In the 1940′s and 1950′s, the United States government undertook a large number of experiments involving radiation, radiotoxicity and nuclear safety. While most of this research was done within reasonable ethical standards, using animal models, tissue cultures and occasionally human volunteers, it is known that there were some experiments which involved human test subjects and which did not meet even the most basic standards for ethics.
The most infamous of these were the plutonium injection experiments. Test subjects were injected with solutions containing trace amounts of plutonium in order to aid in the development of plutonium exposure tests. Six employees at a Manhattan Project site were given water with small amounts of plutonium in order to determine how it would be absorbed in the digestive tract. In one case, pregnant women were given what were called “vitamin drinks” in order to study how radioisotopes were transferred to the fetus.
These tests may not have included full disclosure to the test subjects. It is still important to note that the levels present were bellow those which were supposed to be harmful. None the less, the potential for harm existed, and today there is no question that the experiments would be considered unethical.
More about these disturbing experiments can be read here.
While we should not deny the existence of experiments of this type, it is also important not to exaggerate them. Unfortunately, those who see this as some kind of reason to oppose nuclear energy have done just that. Critical examination of many of the claims put forward show that there is much less to it than has been suggested.
Humans Used for Radiation Experiments: A Shameful Chapter in US History
EXPOSE REVISITED - This year marks the 20th anniversary of the declassification of top-secret studies, the “Human Radiation Experiments,” done over a period of 30 years, in which the US conducted radiation experiments on as many as 20,000 vulnerable US citizens.
Victims included civilians, prison inmates, federal workers, hospital patients, pregnant women, infants, developmentally disabled children and military personnel — most of them powerless, poor, sick, elderly or terminally ill. Eileen Welsome’s 1999 exposé The Plutonium Files: America’s Secret Medical Experiments in the Cold War details “the unspeakable scientific trials that reduced thousands of men, women, and even children to nameless specimens.”
The program employed industry and academic scientists who used their hapless patients or wards to see the immediate and short-term effects of radioactive contamination — with everything from plutonium to radioactive arsenic. The human subjects were mostly poisoned without their knowledge or consent.
It’s worth noting that the subjects, in general, did not experience any acute poisoning.
An April 17, 1947 memo by Col OG Haywood of the Army Corps of Engineers, reported by The Washington Post on Dec. 16, 1994, explained why the studies were classified: “It is desired that no document be released which refers to experiments with humans and might have adverse effect on public opinion or result in legal suits.”
In one Vanderbilt University study, 829 pregnant women were unknowingly fed radioactive iron. In another, 188 children were given radioactive iron-laced lemonade. Detailed by a 1986 report of the Subcommittee on Energy Conservation and Power, from 1963 to 1971, 67 inmates in Oregon and 64 prisoners in Washington had their testicles targeted with X-rays to see what doses made them sterile.
At the Fernald State School, mentally retarded boys were fed radioactive iron and calcium but consent forms sent to parents didn’t mention radiation. A 1994 Minneapolis StarTribune report, “48 more human radiation experiments revealed,” noted psychiatric patients and infants were injected with radioactive iodine.
It is important to note that the studies that used radioactive iodine, calcium and iron were NOT radiation-related studies. They were simply studies on the uptake of nutrients. In the late 1940′s and early 1950′s, it was realized that the ability to produce short-lived radioactive isotopes of common elements like calcium and iron provided a unique opertunity to study how these elements traveled in the environment and in biological systems. For example, if radioactive iodine is given to a test subject, it becomes easy to determine how quickly the thyroid is metabolizing the iodine and whether any is being stored in other parts of the body.
That is what these studies were looking at, and the use of radioactive tracers, in the form of radioactive iodine, iron or calcium was simply a means of following the nutrients in the body and measuring the uptake and excretion rates. The amounts given were far bellow the level that would cause harm and the exposure was less than an x-ray.
This same technique is still very much in use today for both research and diagnostic purposes.
While it is true that the subjects of these studies were often institutionalized individuals, orphans or low income patients, seeking care at public health clinics, this was not unique to radiological experiments. Indeed, it was the standard operating procedure at the time. Prior to the late 1970′s, it was viewed as acceptable to use these kind of populations for studies if the experiments were not harmful or invasive. Today this would be regarded as unethical, because the test subjects do not provide full informed consent and because they are not compensated for their contributions to the studies.
To this day, the ethics of medical studies which may use a captive or non-consenting population remain a subject of intense debate. In most circumstances, only anonymous demographic and epidemiological data can be collected from patients without direct consent, but even this is sometimes controversial. Regardless, the methods used in these nutritional studies were in line with common practice of the day.
The experiments involving the irradiation of the testis of inmates was not, in fact, to attempt to sterilize the inmates, although that was part of the deal. The study in question was involved the effects of relatively low doses of radiation on fast dividing cells in the body, especially in the gonads. This was of interest for a number of reasons, including the possibility of effects on astronauts in long term space travel.
The inmates volunteered for the experiment and were told that there would be no benefit to their health. They were also told that it would increase the risk of genetic deformations of their offspring, and, as such, they had to agree to also have vasectomies in order to avoid the potential for unhealthy offspring. They were also aware that there might be some health risks, although it has been contended that they were not given full information about the potential for testicular cancer. The total amount of radiation was roughly equal to or less than the testicular dose that would be received from modern treatment for prostate cancer.
The reason that the inmates agreed to not have offspring, receive a vasectomy and be subject to the tests was entirely financial. They received twenty five dollars for each testicular biopsy preformed and a bonus at the end of the program. This was in an era where prisons could expect to earn a mere twenty five cents a day working in the prison. Nobody was irradiated who did not consent and they all received money.
While the experiments were not remotely as brutal as the article would describe, the fact that the irradiation could contribute to testicular cancer became the subject of a number of lawsuits in the 1970′s. In 1973 all medical experiments in prisons were ended, as it was concluded that inmates could not give full consent without feeling implicit pressure to participate. The inmates who were subject to the experiments received compensation as a result of their lawsuits.
The abuse of X-radiation “therapy” was also conducted throughout the ’40s and ’50s. Everything from ringworm to tonsillitis was “treated” with X-radiation because the long-term risks were unknown or considered tolerable. Joseph Mangano’s 2012 Mad Science: The Nuclear Power Experiment reveals that children were routinely exposed to alarmingly high doses of radiation from devices like “fluoroscopes” to measure foot size in shoe stores.
To equate this to nuclear power or even consider it an experiment is absolutely absurd!
The use of shoe-fitting fluoroscopes has nothing to do with government radiation experiments. It was never done by any government agency, and has nothing at all to do with nuclear power.
The story of shoe fitting fluoroscopes goes back to the early part of the 20th century. These devices were basically simple and relatively unshielded x-ray machines with a fluorescent screen, through which one could observe their feet, viewing their own bones through their shoes. They were first introduced in shoe stores in the 1920′s, allegedly to aid in assuring a proper fit to the shoes.
The machines were simply marketing gimmicks. They were a novelty. Kids loved seeing their bones through the screen and things like x-rays made the whole affair seem high tech and cutting edge. But that’s all they were – marketing devices installed by the shoe store owner.
The devices exposed customers to more radiation than would normally be considered justified for such a frivolous purpose, but the real danger was to shoe salesmen, who were near the machines day in and out, often reaching in to adjust shoes and thus being directly exposed to the x-rays. Some did experience tissue damage and cancers as a result.
The dangers of the machines was noted as early as the 1930′s, but they remained popular. Shoe stores insisted they were harmless and the machines continued to be used into the 1950′s. In 1957, amid growing calls for the elimination of the machines, Pennsylvania became the first state to outlaw shoe fitting fluoroscopes. Other jurisdictions followed suit soon after. The machines were outlawed in Canada, the UK and Switzerland in the following years. A handful of machines may have remained in use into the 1970′s, although this may have been in violation of regulations.
The shoe fitting fluoroscope is remembered as a prime example of misuse of x-rays for a purpose that they contributed little to and which had poor oversight. However, it was not an experiment and it has nothing to do with nuclear energy.
Nasal radium capsules inserted in nostrils, used to attack hearing loss, are now thought to be the cause of cancers, thyroid and dental problems, immune dysfunction and more, although a National Cancer Institute fact sheet claims there is no clear link between nasal radium exposure and cancer.
Again, this was not an experiment nor was it done by the government or by any institution in order to gain data on radiation and health effects. It was also not done without benefit to or consent from the subjects.
Rather, this was an accepted and approved medical treatment. The treatment involved the insertion of radioactive sources into the nostrils, usually radium for a period of several minutes. This was usually done three times. The purpose of the treatment was to shrink the tissue of the adenoids, tonsils and nasopharyngeal cavity. The treatment was quite effective against a number of conditions including chronic congestion and sleep apnea. It could also improve drainage in the inner ears, helping to alleviate chronic inner ear infections.
In severe cases, these conditions are still treated today in a similar manner. For those who have chronic nasal problems, reducing tissue in the nasal and sinus areas is still called for, but it is done surgically. In other cases, balloon sinuplasty is used, accomplishing a similar result.
The use of Nasopharyngeal Radium Irritation ended in the 1970′s, not because it was ineffective, but because of concerns over the side effects, such as the potential that it could cause head and neck cancers. The total dose to the thyroid and other areas of concern is estimated to be less than 4% that to the tissue being targeted, but it is still considered a concern.
At present, studies that have followed those who received the treatment have not found any significant increase in cancers of the head and neck, but the sample size of those who have been followed and the time period which has elapsed could result in such an increase in risk simply not yet being obvious. Rather, the increase in risk is presumed based on the application of the linear non-threshold model for radiation exposure, which presumes all radiation exposure will produce a predictable, linear increase in cancer rates.
In large-scale experiments as late as 1985, the Energy Department deliberately produced reactor meltdowns that spewed radiation across Idaho and beyond. The Washington Post reported the meltdown July 10, 1985, quoting an Energy Department spokesman as saying, “It appears that the test was a complete success.” The Air Force conducted at least eight deliberate meltdowns in the Utah desert in 1959, dispersing 14 times the radiation released by the partial meltdown of Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979, an Associated Press reported in 1994.
This statement might be the most inaccurate. It would make it seem as if the DOE was happy to be intentionally irradiating people by pumping radioisotopes into the atmosphere. This is simply not true.
In order to verify the safety of nuclear reactors and to understand the ways in which reactors can fail, the Department of Energy and its predecessor have conducted a number of destructive tests in which fuel elements and reactor systems were tested beyond their limits.
The image to the right shows one such test. This was a test conducted in 1964 of the Kiwi nuclear rocket engine. In order to establish the safety margins of the Kiwi reactor, the final test brought the reactor far beyond its normal operating limits until it failed catastrophically. The destructive test was planned and conducted at the Nevada Test Site. Other tests were conducted at the Idaho National Laboratory’s National Reactor Testing Station. Both NTS and NRTS provide isolated, secure locations where large scale destructive testing could be carried out.
As was the case with nuclear weapon tests, early tests, like that of the Kiwi nuclear rocket were not always fully contained. This was simply standard practice for nuclear tests of the time. Later tests, however, were generally smaller and the subject of much more rigorous isolation and containment measures.
Throughout the 1960′s, 1970′s and 1980′s, a number of safety tests were conducted at the National Reactor Test Station. These included reproducing of fuel element failures, in controlled conditions and other reactor malfunctions. The Loss of Fluid Test facility is a reactor which first began operation in 1976, it was designed specifically for the purpose of simulating the loss of coolant in power reactors. Loss of coolant tests and partial core meltdowns were repeatedly conducted at the facility.
The Idaho National Laboratory continues to conduct tests on fuel rod integrity. Similar tests are conducted at research institutes in France and Japan.
These tests helped produce data critical to the design and operation of modern nuclear power reactors. The intention was never to release radiation for human testing nor was radiation released in any significant quantity. Like nuclear power plants, the reactors may have occasionally vented small amounts of short-lived radioactive gas and minute amounts of other isotopes. However, the tests were all conducted in well contained and isolated areas and no abnormal or dangerous radiation was released.
The tests conducted by the US Air Force in the late 1950′s were similar. The Air Force conducted tests at the Dugway Proving Ground as part of the Nuclear Energy For the Propulsion Aircraft Program. Like other safety tests, these involved simulated reactor malfunctions. They were conducted in the open, as was standard at the time – this being when even nuclear weapons tests were conducted in the atmosphere. However, they were conducted at an isolated and secure test area. If the article is accurate about the level of radiation being fourteen times that of Three Mile Island, then it would have been extremely low.
“Radiation bombs” thrown from USAF planes intentionally spread radiation “unknown distances” endangering the young and old alike. One such experiment doused Utah with 60 times more radiation than escaped the Three Mile Island accident, according to Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, who released a report on the program 20 years ago.
Again, these were not experiments intending to test the radiation effects on humans or to expose the public to radioactivity. The levels of radioactivity beyond the test areas were extremely minute, although there was contamination left behind in areas of the Dugway Proving Grounds and Nevada Test Site. These tests were radioactive material dispersal tests.
They served two purposes. First, to assess the effects of malfunctions in which nuclear weapons might be destroyed and the plutonium cores spread. This was an important part of establishing the cleanup protocols that were applied to weapons accidents such as the 1966 Palomares B-52 crash.
The second purpose of the tests was to determine the combat potential of radiological dispersant weapons. Such weapons were considered for the purpose of area denial, preventing enemy troops from occupying areas by contaminating them with radioactive materials. Amassing large numbers of radiological dispersant weapons would have been much cheaper and faster than building nuclear weapons, and thus was considered a potential gap filler in an era when concerns over the size of the US arsenal, as compared that of the Soviet Union was a major concern.
The tests were extremely disappointing. It proved all but impossible to scatter a large enough volume of highly radioactive material to make an area uninhabitable. The effects were easy to mitigate and the dispersal was difficult to predict and control. As a result, the US military deemed radiological weapons as useless in combat and research ended in the 1950′s.
The amount of radioactive material spread beyond the boundaries of the test areas was miniscule as compared to the fallout produced by nuclear weapons tests.
The Pentagon’s aboveground nuclear bomb tests of 1945-1962, totaling more than 200, and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, are not officially listed as radiation experiments. Yet between 250,000 and 500,000 US military personnel were contaminated during their compulsory participation in the bomb tests and the post-war occupation of Japan.
It is true that from 1945 until 1962, the United States tested nuclear weapons above ground and that doing so did produce significant fallout. At the time, as today, there was ongoing debate about the effects of fallout on the public and the extent to which the environmental contamination could be tolerated. Tests were conducted in the Marshall Islands and at the Nevada Test Site, sites selected for being remote and secure. Efforts were made to reduce fallout by careful planning and meteorological observations, but these measures were far from perfect.
As a result, it is believed that exposure to iodine-131 from fallout likely did contribute to a rise in thyroid cancer rates. Whether or not other fallout isotopes contributed to cancer remains a matter of conjecture, as there is little or no direct evidence.
Although the aim of the tests was not specifically to examine how radioactive fallout might affect humans, some of those exposed, whether soldiers who participated or the Marshall islanders who lived near the tests in the Pacific, were followed for studies of the effects after the tests.
The ability to test nuclear devices underground was not developed until the late 1950′s. Whether or not a blast could be effectively contained underground was the subject of debate. Limited subsurface tests were conducted in the early 1950′s. It was not until 1957 that Plumbob Pascal-A was detonated in a manner that was able to contain most of the blast within an underground cavity. Later that year, Plumbob Rainer became the first test to successfully achieve full underground containment.
All US tests conducted after 1962 were underground.
Documents uncovered by the Advisory Committee show that the military knew there were serious radioactive fallout risks from its Nevada Test Site bomb blasts. The generals decided not to use a safer site in Florida, where fallout would have blown out to sea. “The officials determined it was probably not safe, but went ahead anyway,” Pat Fitzgerald, a scientist on the committee staff, told The New York Times March 15, 1995.
I can find no information on any plans to use Florida for nuclear testing. I would have to assume that being relatively densely populated, it would be unsuitable, even if winds would carry most of the fallout to sea.
Finally, it should be noted that these experiments are often used to justify anti-nuclear policies by attempting to demonize ionizing radiation or nuclear energy. It’s a strawman argument, in any case. Nuclear energy has nothing to do with any of the above experiments, except for the loss of fluid tests, which were done for nuclear reactor safety. That said, those did not release radiation and were not harmful to the public in any way.
This entry was posted on Saturday, June 8th, 2013 at 9:53 pm and is filed under Bad Science, Good Science, History, Misc, Obfuscation. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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