[Continuing our review of Catherine Caufield's stunning, fact-filled book, MULTIPLE EXPOSURES, CHRONICLES OF THE RADIATION AGE now available in paperback. Page numbers in our text refer to pages in the 1989 hardback edition from Harper & Row.]
The history of the development of ionizing radiation (X-rays and radioactivity) reveals many of the same problems we face today: dangerous technologies are being developed via trial and error, with humans serving as the test species. For example (pg. 8), in 1896, "The first systematic practitioner of X-ray therapy was Dr. Leopold Freund in Vienna, whose first patient was a fiveyear-old girl with a hairy mole on her back. In December, 1896, she underwent two hours of X-rays every day for 16 days. After 12 days, the hair on her back began to fall out, but her whole back became horribly inflamed and took a very long time to heal. Thereafter Freund limited exposures to 10 minutes. 'This accident,' commented the girl's doctor, dryly, 'was full of instruction.'" Oops.
From its earliest days, and continuing into the present day, trial-and-error has been the basic means of development for nuclear technology. The underwater A-bomb test July 25, 1946 at Bikini atoll gave unexpected results (pgs. 94-98); it was supposed to show that a fleet of Navy ships could survive a nearby bombing and could then be boarded and sailed triumphantly home across the Pacific. Instead, "The test planners were taken aback. They had not expected such high levels of radioactivity, though there had been warnings from RadSafe [the official medical team in charge of troop safety].... The task force now faced a huge and unexpected job-decontaminating the target fleet [of 84 ships] so it could be reboarded and sailed home. Unfortunately, no one knew how to clear a ship of radioactivity. In the first days, crews simply sluiced down the decks of their ships, using radioactive lagoon water. When that didn't work, they used soap and water. That too failed, as did every other cleaning agent tried, from lye to foamite.... After many weeks, it was finally proved that the only effective decontamination technique was to remove the outer surface of each ship to a depth of almost half an inch.... Sailors were not issued proper protective clothing--a garment to cover the entire body and head, along with goggles, boots, gloves, and filter masks--while working on contaminated vessels. The first clear order to destroy severely contaminated clothing was not issued until two weeks after [the bomb] was exploded. Not until 13 August, almost three weeks after the blast, were decontamination crews ordered to board the 'change ship' to shower and change their workclothes before returning to the ships where they slept and ate.
"The target ships were not the only ones made radioactive by [the bomb]. The live fleet, the  ships on which most of the 42,000 participants were sleeping, showering, and eating, had also become contaminated, largely as a result of entering the lagoon prematurely.... Warren [in charge of RadSafe] recommended that all drinking water should be taken from the ocean, as far as possible away from the lagoon, but his advice was ignored. The radioactive lagoon water contaminated the evaporators used to collect it and the pipes that carried it to the showers and toilets.... Warren's private papers, which became available after his death in 1982, reveal the severity of the situation. On 13 August he reported that 'The initial contamination of surfaces was so great that reduction... of 90 percent or more still leaves large and dangerous quantities of fission [products] and alpha emitters scattered about... Contamination of personnel, clothing, hands, and even food can be demonstrated readily in every ship... in increasing amounts day by day.'
"By the time the true extent of the live fleet's contamination was acknowledged, the fleet had already dispersed.... In September, 1946 the Navy decided that every ship that had been at Bikini during or after the [Abomb] test had to undergo full-scale decontamination... But the Navy could not afford to have an entire fleet out of action for months while a way to clean it was sought. 'Consequently,' an official report stated in September, 1946, 'several APA's, Destroyer Division 72 and some auxiliaries have been cleared practically to meet operational requirements on the basis that they might continue to operate until methods of making them safe for overhaul are developed.'" Oops.
In 1953 the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC, a federal agency) set up offices in the western states of Colorado, New Mexico and Utah to promote the discovery and mining of uranium. (pg. 75) By this time the "radiation protection community" [the doctors and others who had appointed themselves to establish standards for 'safe' levels of radiation exposure] had officially adopted the position that there is no truly safe amount of radiation--a viewpoint officially adopted by the ICRP [International Commission on Radiological Protection] in 1948 (pgs. 73, 77). Their position was crystal clear: Every bit of radiation carries with it the risk of cancer and of genetic damage that can be passed on to one's children.
But a 1951 pamphlet published by the AEC makes no mention of radiation in connection with uranium mining; instead it says, "the radioactivity contained in rocks is not dangerous to humans unless the rocks are held in close contact with the skin for very long periods of time." (pg. 81)
Navajo uranium miner Phillip Harrison says, "And when I went to work [in 1969], I was never told anything inside the mine would be hazardous to my health later. It really surprised us to find out after so many years that it would turn out like this, that it would kill a lot of people. They said nothing about radiation or safety, things like that. We had no idea at all." He describes his father's death from lung cancer: "My father, the last year of his life he had greatly suffered; he had really suffered daily. We gave him pain pills, but the pain just started mounting and pretty soon the pain pills weren't enough. They started shooting him with needles, and the needles didn't stop the pain. I think they die mostly from pain." (pg. 79)
Some 30,000 to 40,000 men mined uranium from the 1950s through the 1970s (pgs. 84, 86). The current estimate is that somewhere between 3000 and 8000 of these men will die from lung cancer as a result of their exposure to radiation, and thousands more will die of emphysema, fibrosis and other lung ailments. Oops. The "developed" nations tested about 500 atomic bombs in the atmosphere, starting in 1946. Each bomb created massive amounts of fallout containing strontium90 a highly radioactive element not found in nature. The human body reacts to strontium-90 as if it were calcium and stores it in the bones, where calcium is normally stored, and in many other body tissues. As late as 1953 the AEC's official position on dangers from strontium-90 was that "the only potential hazard to humans would be the ingestion of bone splinters [from ground beef made from cows fed fallout-contaminated grass]...." (pg. 126) What the AEC's scientists overlooked was that milk from cows would provide a direct pathway into millions of humans--especially children--even if those humans never ate any bone splinters whatsoever. Oops.
When a University of Pittsburgh scientist calculated in 1969 that atomic fallout had killed 400,000 American children, the AEC asked its own scientists to evaluate the data (pg. 155). The AEC's scientists concluded that "only" 4,000 American children had been killed by atomic fallout. Oops.
The AEC did not like this answer. AEC officials tried (unsuccessfully) to prevent their own scientists from presenting these conclusions at a meeting of the prestigious American Association for the Advancement of Science. Two weeks after he presented his data, AEC scientist Arthur Tamplin found his staff cut from 11 to four; within six months, he had only one assistant remaining and his major responsibilities had been transferred to other scientists. He had no choice but to quit the agency and seek work elsewhere (pg. 157).
The history of nuclear development, thoroughly and dispassionately documented in this book, is a chronicle of errors and misjudgments, of disregard for scientific evidence and common sense, and, often, of contempt for common decency itself. Now this industry and its friends in government plan to experiment on you, to learn what will happen when "low level" radioactive waste has the name "radioactive" stripped off and it is renamed "below regulatory concern" (BRC) [see RHWN #183, #184, and #185]. BRC wastes can now legally be sent to your municipal dump, your municipal incinerator, and even to your local recycling program, from whence recycled radioactive metal objects can make their way back into your home. Oops.
Furthermore, this industry and its friends in government are pressing forward now with a new plan for burying more than 2000 pounds of plutonium-239 half a mile below the desert floor in southern New Mexico. By the government's own estimate, 100 micrograms of plutonium will kill a human, so the WIPP [Waste Isolation Pilot Plant] site will contain enough plutonium to kill 10 billion humans--twice earth's population. Plutonium remains radioactive for 240,000 years. Our government assures us they can seal the WIPP so it will remain secure for 250,000 years. And if they are wrong? Oops.
Get: Catherine Caufield, MULTIPLE EXPOSURES, CHRONICLES OF THE
RADIATION AGE (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).
--Peter Montague, Ph.D.
Descriptor terms: catherine caufield; radiation; nuclear weapons; occupational safety; aec; workers; race; native peoples; native americans; children; strontium-90; plutonium-239; wipp; waste isolation pilot plant; health;