Congressional probers said Thursday that the full story of Cold War radiation experiments - including dozens in Utah - may never be known because of two ironic reasons.
First, so many hundreds of thousands of documents relating to them have been identified that sifting through them may take years, and some significant papers may never emerge from a maze of boxes resembling the last scene of "Raiders of the Lost Ark."Second, researchers are finding that many key documents have already been destroyed or lost through the years or remain classified as secret. This creates holes in the story.
With that too-many-or-too-few situation, "It now appears that the full extent of Cold War radiation experiments involving humans may never be known because of the difficulties of locating and analyzing all pertinent documents," said Victor S. Rezendes of the General Accounting Office, a research arm of Congress.
That came in a Senate Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on the progress of a yearlong commission, set up by President Clinton, to identify such experiments, give an opinion of how ethical they were and make suggestions about victim compensation.
The committee now plans only to outline examples of different types of radiation experiments and what ethical guidelines were in place. It plans to specifically comment only on a few experiments and case studies as examples of what happened.
Ruth R. Faden, chairwoman of the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments, said that is all it is able to do within the year period ordered for the study. It has only five months left to finish the project.
But the committee plans to pass on a database it is compiling of all known experiments and the documents found about them to some other agency to allow such research to continue.
Committee Chairman John Glenn, D-Ohio, said the government must push for the whole truth. "We have a responsibility and an obligation to understand exactly what happened, to whom and with what effect. There is no moral alternative."
Among the experiments the committee was charged to look at specifically by Clinton was a handful of weapons tests at Dugway Proving Ground that scattered radioactive dust in the Utah desert in the 1950s.
Since that order, the Deseret News and others have identified dozens more such experiments plus eight intentional nuclear-reactor meltdowns in the Utah desert, use of Utah State prison inmates in radiation tests and a University of Utah/Veterans Ad-min-is-tration test that injected some men with radioactive strontium.
Glenn noted that a permanent National Biomedical Advisory Committee has been proposed, and its duties would include ensuring protecting the rights of biomedical research subjects.
He said maybe that group should also become custodian of documents and databases being developed by the current advisory committee on radiation experiments to allow the press and others to investigate old experiments.
Faden said her group is also working to make texts of the documents it has obtained - and full lists of all experiments it has identified - available to the public early next year through the Internet computer superhighway.
Glenn also complained that many documents about such tests remain classified, despite pledges to open up as much as possible.
"Too often the overriding reason for the classification of many of the radiation experiments records was not national security but instead fear of lawsuits and personal culpability," he said. "We cannot accept this kind of abuse or secrecy now or in the future."
Assistant Energy Secretary Tara O'Toole said her agency will continue to try to identify and declassify key documents but noted, "The Department of Energy alone has a total agencywide inventory of some 3.2 million boxes of records distributed throughout the country, many of which are poorly indexed, if indexed at all."
It is one of only many agencies that conducted radiation tests on sometimes unsuspecting people. Others include the Defense Department, NASA, the CIA, Health and Human Services and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.