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ACHRE Report

Part II

Chapter 12


The Uranium Miners

The Marshallese

The Iodine 131 Experiment in Alaska


Chapter 12: Conclusion

The three cases discussed in this chapter all raise troubling questions that will stay with us into the future, but they do so in different ways, and with different consequences.

The iodine 131 experiment conducted in Alaska was conventional biomedical research, although, as discussed in chapter 11, the subject population and its environment were also the object of observational study related to the effects of fallout from nuclear weapons. This experiment took place at a time (the mid-1950s) when the government's rules requiring disclosure and consent in the use of radioisotopes with healthy subjects were established and public; the available documented evidence suggests that these rules were not followed. The evidence also suggests that, like the Marshallese, the Eskimos and Indians in Alaska were, in the 1950s, unacquainted with modern medical science and therefore unlikely to understand the nature and purpose of the research. 

As a result of the 1954 Bravo shot, the Marshallese (and those exposed American servicemen and Japanese fishermen) experienced the largest peacetime exposures from fallout from detonation of nuclear weapons, and as a consequence of subsequent detonations, they were subjected to further exposures. The biomedical research that was conducted by the United States in the aftermath of Bravo raises basic questions about the obligations of researchers when long-term study is coupled with treatment, particularly in a setting where communication is difficult and the subjects otherwise have inadequate medical care.

Of all those covered in this report, the uranium miners were the single group that was put most seriously at risk of harm, with inadequate disclosure and with often-fatal consequences. The failure of the government and its researchers to adequately warn uranium miners who were continually being studied is difficult to comprehend; but the greater question is why, with the knowledge that they had, government agencies did not act to reduce risk in the mines in the first place.

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