The Plutonium Files

Life is short and the Art long; 
the occasion fleeting,
experience fallacious,
and judgment difficult.

One of the more disturbing things about the Fukushima Daiichi catastrophe is the news that unit three contained MOX fuel and that the explosion of this reactor must have released a large volume of plutonium that circled the globe. One naturally wonders about the hazards, but this leads into the quagmire of all the varied interpretations of what happened to all life forms on earth with the advent of the nuclear age. To learn anything, one has to go back to the lessons learned from the era of atmospheric weapons testing that lasted from 1945 until the ratification of the Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963. France and China didn’t sign it and continued atmospheric testing until 1974 and 1980, respectively, but the worst was over by the time America and the USSR agreed that their mad game had to stop.

Plutonium Boy - The kids' nuclear mascot created by the Japanese nuclear
industry's PR machine. MIA since March 2011.

It is impossible to know how badly fallout has affected living things, but Arjun Makhijani (President, Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Takoma Park, Maryland) uses the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cancer risk coefficients to estimate that between 200,000 to 500,000 cancer cases have been caused by global fallout. He adds, however,

No sound global estimate of cancer incidence is possible because no study comparable to the 1997 U.S. National Cancer Institute study has been carried out on a global scale. Indeed, even the thyroid cancer risk in Canada due to testing in Nevada has not been evaluated, although it is apparent from the National Cancer Institute study as well as the similar dietary patterns between Canada and the United States that people in several parts of Canada would have been significantly affected.

Makhijani highlights the significance of the nuclear secrets that are still well kept. America subjected hundreds of thousands of its own citizens to nuclear experiments and dangers, but the truth did eventually come out in the 1990s. Makhijani reminds readers,

… hundreds of thousands of people have been similarly affected in other nuclear-weapon states. The main difference between them and the United States has been that the United States has been more open and hence has, under public pressure, acknowledged a wider scope and depth of harm, although that task is still far from done. India has strict secrecy laws surrounding its nuclear weapons activities, much like France and the United Kingdom. The least is known about China, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea.

An excellent way to learn what America, and probably other nuclear states, did to its own citizens in the pursuit of nuclear weapons is to read Eileen Welsome’s The Plutonium Files. Several reviews and summaries can be found on Amazon, so rather than repeat this work, I cite one of them here:

A review on Amazon.com attributed to The Inside Flap:

In a Massachusetts school, seventy-three disabled children were spoon fed radioactive isotopes along with their morning oatmeal....In an upstate New York hospital, an eighteen-year-old woman, believing she was being treated for a pituitary disorder, was injected with plutonium by Manhattan Project doctors....At a Tennessee prenatal clinic, 829 pregnant women were served "vitamin cocktails"--in truth, drinks containing radioactive iron--as part of their prenatal treatment....
In 1945, the seismic power of atomic energy was already well known to researchers, but the effects of radiation on human beings were not. Fearful that plutonium would cause a cancer epidemic among workers, Manhattan Project doctors embarked on a human experiment that was as chilling as it was closely guarded: the systematic injection of unsuspecting Americans with radioactive plutonium. In this shocking exposé, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Eileen Welsome reveals the unspeakable scientific trials that reduced thousands of American men, women, and even children to nameless specimens with silvery radioactive metal circulating in their veins. Spanning the 1930s to the 1990s, filled with hundreds of newly declassified documents and firsthand interviews, The Plutonium Files traces the behind-the-scenes story of an extraordinary fifty-year cover-up. It illuminates a shadowy chapter in this country's history and gives eloquent voice to the men and women who paid for our atomic energy discoveries with their health--and sometimes their lives.

That summary says enough, but below I mention a few memorable aspects of the book.
If the world had never got a chance to see the declassified documents, we might have had a sense that something icky was going on if we came across government studies with titles like this (cited in The Plutonium Files):

K. Scott and J.G. Hamilton. A Comparison of the Metabolism of Plutonium (Pu-238) in Man and the Rat. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science and Technical Information. Oak Ridge, Tennessee. 1946.

In other cases, single words appearing in the cited documents highlight how much the doctors involved subtly dehumanized their patients. They were often insistent on moving beyond animal testing and knowing how plutonium affects “the human” as opposed to “the beagle.” One document described the desired type of patient as the desired type of “material” that should preferably be “moribund.” It is notable that these doctors were not just going along with the acceptable norms of their time. The Nazi war crimes trials were current events, and government agencies had adopted ethics codes for research. The plutonium researchers knew they were acting against professional ethics. One of the doctors wrote of the need to keep “dogooders” out of the way. So this history does not illustrate how much we have progressed. It illustrates how much people anytime, anywhere can regress.
In one instance, Eileen Welsome failed to comment on another bit of language, this time on the irony of the name Hanford Jang, one of the unwitting experimental subjects who was injected with radioactive americium. He was a teenage Chinese immigrant suffering from bone cancer, and patients like him were chosen because they were both still physiologically normal in many ways but sure to die in a short time anyway. Chinese parents immigrating to the West often choose to anglicize their children’s names with posh sounding names like “Bentley.”  The name “Hanford,” likewise, does have a noble ring to it, but in this case, Hanford’s poison was likely made at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State.
The most bizarre segment of the book describes the work of a Dr. Carl Heller who spent several years doing research on male prisoners in Oregon. All of the government sponsored radiation experimenters wanted to find the “holy grail” of radiation research, which was to discover a biological dosimeter – a biological marker that would determine how much radiation an individual had been exposed to. After subjecting testicles of “the human” to various forms of radiation (internal, gamma, x-ray and even neutrons), Dr. Heller confidently announced to colleagues that he could tell from a biopsied testicle exactly how much radiation a man had been exposed to. His peers seemed to agree that he had found the holy grail, but there were, admittedly, practical obstacles to scaling this painful biopsy up to the kind of testing that would be needed on the nuclear battlefield or after a nuclear emergency. And there was no biological dosimeter, alas, for “the human female” or “the human fetus.”
Finally, this slice of nuclear history must strike everyone as personally relevant. We all have to wonder about the effects of chemicals and radiation on our families. These days, many people note that people around them are dying at an age younger than the age their parents and grandparents died. My father was treated for acne in the 1940s with x-rays. He was wearing full dentures before his 40th birthday, and had several skin lesions removed from his face in later years. It seems that this treatment, like the plutonium injections and total body irradiation described by Welsome, was another radiological experiment of the era done by eager doctors whose pet research interests blinded them to the fact the risks were real and the benefits unlikely.
   My three siblings and I were born between 1957 and 1968, so I wonder about how much fallout got into my parents and us by the time they had their children. I was born with a heart murmur that still throws off cardiograms and makes me jump through extra hoops to get life insurance, but that is a small thing to complain about. Besides, I was the lucky one conceived and born during the testing moratorium that lasted from late 1958 to September 1961. In any case, every generation born since WWII has been affected by the radiological and chemical pollution of the modern age. Welsome makes this point in a segment of her book about the US military pilots who were ordered to fly through mushroom clouds and gather samples of fallout:

The cloud samplers continued to swoop in and out of the mushroom clouds until 1962. Like the ground troops, many of the pilots developed cancer or other diseases that they feel were caused by their radiation exposure. Langdon Harrison, who contracted prostate and bladder cancer, believes wholeheartedly that he received more than the 8.5 roentgens [.085 Sieverts] listed on his official reports. He said often he was ordered to circle in the dirty-looking clouds for up to fifteen minutes while trying to fill his tanks with radioactive gases. All the while he watched as the numbers on his radiation monitors climbed.
Harrison said he would never have volunteered for the sampling missions he had had been informed of the risks. “The whole thing was fraught with peril and danger and they knew it was, and this I resent quite readily,” he told one interviewer. “There isn’t anybody in the United States who isn’t a downwinder, either. When we followed the clouds, we went all over the United States from east to west and covering a broad spectrum of Mexico and Canada. Where are you going to draw the line? Everyone is a downwinder. It circles the earth, round and round, what comes around goes around.” (p. 284)


D.E.H Cleveland and A.H. Pirie. "The Treatment of Chronic Acne by X-Ray." Canadian Medical Association Journal. November 1938 November; 39(5): 499–500. 

Lawrence E. Lamb. "X-Ray No Acne Cure." The Victoria Advocate. Victoria, Texas. June 9, 1977.

Arjun Makhijani. A Readiness to Harm: The Health Effects of Nuclear Weapons Complexes. Arms Control Association. August 29, 2008.


S. Preston-Martin. "Prior X-ray Therapy for Acne Related to Tumors of the Parotid Gland." Archives of Dermatology. July 1989;125(7):921-4.

Steven Simon, André Bouville, and Charles Land. “Prior Fallout from Nuclear Weapons Tests and Cancer Risks.” American Scientist. January-February 2006, Volume 94, Number 1. Page 48.DOI: 10.1511/2006.1.48.

Eileen Welsome. The Plutonium Files. Dell Publishing. 1999.

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