Tragic Fallout of Nuclear Testing

PRIDE and fear - those two most insidious prompters of public policy - turn out to have been at the heart of United States nuclear weapons development.

What else can one conclude, given a legacy that includes using hundreds of human guinea pigs to study the effects of radiation and also leaving behind large quantities of dangerous pollution that have poisoned the environment in several places around the country?

The Energy Department, which is responsible for nuclear-weapons development and production, last week revealed details about the program begun with the Manhattan Project during World War II:

That there were 204 more nuclear-test blasts than had previously been disclosed, bringing the total to 1,051. That about 102 metric tons of plutonium have been produced, with about a third of that most-toxic substance still located at weapons plants in Washington State, Idaho, Colorado, New Mexico, and South Carolina (not counting existing warheads on missiles and bombs). And that about 600 people were subjected to radiation experiments, including 18 persons injected with plutonium.

This is all part of a major declassification of government information ordered by Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary. ``The cold war is over,'' she says. ``We're coming clean.''

``Clean'' is not what researchers apparently were thinking when they exposed hundreds of people to radioactivity, most of them without any knowledge of the potential consequences.

The fear that must have prompted such activities during wartime is understandable, even in retrospect. How to end the ghastly conflict begun by totalitarian regimes and the cold war that followed consumed national leaders. But the pride that puts one's goals and values ahead of another's well-being cannot be so easily rationalized, whether it comes from defense policy planners or atomic scientists.

Today, the US and the former USSR are busy dismantling nuclear warheads. The first of 500 US missile silos to be eliminated under the 1992 strategic arms agreement was blown up last week, falling in upon itself the way the conflict between nuclear powers seems to have done.

But retiring silos, submarines, and strategic aircraft is the easier part of dismantling an era rightly called MAD (mutually assured destruction). It will take tens of billions of dollars and many decades to deal with the environmental cleanup.

The Energy Department report, for example, noted the 24 million pounds of mercury used at the Y-12 weapons plant in Oak Ridge, Tenn. But it added that ``incomplete records ... prevent a fully accurate accounting of the quantities received, used, and lost to the environment.''

Over the years, large quantities of radioactive waste were stored at government weapons plants in several states. In some cases, the canisters holding the buried waste are far beyond their design life and are deteriorating. In other cases, their exact location years after burial cannot be determined.

``Concern for the safety and health of the workers at these facilities increases with time, as does the potential for release to the environment,'' the Energy Department reports.

For several years, Idaho Governor Cecil Andrus has been pressing the federal government for more details about waste plutonium buried at the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory (which is above the Snake River aquifer). Federal officials recently told Governor Andrus there is more than twice as much plutonium buried there than previously acknowledged.

``It is disturbing to find out that the department apparently had this information for many years and did nothing to attempt to verify the information or rectify the risks posed by this plutonium,'' Andrus said in a letter to Energy Secretary O'Leary.

The Portland Oregonian newspaper reported last week that more than half the 50,000 reactor rods stored under water in the K-East Basin at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State ``are cracked and slowly leaking radioactivity into the pool.''

The new era of openness and environmental concern began with former Energy Secretary James Watkins and is being continued by O'Leary. There's much to be done. But it can and will be - so long as the opposites of pride and fear are held to.

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