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NUCLEAR WAR AT HOME / Think the U.S. government wouldn't do radiation experiments on unsuspecting people? / THINK AGAIN.

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

details them.

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

" 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

uninformed humans.

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.


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