THE PLUTONIUM FILES: America's Secret Medical Experiments
in the Cold War, by Eileen Welsome. Dial, 580 pp., $26.95.
EILEEN WELSOME, a reporter for the Albuquerque Journal, won the Pulitzer Prize
in 1994 for a series of articles on how 18 people were made nuclear guinea pigs
by being injected with plutonium during the Manhattan Project. This work has
been greatly expanded in "The Plutonium Files," a superbly investigated expos�
that goes far beyond those nuclear test subjects. It details radiation
experiments over 50 years, involving the U.S. government and military and
performed on thousands of human beings-which resulted in gruesome illness,
shortened lives and painful deaths.
As Welsome writes, "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." She came
across the story in 1987 as a reporter in Albuquerque. While researching Air
Force cleanups of various U.S. waste sites, she noticed that "several dumps at
Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque were on the list," and that "buried in
the dumps were radioactive animal carcasses." After making some calls to the
base, she "eventually learned that the animals had been used in radiation
Welsome went to Kirtland and pored over reports on the animal experiments.
Then, she writes, "my eye fell on a footnote describing a human plutonium
experiment. The information jolted me deeply. One minute I was reading about
dogs that had been injected with large amounts of plutonium and had
subsequently developed radiation sickness and tumors. Suddenly there was this
reference to human experiments. I wondered if the people had experienced the
same agonizing death as the animals."
Her investigation went on for years-good investigative reporting takes time,
and this was good investigative reporting. She used the Freedom of Information
Act, but still met frustrating government resistance; the Department of Energy
would send her "a few scraps of paper, on which anything that might have helped
me to identify the patients seems to have been deleted." Nevertheless, she
persisted in her probing.
Welsome revealed how 18 unsuspecting people were subjected to ghastly plutonium
tests in her newspaper series. But even after the articles were published, she
pressed on because of the magnitude of the outrage. It turned out that there
were actually thousands of radiation experiments on humans, and this book
The experiments were done because those in charge of the Manhattan Project,
"fearing a cancer epidemic among the project's employees," sought a "crash"
effort "to learn everything they could about the effects of radiation." After
the war, they continued because government scientists wanted to investigate, as
Welsome writes, "such issues as how much radioactive strontium America's
children were collecting in their bones from fallout and how many more bombs
could be exploded before the radioactivity would exceed a level that the
doctors had deemed safe."
The U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force, meanwhile, embarked on other experiments,
"designed to help them learn more about how to fight effectively on the nuclear
battlefield." For instance, military personnel were exposed to sites where
nuclear bombs were exploded (in some cases a mile or less away), and
"instructed...to look at the fireball" for "flashblindness studies." And
officials of what the Manhattan Project became-the Atomic Energy
Commission-sought to demonstrate that radioactive poisons might in fact be good
for people, and "promoted radioisotopes with a missionary zeal" for testing on
An example of the horrific experiments: Welsome tells of how "the long-term
consequences of radiation for the human reproduction system had been on the
minds of the Manhattan Project/AEC doctors for at least two decades," so "67
convicts at the Oregon State Prison had their testicles bombarded with anywhere
from 8 to 600 rads of radiation between 1963 and 1971. The subjects also
underwent numerous testicular biopsies."
Welsome's descriptions of the prison experiment are bone-chilling. She quotes
one of the researchers involved saying he was "a little uncomfortable about
doing 600" rads, which was the amount considered a "lethal dose" for half of
those exposed. But, the researcher went on, the government "wanted to start in
there and see, okay, where are you going with your population survival." One
test subject, Dale Hetland, said simply that the tests "hurt bad." As Welsome
reports, he "was irradiated twice, underwent twenty-four biopsies, and was
injected twice in the testicles with triated thymidine." He subsequently
developed degenerative bone disease of the spine, and lost part of his stomach.
"This experiment on me with live radiation has caused me twenty years of pain,
and it has nearly destroyed my body," Hetland said. Another survivor, Art
Clawson, said, according to Welsome, "I spent years in jail, and I've never
done a crime like these experiments. The only word I can think of is crime.
When you start playing
with people's well-being, their body and emotions, that's got to be one of the
worst laws you can break."
Welsome gives credit to Hazel O'Leary, former secretary of the U.S. Department
of Energy (which in 1977 succeeded the Atomic Energy Commission), for
condemning the radiation experiments and releasing government documents. She
quotes O'Leary saying in 1993, when she first learned of the tests on humans,
"I was appalled and shocked. It gave me an ache in my gut and heart."
Readers of "The Plutonium Files" will also have aches in their guts and hearts.
But the book is a must-read, for it fully documents a great horror story of
the 20th Century, and reveals an attitude within the nuclear establishment that
still exists. "Working behind their security fences, the scientists developed
a them-against-us mentality... distrust of the public and disdain for
scientific opponents," Welsome writes.
At the same time that these experiments were taking place, a public relations
campaign was conducted to cause people to think they could "live with"
radioactivity. "It's difficult to describe how pervasive, how all-encompassing
the propaganda campaign was," writes Welsome; how it aimed at "the suppression
of all potentially negative stories about health hazards related to atomic
Clearly, the propaganda campaign succeeded. Otherwise, why did it take a
reporter in 1990s New Mexico, working mainly "in my spare time," as she notes,
to expose a horror-and now to expand on it? Where has the national media been
for all these decades?
And the abomination continues. The experiment with radioactive poison in the
U.S. is far from over. It continues with the toxic effects of every aspect of
the nuclear chain-from the mining of uranium to the operation of reactors, to
"routine emissions" of radioactivity into the environment, to the impossible
task of safeguarding nuclear waste for thousands of years. It continues with
the U.S. government program now under way that smelts down irradiated metal and
incorporates it into consumer items to get rid of it. It continues with the
government's recent acceptance of radiation-exposed red meat and a new Food and
Drug Administration rule allowing the sale of irradiated meat and other
radiation-exposed food without consumer warning labels.
We all have been-and continue to be-guinea pigs for the nuclear endeavor.
Welsome has exposed one major element of the nightmare. There should have
been-and should now be-hundreds of other reporters out there doing what she has
so brilliantly done here.