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Part II

Chapter 10


Human Research at the Bomb Tests

The Bomb Tests: Questions of Risk, Records, and Trust



In 1946, the United States conducted Operation Crossroads, the first peacetime nuclear weapons tests, before an audience of worldwide press and visiting dignitaries at the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Marshall Islands. In 1949 the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb, and in December 1950, shortly after the United States entered the Korean War, President Truman chose Nevada as the site for "continental testing" of nuclear weapons. Testing of atomic bombs in Nevada began in January 1951 and continued throughout the decade. Further testing of atomic, then hydrogen, bombs took place in the Pacific. By the time atmospheric testing was halted by the 1963 test ban treaty, the United States had conducted more than 200 atmospheric tests and dozens of underground tests.[1]

The rules governing nuclear weapons tests were not spelled out by law or handed down by tradition. They had to be created in ongoing interplay between the new Atomic Energy Commission and the new Department of Defense.

The tests were important to many governmental agencies but, of course, critical to the AEC and the DOD. The AEC, as the source of weapons design expertise, was interested in the performance of new bomb designs and, along with DOD, in the effects of the weapons. The DOD, and each of the armed services, had particular interests in the use of the tests to learn how atomic wars could be fought and won, if, as seemed quite possible at midcentury, they had to be. Along with "civilian agencies," such as the Public Health Service, the Veterans Administration, and the Department of Agriculture, they shared an interest in civil defense against the use of the bomb in wartime and the impact of the bomb's use--in peacetime tests as well as war--on the public health and welfare. The bomb tests inevitably involved risk and uncertainty; safety was a basic and continued concern, and the development of radiation safety practices and understanding was therefore an essential part of the test program.

At its core, the test program was established to determine how well newly designed nuclear weapons worked; but officials and researchers quickly saw the need and opportunity to use the tests for other purposes as well. More than 200,000 people, including soldiers, sailors, air crews, and civilian test personnel, were engaged to staff the tests, to participate as trainees or observers, and to gather data on the effects of the weapons.

The Committee was not chartered to review the atomic bomb tests or the experience of the troops present at the detonations. However, early in our tenure we heard from veterans who participated in the tests, and their family members, who urged that we include their experiences in our review. In testimony before the Advisory Committee, "atomic vets" and their widows stated forcefully that all those who participated in the bomb tests were in a real sense participants in an experiment. It also was argued that biomedical experiments involving military personnel as human subjects took place in connection with the tests. The interest among atomic veterans and their families in the activities of the Advisory Committee and the government's commitment to investigating human radiation experiments was intense. When the Department of Energy established its Helpline for citizens concerned about human radiation experiments, for example, bomb-test participants and their family members were the single largest group of callers among the approximately 20,000 calls received.

That the bomb tests were in some sense experiments is, of course, correct. The tests of new and untried atomic weapons were, wrote the chief health officer of the AEC's Los Alamos lab, "fundamentally large scale laboratory experiments."[2] At the same time, although there was a real possibility that human subject research had been conducted in conjunction with the bomb tests, the tests were not themselves experiments involving human subjects.

The Committee reviewed the historical record to determine if human experiments had taken place in connection with the tests. We found that somewhere in the range of 2,000 to 3,000 military personnel at the tests did serve as the subjects of research in connection with the tests. In most cases, these research subjects were engaged in activities similar to those engaged in by many other service personnel who were not research subjects. For example, some air crew flew through atomic clouds in experiments to measure radiation absorbed by their bodies, but many others flew in or around atomic clouds to gather data on radiation in the clouds. The Defense Department generally did not distinguish such research from otherwise similar activities, treating both as part of the duties of military personnel. The experience of the atomic veterans illustrates well the difficulty in locating the boundary between research involving human subjects and other activities conducted in occupational settings that routinely involve exposure to hazards.

The more the Committee investigated the human research projects conducted in conjunction with the bomb tests, the more we found ourselves discussing issues that affected all the service personnel who had been present at the tests, and not just those who also had been involved as subjects of research. This occurred both because of the boundary problem just described and because critical decisions about initial exposure levels and follow-up of veterans were generally not made separately for research subjects and other personnel present at the tests. Legislation passed in 1984 and 1988 that provides the basis for compensation to some atomic veterans similarly does not distinguish between those veterans who were research subjects and the vast majority who were not.

In this chapter we present what we have learned about human experimentation conducted in conjunction with atomic bomb testing as well as some observations about the experience of the atomic veterans generally. In the first section of the chapter we focus on research involving human subjects. We begin by a review of the 1951-1952 discussions in which DOD biomedical advisers considered the role of troops at the bomb tests and the need for biomedical research to be conducted in conjunction with them. We then look at a research activity that was given the highest priority by these advisers, the psychological and physiological testing of troops involved in training maneuvers at bomb tests and of officers who volunteered to occupy foxholes in the range of one mile from ground zero. We next turn to the so-called flashblindness experiments conducted to measure the effect on vision of the detonation of an atomic bomb. Finally, we look at research in which men were used to help measure the radiation absorbed by protective clothing, by equipment that humans operated, and by the human body. We note at the outset that while the studies all took place in the context of the atomic bomb, and therefore involved some potential exposure to radiation, none of them were designed to measure the biological effects of radiation itself (as opposed to the levels of exposure). A basic reason this was so was the determination of the DOD and the AEC to keep exposure levels of test participants below those at which acute radiation effects were likely to be experienced (and therefore measurable).

In the second section of the chapter we discuss issues of concern to the Committee that affected all the atomic veterans. We review how risk was considered by AEC and DOD officials at the time the tests were being planned, the creation and maintenance of records related to bomb-test exposure, and what is now known about the longer-term risks of participation in the tests. We also discuss the legacy of distrust among atomic veterans and their families that stems, in part, from the failure to create and maintain adequate records. Finally, we conclude with a discussion of what the atomic bomb-test experience tells us about the boundary between experimental and occupational exposures to risk and some lessons that remain to be learned from the experience of the atomic veterans.

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