Dirty Atomic Secrets

FORTY years ago this month, President Eisenhower urged the ``atomic powers'' to scrap needless secrecy and open up nuclear science for peaceful purposes. It was a splendid move that has put much of nuclear technology under continued public scrutiny. What wasn't so splendid was the United States' continued coverup of some dirty secrets that only now are coming to light.

A recent study by the congressional General Accounting Office has documented a diverse set of secret tests that deliberately released dangerous amounts of radioactive materials into the environment from the mid-1940s to around 1960. The tests included release of highly radioactive elements in a vain effort to develop a radiation weapon. Other releases were used to test radiation monitoring instruments or to trace the spread of radioactivity on the winds.

Officials regularly reported that military nuclear research and weapons testing created no radioactive hazards. In short, government officials lied to the public and put it at risk.

This was done, of course, in the name of ``national security.'' The US is not alone in using that excuse to cover up nuclear nastiness. The former Soviet Union routinely cloaked radiation accidents. Britain for many years hid the fact that its weapons tests in Australia exposed Aborigines to dangerous radioactive fallout. And British officials responsible for the 1957 Windscale reactor accident lied to their colleagues in the country's radiation safety unit about the extent of the fallout. But it was particularly unconscionable for US officials to deceive their fellow citizens at a time when the country was leading the way to a new candor in nuclear affairs.

Officials, military officers, and specialists who work in secret sometimes arrogantly assume that they know what's best for the nation even when their plans are morally or legally unsound. They need to remind themselves that ``their way'' may not be the right way to gain needed knowledge or achieve desirable ends.

Congress should pursue this investigation and hold public hearings. The Pentagon and the Energy Department have promised to cooperate. They should give lawmakers full access to all the relevant records.

US national security is best served by having a minimum of necessary secrecy and a maximum of public scrutiny in nuclear matters. A full airing of those decades-old secrets will help make that point.

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