By Arjun Makhijani
Transcript of radio commentary that aired May 14, 2003 on KUNM public radio 89.9 fm in Albuquerque
The National Academy of Sciences has completed one more study on the radiation doses to which the U.S. government subjected armed forces personnel during atomic bomb tests between 1945 and 1962. The atomic veterans, as they are called, have been complaining that the government’s estimates of what happened are poorly done. One more time, the government has been proved wrong and the vets right. The Academy’s study has done a creditable job of detailing a multitude of problems with official dose estimates. Many doses have been underestimated by large factors; some perhaps by ten, twenty, or a hundred times or more.
I found similar problems and worse twenty years ago when I looked at a single test series, Operation Crossroads, 1946. It was the coming out party for the bomb after World War II. About 42,000 armed forces personnel from generals to GIs, were there. The second test in the series, underwater in Bikini lagoon, threw up a million tons of water laced with deadly plutonium and fission products. Sailors and soldiers scrubbed highly contaminated decks of ships and slept and ate there.
The sodium in the lagoon salt became radioactive. Safety was seriously compromised by what the radiological safety officer called the “hairy-chested” attitude of some naval officers to the unseen hazard of radiation. John Smitherman, a strapping seventeen year old sailor, jumped into Bikini lagoon for a swim. No one told him not to. His lymph nodes were seriously damaged and his immune system was probably shot. He lived ill, with one horrid problem after another and died a painful death when he was not yet 50, without the government ever having recognized what nuclear tests had done to him.
In the late 1980s, after a great deal of agitation and pressure, Congress finally passed a law allowing for medical help and compensation to many veterans with any one of a number of radiogenic cancers. But others are still required to prove that they had been heavily exposed. Many claims are being unfairly rejected based on poor dose estimates that aren’t being subjected to quality control.
But surprisingly, the National Academy report does not make a clear recommendation to give the remaining 4,000 claimants the benefit of the doubt, even though they are old and sick. Many are still dying like Smitherman, without recognition from the government. The lack of a humane recommendation from the Academy was coupled with a scientifically unsound statement that radiation is not a “potent” cause of cancer. Compared to what? The report does not say.
Enough is enough. The 4,000 atomic vets at issue should be accorded the presumption that their illnesses were caused by the tests, in the same way that claims of thousands of other cases have been recognized. If you want to see the Academy’s report and other materials, you’ll find the links on the website of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, www.ieer.org. This is Arjun Makhijani.