site opened in 1951, the Atomic Energy Commission warned its public relations men to approach the tests amatter-of-factlya and not go overboard in emphasizing how safe the explosions were going to be. Such a campaign might be interpreted as one of the alady doth protest too much,a an AEC official cautioned.1 The bomb projectas public relations machine succeeded in keeping a lid on the experiments for fifty years. Its spokesmen were able to blame the fallout controversy, the illnesses of the atomic veterans, and the diseases of the downwinders on sudden wind shifts, misinformed scientists, the overactive imaginations of aging soldiers, and even Communist propagandists. But the radiation experiments revealed a deliberate intent, a willingness to inflict harm or the risk of harm, which could not be explained away so easily. Somebody inserted the needle into the human vein, mixed the radioisotopes in the paper cup, or flipped the switch that delivered a potentially lethal dose of whole-body radiation. There is no denying that: a Thousands of Americans were used as laboratory animals in radiation experiments funded by the federal government. Many of the subjects were not asked for their consent or given accurate information about the nature of these experiments. Some didnat learn they or their loved ones had been used as guinea pigs until 1994 or 1995. Some still donat know, and never will.
a Many of the doctors and scientists who performed these experiments routinely violated their patientsa trust and engaged in deception. They ignored the Hippocratic Oath, the 1946 American Medical a.s.sociation guidelines, the Nuremberg Code, as well as policies adopted by the Atomic Energy Commission in 1947 and by the Defense Department in 1953. Civil and criminal laws also may have been broken. Beyond everything else, the experimenters violated a fundamental right that belongs to all competent adults: the right to control oneas own body.
a Although the majority of the experiments were the so-called tracer studies, which involved administering radioactive materials in quant.i.ties so small that they probably caused no harm, most scientists agree that no dose can absolutely be called safe.
a Some studies are known to have had very serious consequences. The total-body irradiation experiments caused intense suffering and premature death in some patients. The radium rod treatments and some of the radioactive iodine experiments increased the risk of head, neck, and thyroid cancers and other secondary disorders.
What can be said about the scientists and doctors involved in these experiments? Like professionals in every field, some were extremely accomplished and others were hacks. A few of the experiments increased scientific understanding and led to new diagnostic tools, while others were of questionable scientific value. The plutonium experiment is a prime example of bad science. It was a poorly designed experiment for several reasons, including the fact that the sample size was too small and the patients varied greatly in age and type of disease. Beyond those obvious flaws, the experimental results led the Manhattan Project doctors to erroneous a.s.sumptions. From the excretion data, they concluded that urine could be used to determine the body burden of any compound of plutonium that is inhaled or ingested. But William Jay Brady, the scientist who spent four decades at the Nevada Test Site and is now helping the atomic vets, said that just isnat true.
The eighteen patients were injected with plutonium citrate or plutonium nitrate, both soluble forms of plutonium that are excreted in the urine. But only a few thousand people, at most, who worked in the weapons complex over the last fifty years have been exposed to those particular plutonium compounds. As Brady explains it, the majority of the worldas population, including test-site partic.i.p.ants, have been exposed to plutonium oxide, a compound that is created during a nuclear detonation. And plutonium oxide, for the most part, stays in the lungs and lymph nodes and cannot be detected in the urine. Thus the data from the injectees are applicable to perhaps a few thousand workers in the nuclear weapons complex and not to the many hundreds of thousands of people exposed to global fallout.
During the heyday of the atmospheric testing program, thousands of urine samples were taken regularly from test-site workers and, to a lesser extent, military troops and examined for plutonium. Those test results invariably produced false negativesa"that is, no evidence of contamination that could be confirmed. In fact, Brady said, many of the soldiers and test-site workers could have had a significant amount of plutonium in the lungs, but it would not have been detectable in the urine. aHow ironic,a he added.2 aThe federal government has spent millions of dollars a.n.a.lyzing urine samples for something we now know doesnat even show up in urine!a One of the most disturbing revelations was the pervasive deception that the doctors, scientists, and military officials routinely engaged in even before the first bomb had been detonated. And General Leslie Groves lied egregiously when he testified to Congress in 1945 about the radiation effects of the bomb. aA pleasant way to die,a he saida"fully aware of how dreadful such deaths really are. Groves knew what happened to the j.a.panese victims, and he knew what had happened a great deal closer to home, when one of the scientists in the Los Alamos lab was fatally injured. His sidekick, Stafford Warren, downplayed the fatalities and lingering deaths in j.a.pan. By not fully disclosing the human suffering caused by those bombings, they did a grave disservice. Furthermore, General Groves got it exactly backward when he told congressmen, aIn the end, I think that the atomic bomb will be considered as a byproduct of the atomic age.a3 The culture bred by the Manhattan Project caused a blanket of secrecy to be thrown over everything related to atomic weapons. The secrecy was essential during the Manhattan Project, but it hardened into a protective and impenetrable sh.e.l.l after the war. The secrecy cut researchers off from the healthy sunlight of inquiry that would surely have put a stop to some of the experiments and perhaps reduced the number of atmospheric tests. Many of the scientists, such as Carl h.e.l.ler and C. Alvin Paulsen, were instructed to avoid publicity, and several studies, such as Eugene Saengeras, were halted only after they received public attention.
Working behind their security fences, the scientists developed a them-against-us mentality. This att.i.tude was often manifested in a distrust of the public and disdain for scientific opponents. The acleareda researchers even began to think alike, which accounts in part for the remarkably similar statements issued whenever a controversy erupted. The web of deception and denial looks in retrospect like a vast conspiracy, but in actuality it was simply a reflection of the shared att.i.tudes and beliefs of the scientists and bureaucrats who were inducted into the weapons program at a time of national urgency and never abandoned their belief that nuclear war was imminent. This collective body of ideas was pa.s.sed down through the generations and is only now beginning to be dislodged. But the intensity of the attacks upon Hazel OaLeary, who played an active role in trying to dismantle this culture of secrecy, shows what a hold it has on us still. In fact, the pendulum began swinging back toward secrecy in the spring of 1999 when allegations emerged that China may have stolen some of our nuclear secrets. Numerous steps were undertaken to bolster security in the nationas weapons labs, and the Office of Decla.s.sification was renamed the Office of Nuclear and National Security to reflect the changed priorities.
As far back as 1947 much of the secrecy was prompted by fear of lawsuits and adverse public relations. But where did this worry over lawsuits, the fretting about public relations, come from? After all, this was a patriotic era when most Americans trusted their government, when conspiracy theories did not abound, and when lawsuits were not filed over a spilled cup of coffee.
The fear of lawsuits dates back to the 1920s and 1930s, when the young women who painted the watch dials inadvertently ingested radium and later developed cancer. Their deaths triggered numerous lawsuits and an outpouring of sympathy throughout the world. Many of the Manhattan Project doctors, such as Stafford Warren, Louis Hempelmann, Robert Stone, and Joseph Hamilton, were acutely aware of the tragedy and sought to avoid similar lawsuits from being filed by workers in the nationas nuclear weapons complex.
During the war, the bomb makers believed that lawsuits would jeopardize the secrecy of the project. After the war, they worried that lawsuits would jeopardize the continued development of nuclear weapons.
The Veterans Administration in 1947 considered establishing a aconfidentiala Atomic Medicine Division to deal with potential disability claims from soldiers and sailors involved in the weapons tests. Wrote one physician, aIt was felt unwise to publicize unduly the probable adverse effects of exposure to radioactive materials.4 The use of nuclear energy at this time was so sensitive that unfavorable reaction might have jeopardized future developments in the field.a As a public information officer for the AEC explained after the first series of bombs were detonated in Nevada: aDuring the period from August 1945 until early 1951, the public had been subjected to a diet of Sunday-magazine sensationalized reports of atomic weapons.5 There had been created a ma.s.s fear of radioactive effects and perhaps a feeling that if one atomic bomb were exploded many cities in areas distant from the site would be disintegrated.a Thus the weaponeers recognized that they would have to allay the publicas fear of atomic weapons in order to keep the production plants operating and nurture the budding fields of nuclear medicine and nuclear power. This meant an aggressive propaganda campaign about the afriendly atoma and the suppression of all potentially negative stories about health hazards related to atomic energy.
Itas difficult to describe how pervasive, how all-encompa.s.sing this propaganda campaign was. In the films of the atmospheric testing program now being decla.s.sified by the Department of Energy, military officials continually emphasize how safe the bomb tests are, how vital they are to the security of the free world, how glorious the future of mankind will be when the full potential of the atom has been realized. aItas a huge fraternity, this order of the mushroom, and itas growing all the time,a one narrator crowed.6 AEC officials routinely suppressed information about environmental contamination caused by the weapons plants and the health risks posed by fallout from the atmospheric testing program. In the case of the people who lived downwind of the Nevada site or the atomic plants, the suppression continued even when scientists knew the public should be warned of dangerous levels of radioactivity in order to protect themselves. aThe functionaries who executed this policy were not evil men, but rather loyal men who wore blinders and fulfilled their missions with such dedication and zeal that these virtues, in excess, resulted in dishonorable deeds,a wrote Stewart Udall, a former secretary of the interior as well as an attorney who has represented Nevadaas downwinders and the uranium miners.7 For five decades the public remained largely ignorant of the systematic nature of human radiation experiments. Secrecy, compounded by the insular, inbred nature of the atomic establishment, helped keep the experiments from becoming known. But the fact is, the Manhattan Project veterans and their proteges controlled virtually all the information. They sat on the boards that set radiation standards, consulted at meetings where further human experimentation was discussed, investigated nuclear accidents, and served as expert witnesses in radiation injury cases. The Manhattan Project researchers also worked in a professional world that remained remarkably stable. Once the project itself had been disbanded, the scientists got jobs in the weapons laboratories and at universities, many of which had contracts with the Atomic Energy Commission, and they remained in these jobs for the rest of their lives.
The experiments conducted after the war generally were not secret. But the results were published in obscure journals or laboratory health reports that were inaccessible to the public. Furthermore, many of the policy discussions surrounding the purpose of the experiments were kept secret.
As the oral histories conducted by the Advisory Committee show, the radiation experiments were not an anomaly. Unethical human experimentation occurred in many medical fields in the decades following World War II. Money was plentiful and scientists were eager to conduct research, publish scientific papers, and climb the academic ladder. It was a time when certain medical doctors acted like predators and viewed their patients as little more than white mice. Although human experimentation is necessary to eradicate disease, there is nevertheless some thing unsettling about the powerful deciding that the powerless should sacrifice themselves to science.
Another of the ethical horrors was the melding of military and medical agendas. The large total-body irradiation experiments conducted after the war probably would not have been done without funding by the armed forces. Eugene Saenger said he didnat know if he would have conducted the TBI experiment had he not gotten money from the military. Saenger also said that he might have halted the experiment had investigators found a biological marker, or adosimeter,a which could have been used to accurately measure radiation exposure.
The low-dose irradiation chamber in Oak Ridge was built at a time when NASA was exploring the effects of low-level radiation on astronauts. Those experiments, too, probably would never have gone forward without the s.p.a.ce agencyas interest. Carl h.e.l.ler and C. Alvin Paulsen had no experience using radiation and most likely would never have proceeded with their testicular irradiation experiments without encouragement and funding from the AEC.
It was not until 1993, with the admission by Energy Secretary Hazel OaLeary, that the size of the experimentation program began to be revealed. OaLearyas acknowledgment was a radical departure for a bureaucracy steeped in secrecy and arrogance. President Clinton supported OaLearyas efforts to make all doc.u.ments public, and even notoriously closed agencies like the Central Intelligence Agency were dragged into the search effort. But Hazel OaLeary was the public official who took the greatest risk and paid the greatest price for making public such a controversial chapter in Cold War history. Through her efforts, a ma.s.sive and secretive bureaucracy was nudged farther into the bright light of truth.
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By contrast, the findings of the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments were disappointing and timid. Even committee member Jay Katz admitted in an interview after the panel had been disbanded that the members did not asufficiently condemna many of the experiments.8 Although the groupas final report is factual and contains much new information, its conclusions are weak and fail to come to terms with many of the controversial studies.
My heartfelt thanks also go to Mary Diecker, an indefatigable researcher who appeared at my house week after week with her arms laden with books and scientific reports. Many of the extraordinary details described in this book were uncovered by Mary during her many trips to the library. I also received research a.s.sistance from Albert Lukban, Lily Wound, Lorlei Metke, and Richard Halsey.
Countless government officials went out of their way to help me. Among the most helpful were employees in the Department of Energy, the very agency that had been so uncooperative when I began this project twelve years ago. I owe a very large thank-you to the DOEas Lori Azim, a lovely and efficient young woman who sent me dozens of doc.u.ments. I also am grateful to Martha DeMarre, Jeff Gordon, and former staffer Cynthia Ashley at the DOEas Coordination and Information Center in Las Vegas, Nevada, for the rapidity with which they responded to my requests for doc.u.ments. Evie Self, a decla.s.sification official at DOE headquarters in Washington, D.C., worked a minor miracle when she managed to get the accident report of Jimmy Robinson decla.s.sified by both the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense. The report had languished in Washington for more than two years and was in danger of being lost until she stepped in. Other government employees who helped were Diana Joy Leute, Ellyn Weiss, Bob Alvarez, Jim Solit, Rick Ray, Pam Bonee, Cheri Abdelnour, and Col. Claud Bailey.
Staffers from President Clintonas Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments were of tremendous a.s.sistance. In particular, I want to thank Dan Guttman, the committeeas executive director, with whom I had many lively discussions. Dan literally opened the committeeas doors to me, allowing me to copy hundreds of doc.u.ments before they were boxed up and shipped to the National Archives. Lanny Keller, Trad Hughes, Gil Whittemore, Patrick Fitzgerald, Gregg Herken, James David, Patricia Perentesis, Jon Harkness, Kristin Crotty, Stephen Klaidman, Gary Stern, Gail Javitt, and Ronald Neuman were also helpful.
Loretta Garrison, formerly an attorney with the Baker & Hostetler law firm, was instrumental in getting many important doc.u.ments on the plutonium experiment released under the Freedom of Information Act. Loretta and her husband, David, also opened their home to me on my many research trips to Washington, putting me up in their spare bedroom and supplying me with maps, subway pa.s.ses, and umbrellas as I negotiated my way through Washingtonas archives and reading rooms. James Houpt, another attorney with the Baker & Hostetler firm, helped keep my original notes and doc.u.ments on the Cecil Kelley case from being subpoenaed by Los Alamos.
Many records used in this book came from the private collections of individuals. One of the most generous was Harold Bibeau, a subject in Carl h.e.l.leras testicular irradiation experiment, who sent me the bulk of the doc.u.ments used in the chapter on the prisoner experiments. Other people who opened their personal files included Pat Broudy, Stewart Udall, Katie Kelley, Jackie Kittrell, Doris Baker, Martha Stephens, Sandra Marlow, Peter J. Thompson, Venlo Wolfsohn, Langdon Harrison, and Ubaldo Arizmendi.
Doe West, who chaired the Ma.s.sachusetts task force that investigated the radiation experiments at the Fernald state school, spent hours tracking down photographs for me. I also received help from numerous professional archivists and librarians, including Margaret Moseley, a librarian in Newport News; Loretta Hefner, formerly with Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory; Roger Mead, the archivist at Los Alamos; Terry Fehner, a historian at DOE headquarters in Germantown, Maryland; Sandy Smith, at the National Archives; and Valerie Komor, at the Rockefeller Archive Center.
Scott Ware, the editor of the Albuquerque Tribune, gave me permission to use many of the doc.u.ments and photographs from the original series. Colleagues Dennis Domrzalski, Ed Asher, Dan Vukelich, and Bob Benz were a great help, as were reporters in other cities, including Cory-don Ireland, Tim Bonfield, Karen Dorn Steele, Mary Manning, and Keith Rogers. Countless other individuals provided a.s.sistance, including Ray Poore, Oscar Rosen, Robert Campbell, Don Arbitblit, William Burleson, R. Joseph Parker, E. Cooper Brown, Thomas Fisher, David Egilman, Cliff Honicker, Kitty Alvarez, John Abbotts, James P. c.o.o.ney Jr., Meta h.e.l.ler, John Daniel, Madonna Daniel, Don Byers, James Brascoe, Jeff Petroculley, Ray Heslin, and David Hilgemann.
I am also indebted also to Jim Bettinger, the deputy director of the John S. Knight Fellowship Program at Stanford University, who took time out of his busy schedule to plow throught the first draft of my ma.n.u.script, offering many intelligent suggestions for the revisions and much-needed encouragement. Luis Tovar and Diane Edwards also read the first draft, gently pointing out the rough spots that needed to be smoothed.
I cannot begin to express my thanks to my dear friend, Loydean Thomas, who listened patiently to my ordeals over the years. I also owe a special thanks to my next-door neighbor, Dena Daniel, now eighty-four, who cruised the airwaves, capturing on tape anything that might be related to the project and leaving it on my doorstep each evening.
I am also indebted to my literary agent, Lisa Bankoff, for her unwavering support, as well as to the people at The Dial Press who saw this book through to publication. I have an abiding grat.i.tude to my two wonderful editors, Beth Rashbaum and Susan Kamil. With a ruthless pen and gentle heart, Beth took a grocery bagas worth of ma.n.u.script pages and turned them into this book. Susan guided the project through all its twists and turns. Her commitment was constant, her enthusiasm unflagging, her advice inspiring. I also want to thank Zoe Rice, for her incalculable a.s.sistance and unfailing courtesy; Random Houseas Bill Adams, for his superb legal review; Virginia Norey, Brian Mulligan, and Roberto de Vicq de c.u.mptich, who worked on everything from the jacket to the interior design of the book; Susan Schwartz, publishing manager, and Johanna Tani, chief copy editor, who shepherded the book through the production process; and copy editor Debra Manette, who culled out more errors than I believed were possible. Those that remain are my own.
And finally to my husband, Jim, I owe my deepest grat.i.tude. He has always believed in this book. More than anything else, it was his love and confidence that carried me through the years. He read the ma.n.u.script at least four times, offered many invaluable suggestions, and endured years of endless discussion about the people and events described here. It is not an exaggeration to say that without Jim, I might not have completed the journey.
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