They Never knew – The Victims of Fallout Testing

Posted: August 1, 2008 in Articles, Timeless

Despite only being 128 pages and no photos(these photos aren’t from the book), this is a great book. Great doesn’t always mean good…

They Never knew – The Victims of Fallout Testing by Glenn Cheney

One hundred and forty-nine atomic bombs have exploded over American soil. No one knows how many people, if any, these bombs have killed. The initial heat and shock of the explosions probably killed no one. Open-air atomic explosions, however, have more lasting and distant effects. They create and release tremendous amounts of highly dangerous radioactive materials. Radiation causes cancer, leukemia, cardiovascular problems, cataracts, immunological weakness, genetic defects, pre-natal problems, mental retardation, and many other problems. Any deaths caused by radiation normally occur only years or decades later. Estimates of deaths worldwide from American, Soviet, British, French and Chinese nuclear tests range from something near zero to several million.

In the name of democracy and self-defense, the United States tested bomb after bomb at a test site in Nevada. Each “shot” sent tons of radioactive particles boiling into the sky and drifting across the United States. The isotopes of plutonium, cesium, strontium, iodine-131 and other deadly elements gradually came to earth as “fallout.” A lot of it settled in Nevada and Utah, killing cattle, burning ranchers, sickening residents, causing leukemia in children, cancer in adults, deformities in the unborn. It contaminated milk in North Dakota. It ruined photographic film in New York. It settled into the soil of every state except Alaska and Hawaii.

Another 66 test bombs – many of them far more powerful than those in Nevada – were detonated over the Marshall Islands, a U.S. “Trusteeship” territory in the South Pacific. An estimated 5,000 local people had to abandon their homes and live for four decades on distant islands where life just wasn’t the same. Forty-two thousand U.S. military personnel trying to clean up the atomic mess worked under conditions so radioactive that they would be illegal in any industry today.

How many have these bombs killed? After years of lies and denial, the United States government reluctantly admitted to a toll of perhaps a dozen civilians. Thousands of American citizens, however, have sued the government claiming damages that range from illness to death. Almost none, however, have received any compensation. Some scientists, among them a several Nobel laureates, have warned that the radiation may eventually cause as many as ten million deaths worldwide. Other scientists claim the fallout was dispersed and diluted by air and water to the point where it could not be harmful. Congressional hearings have found negligence in the testing program and horrifying consequences. The courts, however, have very rarely awarded compensation to those who claim to have been injured by radiation from the tests.

Among the victims are an unknown number of the 250,000 military personnel who witnessed nearby atomic explosions or their aftermath to train them for nuclear warfare. They were used as human guinea pigs as the military sought to see the effects of radiation on their physical and mental health. They were used as human robots to gather information near ground zero or in radioactive clouds. They were ordered into positions as close as 1.2 miles from atomic explosions to see if they would survive. Some of the soldiers were protected by nothing more than a trench dug six feet deep. Some had the advantage of sunglasses or a cotton face mask.

For much the same reason, a government research program had hospital patients injected with plutonium, the deadliest substance in the world. Again, the government simply wanted to know how radiation affected health. Again, the program and its results were hidden from the public. At least 4,000 people were subjected to experiments involving radiation. Many of them were unaware of the nature of the experiment or the real degree of danger.

No one will ever know the whole truth. Much of it was hidden by the Atomic Energy Commission and other government agencies. Much of it depends on statistics which depend on scanty, inaccurate, or falsified information. Much of it depends on the work of attorneys and the decisions of judges. Much of it has been distorted by hysteria, rumor, grief and wild fears. Much of it depends on an imperceptible link between a case of cancer and an explosion that happened hundreds of miles away and ten or twenty or forty years in the past.

The tests may have been dangerous, but they took place during dangerous times. The Soviet Union, an avowed enemy of the United States, was developing a nuclear arsenal that very quickly became powerful enough to destroy every city in North America. In the infancy and adolescence of nuclear science, bombs, designs, fuels, and triggers had to be tested. If the United States let the Soviet Union get ahead in the design or production of atomic weapons, the weakness of the U.S. arsenal might very well have tempted its enemy to launch a nuclear war. Atomic testing, therefore, in one form or another, in one place or another, had to happen to maintain a balance of power. Ironically, the only place American bombs exploded was in American territory, and, if we include the people of the Marshall Islands, the only people killed were Americans.

Twenty years after the tests in the atmosphere stopped, Americans started asking questions. Did the tests have to happen in such secrecy? Did the AEC have to deny the dangers of fallout? Could it not announce upcoming tests? Could it not warn the public about approaching clouds of radiation? Could it not carefully monitor levels of radiation and the doses that people received? Could it not keep track of the health of local residents? Could it not care?

The important issue here is not the tests themselves as much as the behavior of the U.S. government. It is now generally acknowledged that government agents and agencies denied the known danger of radiation, lied to the public about the safety of the tests, perjured themselves in court, withheld information that would have indicated guilt, falsified records that indicated problems, and discouraged research that might have revealed the danger of testing.

Though we’ve learned our lesson about the dangers of exploding nuclear weapons in earth’s atmosphere, we still have more to learn. We need to know more about the effects of radiation, not just from bombs but from nuclear power, nuclear waste, nuclear medicine, and equipment that uses nuclear materials. At the same time, we need to understand how well the government regulates its own activities and judges its own negligence. We need to understand the long-term repercussions of working with new technologies. In short, we need to learn how to live in the nuclear age. A look at our nuclear past, therefore, may be glimpse of our future.

Read the rest here. You can see all of its sources in the book, you can buy it for $1-2 here.


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