Pregnant women in Iowa, newborns in Tennessee, a 67-year-old leukemia patient in Boston - different people in different circumstances, they and hundreds of others became Cold War guinea pigs.
They all were used in the government's search to learn more about how radiation affects the human body, according to new information made public by the Energy Department.The department disclosed on Monday that a review of more than 11,000 documents unearthed at least 48 new experiments in which perhaps as many as 1,200 people were subjected to radiation exposure, often with no evidence of consent.
The additional human radiation tests were among stacks of documents made public by the department on its nuclear program as evidence of what Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary called a new era of openness in the once-secretive agency.
The summaries of the radiation tests often provided only scant information and gave little detail about the studies involved, how human subjects were selected or their identities. In many cases the experiments were conducted at research hospitals. Some were done as late as the 1980s.
Throughout many of the experiments, a lack of adequate consent "continues to be the theme," O'Leary said at a news conference. Later, Energy Department staffers said that in only a few of the documented experiments was there clear evidence of consent, though consent may have been given.
In none of the experiments was there any "potential therapeutic benefit to the subjects" involved, although the projects might have had broader therapeutic goals, said Ellyn Weiss of the department's Office of Human Radiation Experiments.
Other revelations from the newly released Energy Department data:
- Confirmation that between 1963 and 1992 there were 95 previously hidden underground nuclear bomb detonations at the Nevada Test Site. The blasts went
unnoticed because they were conducted simultaneously with other bomb tests to avoid detection.
- The government produced about a third more highly enriched uranium - 994 metric tons - over the years than previously thought at facilities in Piketon, Ohio, and Oak Ridge, Tenn. An estimated 259 metric tons is still in inventory, about two-thirds of it at Oak Ridge. A metric ton equals about 2,200 pounds.
- Physical inventories of highly enriched uranium show about 1.3 metric tons less than what is shown on the books, but officials attribute the difference to sloppy bookkeeping and not theft. Similar discrepancies have been found in the past for plutonium stockpiles.
- The government detonated a nuclear weapon in 1962 using reactor-grade plutonium obtained from the British, confirming arguments by nuclear proliferation activists that reactor-grade plutonium should be equally safeguarded.
Arms control experts said that by being forthcoming about the test the administration appeared to be sending a message to countries that have started programs to reprocess civilian nuclear fuel to gain plutonium for use in reactors.
Administration officials have reservations about plutonium reprocessing because of the potential that the material can be stolen or fashioned into nuclear bombs.
The department said so far nearly $3.7 million has been spent to try to learn more about human experiments involving radiation, much of them in the 1940s and early 1950s. Before a complete record is available, it may cost more than $24 million, according to department estimates.