DOE Shield DOE Openness: Human Radiation Experiments: Roadmap to the Project
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Chapter 1. Overview of the DOE Project

Chapter 2. Narratives and Records Series Descriptions

Chapter 3. Human Radiation Experiments Associated with DOE or Predecessor Agencies


Chapter 1. Overview of the DOE Project


On April 10, 1945, medical staff of the U.S. Manhattan Engineer District in Oak Ridge, TN, injected plutonium into the victim of a car accident. American scientists had only recently begun producing plutonium, and thousands of workers were laboring to produce the quantities required for the first atomic bombs. While aware that plutonium was hazardous, project officials were uncertain how much exposure would cause harm. Desire for information about human metabolism and retention of plutonium led to this first injection in Oak Ridge. Over the next 2 years, 17 other people also received plutonium injections.

The Manhattan Project and its postwar successor, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), also carried out human experiments with uranium, polonium, americium, and other radioactive substances. Radiation tests continued after the war; some of these studies took place under AEC supervision and had direct defense-related applications. The agency also sponsored substantial programs in the medical applications of radiation and in basic biomedical research. In addition, independent physicians and researchers at universities and hospitals conducted many postwar human radiation studies to develop the techniques of present-day nuclear medicine.

The role of the U.S. Government in conducting or sponsoring human radiation experiments has become the subject of public debate. Questions have been raised about the purpose, extent, and health consequences of these studies, and about how subjects were selected. The extent to which subjects provided informed consent is also under scrutiny. To respond to these questions, the Clinton administration has directed the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), along with other Federal agencies, to retrieve and inventory all records that document human radiation experiments. Many such records are now publicly available and will permit an open accounting and understanding of what took place.

The American people want to know if their Government used appropriate policies and practices when these radiation experiments took place.

This report summarizes the Department's ongoing search for records about human radiation experiments. It is also a roadmap to the large universe of pertinent DOE information. DOE is working to instill greater openness--consistent with national security and other appropriate considerations--throughout its operations. A key aspect of this effort is opening DOE's historical records to independent research and analysis.

Why the concern over events that took place as long ago as 50 years? Some individuals are concerned that they or family members may have been involved in experimental activities. Most broadly, however, the issue is trust. The American people want to know if their Government used appropriate policies and practices when these radiation experiments took place. People also want to know if their Government is now truly committed to opening its records.

This project is a prototype for the larger job of identifying, preserving, and making available the historical record of the American nuclear age.

Issues associated with DOE records range beyond human radiation experiments. DOE is currently involved in extensive environmental management and cleanup activities that require historical documentation of site activities. Ongoing independent health studies require information about site emissions and worker exposures to hazardous material. The end of the Cold War has also spurred interest in nuclear weapons development and related programs. The records that document these stories are, like those for human radiation experimentation, contained within 3.2 million cubic feet of DOE records. This project is a prototype for the larger job of identifying, preserving, and making available the historical record of the American nuclear age.

The effort to bring these records under intellectual control now allows unprecedented access to an important subset of DOE records.

Three categories of information are presented here:

  • Narrative summaries of the major DOE facilities associated with human radiation experiments--These summaries present facts, establish context, and discuss the most useful sources of pertinent information.
  • Records series descriptions--These descriptions summarize the content of records collections that contain important experiment-related documentation. Record series for each site follow the corresponding narrative.
  • Descriptions of individual human radiation experiments--Criteria based on White House guidance (described below) were used to decide which events and activities fit the definition of human radiation experiments.

In gathering and presenting these categories of information, detailed analysis and judgment have deliberately been avoided. A Presidential advisory committee is now evaluating the ethics of human radiation experiments, and DOE is providing information to support that work.

This project has identified an enormous volume of historical records. Some records were classified and are newly available to the public through declassification. Other records contain personal privacy information that has been appropriately withheld pursuant to Federal law. Most of these records, however, were neither secret nor otherwise restricted. As a practical matter, access to them was inhibited because they were disorganized, poorly catalogued, and scattered across holding areas, offices, and records centers from coast to coast. The effort to bring these records under intellectual control--to describe what is where--now allows unprecedented access to an important subset of DOE records.


At a December 1993 press conference, Secretary of Energy Hazel R. O'Leary released documents describing previously secret U.S. nuclear tests, facts about bomb-grade plutonium, and information about fusion energy. The Secretary also made available some documents related to human radiation experiments, particularly the 1945-1947 injections of 18 human subjects with plutonium. She committed DOE to the collection and review of historical data about the experiments and undertook to release as much information as legally possible.

Secretary O'Leary committed the Department of Energy to the collection and review of historical data about human radiation experiments.

Facts about human radiation experiments were not unknown before the December press conference. Postwar scientific journals had published details about many such experiments, including the plutonium injections. Information about the plutonium experiments first received widespread public attention during the mid-1970s. Congressman Edward Markey (D-Mass) issued a report in 1986 entitled American Nuclear Guinea Pigs: Three Decades of Radiation Experiments on U.S. Citizens. This report discussed the plutonium injections and about 30 other experiments. Moreover, a month before the Secretary's press conference, the Albuquerque Tribune had published a lengthy series by reporter Eileen Welsome on the injections, which was ultimately awarded a Pulitzer Prize.

The Secretary also made available some documents related to human radiation experiments, particularly the 1945-1947 injections of eighteen human subjects with plutonium.

Nonetheless, the Secretary's public discussion of the issue generated intense public interest. Media accounts of other experiments soon followed, including use of radioactive materials at a Massachusetts school for the retarded and at a Vanderbilt University maternity clinic. These accounts spurred further public interest and calls for a full account of human radiation studies.

Shortly after the December press conference, DOE set up a toll-free hotline--soon expanded to include other Federal agencies and departments--to gather inquiries and information from persons about possible radiation experiments. Calls to the interagency helpline eventually exceeded 20,000. Hundreds of letters also arrived daily from the public. Apart from DOE, agencies potentially involved in human radiation studies included the Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Health and Human Services, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the Central Intelligence Agency. President Clinton established a Cabinet-level Human Radiation Interagency Working Group in January 1994 to coordinate the Federal government's response. The administration also issued a directive for Government-wide records inventory and retrieval. This activity was to focus on:

Experiments on individuals involving intentional exposure to ionizing radiation. This category does not include common and routine clinical practices, such as established diagnosis and treatment methods, involving incidental exposures to ionizing radiation;


Experiments involving intentional environmental releases of radiation that (1) were designed to test human health effects of ionizing radiation; or (2) were designed to test the extent of human exposure to ionizing radiation.

Specified releases of radiation to the environment were also included in the directive, such as a series of tests at Los Alamos, tests at the Dugway Proving Ground, and a 1949 release at Hanford called the "Green Run." (All of these releases are discussed in Chapter 2.)

In addition, the President issued an Executive Order establishing an independent Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments, which was to provide expert advice and recommendations regarding the studies in question. The order directed the committee to consider three specific issues:

  1. Had there been a clear medical or scientific purpose for the experiments?
  2. Was appropriate medical follow-up conducted?
  3. Did the design and administration of the experiments meet the ethical and scientific standards, including standards of informed consent, which prevailed at the time of the experiments and that exist today?

Federal agencies were directed to provide the committee with the historical records and other information needed to complete its work.

In January 1994, DOE set up an interim headquarters group under the Assistant Secretary for Environment, Safety, and Health to coordinate the search for historical records. Shortly thereafter, the agency established an Office of Human Radiation Experiments (OHRE), which assumed responsibility for the records search, liaison with the advisory committee, and written and telephone inquiries from the public.

DOE Archives and Records

From the 1940s to the present, the U.S. nuclear program has depended on a national network of laboratories and other specialized sites. Today, over 40 such sites exist in more than a dozen states. Private companies operating under special Federal contracts have managed most of these facilities. While DOE directs and oversees the activities of these contractors, sites have historically enjoyed substantial autonomy. This arrangement began with the Manhattan Project's decision to rely on the technical skills and infrastructure already in place at the Nation's universities and in private industry. The result was a highly decentralized organization. From a recordkeeping standpoint, this resulted in limited central files--that is, discrete, comprehensive collections of documents for specific missions and functions. Instead, a proliferation of nonstandardized filing practices took root throughout the organization.

The President issued an Executive Order establishing an independent Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments, which was to provide expert advice and recommendations regarding the studies in question.

Other influences worked against effective records management. The U.S. nuclear program underwent rapid and continual growth in the decades after 1945; in the push to expand programs, records had a low priority. Modern technological programs consist of many projects that change over time, and documentation of such volatile work is often difficult to manage and preserve. Records and decisions about them are typically decentralized, resulting in idiosyncratic approaches to documentation. Persuasive evidence of this phenomena is presented in A Study of Documents at Department of Energy National Laboratories: Final Report, issued in 1982 by the American Institute of Physics.

Despite these factors, a large volume of DOE-related information dating from the early 1940s to the present has survived. Agency headquarters, field, and contractor organizations have custody of an estimated 3.2 million cubic feet of paper files. These organizations also have an undetermined, although presumably large, volume of information in pictorial, cartographic, and electronic formats. DOE has also transferred some records with historical value to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) for permanent preservation.

Use of DOE records is, however, difficult. One reason is that the agency created and kept its files for purposes other than research. From the researcher's perspective, document content, arrangement, and location are consequently less than ideal. The primary barrier to using DOE records, however, is that they are not under intellectual control. In other words, systematic knowledge about where specific records are or what records are available for a particular organization or topic is spotty at best. The 1988 NARA report entitled Evaluation of the Records Management Program of the Department of Energy documented long-term problems in several key areas. Singled out for particular notice was a shortcoming in complying with Federal records standards for inventorying (describing what exists) and scheduling (identifying what to save and what to destroy). This problem lies at the heart of the lack of intellectual control.

Additional issues pertinent to DOE records are security classification and other access restrictions. From its wartime origins until only recently, the U.S. nuclear program was cloaked in secrecy. According to dictates of the 1946 and 1954 Atomic Energy Acts, many documents were "born classified," and required specially qualified personnel to review each page of each document before declassification. Congress originally established these stringent restrictions to prevent adversaries from obtaining nuclear weapons information. The result, however, was the systematic classification of millions of documents. While classification guidelines have been modified over time, declassification still requires a laborious page-by-page review. (Most records relating to human radiation experiments are now unclassified; relevant classified records have received top priority for review and release.)

Agency headquarters, field, and contractor organizations have custody of an estimated 3.2 million cubic feet of paper files.

DOE has been working to make more information available since the late 1980s. Environment, safety, and health concerns, particularly questions about potential health effects associated with past site operations, drove much of the initial effort. Various epidemiological and other health studies of site workers and of nearby communities are now underway through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and state health departments. This research requires historical information, some of which is classified. DOE and the related government health organizations, however, are committed to making the documentary basis of site health studies open to the public.

This approach raised two important questions: What kinds of specific information--including classified information--existed for each site under study? And, what was the best mechanism to make this information available within restrictions imposed by law?

The answers to these questions were based upon fundamental information and records management concepts. DOE, as owner of the information, would work with CDC and other stakeholders to conduct an inventory of appropriate records at relevant sites. The Department would incorporate the inventory results into written guides for distribution to the public. Among other functions, CDC and DOE would use the guides to target specific collections with access restrictions and set priorities for declassification review.

Many documents were "born classified," and required specially qualified personnel to review each page of each document before declassification.

The search for human experimentation records uses the same fundamental approach. Compatibility of the approaches makes an eventual merger of DOE environment, safety, and health information into a single Internet-based data collection possible. This would significantly enhance public access and ensure the long-term management and preservation of historical records.

DOE Strategy for Finding Experiment Information

DOE had two goals in planning to find and make available human radiation experiment records:

  1. Address the short-term information needs of the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments and other stakeholders.
  2. Meet long-term objectives to manage and preserve DOE records with value to historians and other researchers.

To meet these goals, DOE has made a commitment to locate records relating to human subject research and bring them under intellectual control. This requires an inventory to establish what kinds of records are available, where they are, and what information they contain. This process identifies the universe of records and helps identify files relevant to a particular research topic. Intellectual control also helps establish priorities for declassification review and physical transfer to archival repositories for permanent preservation.

The Office of Environment, Safety, and Health distributed records search guidance throughout the Department in early 1994. This guidance, along with subsequent updates issued by the Office of Human Radiation Experiments, outlined the basic tasks required of DOE offices and contractor organizations.

The guidance mandated a logical, phased approach using established archival and records management procedures. It called for nine steps:

  1. Identify human radiation experiments conducted, sponsored, or facilitated by DOE or predecessor agencies;
  2. Find all bodies of site records that describe experiments and the organizational context in which they occurred;
  3. Identify records as individual series (such as reports, contracts, or correspondence files);
  4. Gather basic information about the records to complete an inventory form for each series;
  5. Copy selected significant documents;
  6. Ensure that site information is accurate by conducting verification and other quality assurance measures;
  7. Conduct declassification review for series containing classified material;
  8. Compile the inventory information into a publicly available database; and
  9. Use the database to find specific records quickly, and to effectively manage and preserve records throughout DOE.

Each DOE Operations Office and site associated with past human radiation experiments established an interdisciplinary team to perform this work under the direction of the headquarters Office of Human Radiation Experiments.

This guidance for this project used established archival and records management procedures.

DOE has used a three-phased oversight approach for this process:

  • First, the Office of Human Radiation Experiments issued detailed written guidance and held meetings to discuss the guidance. Each site has also submitted periodic progress reports.
  • Second, each important site has been visited at least twice by interdisciplinary headquarters teams to provide focused guidance in identifying and describing both records and individual experiments.
  • Third, quality assurance is implemented through cross-checking information from different sources and audit visits to verify inventory coverage and accuracy.

Given the volume of extant records, priorities were established for sites as well as records. Initial research revealed that most activities associated with human experiments took place at the sites described in Chapter 2. Most effort has focused on these places. Since the greatest interest is in experiments prior to 1974 (the year in which broadly applicable guidelines for the protection of human research subjects were adopted) attention has been concentrated on inactive records. These contain most information that is more than 10 years old.

The DOE strategy for finding and making available complete information on human radiation experiments centers on the records series concept. A series consists of the following:

File units or documents arranged according to a filing system or kept together because they relate to a particular subject or function, result from the same activity, document a specific kind of transaction, take a particular physical form, or have some other relationship arising out of their creation, receipt, or use.

A group of records filed together, or that relate to a common topic, typically form a series. Organizations often create a series for a specific purpose or to serve a single function, such as recording official actions, compiling personnel data, or tracking funds.

Records series arranged the way they were originally kept provide the most valuable historical information. Original arrangement maintains file integrity as evidence of the nature of an entity and its activities. This helps researchers answer broad questions about the organization, its functions, and its members. Documents existing apart from their series have less value, as the contextual information provided by the rest of the file is absent. Consequently, the procedure established by the DOE guidance stressed the need to find and describe complete records series--to work from the bottom up, as it were.

On the other hand, there is also demand for specific information about human radiation experiments. To get this information, the series descriptions are used to target more detailed searches for individual documents. Such documents are copied, marked with details about where they came from (provenanced), and sent to the Coordination and Information Center (CIC) in Las Vegas. The CIC scans and indexes each document into computer files. About 13,000 documents, comprising more than 150,000 pages, were placed in this human experimentation collection during 1994. As the inventory and related search activities continue, additional documents will be added. These documents are being made available for public access on the Internet computer network. An Internet Home Page on the World Wide Web ( also provides additional information, including a large bibliography of published reports and pertinent congressional testimony. This information will be fully searchable by personal names, places, terms, and many other keywords.

Information as an Engine for Democratic Government

While priority has been given to establishing control over records relating to human radiation experiments, it is recognized that DOE records serve a broader public interest. The conceptual framework for this proposition, contained in the 1985 Report of the Committee on the Records of Government, outlines the need for organized and accessible Government records to:

  • document the history and intent of public policy;
  • ensure accountability for programs and activities;
  • preserve basic data needed to review past scientific research and conduct new research;
  • ensure effective administration of public programs; and
  • form the basis of a national history and an understanding of society and culture.

These documents are being made available for public access on the Internet computer network.

The approach represented by this project is also linked to broader ideas about improving government:

Transparency--Simplifying appropriate access to government information lets citizens see what agencies have done (or have not done). This is essential to building trust and confidence in tasks assigned to government.

Public Involvement--People need to have adequate information to participate in reviewing issues, presenting options, and making decisions.

Shared History--Vibrant, meaningful history depends on access to a wide knowledge base. Current debates on why the atomic bomb was used on Japan, for example, draw extensively on diverse archival sources. As we move deeper into historical analysis of the Cold War, even broader access to government records will be needed.

Lessons Learned--In assessing government's role, people need information by which to judge the success of government activities. The same information is needed in coping with unintended consequences of past actions.

Competition--Knowledge of specific programs and their relative success stimulates competition for current government services. Such information allows private enterprises--or other government entities--to propose alternate approaches.

Looking Forward

Over the last year, DOE has tried to uncover as much information as possible about human radiation experiments. Scores of citizen inquiries and accounts have been received and entered into a computer database. DOE and its contractor organizations have reviewed their records holdings for pertinent information. Thousands of documents have been made public and an unprecedented number of records have been declassified and released. Individual experiments have been researched, described, and publicized. DOE has also assisted the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments in finding specific information. These efforts will lead to enhanced public understanding about the experiments and about the Cold War era overall.

The report is intended for a wide audience, including policy makers, historians, scientists, journalists, public interest groups, those who may have been involved in human radiation research, and the public.

This report summarizes DOE's work for the year and aims to expand public understanding still farther. It is a guide--a roadmap--to an enormously complex history documented in millions of documents, some of which are, or were until recently, restricted under national security classification. The report is intended for a wide audience, including policy makers, historians, scientists, journalists, public interest groups, those who may have been involved in human radiation research, and the public.

As noted above, openness is an ongoing process. More documents will almost certainly be found, as will new series, although we believe that through an iterative and logical process, most of the important records relevant to human radiation experiments have been identified. Yet, while the documents collected at the CIC and placed on the Internet are easily accessible, original documents in records series may prove more difficult to obtain because of declassification issues, Privacy Act restrictions, and some site-specific constraints.

As Chapters 1 and 2 point out, most of the records described in this volume are unclassified; a few are classified or have classified material, and some contain privacy material and documents that may be subject to other restrictions. The documents and files contained in the record series described in this report have not been individually reviewed for applicable exemptions from public disclosure; individual records, therefore, may be subject to specific restrictions on public access.

Despite such limitations, however, this process offers a first glimpse into Cold War historical records, and a first step in preserving these records and opening them to the public.