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Part II

Chapter 11


What We Now Know

Policies and Principles Governing Secret Intentional Releases: The Effectiveness of Current Regulations


Chapter 11: Introduction

In February 1986, officials at the Department of Energy responded to requests from activists by releasing 19,000 pages of documents on the early operations of the world's first plutonium factory, at Hanford, Washington. Combing through these documents, reporters and citizens found references to an event cryptically named the "Green Run," in which radioactive material was deliberately released into the air at Hanford in December 1949.[1]

In the aftermath of the public discovery of the Green Run, Senator John Glenn asked the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, to find out if there were other instances in which radioactivity had been intentionally released into the environment without informing the surrounding community. In 1993, the GAO reported twelve more instances of such secret intentional releases.[2]

Following additonal research by the DOD and DOE, the number of secret intentional releases has expanded to several hundred, conducted between 1944 and the 1960s. At the Army's Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, dozens of intentional releases were conducted in an effort to develop radiological weapons, some in tests of prototype cluster bombs, others using different means of dispersal; at Bayo Canyon in New Mexico, on the AEC's Los Alamos site, researchers detonated nearly 250 devices, which contained radiolanthanum (RaLa) as a source of radiation to measure the degree of compression and symmetry of the implosion used to trigger the atomic bomb. Other intentional releases were not classified, although not all were made known to the public in advance. At AEC sites in Nevada and Idaho, radioactive materials were released in tests of the safety of bombs, nuclear reactors, and proposed nuclear rockets and airplanes; in still other cases, small quantities of radioactive material were released in and around AEC facilities and in the Alaskan wilderness to determine the pathways such material follows in the environment.[3] Public witnesses from several of these communities told the Committee that they remain deeply disturbed by these releases, wondering whether there is still more information about the secret releases in their communities that they do not know and how much will, at this late date, be impossible to reconstruct.

Intentional Releases and the Charter Thirteen

The Advisory Committee is authorized by its charter to examine "experiments involving intentional environmental releases of radiation that (A) were designed to test human health effects of ionizing radiation; or (B) were designed to test the extent of human exposure to ionizing radiation." The charter also called for the Committee to "provide advice, information, and recommendations" on the following thirteen experiments and similar experiments identified by the Interagency Working Group:

(1) the experiment into the atmospheric diffusion of radioactive gases and test of detectability, commonly referred to as "the Green Run test," by the former Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and the Air Force at the Hanford Reservation in Richland, Washington;

(2) two radiation warfare field experiments conducted at the AEC's Oak Ridge office in 1948 involving gamma radiation released from non-bomb point sources or at near ground level;

(3) six tests conducted during 1949-1952 of radiation warfare ballistic dispersal devices containing radioactive agents at the U.S. Army's Dugway, Utah, site; [and]

(4) four atmospheric radiation-tracking tests in 1950 at Los Alamos, New Mexico. . . .

Tests of nuclear weapons, intentional environmental releases of radiation in amounts greatly in excess of any of the releases identified above, were not included in the charter. As discussed in chapter 10, the Committee did seek to investigate human subject research conducted in connection with these tests.

This chapter reports on what we found as we sought to retrieve what we could about the releases identified in our charter, determine the nature and number of further intentional releases, identify the ethical standards by which these activities can be evaluated, and determine what lessons can be learned from the past.

Because of the secrecy surrounding these releases--as opposed to atmospheric nuclear weapons tests, which were impossible to hide--many of them took place with no public awareness or understanding. The intentional releases were conducted primarily at sites such as Hanford, Los Alamos, and Oak Ridge, in which defense and atomic energy facilities were located, but they were largely unknown to those who lived in surrounding areas.

There is no evidence in any of these cases that radioactive material was released for the purpose of studying its effects on human communities. As we discuss later in the chapter, the public often was exposed to far greater risk from the routine course of operations of the facilities than from the intentional releases themselves.

That the possible health effects from the Green Run and other intentional releases are so slight that they cannot be distinguished from other sources of disease is small comfort to "downwinders" who were put at risk without their knowledge. The Committee heard from many of them and learned that the longer-term costs of secrecy extend well beyond any physical injury that may have been incurred. These costs include, first, the anxiety and sense of personal violation experienced by those who have discovered that they have intentionally and secretly been put at risk, however small, by a government they trusted. But they also include the consequences for that government, and its people, of the attendant distrust of government that has been created. And finally, they also now include the citizen and taxpayer resources that must be expended in efforts to reconstruct long-buried experiences, and determine, as best as can currently be done, the precise measures of the risks involved.

The chapter is divided into two parts. The first and lengthier section reconstructs the history of the three kinds of releases that were in our charter--the Green Run, radiological warfare tests, and the RaLa tests--and includes a discussion of some types of intentional releases that were not expressly identified in the charter. This section concludes with a review of what is known today about the likely risks of all the releases we consider, as well as a review of the science of dose reconstruction by which this knowledge is obtained. In the second part of the chapter, we focus on the ethical and policy issues raised by intentional releases. We examine the rules that currently govern intentional releases in an effort to learn whether secret environmental releases like the Green Run could take place today and, if so, whether, in light of lessons learned from the past, current procedures and protections are adequate.

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