"After 15 years of investigating, I have concluded that the United States government's atomic weapons industry knowingly and recklessly exposed millions of people to dangerous levels of radiation. "Nothing in our past compared to the official deceit and lying that took place in order to protect the nuclear industry. In the name of national security, politicians and bureaucrats ran roughshod over democracy and morality. Ultimately, the Cold Warriors were willing to sacrifice their own people in their zeal to beat the Russians." Former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall from the foreword to Atomic Harvest: Hanford and the Lethal Toll of America's Nuclear Arsenal By Michael D'Antonio
Since early June, newspapers in Australia and Great Britain have published articles about experiments conducted in the 1950s and 1960s by U.S. scientists on the bodies of deceased and stillborn babies. Documents declassified by the U.S. Department of Energy show that scientists from the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority worked with their American counterparts to take the bodies of 6,000 infants from hospitals in Australia, Great Britain, Canada, Hong Kong, South America and the U.S., then ship them to the United States for the nuclear experimentswithout permission from the parents.
It was called Project Sunshine. Sunshine began in 1955 at the University of Chicago when Willard Libby, later a Nobel Prize laureate for his research into carbon dating, instructed colleagues to skirt the law in their search for bodies. "Human samples are of prime importance, and if anybody knows how to do a good job of body-snatching, they will really be serving their country," Libby is quoted as saying. The reasoning: Nuclear tests released great amounts of Strontium 90 into the atmosphere. Libby and others connected with the American defense industry wanted to know how much radiation was entering the food supply. The bodies and body parts were cremated and the ashes tested with a sophisticated Geiger counter.
Grotesque as Project Sunshine was, it fits the pattern. Since 1945, high officials of the United States government have maimed and killed hundreds of thousands of their own people, first while they spent $5.5 trillion to test and maintain nuclear weapons, then as they spent billions to support and under-regulate nuclear power plants. To cover their actions, the officials and those who succeeded themhave for decades lied to the public and perjured themselves in court about the amount of radiation released and its effect on the millions of people exposed to it.
Now, that same government wants to transport hundreds of tons of nuclear waste through 43 states, including Idaho, on inadequate rail lines and highways past 138 million people to be stored in containers of unknown longevity for hundreds of thousands of years in geologically unstable formations in New Mexico and Nevada. And once again, officials insist it will all be perfectly safe.
government has known for at least 70 years that nuclear energy—regardless
of its form—is deadly to the human body.
The first publicized case of radiation injuries in America was the radium-dial painters in the 1920s. These women used radium paint to put the luminous numbers on watch dials. Many wet their brushes with their mouths to make the tiny points needed for such fine work. When they began to die of cancer their successful lawsuit against the watch company in 1928 made the dangers of radiation very public.
The government also sponsored radiation experiments on animals in the 1940s, as well as follow-up studies of the Trinity test at Alamogordo, New Mexico, and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, all in 1945.
Despite this knowledge, and America’s acceptance of the Nuremberg human rights protocols, the Atomic Energy Commission, a group appointed by the president and obligated by law to protect the public, detonated more than 300 aboveground nuclear weapons at the Nevada Test Site and in the Pacific Ocean.
blasts totaled 138,600 kilotons of explosive power, which Soviet scientist
Andrei Sakharov estimated would kill as many as 2.5 million people and
American Nobel laureate Linus Pauling calculated would cause 1 million
seriously defective children, another 1 million embryonic and neonatal
deaths, and create millions of hereditary defects.
In 1969, Dr. Ernest Sternglass traced the dramatic increases in infant deaths and childhood leukemia in upstate New York to airborne radiation from the nuclear tests. He estimated 375,000 American babies had been killed by fallout radiation between 1951 and 1966. And that didn’t count the deaths caused by the Soviet Union’s 715 tests.
Dr. John Gofman found that even low doses of radiation could cause cancer. In the early 1970s, when Gofman and Dr. Art Tamplin refused to keep their findings secret, they lost their research grants at DOE’s Livermore National Laboratory.
The government, of course, did not have this information when it began aboveground testing. It did know, however, that radiation was dangerous and was being blown thousands of miles from the Pacific and Nevada sites. AEC’s response was to lie about fallout readings, falsify some reports and bury others so Americans and Pacific islanders would accept the government’s propaganda mantra that there was no danger.
It wasn’t only civilians who were handed this line of falsehoods. The Defense Department marched soldiers within a few hundred yards of ground zero during several atomic tests. When these “atomic veterans” started getting cancer, their claims for benefits were denied. Soldiers who obtained their service records found no mention of their trip to the Nevada Test Site. Only recently has Congress recognized their sacrifice and authorized limited treatment for the dying veterans.
Radioactive waste management complex at Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, located 32 miles west of Idaho Falls. In the early 1950s, southern Utah ranchers lost thousands of animals from radiation poisoning following a particularly dirty test shot. They sued the government, but during the discovery phase of the trial AEC officials lied about having reports that documented the radiation the animals received and testified there was no connection between fallout and the deaths. The truth came out at another trial 30 years later.
Cancer deaths spiked in southern Utah in the mid-1950s. Diseases that had been nearly nonexistent until then decimated whole families. The overwhelmed undertaker in Cedar City, Utah, needed special training in order to prepare the cancer-devastated bodies.
Simultaneously, Nevada Test Site workers began to develop the same types of illnesses and die at an alarming rate. AEC again insisted the workers were safe, that there was no connection between the cancers and the fallout.
there was a connection, and AEC knew it. Government records, finally released
after decades of denial and secrecy, show that the entire country was repeatedly
dusted by fallout. Radioactive hot spots were found as far away as Albany,
New York. Public health statistics showed hundreds of thousands of American
babies were killed by fallout between 1951 and 1966. Another study found
SAT scores dropped in Utah during the testing.
The story of the uranium miners is as tragic as any. During the 1940s and 1950s, thousands of poor, uneducated men, most of whom were American Indians, labored in mines in the Four Corners region to produce uranium needed to manufacture plutonium for bombs and atomic tests.
Forced to work without even the most basic ventilation system, the miners breathed uranium-laced air, drank uranium-contaminated water and carried the deadly dust home to their families. Thousands have since died of lung cancer and other radiation-related diseases. Thus far, Congress has approved no compensation for them.
The deadly rain of fallout stopped in 1963 but only momentarily. Even after the United States and the Soviet Union’s limited test-ban treaty, many of the next 700 underground tests “vented,” the government’s euphemism for explosions that drifted radiation across the country.
In order to conduct those tests and build its nuclear stockpile, the government needed bomb factories—huge installations that manufactured, assembled and tested the deadly nuclear components. These factories were located at Savannah River, South Carolina; Fernald, Ohio; Rocky Flats, Colorado; Pantex, Texas; Idaho National Engineering Laboratory; Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Hanford, Washington.
Again, the government played fast and loose with the safety and health of both its employees and the thousands of civilians who lived nearby.
At Hanford, the infamous “Green Run” in December 1949, released 20,000 curies (a curie is a measure of radioactivity) of xenon-133 and 7,780 curies of iodine-131. The radioactive plume measured 200 by 40 miles and dropped high concentrations of fallout on the Tri-Cities. There was no public health warning and no follow-up studies on the health of the residents. Over the years, Hanford plastered the Columbia Valley repeatedly. About 1 million curies, the largest accumulation of atomic industrial pollution on record, were dumped in the air, water and ground.
Some lambs near Hanford were born without eyes, mouths or legs. Some had two sets of sex organs, others had none. Juanita Andrewjeski had three miscarriages and kept a map of her neighborhood, one of the closest farms to Hanford. On it were 35 crosses for heart attacks and 32 circles for cancer. One girl was born without eyes. Another couple had eight miscarriages and adopted all their children. Two children were born without hipbones. One farm wife killed her baby and herself after her husband died of cancer.
In 1974, Dr. Samuel Milham, a Washington State Department of Health epidemiologist, noticed a 25 percent excess of cancers among Hanford nuclear workers when compared with the rates among the state’s non-nuclear workers. As it had done so many times before, AEC buried Milham’s findings. The agency commissioned another study from a company with extensive Hanford contracts. When that study affirmed Milham’s work, it was buried, too.
600,000 people worked in the nuclear weapons industry. Only last year did
Congress approve lump payments of $150,000 and lifetime care for those
approved. The Labor Department estimates 43,000 workers per year, and 28,000
survivors, will apply annually.
From 1952 to 1970, INEL (now known as INEEL) workers dumped some 16 billion gallons of liquid radioactive wastes into injection wells that fed directly into the water table below. Radioactive contamination has been found 7.5 miles away, threatening the long-term viability of the huge Snake River Plain Aquifer, the major underground water source for 270,000 people and Idaho’s famous potatoes.
There were also intentional iodine-131 releases in 1957 and 1963 that dosed the residents of the farming communities west of INEL. Site officials waited for the wind to blow away from Idaho Falls, where they lived, to make the release. The people downwind were not told of these incidents until years later.
taxpayers’ bill to clean up this ungodly mess has already run into billions
of dollars, and the meter is still running.
In the 1950s, nuclear energy was billed as the answer to America’s energy questions. Today we know that billions of dollars have been wasted in this attempt to produce electricity “too cheap to meter.” The power plants, according to a study done after Three Mile Island, were under-engineered, poorly built, poorly staffed and badly run.
Now, as President Bush lobbies for more nuclear plants, ratepayers and taxpayers are still on the hook for the billions of dollars it will cost to decommission the plants, clean up the sites and safely store the contaminated building and fuel rods for hundreds of thousands of years.
Hazardous and radioactive waste previously buried at an INEEL subsurface burial area.
Finally, let us not forget the ugly history of medical experiments.
Declassified documents show that government and university doctors injected scores of prisoners, mental patients, retarded adults and children and even pregnant mothers with radioactive substances—nearly always without full consent—sometimes just to see what would happen.
The Next 500,000 Years
Now, with this revolting 50-year record behind it, the government wants us to believe it can safely move military, commercial and foreign waste to gigantic burial grounds near Las Vegas (Yucca Mountain) and Carlsbad, N.M. (Waste Isolation Pilot Project or WIPP). And protect it there for hundreds of thousands of years.
Yucca, which is still not built despite 20 years of study and nearly $7 billion invested, is intended to hold high-level nuclear reactor waste. WIPP, which is open, was built to hold transuranic waste—clothing, tools, sludge and dirt contaminated with small amounts of plutonium.
The thousands of shipments that will be made to these repositories through 43 states, this “mobile Chernobyl,” are a nightmare of potential accidents, economic catastrophe and terrorism.
The radioactive garbage will then be stored in containers that haven’t been adequately tested and placed for longer than the human race has recorded its own history in underground caverns whose long-term stability remains in doubt.
one engineer put it, “How would you like to have to build something that
had to be 99.99999 percent perfect—forever?”
Perfect. That word doesn’t quite describe either WIPP or Yucca.
The WIPP salt caverns near Carlsbad, N.M., are located 2,150 feet below the surface and consist of a 112-acre underground area on which taxpayers have spent $2.1 billion so far. In 30 to 35 years, when the space is filled, the price tag is expected to be $9 billion. It will include an elaborate marker system to warn people not to drill into the salt for the next 500,000 years.
But some scientists expect problems long before that. DOE first discovered water seeping into the WIPP excavations in 1983. The leaks finally became public in 1987 when New Mexico scientists concluded the salt formation contains much more water than DOE anticipated. They warned that over time the brine could corrode the waste drums and create a “radioactive waste slurry” that could eventually reach the surface.
Inside WIPP, cracks have appeared in the ceilings and floors of several large waste storage rooms, and the ceiling has collapsed in three areas—the result of natural room closure (salt movement) that is two to three times faster than anticipated. In 1983, DOE estimated it would take 25 years for the salt walls to completely close in and lock the waste barrels into solid salt rock. At the rate the rooms are closing, it may take only 13 years.
Another hazard is the known reserves of gas and oil. There is even an existing oil and gas lease beneath the WIPP site. Despite the warning signs, these resources could invite intrusion during the long future the repository must stay isolated.
WIPP also has capacity problems. The repository is expected to hold about 160,000 cubic meters of transuranic waste. However, there are expected to be 443,000 to 592,000 cubic meters of waste that will need storage—roughly two-and-one-half to three-and-one-half times WIPP’s capacity.
Yucca Mountain, located about 80 miles from Las Vegas, the fastest growing city the America, has been studied for 22 years to the tune of nearly $7 billion—paid by electric utility customers. There is still no agreement on whether it is a suitable site or not.
The plan is to bury the waste 660 to 1,400 feet below the surface in a 1,400-acre facility served by 100 miles of tunnels. By the time it’s finished, it will cost about $53 billion. Utility ratepayers will fork over $28 billion. The rest of the bill will be handed to taxpayers.
One of the most volatile issues is the mountain’s geology. There are 33 known faults near Yucca Mountain. About 600 seismic events have occurred near the site in the last 20 years alone, including a 5.6-magnitude earthquake in 1992.
Meanwhile, 70,000 tons of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel rods are stored at 77 sites around the country. The waste increases by 300 to 600 tons per year, and those facilities are quickly running out of space.
If Yucca ever is opened, it will be full in less than 15 years.
Twice in the 1960s, INEEL’s Pit 9, a subsurface disposal area, was flooded by snowmelt runoff. First, though, the waste has to get there. The Yucca shipping campaign would be the largest nuclear materials transport in history—some 80,000 shipments over 24 years.
Accidents happen. The federal government predicts 70 to 310 nuclear transportation accidents over the next 75 years.
From 1964 to 1990, 2,561 spent fuel containers were shipped in the United States. If a repository opens, there will about that many shipments per year.
An accident or terrorist act that opened a high-level waste cask would be catastrophic. DOE predicts a severe accident in a rural area would contaminate 42 acres and cost $620 million. In an urban area it would cost $2 billion. Dr. Marvin Resnikoff, the nuclear physicist who was an expert witness in the 1991 Andrus vs. U.S., testified that a similar accident would cost $40 billion. Andrus vs. U.S. was a case filed by Idaho Governor Cecil Andrus. A judge ordered that Andrus not interfere with nuclear waste shipments.
waste will be transported by rail (88 percent) and truck (12 percent).
Union Pacific is the largest rail company in America and will handle most
of the work. Their track record is not encouraging. Derailments and other
problems have become an epidemic.
Even former Gov. Phil Batt, who allowed DOE to bring more than 1,000 shipments of waste into Idaho and store it on the promise it would be removed to Yucca and WIPP, declared Union Pacific’s safety record “unacceptable.” Utah-based Huntsman Chemical says problems with Union Pacific have cost more than $8 million in lost business and increased shipping costs since June 1997. The U.S. military stopped using Union Pacific because of delays, and once the railroad left a shipment of M-1 tanks unguarded.
The Association of American Railroads has said today’s rail lines—in Idaho and elsewhere—cannot handle the weight of nuclear casks, the casks themselves may not withstand an accident and the railroads cannot afford to carry casks at the slow speed the federal government requires.
In the meantime, the existing nuclear plants continue to produce this deadly poison, much of which will last longer than human civilization has existed thus far.
The public has been alerted to these dangers, but nuclear energy is a silent killer, and the nuclear industry has run a very effective lobbying campaign. Crucial to this is the fact that cancers take up to 20 years to develop, and in that time people move, officials retire and change jobs, records are lost. It is not a spectacular earthquake or even the AIDS epidemic, which burst suddenly upon the world. Nuclear radiation kills quietly, with diseases that sometimes do occur for other reasons. The tragic truth is it may take a large-scale accident to get through to the daily media and much of the public.
Clearly, the history of nuclear energy—not just in the United States but worldwide—demonstrates that the human race has not yet learned how to deal with this incredible power and the waste it produces. We have left death and destruction behind us every step of the way, from the mining of raw uranium, to the manufacture of plutonium, to the assembly of weapons and reactors, to the operation of the reactors, to the disposal of the waste they create. If we humans had to pass a test, had to prove to some rational outside observer that we deserve to be able to continue working with nuclear power, we would fail utterly.
The only sensible solution is to stop producing nuclear waste altogether and store existing waste as safely and as close to the point of production as possible. Then, begin a reverse Manhattan Project to find ways to neutralize the deadly mess we have created.
Proctor has written for Boise Weekly, The Salt Lake Tribune, Idaho Mountain
Express, The Idaho Statesman, USA Today and Gannett News Service as a reporter
and editor. His work has also been published in Rolling Stone, Utah Holiday,
New Times, Zoo World, Edging West, InPrint, Focus, Boise and Supermarket
News magazines and Reuters news service.