Incident at Three Mile Island
A FEW MINUTES after ten o'clock on Wednesday morning, March 28, 1979, I was sitting in my study trying to understand the full implications of what I had learned during a week-long trial in Philadelphia. At issue in the trial was the degree of genetic damage done to the soldiers who had been marched under the highly radioactive clouds during the Nevada tests back in the 1950s. Just as I was trying to sort out my thoughts on the discovery of the large doses the men had received by breathing in the dust and gases, the telephone rang.
It was a reporter calling from radio station WPLR in New Haven, Connecticut, a station from which I had received a number of calls over the past year, ever since I had testified at a Congressional seminar on the increases in infant mortality and cancer following large radioactive releases from the Millstone Nuclear Plant some 25 miles east of New Haven. The reporter wanted to know my reaction to a news bulletin that had just come over the wire, according to which a general emergency had been announced at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
According to the report, high radiation levels had been measured inside the main containment building of Unit II, and most of the plant personnel who were not essential were being evacuated following the accidental release of radioactive steam from the primary loop of the reactor.
From the little information in the first wire-service bulletin, I could only guess that this might be the beginning of a potentially serious accident. Normally, the steam from the primary loop of a pressurized-water reactor contains relatively low levels of radioactivity, and if there was enough to force evacuation of all but the most essential people in the control room, there had to be major damage to fuel elements in the reactor core. And since the motion picture The China Syndrome had just opened, my thoughts immediately turned to the possibility that right here in Pennsylvania, where the first commercial nuclear reactor had been built with so much hope, we might also experience the first melt-down and catastrophic release of radioactive gases about which a growing number of concerned scientists had tried to warn the public for years.
The first thing I did was to call Tom Gerusky at the state's Bureau of Radiological Health in Harrisburg, but the line was busy. I then decided to call the local offices of the Associated Press and United Press International in Pittsburgh to see whether more recent bulletins contained any more detailed information. What I learned from these reports was not reassuring. Apparently, radiation levels inside the containment building were still rising, and there were fragmentary reports of radioactive gas releases taking place, leading to above-normal radiation readings near the site, located some 10 miles south of the city of Harrisburg on the Susquehanna River.
At the same time, spokesmen for the utility were being quoted as claiming that there was no serious problem, and certainly no need for nearby residents to evacuate the area.
Which way were the winds blowing? Were they blowing north, toward the densely populated metropolitan area? I called the U.S. Weather Bureau and learned that early in the morning the winds had been blowing generally south and southeast, toward the rural counties of York and Lancaster, at a relatively low velocity. This was of course relatively good news for the large population of Harrisburg, but not such good news for the people in York and Lancaster counties. The low wind speed would mean relatively high concentrations of gases in the air, which in turn might lead to potentially large inhalation doses -- as large as those I had just calculated for the soldiers in Nevada. And the fine drizzle in the air would bring down radioactive iodines into the local pastures, thus presenting still another problem for the people of this heavily agricultural area even if a major melt-down of the reactor core should be averted.
The telephone rang again, and this time it was someone from the Mobilization for Survival in Philadelphia, asking me whether I would be willing to go to a press conference in Harrisburg the next day together with Dr. George Wald of Harvard University. The purpose of this conference would be to present an alternative source of information for the people in the area on the potential health hazards from the accident. (So far, the people in the area had received nothing more than the bland reassurances being offered by the utility and the spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the government organization formed from the old AEC when it was reorganized a few years ago).
The thought passed through my mind that by tomorrow, Harrisburg might not be a very healthy place to bring a lot of reporters together for a news conference, but I tentatively agreed to go, provided there were no further serious or unforeseen developments. In the meantime, I would have to try to gather as much information as possible about just what was going on in the reactor. I needed to have a clearer feeling for the nature of the danger that the people in Harrisburg were facing.
Again I tried reaching Gerusky's office in Harrisburg, but without success. Obviously, everyone in the world was trying to reach him or Margaret Reilly, the only people who had any firsthand information on radiation levels aside from the utility's own people -- and the utility's people could not be trusted to give out the true data.
The telephone rang again, and this time it was KDKA-TV, the Westinghouse station in Pittsburgh, wanting to interview me for their evening news program. They read me the latest wire stories, and the implications were getting increasingly more serious as the full extent of the accident began to emerge. Apparently a cooling pump had failed to function, and a series of events led to the opening of a safety valve that allowed large amounts of cooling water to escape into the main containment building. This sounded ominous, but it was all still very confused.
Later in the afternoon, a reporter from ABC-TV in New York called to say that he heard that I was going to go to Harrisburg the next day. Would I be able to bring a survey meter along so that there would be some way that they could get independent information on what the radioactive levels at different distances from the reactor really were? I told him that I would try to do so if I could manage to borrow one from our nuclear medicine group.
That evening, Frank Reynolds reported on the ABC Evening News that there had been a large release of steam from the reactor early in the morning, that the accident had actually begun at 4:00 A.M., and that state officials were very upset about not having been notified immediately. There were apparently radiation releases from the turbine building, and there was indeed some damage to fuel rods in the core, as I had deduced from the earlier reports.
There was only one reliable source of information that I knew I could trust, and this was Henry Kendall of the Union of Concerned Scientists at M.I.T. Kendall had been responsible for bringing out the true danger of a major accident and the inadequacy of the emergency core-cooling system for preventing a melt-down of the core that would lead to the dreaded "China Syndrome." This was an in-joke among nuclear engineers for the scenario in which a molten mass of uranium, plutonium, and fission products would melt its way through the steel reactor vessel and through the concrete foundation deep into the earth, "all the way to China," with the release of much of the one thousand Hiroshima bombs' worth of radioactivity into the air if the containment were to be ruptured.
I finally was able to reach Kendall late in the evening at the home of his mother, who was seriously ill. He filled me in on what he had been able to learn. Apparently twenty-two previous cases of defects in the valves and pumps of this type of reactor had been reported to the NRC in recent years, but nothing had been done to correct the problem. As a result of the loss of cooling water, much more fuel damage had apparently occurred than had been expected. But there was essentially no adequate instrumentation provided to allow one to analyze exactly what was happening inside the reactor core in this kind of major accident. The designers had simply assumed that it would never happen.
The emergency core-cooling system apparently had been put into effect, but from what Kendall was able to piece together at this time, the reactor was at least not on what he called "a main track toward a complete melt-down," though a melt-down was still possible.
What was certain was that radiation levels inside the reactor containment building had risen to the highly lethal level of 4000 rads per hour, enough to kill an adult in five minutes, so that according to his rough calculation, even on the outside of the thick concrete wall the levels might be as high as 4 rads per hour. This implied a great deal of damage to the fuel elements in the core, which must have at least begun to melt. Reports that he had received also talked about external gamma radiation doses accumulating at the rate of 1 millirad every hour a mile or so away, or some one hundred times the normal background rate.
Kendall ended up by telling me how he and his associates had just discovered that five years before, the NRC had learned of serious defects in the computer programs for calculating the design of these plants to survive earthquakes, but that the NRC had kept it quiet until his group had discovered it independently. And he added that the Rasmussen estimate of the risk of a major accident had been underestimated by at least two hundred times, and that it was more like one in one hundred per year rather than one in twenty thousand per plant. Using Kendall's figures with fifty plants operating, a potentially major accident like Three Mile Island could happen once every few years.
This information made it clear to me that evacuation of the people, and particularly pregnant women, living within a few miles of the reactor should have been ordered long before, since the total doses to internal organs from inhalation of the fission gases were likely to be ten to one hundred times greater than the external gamma dose levels Kendall had told me about. Just as in the case of the Albany-Troy incident years ago, where the external whole-body dose was only about 100 millirads over a period of ten weeks, it would be the doses to the thyroids of the infants and the unborn in their mother's womb that would be much greater and far more serious in their effects. Perhaps in a single day, thyroid doses to the unborn would reach the values of a few hundred to a few thousand millirads, equivalent to a series of abdominal X-rays, for which Dr. Alice Stewart's data had indicated as much as a doubling or tripling of the risk of leukemia and cancer for those in the early phases of development.
Yet on the radio and television news that evening, there were still the bland reassurances from the Metropolitan Edison Company officials who operated the reactor. According to the president of the company, Walter Creitz, the public was not in danger, no one was killed, and no one had been injured by the accident.
There were also the usual reassuring phrases by the public-relations people of the NRC, with their carefully chosen qualifying words. According to them, there was "no immediate danger to life." Put in this way, it was literally true; so far, there were no immediately lethal doses, and any infants in their mothers' wombs who were endangered would not die until many months or years later, while some types of chronic diseases and cancers would not show up for decades.
At six o'clock the next morning the telephone woke me, and I was afraid of the news that it might bring. But it turned out to be bad news of a totally different and unexpected kind. It was my mother in Buffalo, who said that she could not sleep all night because of severe abdominal pain: could I please come to see her right away? She had suffered a heart attack a year before and had been in poor health, but more recently she had been well enough to do without a companion. As a result, she was now alone.
I did not know what to do. I was scheduled to be in Harrisburg at noon, and I did not see how I could break that commitment to the many people who were in danger from the radioactive gases still leaking from the plant. So I told her that I would call my brother in New York, and that if he could fly up in the morning, I would come to Buffalo in the afternoon, directly from Harrisburg. In the meantime, she should call her neighbor, who had been very helpful in the past, and ask him to drive her to the emergency room at the hospital, where I would call her.
Fortunately, my brother was able to go to Buffalo at once, and I set out for the airport to catch the flight to Harrisburg after stopping at the hospital to pick up the survey meter that I had agreed to take along.
I had checked the morning news just before leaving the house to learn the latest status of the plant. Daniel Ford, who worked with Henry Kendall, appeared together with Walter Creitz on the Today show. Apparently radiation measurements indicated a lower release rate than the night before, although radioactivity had by now been detected as far as 16 miles away. The temperature of the reactor was being lowered, and Creitz talked confidently about pumping out the radioactive water from the containment building in the hope of putting the reactor back on line again in the not-too-distant future.
Ford indicated that for the moment the reactor seemed to have been stabilized, that the emergency core-cooling system had been turned off, but that the NRC felt that there were still serious problems in keeping the reactor under control. At least it seemed to me that there had been no major deterioration of the situation during the night. From the airport I had called the hospital in Buffalo and learned that my mother had been sent home with what appeared to be nothing more serious than a stomach flu, and so I decided to get on the plane together with a great many other passengers, some of whom must also have wondered about the wisdom of flying to Harrisburg that morning. But none of them could have had any inkling of the full extent of the quiet tragedy that had already begun as the radioactive gases silently seeped from the damaged reactor only a few thousand feet away from where we would land on that gray, drizzly day in Harrisburg.
Just before boarding the plane, I decided to recheck the survey meter that I had placed in my briefcase. It still read the normal level of slightly less than a hundredth of a millirad per hour, and the reading did not change detectably after we had reached our relatively low cruising altitude for the half-hour flight east to Harrisburg across the two- to three-thousand-foot ridges of the Appalachian Mountains.
Next to me sat a young woman who evidently became quite curious when I opened my briefcase to look at the dial of the survey meter. She asked me what I was doing. It turned out that she was a nurse from our hospital on her way to Harrisburg to attend a conference on emergency medical care, and to compound the strange coincidence, her husband worked as a nuclear engineer for Westinghouse. I explained to her that I was planning to measure for myself the radiation levels in the Harrisburg area at different distances from the stricken plant in order to have some idea as to the magnitude of the hazard that the continuing releases were posing for the people in the area, particularly for the unborn.
Soon it came time for landing, and once again I turned on the survey meter to see what the radiation levels were a few thousand feet in the air, a few miles northwest of the Three Mile Island plant. As we both watched with growing concern, the needle began to move up-scale, until when we were just a few hundred feet in the air over the river close to the end of the runway, the meter indicated a dose rate fifteen times what would be normal. There could be no doubt about it: Some thirty-six hours after the accident, large amounts of radioactive gases were still escaping from the reactor whose twin cooling towers loomed ominously only a mile or so away through the haze. Apparently, the wind had shifted and the invisible gases were now drifting northwestward -- up the river and toward Harrisburg.
The plane was delayed and so I was late for the news conference scheduled for noon in the Friends' Meeting House in downtown Harrisburg. This meant that there was no time to check the radiation levels still closer to the plant. But a quick measurement outside the airport terminal showed the readings to be ten times their normal value, confirming the high reading in the plane.
On the way into the city, I noted down the readings every mile as the taxi driver read me the distances. Three miles from the airport, the readings dropped to only three to four times normal, but at 4 miles, they rose again to eight and nine times their usual rate. This meant that there were hot spots, either due to gas pockets or to fallout deposited on the ground in the course of the past day and a half of releases.
The high readings could not be due to any direct gamma rays penetrating the four-foot-thick concrete walls of the reactor's containment building, since they would have diminished steadily and rapidly with the increasing distance. But they were consistent with large gas releases now drifting toward downtown Harrisburg, where the readings were still three to four times the normal rate as we approached the dome of the State Capitol 12 miles from the airport.
The news conference was already in progress when I arrived. There were a surprisingly large number of reporters with microphones, tape recorders, and television cameras crowded into the relatively small meeting room, with Dr. George Wald of Harvard sitting at a table toward one end.
I apologized for being late, and then took out my survey meter to measure the radiation rate in the room. The reading was still three to four times normal, or essentially the same as outside. Clearly, the walls of the building did not provide any significant protection. Most likely, it was the gamma radiation from the radioactive gas that was by now at the same level as outside the building. Even closing the windows would have been futile at this point.
The intensity of the questions from the reporters reflected the great concern that existed, and I felt acutely the great difficulty of having to explain, without causing a panic, the seriousness of the situation that already existed for the pregnant women and infants. I explained that at the moment, the radiation levels were not serious enough for the normal, healthy adult as long as they would not increase because of further releases. Asked what I would recommend in the light of my knowledge of the situation, I said that at the very least, pregnant women and young children should be urged to leave the area within a few miles of the reactor because of the likelihood of continuing releases of radioactive iodine that would concentrate in the fetal thyroid as well as in that of the infants and young children.
By limiting my recommendation in this manner, I hoped that there would not be any sudden rush toward a mass evacuation of the whole population, which might cause serious traffic jams and accidents. I was primarily concerned with preventing panic, especially since according to my latest information, there was apparently no immediate threat of a complete melt-down. And since the greatest danger existed for the unborn and very young, at least they would not be exposed any further, although at that point I did not know whether most of the dose had already been received, or whether there would in fact be any further large releases.
I also urged that pregnant women and young children should not drink fresh milk or local water for the next few weeks, until detailed measurements could be carried out to determine the precise levels of radioactivity. The most immediate hazard was clearly from the inhalation of the fresh radioactive gases by expectant mothers, which would lead in a matter of hours to significant amounts of radioactive iodine transmitted through the blood stream to the placenta and from there to the developing infant's small thyroid gland.
When someone asked Dr. Wald whether the public should believe me or the spokesmen for the utility who had just reassured them that there was no danger, he answered that under such circumstances, one should always ask oneself who has the greater financial interest, the industry or the concerned scientist trying to warn the public. Under the present circumstances, he personally would tend not to accept the reassurances of the industry spokesmen and would tend to believe that there was indeed reason for deep concern, as I had indicated. There was no safe level of radiation, and the unborn and the young are clearly more vulnerable than adults.
The news conference broke up shortly thereafter, and a number of reporters wanted to have more details on my findings. Unfortunately, I felt under great pressure to get back to the airport so as not to miss the next flight to Pittsburgh with a connection to Buffalo. I was still deeply troubled about my mother's condition, and I could not stay very long to answer all the many difficult technical questions posed by the reporters.
I did manage to catch the afternoon flight, and as soon as I got off the plane in Pittsburgh I went to a telephone to call my mother's house. When I received no answer, I had a deep sense of foreboding, and immediately called the emergency room at the hospital. The nurse who answered told me to wait a minute, until she could get the doctor on duty, and a few moments later I learned that my mother had just died in the emergency room from what appeared to have been a sudden, massive rupture of the abdominal aorta. The doctor told me that my brother had been with her, and that it happened so suddenly that she lost consciousness instantly. There was no long period of concern or pain, and she passed away in my brother's arms. For this I was of course grateful, but it could not change the fact that suddenly my mother was gone, and I had made the decision not to be with her at her time of greatest need.
The next few days were like a nightmare, in which I was torn between my private grief and the demands of an outside world clamoring for advice and help in the face of the growing fear that the reactor at Harrisburg might still melt down. An unexplained bubble of hydrogen threatened the efforts to keep the core adequately cooled, and all through this period uncontrolled releases of radioactive gases continued to take place, despite frantic efforts to bring the situation under control.
The next day, while making the funeral arrangements for my mother in Buffalo, I learned that Governor Thornburgh had ordered the immediate evacuation of all pregnant women and children below school age from the area around Three Mile Island. It would be too late for many, but at least some lives would be saved, and I was grateful that my efforts to warn the people of the area had not been totally in vain.
Even though I had told my secretary that I could not take any calls in Buffalo, it was impossible to stop them all. In a way, the sense of being needed kept me from giving in to the deep sense of loss, and the continuing demands of life probably helped me to overcome the period of deepest grief. My mother had been a pediatrician and obstetrician, and she had always been greatly concerned about my findings. Somehow I knew that she would have wanted me to help the people who were so terribly troubled, even during this period of greatest personal and family upheaval.
When a few days later I tried to reach Henry Kendall to fill in the gaps in my knowledge of what was happening in the stricken reactor, I learned that his mother had also died during that terrible week. And, just as in my own case, the enormous needs of the outside world seemed to have helped him through his period of great personal crisis. It was a week that would forever remain deeply etched in our memories, and those of hundreds of thousands living nearby, who would never forget the days when their world had so suddenly threatened to come to an end.
On April 4, 1979, exactly a week after the accident at Three Mile Island had begun, Congressional hearings were scheduled to take place in an effort to learn what the long-range health effects of the accident were likely to be. They had originally been planned by Representative Lester Brown, and during the previous weekend, I had been asked whether I would be able to come to Washington to testify. It was not an easy decision to accept the invitation so shortly after my mother's death, but I agreed to come at the urging of environmental groups. The environmentalists feared that otherwise only officials of government agencies would be testifying, and in the past these officials had been on record as denying the seriousness of low-level radiation exposures from weapons fallout and normal nuclear plant releases.
Two days before they were to begin, the hearings were shifted to the Senate under the chairmanship of Senator Edward Kennedy, and the environmental groups were told that my testimony was no longer desired. It was clear that both within the nuclear industry and the government agencies charged with the promotion of nuclear energy, every effort would now be made to save the industry. Clearly, this required that there should be no evidence presented that would suggest the possibility that anyone would die as a result of the accident.
President Carter, himself a former nuclear engineer trained in Admiral Rickover's nuclear submarine service, had just flown to Harrisburg together with his wife in order to reassure the people that there was no serious danger either from the gases that continued to leak from the damaged plant, or from the hydrogen bubble that was still threatening a melt-down.
At that very time, lawsuits were underway by servicemen who had been deliberately exposed to the radioactive fallout from nuclear-bomb tests in the 1950s. The servicemen were seeking compensation for the leukemia and cancers that had shown up among them at many times the normal rate. Another lawsuit, which had just come to trial in Philadelphia the week before Three Mile Island, involved a petition filed in behalf of men who participated in military exercises at the Nevada Test Site. At issue was whether or not the government should be required to notify the men that they had a significant risk of genetic damage that could affect their decision to have children. And finally, hundreds of individual lawsuits had been filed against the government by residents of Nevada and Utah for leukemia and cancer cases resulting from the years of exposure to the fallout clouds from the tactical-weapons tests.
Under these circumstances the last thing either the industry or the government wanted was testimony that might set off still another flurry of potentially costly damage suits in the Harrisburg area by women who were pregnant, some of whom might have miscarriages or lose their babies at the time of birth. Even the possibility of one such suit could threaten the survival of the nuclear industry, already reeling from the shock of an accident that it had assured the public would be as unlikely as being hit by a meteor while walking on the street.
The hearings by the Kennedy Committee did indeed go exactly as the concerned environmental groups expected. One government witness after another sent to testify by the White House assured the public that among the two million people living within 50 miles, and the hundreds of thousands who would normally be expected to die of cancer, there might perhaps be one or at most a few extra cancer cases, clearly a totally undetectable and therefore insignificant number. And, of course, not a word was said about the much more likely effects on infant mortality.
Only Dr. K. Z. Morgan, who had been one of the members of the panel appointed by Governor Shapp to hear the evidence on possible health effects of the Shippingport plant six years earlier, expressed concern over the neglect of the beta radiation in the official estimates of the radiation dose. But before he had a chance to explain the significance of the hundredfold greater beta as compared to gamma dose for internal organs such as the thyroid gland, the hearings were quickly adjourned.
Clearly, the public would once again be misled by the combined efforts of the old Atomic Energy Commission scientists now working for the NRC and the Department of Energy following the second reorganization of the old AEC. Once again, they were joined by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, as had happened during the period of heavy bomb testing. Ironically, the previously secret details of the effects of bomb testing were being released that very week as a result of a Freedom of Information request filed by the Washington Post.
As told by Bill Curry in an article that appeared on April 14, 1979,
Officials involved in U.S. atomic bomb tests feared in 1965 that disclosures of a secret study linking leukemia to radioactive fallout from the bombs could jeopardize further testing and result in costly damage claims according to documents obtained by the Washington Post. That study, as well as a proposal to examine thyroid cancer rates in Utah, touched off a series of top-level meetings within the old Atomic Energy Commission over how to influence or change the two studies.
The article then went on to say,
The documents also indicate that the Public Health Service, the nation's top health agency, which conducted the studies joined the AEC in reassuring the public about any possible danger from fallout.
Here then was the long bitter story emerging at last, just as it was being repeated -- not in the case of fallout from nuclear-weapons tests carried out in the national interest at distant test sites in the Pacific and the Nevada desert, but in the case of invisible releases from peaceful nuclear reactors near the nation's cities, in the private interest of an industry spawned by the secret military atom.
Nearly 40,000 pages of files dealing with radiation revealed a disturbing story of deception perpetrated in the national interest. Not surprisingly, the full consequences of this deception for the nation's health were never adequately examined.
Reading the list of what Curry discovered made me realize something that I had only begun to suspect in recent years, namely that some individuals in the government knew long before I had stumbled upon it accidentally how serious the fallout from weapons testing really was. As early as 1959, a study found higher levels of radioactive strontium 90 in the bones of younger children in the fallout zone. And, as Curry added, "coincidentally a Utah state epidemiologist found this year that children living in the zone during the weapons testing had 2.5 times as much leukemia as children before and after the testing program." This was the study by Dr. Joseph L. Lyon, published in the New England Journal of Medicine just a few weeks before Three Mile Island.
But what shocked me even more was Curry's account of a much earlier government study suggesting a link between fallout and leukemia that was begun even before I had submitted my first article to Science dealing with this possibility, back in 1963. Apparently, a 1959-60 spurt in leukemia in the southwestern Utah counties of Washington and Iron had been noticed by Edward S. Weiss of the Public Health Service, and he had immediately suspected fallout. The study, which showed that the two counties experienced 9 more leukemia cases than the 19 statistically expected, was essentially completed by July 1965, when Weiss submitted it for publication in a Health Service journal. Curry reported in the Post what happened next:
By September 1 of that year, a copy of Weiss's paper had been sent to the AEC, as had the Public Health Service's proposal to test school children in southwest Utah for thyroid abnormalities.
The AEC discussed the two studies that morning. The same day, a White House science adviser called the Health Service to ask, "What would be the federal government's liability for any health problems found?"
By five that afternoon, a joint AEC Health Service-White House meeting was set for the next day -- with three HEW lawyers present, an extraordinary sign of the legal problems the studies could cause.
At the meeting, AEC representatives criticized the leukemia studies and the proposed thyroid study. It was agreed they would submit suggestions for changes.
A week later, the AEC was ready with a proposed letter to the surgeon general, the head of the Public Health Service. Dwight A. Ink, then assistant general manager of the AEC, told his commissioners:
"Although we do not oppose developing further data in these areas (leukemia and thyroid abnormalities), performance of the . . . studies will pose potential problems to the commission: adverse public reaction, lawsuits and jeopardizing the programs at the Nevada Test Site." [Italics added.]
Not only would the study have jeopardized the commission's program at the Nevada Test Site for using strings of hydrogen bombs to build a new Panama Canal and to test designs for anti-ballistic-missile warheads in the atmosphere, but as I learned later, it might also have endangered the ambitious program of rapidly building a whole new generation of gigantic nuclear reactors all over the nation, each ten times as large as Shippingport, which were about to be considered for licensing. Among these were to be the plants of Beaver Valley, Millstone, and Three Mile Island.
As Curry's story made clear, this was to be the end of the report that might have given the public and the scientific community a timely warning of the unexpected seriousness of the planned normal and accidental releases of low-level radiation before the enormous financial commitment to a trillion dollars' worth of nuclear plants had been made by the nation's utilities.
In fact, it was clearly no coincidence that at exactly this time, namely the years 1964 and 1965, the Johnson White House had ordered a twentyfold increase in the permissible levels of iodine 131 and strontium 90 in the milk before it needed to be withdrawn from the market. (This fact came to light in the course of hearings by the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy on Radiation Standards held in 1965.) And it was also the time when the Johnson administration had made a secret commitment to a major involvement of American armed forces in Vietnam, where tactical nuclear weapons might have to be threatened or used if the Chinese should enter the conflict, as they had in Korea. That was clearly not the time to alarm the American people about the possible risk of leukemia, thyroid disease, and congenital defects among newborn children from the clouds of radioactive fallout that were certain to drift back over the United States if these weapons were ever used.
As Curry's story made clear, the AEC was determined to prevent the publication of the Weiss study, which would of course have fully substantiated the concerns of scientists such as Linus Pauling, Barry Commoner, Eric Reiss, E. B. Lewis, Jack Schubert, Ralph Lapp, myself, and many others who had warned of the possible rise in congenital defects, thyroid cancer, and especially childhood leukemia only a few years earlier. But our concerns had largely ended with the signing of the test-ban treaty by Kennedy and Khrushchev in the fall of 1963, just before Kennedy was assassinated. The release of the Weiss study would clearly have evoked renewed opposition from the scientific community and the public to the vast military and civilian programs that were being planned by the Pentagon, the AEC, and the nuclear industry for the use of bombs to dig canals and for vastly increasing the radioactivity in the environment from the production of weapons and the routine releases from giant commercial nuclear power plants.
The next part of the story in the Washington Post was therefore the inevitable next step in a Greek tragedy that would eventually lead to Three Mile Island and the crisis that a stunned nation would face when the promised source of cheap, clean, and economical nuclear power to replace the imported oil would suddenly turn into a national nightmare on their television screens:
The next day, Sept. 10, Ink sent to the surgeon general a critique containing criticisms of the study's scientific basis which were made public in January with the Weiss report. The letter did not, however, make any reference to the AEC's concerns about damage suits, adverse publicity or its effect on the testing program.
Meanwhile, the Public Health Service was gearing up to announce the thyroid study and to disclose the leukemia study. Weiss' study was formally prepared and dated Sept. 14. Two days later, the thyroid study was announced, but there was no mention of the leukemia findings.
One Health Service document suggests that the service itself may have even suppressed the study temporarily to avoid excessive press coverage of the thyroid study. "All of this interest," an official wrote of the congressional and press concern for fallout studies, "will be intensified if publication of the leukemia portion of the study occurs before the [thyroid] project begins."
Earlier, the Health Service had decided to minimize any publicity of the thyroid study.
The result was that the Weiss study was not released and in 1966 was still under review and revision. It was never released.
It was now clear what Surgeon General Jesse L. Steinfeld had referred to when he answered an inquiry from Representative William S. Moorehead back in 1969. Moorehead wanted to know what had happened to the promised large-scale epidemiological studies on thyroid cancer, leukemia, and congenital defects in relation to fallout radiation requested by Congressmen Holifield and Price after the August 1963 hearings on low-level radiation. Steinfeld had written that the feasibility studies for such a program led to a decision that "a national program was not indicated" and that "the feasibility studies were not published." Those were the studies of Edward S. Weiss, a Public Health Service Officer who had tried to protect the lives and health of the people of the United States in accordance with his professional oath.
And as inexorable as that fateful decision was to suppress the truth about the biological effects of the worldwide fallout from nuclear-weapons testing in the interest of national security, it would now be necessary for the government to keep from the people of this country and the rest of the world the truth about what I knew would surely happen in the wake of the drifting fallout clouds from Three Mile Island.
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