Scientists discuss history of American nuclear testing

Connecting the history of nuclear strife with today’s problems, Philip Fradkin ’57, author of “Fallout: An American Nuclear Tragedy,” and Dr. Nicholas Wright ’57, an epidemiologist and former Public Health Service doctor, spoke to their two Winter Study classes and other interested students and faculty last Wednesday in Thompson Chemistry.

The talk, “Fallout from Nuclear Testing in the United States: History, Politics, and Epidemiology,” dovetailed with Fradkin’s course on Landscape as History in the American West and Wright’s class on Epidemiology, Epidemic and Human Health.

“I believe in making history relevant,” Fradkin said, and the topic of nuclear fallout is certainly relevant now as the US is on the brink of war. If any nuclear weapons are used, the “long-term effects of the fallout would be far more harmful than the immediate effects of the blast,” he said.

Fradkin began by describing the atmosphere at the height of the Cold War as full of fear and a sense of urgency. The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) had the full support and funding of the government, and it stood to reason that the scientists working for the AEC had to have a place to test their designs. The question was merely where the testing site should be.

After cursory research, an area just 70 miles north of Las Vegas, Nev., then a tiny undeveloped town, appeared as the perfect solution. The American West was thought of as almost completely empty, and so “the landscape determined the history,” Fradkin said.

A local newspaper reporter at the time remarked that the government’s view of the West as being “virtually uninhabited” relegated the people who actually did live there to the unfortunate status of “virtual uninhabitants.” Of the open spaces in the West, Fradkin said “their greatest use has been to perfect the technologies of gruesome death.”

The new test site was approved after a brief inspection in 1950, and tests began in 1951. Fradkin emphasized that from the very beginning of the tests, scientists knew the symptoms of radiation sickness and that exposure to radiation was linked to leukemia. Scientists working at the test site took some precautions, but the public was not informed of the risks of nuclear testing. In fact, the government assured the area residents, mostly Mormons, that there was little danger in living close to the test sites.

The first organisms to suffer from the effects of fallout were sheep, horses and cattle, which developed burns and produced deformed offspring. The first human death “publicly linked” to radiation, as Fradkin made sure to highlight, was of a seven-year-old boy who died of cancer in 1957. The story was eventually picked up by journalists in San Francisco, but organized opposition to the tests did not develop.

In 1977, an army surgeon was diagnosed with leukemia, and a reporter made what Fradkin termed a “wonderful inductive leap;” if soldiers working at the test site were experiencing illness as an effect of the radiation, what about the civilians in the area? Finally, the story made national news and protests began in earnest. A lawsuit with 1,200 plaintiffs and 24 different test cases was filed against the AEC in 1979. The presiding judge awarded compensation to ten of the plaintiffs, but higher courts, eventually including the Supreme Court, overturned the decision.

Wright then took over the lecture and discussed epidemiology as it related to the nuclear fallout case. In order to ensure accuracy, epidemiologists need a condition called “pre-condition heterogeneity:” different people received different amounts of exposure to the disease-causing agent before they developed the disease. This heterogeneity enables epidemiologists to make comparisons and calculate relative risks. If data are not compared to some standard, they are meaningless.

Wright then explained some terms relevant to diseases caused by radiation in particular. He introduced the idea of “biologic half-life,” which is the time it takes for half of the original amount of radiation to be eliminated from organisms in the affected bio-system. Next, he outlined the difficulties inherent in studying radiation sickness. There is a prolonged latency period between the time of exposure and the onset of the disease, creating difficulty in linking cause and effect. There is no single “signature” outcome of radiation-induced illness, and every exposure does not automatically lead to illness. Finally, for ethical reasons, all studies involving humans must be observational: that is, they must rely on observing the aftereffects of radiation instead of the results of a carefully controlled experiment.

Wright reminded the audience of the six major instances of radiation disease and death: the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, exposure in the Marshall Islands, treatment of a spine disease with harmful radiation in Great Britain, occupation-related cases of radiologists in Great Britain, uranium miners in Canada and victims of the Chernobyl disaster.

After mentioning each of these, he described two major radiation studies that successfully surmounted the obstacles of learning about radiation. The first utilized radiation badges to accurately measure radiation, and the data pool was large. Although the study pointed to an increased risk of esophageal cancer, stomach cancer and leukemia, because the statistical confidence interval was so large as to include the possibility that radiation did not in fact increase the risk, the results cannot be considered statistically significant. The second study was done on the civilians in the Salt Lake City case, which conclusively linked radiation to several different types of leukemia.

With that, Wright concluded his portion of the talk and he and Fradkin fielded questions. Fradkin remarked on the difficulty of interpreting evidence like that resulting from the studies Wright described. On one side, the data look powerfully convincing, and our current perspective insists that radiation causes cancer. But a conscientious scientist or judge cannot ignore the incomplete nature of the data or the fact that the numbers simply do not reach a credible level of significance. As Fradkin said, the hard facts “reinforce the complexities and subtleties of this situation. . .it’s not simple.”