The article below was written by Cliff Honicker, a co-founder of AESHP.
The New York Times Magazine
November 19, 1989, Sunday
Section 6; Page 39 (9 pages)
America's Radiation Victims: The Hidden Files
By Clifford T. Honicker
Clifford T. Honicker runs an independent research
project on radiation policy in Knoxville, Tenn.
BLUE GLOW SHROUDED THE ROOM FOR AN INSTANT, THEN was gone. In that moment, Louis Slotin knew he had received a lethal dose of radiation from the core of the plutonium bomb he was testing.
Eight men had been working in the secret laboratory that day. Called the Omega Site, it was nestled in Pajarito Canyon, four miles from the main compound of the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory in New Mexico. Slotin was preparing Alvin C. Graves to take over his duties at the Omega Site. The two stood together at a table with the core of the bomb in front of them. A third man, a junior-level physicist named S. Allan Kline, a 26-year-old graduate of the University of Chicago, had been called over only a moment before the experiment began. Five others stood behind them as Slotin gently brought together the two halves of the beryllium sphere that would convert the plutonium to a critical state. The date was May 21, 1946.
Although it was a potentially deadly experiment, Slotin had performed the ''crit test'' more than two dozen times before. The physicists involved that afternoon had been part of the team that designed the atomic bombs that annihilated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This test was being done in anticipation of the Operation Crossroads test, which would take place at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands a month later.
Slotin lowered the upper hemisphere onto the larger lower one, his thumb lodged in a hole in the top. In his other hand was a screwdriver, which he wedged between the two halves to keep them from touching as he attempted to bring the plutonium to a critical state. The men held their breath. And then the screwdriver slipped. The two halves met, and the assembly went supercritical. Slotin stopped the chain reaction by knocking the sphere apart. But in less than a millisecond, deadly gamma and neutron radiation had burst from the assembly. The blue glow lighted the room as the air become momentarily ionized.
The eight men rushed out of the laboratory and called the authorities in Los Alamos. Then they sat down in the afternoon sun, and, as calmly as they could, began to assess the levels of their exposure. They made a diagram of the room, noting where each had been standing. None of them had been wearing radiation badges, which would have helped register the extent of the exposure. Slotin asked the scientist who had been farthest from the accident to go back and retrieve the film badges out of the lead box where they were stored, and throw them onto the assembly.
Those who had been standing at the table fared the worst. Kline, who had been three or four feet away from Slotin, received what he calculated to be between 90 and 110 rads of neutron radiation. Graves, standing a foot closer, received an estimated 166. For Slotin, the exposure was nearly 1,000 rads, a lethal dose twice over.
The men drove themselves to Los Alamos Hospital, where they were surrounded by teams of specialists who had been preparing for their arrival.
There was not much they could do for the injured men. The doctors closely monitored their bodily functions. They took radiation counts on their blood and bones. They took readings from the gold fillings in their teeth, from silver belt buckles, from a gold Sheaffer pen that Slotin had been carrying and from a coin Kline had had in his pocket.
The doctors knew the next two weeks would provide them a unique opportunity. From a civil-defense standpoint, the knowledge gleaned from these cases could prove invaluable in the event of a nuclear war. For the first time, doctors and scientists would have a chance to view the effect of measurable levels of neutron radiation on humans without the complicating factor of other damages from a bomb. Before the week was over, experts from all over the country had been flown in.
For Kline, the next days were hard. According to notes made by nurses on the hospital records, he suffered nausea and vomiting on the first day, fainting spells and complete loss of appetite for the next five days, and rapid weight loss. The men knew Slotin was dying, but despite their anxiety they tried to keep their spirits up. Kline told the nurses his vomiting was due to nervousness and eating hot dogs rather than to radiation. The men's bodily fluids and excretions were gathered day and night and tested for radiation. Doctors watched the steady concurrent rise and fall of the victims' blood counts, blood pressure and temperature as the radiation ran its course through their bodies.
Fearing that the gold inlays in Kline's teeth were radiating damaging rays into his jawbone, constituting a threat of future cancer, the scientists decided to shield them with a mouthpiece made of gold foil. It was not thick enough to absorb the radiation. A second mouthpiece was made of heavy solid gold. Kline wore it for five days, until the radiation in his inlays subsided.
On the ninth day, Louis Slotin died.
ALLAN KLINE, THOUGH STILL WEAK, WAS RELEASED FROM the hospital two weeks after the May 1946 accident. Then he was fired. The dose of radiation that he had received precluded him from working around or being exposed to radiation for at least 25 years.
Kline knew he faced the prospect of cancer. After the initial recovery from acute radiation sickness, a person may lead a healthy life, with the real damage manifesting itself only years or decades later. Leukemia, testicular cancer or other radiogenic maladies might appear.
The director of the Los Alamos Laboratory wrote a letter to Kline's mother informing her that her son was ''not seriously affected,'' and that he had ''only minimal symptoms.'' Yet the final note on Kline's hospital chart stated, ''The depression of the lymphocytes and leukopenia which developed makes it obvious that this man's exposure was significant. Final Diagnosis: Radiation Sickness.''
From Los Alamos, Kline returned to his hometown of Chicago. At the time of his discharge from the hospital, one of his physicians, Louis R. Hempelmann, advised him to stay out of the sun for at least two years and to wear a sombrero, long underwear and women's long kid gloves whenever he went outdoors. Kline took these precautions during the summer of 1946. (The hair on the front of his head was falling out, and he rarely had the energy to leave his apartment.) In a letter to another of his doctors, he said he looked quite the spectacle walking down the street in his protective outfit.
Kline had been referred by the Los Alamos Hospital to the University of Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory, which took 22 blood samples between June 10 and Nov. 22.
On Dec. 8, Kline went into Billings Hospital in Chicago, for what was to be an extended battery of tests. He quickly decided he was being studied - not treated. On Dec. 10, angry that he was being used as a guinea pig, he left, cutting short the hospital stay.
Two months later, Kline began a campaign to gather his medical files, which he would need to receive compensation for the accident. On Feb. 24, 1947, a law firm he had retained wrote to the administrator in charge of the Los Alamos operations to say that Kline intended to seek compensation.
THE LETTER announcing Kline's intentions was probably not unexpected. As early as Dec. 3, 1946, Norris E. Bradbury, who had succeeded J. Robert Oppenheimer as director of the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, issued a directive that no Los Alamos personnel were to make any statements or commitments involving Kline, because of the possibility that Kline might file a lawsuit.
A week later, on Dec. 10, the same day Kline walked out of Billings Hospital, Louis Hempelmann, the Los Alamos physician, wrote to Kline's Chicago physician, James J. Nickson, medical director of the Argonne Medical Laboratory, that the prospect of a lawsuit from Kline was giving everyone ''a most remarkable case of jitters.'' The letter also said, ''This case is being handled in a most unusual manner. We . . . have been instructed not to contact Kline directly nor to commit the project in any way.''
That same month, Stafford L. Warren became involved. Chief of the medical section for the $2 billion Manhattan Project, Warren had headed the American team assessing the damage at Hiroshima and was chief of the radiological safety section for Operation Crossroads. He advised that a situation existed ''requiring a clarification of policy in order to save possible embarrassment of the Government by medical legal suits.'' The case of Allan Kline, he wrote, had been handled in such a way as to leave the Government in a bad light. Kline had been treated as a ''research case,'' and things were not handled in a ''business-like arrangement.'' He recommended the development of a policy for medical investigations of people claiming injury from radiation.
In April 1947, Warren wrote a similar letter to the general manager of the newly formed Atomic Energy Commission, which that year officially replaced the Manhattan Project, calling for a procedure to deal with former employees who claimed they were injured in the course of their work. For most people, he wrote, a simple letter from a leading medical representative from the commission would suffice, assuring them that they had not been subjected to anything that would affect their health. For others, more detailed investigations needed to be made. In both letters, the handling of the Kline case was singled out as the example of the need for such a policy.
That June, Allan Kline entered Yale Law School. All that year, letters went back and forth between Kline and the A.E.C., culminating, on Aug. 16, 1948, with an offer from the commission of a cash settlement of $3,333, in exchange for an agreement that Kline would drop all claims. The evidence indicates he turned it down.
Almost a year later, in July 1949, following Warren's suggestion, the A.E.C. issued guidelines on investigating radiation and chemical injury cases that fell under the ''special hazards'' category. As Warren had recommended, when the commission heard that a former employee was claiming injury from exposure to radiation or other toxins used in the production of nuclear weapons, it was to initiate an investigation to determine the validity of the claim. The directive spelled out what information was to be gathered and who in the A.E.C. was to receive the information. There was no indication that the claimant was to be given the information.
MEANWHILE, ALLAN Kline persisted in his attempts to get his medical records. On Aug. 15, 1949, his attorney, Paul Stickler, wrote to Senator Brien McMahon, Democrat of Connecticut, who had sponsored the Senate bill establishing the Atomic Energy Commission in 1946 and was chairman of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. He described the ''shabby'' treatment Kline had received and asked McMahon to consider legislation to rectify the case. He included a six-page, detailed assessment written by Kline of the injuries he had sustained.
Three months later, on Nov. 14, a top official of the A.E.C. denied that Kline's medical records had been withheld from him by either the commission or the University of California, which operated the Los Alamos laboratory for the Government. In a letter to McMahon's committee, the deputy general manager of the A.E.C. said Kline had not even requested the information: ''Neither the files of the Commission nor the University disclose any request by Mr. Kline for such information nor any indication of any refusal by the University or the Commission to furnish such information to him.'' Furthermore, the letter stated, ''With respect to the extent of the injuries sustained by Mr. Kline, the statements contained in Mr. Stickler's letter and attachment appear inconsistent with available medical reports.''
On March 17, 1950, another top official commented on the Kline case, this time linking the A.E.C.'s response to it to future similar claims. Carroll L. Tyler, manager of the commission's Santa Fe operations (where the administrative work for the Los Alamos projects was done), wrote to a colleague instructing him on how to respond to Senator McMahon's continuing inquiries about the Kline case.
Tyler's advice was to stress that Kline was a difficult man to deal with. It should be pointed out, Tyler wrote, that Kline had broken medical appointments and turned down settlements offered him. Tyler advised that ''McMahon should consider the fact that there may be many other individuals not now known who have been exposed to radioactive emissions at this or other installations and the preparation of such specific legislation might lead to a deluge of requests for individual legislative acts.''
Twelve months later, on March 21, 1951, Tyler wrote Kline that specific studies on his contamination were unavailable. ''There are certain data which you request such as calculations of radiation emitted from objects on your person which are apparently non-existent and we can only presume that if any count was taken on these objects it was primarily as a matter of curiosity and no record was made.''
That was an outright lie.
IN 1984, QUITE BY CHANCE, I discovered a 270-page dossier, most of it legal and medical evidence pertaining to Allan Kline's exposure and his subsequent medical problems. It had been compiled by the A.E.C. and stored in cardboard boxes in the radiological archives at the University of Tennessee, where I was researching my master's thesis. The thesis I had been planning was on an unrelated subject, but because I came from a family knowledgeable about radiation issues, I knew immediately that this particular file was significant.
The files were those of Stafford Warren, who had died in 1981. They contained the records of more than two dozen people who had formally or informally claimed injury from exposure to radiation. In nearly every instance, Warren had been asked by the Atomic Energy Commission how to handle the case.
Of the two dozen, mostly servicemen and workers at nuclear-weapons plants, none had been treated or compensated for radiation injury, despite the fact that some of the records revealed well-documented overexposures. In none of the cases did the A.E.C. acknowledge to the claimant a diagnosis of radiation injury.
Most of the files were very brief, indicating a quick settlement of the case (and never to the claimant's advantage). Of the two dozen claimants, only one, Allan Kline, had apparently persisted through years of documented stonewalling. Kline's file included medical records, radiological exposure records, telexes, letters and conference reports. All were related to the Los Alamos accident at the Omega Site on May 21, 1946.
For six weeks, I pored over the records that Kline himself had been denied. By the end of that time, I had written an 80-page paper on the case, which I decided to submit as my master's thesis.
In the summer following the accident, I read, Kline had suffered severe lassitude, sleeping 16 hours a day. He couldn't walk up a flight of steps without resting; he couldn't swim more than few strokes; he couldn't read a newspaper for more than a few minutes. He was sterile for more than two years. The level of exposure had been so high, and he had had such immediate debilitating effects, that I was almost certain that now, 38 years later, he must be dead.
On the day I finished my thesis, my wife, a health and safety adviser to nuclear-weapons workers at Oak Ridge, brought me a book that included a follow-up of the survivors of the 1946 accident. ''Case Five'' - a designation that clearly referred to Kline - had refused to cooperate with the study, but a note indicated that in 1978, when the article was researched, he was still alive.
I knew he had gone on to Yale Law School. I called the alumni office and was told that the man whose files I had practically memorized was living in California. I had no trouble getting Kline's phone number.
My first call met with a brusque rebuff.
''No comment,'' he said when I identified myself and said I wanted to talk about the criticality accident. 'What?'' I said. ''No comment.'' He hung up.
I called again, this time barely giving him a chance to say hello. I started reciting facts: I told him what I knew about the accident, and about his treatment. I quoted from his own letters. I described his symptoms.
I told him that I knew he had employed three different law firms in an effort to get his records. And that finally he had been told by the director of the Los Alamos laboratory that the files simply no longer existed, that in fact those records might have never been collected in the first place.
''I have in my hands the files that are not supposed to exist,'' I told him. For a few seconds there was silence on the line. But this time, he did not hang up.
THREE WEEKS later, we met at his home near San Francisco. From 9 P.M. until midnight, we went over the letters, reports, telegrams and medical records in the file. Then Kline wiped a tear from his eyes and said, ''What they did to me . . . lies, all lies.''
But when I asked permission to use his case as my master's thesis, he turned me down.
The former physicist was now a successful businessman, the founder of a number of companies including Xicor Inc., which manufactures computer chips that have potential defense applications. He insisted that he did not want his story to affect in any way the nuclear-weapons testing and development programs in this country. Even though the accident had left him with debilitating and life-threatening conditions - and he detailed a list of longterm effects, which he refused me permission to mention in print - he wanted to keep his story a secret. He blamed the stonewalling on the work of a few misguided, overzealous officials within the Atomic Energy Commission.
TWO MONTHS AFTER my session with Kline, I met with staff members of the House Energy Conservation and Power Subcommittee in Washington. The subcommittee, then chaired by Representative Richard L. Ottinger, Democrat of New York, had oversight and investigative mandates over the Department of Energy, which had replaced the A.E.C. in the 1970's. After I briefed the subcommittee members on what I had found in the Warren files, they drafted a letter to Energy Secretary Donald P. Hodel, signed by Ottinger, initiating a Congressional investigation on the medical and radiological record-keeping practices of the two agencies over the last 40 years.
We hoped to find duplicates of the 270-page file on Kline and the two dozen other files I had seen in the archives at Knoxville. But I also suspected that a repository existed that would show that hundreds of other people had been treated in the same way.
We requested all the files of the commission's division of biology and medicine from 1946 through 1962. It was the same division that 40 years earlier had blocked Kline's request for his own files. We were told the request would take time to process, so in the meantime I decided to look into A.E.C. policy directives.
Among the stack of directives delivered to me was Chapter 0521, from the A.E.C. Manual, entitled ''Medical Investigation of Alleged Disabilities From Special Hazards.'' Issued in 1954, it dealt with ''radiation exposure or exposures to toxic materials peculiar in kind or degree to atomic energy operations.''
The ''medical investigation'' referred to in the title was not, the policy stated, one that would be made after a routine claim of injuries. It was, rather, a policy to collect information, ''to the extent permitted by law, and to the extent consistent with the best interests of the Atomic Energy Commission,'' whenever it heard about any allegation made by a former commission employee of injury from ''special hazards'' - radiation or any toxins used in the production of nuclear weapons.
The policy spelled out in detail which commission officials would be informed of an investigation. Conspicuously absent was any mention of whether the radiation survivor himself would be informed.
Chapter 0521 was very similar to the directive issued, at Stafford Warren's suggestion, by the A.E.C. in 1949. The title was identical. The similarities seemed to go beyond the possibility of coincidence. The 1949 directive, which came out in the heat of dealing with Kline, seemed a direct forerunner of Chapter 0521.
TWO WEEKS AFTER our request, I was allowed to see the division of biology and medicine files. From the first, I suspected they were incomplete. Brand-new legal-brief fasteners were in place on 30-year-old file folders. Folders labeled ''Case Histories, 1953,'' and ''Claims, 1954'' consisted of only a single piece of paper apiece. Chapter 0521 spelled out what material should be in each person's file. Little of it was there. Over the next three weeks, other boxes of files arrived, in similar condition. Toward the end of that time, a Department of Energy employee supplied me with an index listing of additional departmental files, stored separately. The list referred to more than a hundred other special cases stored in four boxes, two of them containing classified material. Ten days after I asked for those four boxes, they were delivered. A subcommittee staffer with a top-secret security clearance went through the two boxes marked classified and made notes, which the D.O.E. cleared for me to see. A formal request to declassify these files, which dealt only with scientific and medical issues, was not only refused but in some cases resulted in the files being reclassified from secret to top secret.
I was allowed to study the two boxes that were unclassified. These included the Kline file and 50 others. Allan Kline's file was identical to the legal-medical file kept on him by Stafford Warren - except that 90 percent of it was missing. It contained only 27 pages of the 270 that I had seen in Tennessee. (According to the Department of Energy's official version of the Kline case, the Government had acted rapidly to provide Kline with all the records he wanted.) It was clear that material had also been removed from the other 50.
As the files came in, I'd gone back several times to the D.O.E. Congressional liaison with whom I'd been working to ask if the material was complete. After I got the last batch, including Kline's file, I asked once again. He denied that the files had been tampered with in any way.
Staff members of the subcommittee were not hopeful about their ability to investigate further. ''There's no way to prove it unless you can find a whistleblower in D.O.E. who will admit that the files have been tampered with and destroyed,'' one of them told me. ''Hang in there: document what you think is missing, and find us a whistleblower.''
Sensing that my very presence in the repository was causing a large-scale destruction of the files, I decided to go back to Tennessee.
ON AND OFF OVER THE next three years, I tried to persuade Allan Kline to go public with his story. He repeatedly denied me permission to use any information he had divulged at that first meeting. (All the facts about Kline's case in this article come from the public record.) Finally, it became clear that if it were up to him, he would take it with him to his grave.
Meanwhile, I had received a number of grants to pursue investigations into cases of radiation contamination. Much of my work focused on similar instances of suppression of information by the Government, in atomic veteran and downwinder cases. But I couldn't let the Kline case go. In April of this year, I went to Los Alamos, determined to review the technical documents connected with the accident. In particular, I was interested in a report I had seen referred to in the 1978 follow-up study. It had been labeled simply ''Los Alamos document LA-687'' and its authors were scientists I knew had been involved in the Kline case from the start.
LA-687 turned out to be a formerly secret report called ''Radiation Doses in the Pajarito Accident of May 21, 1946.'' Written by Joseph G. Hoffman, it was completed two years after the accident. Listed on the title page as contributors to the section on ''Theory'' were Louis Hempelmann and Philip Morrison. Hoffman had died in 1974, but both Hempelmann and Morrison were still alive.
Drawing on the medical and radiation exposure files kept on Kline and the others - the files that Kline had been denied, that in 1951 the A.E.C. told him were ''non-existent,'' but that I had later found in the University of Tennessee archives - the report gave a dry detailed account of the scientists' efforts to determine precisely each man's exposure following the accident.
The report indicated that the experts (many of whom had also examined the men at the hospital following the accident) had gone as far as to make hollow life-size models, called ''phantoms,'' filled with simulated blood. The accident was then recreated time and again using the same guts of the atom bomb, only now by remote control. Comparisons were made with the phantoms' exposures and those recorded from the radioactive blood samples taken from the men after the accident.
LAST SUMMER, I WENT back to Washington with this new information. My first visit was to Senator Paul Simon of Illinois, who had worked for seven years to pass a compensation bill for atomic veterans who have developed commonly accepted radiation-related cancers. The bill was enacted in 1988.
It took about 30 minutes to brief Simon on my findings. When I was finished, he stood up and began pacing the floor in agitation. ''This is an incredible story,'' he said. ''What can I do to help you?'' I had interviewed Louis Hempelmann, the chief medical doctor at Los Alamos during the criticality accident, in 1987 at his summer home in Rochester, N.Y., but he had been reluctant to speak of specifics. He had also been at Los Alamos last spring, but had refused comment altogether. I asked the Senator to intervene for me.
He called Hempelmann as I stood by in his office, and urged him to meet with me. ''For the good of the country,'' he said. Hempelmann sounded startled, Simon told me, but he agreed.
To his knowledge, Simon told me, this kind of withholding of files in a case of nuclear exposure had never been documented before. He felt, as I did, that Kline's case set the stage for a policy that has been applied in hundreds of other similar cases. ''There have been things to cover up, just for an individual,'' he commented to me in August. ''I don't know of any cover-up that is this extensive, that could affect the lives of so many people.''
TWO WEEKS AFTER Simon's call, Hempelmann met with me at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, where he had been the head of radiology for more than a decade. Among his first words were, ''The records have all been destroyed since I retired from this place in 1979.''
Noting my surprise, he explained that he had seen no reason to keep his notes after his report was published. ''As far as I was concerned, I was finished with it.''
I outlined to Hempelmann what I knew about Allan Kline's experiences. I mentioned his own letter, dated Dec. 10, 1946, which said ''everyone'' was getting a ''most remarkable case of jitters'' over the possibility of a lawsuit from Kline.
Hempelmann said he knew of the difficulty that Kline had had getting his records, but that Kline had never come to him. Kline's request would have had to go through the proper channels, he said. He would have needed approval from Norris Bradbury, then director of the Los Alamos laboratory. It was Bradbury who issued the directive on Dec. 3, 1946, that Los Alamos personnel were to make no commitments or statements involving Kline.
I reminded Hempelmann that Kline had gone through the proper channels. The proper authorities were the very people denying him access to the records.
''That was not my responsibility,'' Hempelmann replied.
Hempelmann had been the principal doctor of record for the patients after the accident, as well as a participant in the ''phantom'' study. His correspondence makes it clear that he was aware that Kline was being stonewalled in his attempts to retrieve his records, even unclassified documents.
Hempelmann listened as I recited all this. He turned his head away and said nothing. Finally, he softly repeated, ''That was not my responsibility.''
PHILIP MORRISON, 74, is a professor emeritus in the physics department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He had been a colleague and close personal friend of Louis Slotin, and had worked with him, and with Kline, in the laboratory at the Pajarito site. Slotin had called Morrison after the accident, and he was the first to arrive on the scene. It was Morrison who insisted that an announcement be made that the accident had occurred. Reports of a similar accident nine months earlier had been squelched by project officials. The military director of the Manhattan Project, Maj. Gen. Leslie R. Groves, was known for his passion for secrecy, and officials wanted to keep a lid on this accident, too. But Morrison insisted.
Like Kline, Morrison had come to Los Alamos from Chicago. For the test explosion of the first atom bomb, Morrison had ridden to the Trinity Site at Alamogordo, N.M., with the bomb core beside him in the back seat of an automobile. Three weeks after Trinity, on Tinian Island in the Pacific Ocean, Morrison participated in the assembly of the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki.
Following the criticality accident, it was Morrison who coordinated a team of physicists to monitor the radiation emanating from the men and the objects they'd been carrying. A memo, written by him in the week after the accident, detailing the radiation levels found in Kline's body, was among the documents I had found in Stafford Warren's file. After Slotin's death, Morrison filed a detailed secret report with Los Alamos.
When, last summer, I showed Morrison the secret study I had found in Los Alamos - LA-687 - which listed him on the title page as a contributor to the section on ''Theory,'' he denied having ever seen it before. He said he had been ''furiously concerned'' with the case and had prepared a report, but that this was not it. (At Los Alamos, I had requested a 1946 report by Morrison and a co-author, which may have been the one he was now referring to; I was not allowed to see it.) I asked Morrison about the 0521 policy, commenting that its recommendations as to how the Government should respond to radiation injury claims seemed very similar to those made in the Kline case. Was Kline's case part of an orchestrated response?
''It probably was a policy, I don't think they would deny it, would they?'' Morrison replied. ''I think the Government was very scared about this litigation. The Government . . .'' he paused. ''I don't know who 'the Government' is, but somebody was. Some lawyers.''
THE POLICY OF tightly restricting the information the United States Government is willing to give people who fear they have been exposed to radiation goes far beyond the Kline case.
Some 220,000 American servicemen were exposed to radiation at Hiroshima and Nagasaki or witnessed the atmospheric nuclear tests performed between 1945 and 1962. Of the more than 9,600 veterans who have filed radiation injury claims with the Veterans Administration, only 812 have been compensated for disability, the vast majority in the last couple of years.
One who was not compensated was John Smitherman, who, like 42,000 other servicemen, witnessed the two Operation Crossroads explosions in the Marshall Islands in 1946. Although he became a double amputee and suffered multiple cancers, he died in 1983 without ever having received compensation for his injuries. The Veterans Administration admits that he suffered from six radiation-related cancers, as well as several others, but says that the cancer that killed him was not radiogenic.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of people downwind from nuclear weapons tests were exposed to potentially damaging levels of radiation.
Elma Barnett witnessed the cloud from the nuclear-weapons test code-named Grable as she was watering her grazing sheep in Hamblin Valley, Utah, on May 25, 1953. She developed nausea and vomiting and rashes over her body; her skin began to scale off her body, her hair fell out, and her weight dropped from 130 to 100 pounds. Atomic Energy Commission doctors diagnosed hypothyroidism. Eight and half months after the incident, a Geiger counter passed over her body failed to detect radiation in her body, and on that basis, doctors working under Stafford Warren at the Los Angeles Atomic Project reiterated their diagnosis that radiation was not the cause of her problems.
More than 600,000 people have worked in nuclear-weapons facilities across America since 1943. Untold millions of pounds of radioactive and chemical waste have been released into the environment. Estimates range from $50 billion to $200 billion and more to clean it up. Countless workers have undoubtedly been exposed to the wastes.
The Three Mile Island Public Health Fund, established after the accident in 1979 at the T.M.I. reactor, has spent the last three years in legal battles trying to get the D.O.E. to release records it compiled on 300,000 workers at the nation's principal weapons facilities; many of them are believed to have been exposed to radiation. Dr. Thomas F. Mancuso was hired by the Government in (Continued on Page 120) 1964 to study the radiation exposure of 225,000 workers at nuclear-weapons plants; he collected most of the data the T.M.I. fund is requesting. His 15-year study concluded that ''low-level'' exposures significantly increased the chance of developing cancer, and that industry standards for safe levels of exposure were at least 10 times too high. When Mancuso published his findings, the Government fired him and denied him access to his data.
One case that may be in those suppressed files is that of Harry F. Reece, who was exposed to radiation while working as a machinist at the Hanford, Wash., nuclear plant from 1946 to 1951. His ''special jobs'' lasted from 15 seconds to 8 hours a day, depending on the radiation levels involved. For years afterward, he suffered a variety of debilitating symptoms. The special case file on him kept by Stafford Warren includes a letter from a consulting physician saying that no thorough work-up seemed necessary unless the A.E.C. wanted to conduct it ''solely on the basis of public relations.''
The D.O.E. has also effectively kept such cases out of the courts. In a collective suit involving 220 claims of injury at the Nevada Test Site since the mid-1970's, a Federal judge ruled just last month that the workers, some of whom had been pursuing their suits for 15 years, were entitled to bring their case to court. Ben F. Levy worked at the site for more than 25 years and heads the Nevada Test Site Radiation Victims Association. His group has accumulated death certificates on more than 300 people who worked at the site and since 1951 have died from cancers that seem to be radiation related. Levy says he and the other workers were never warned of the dangers. ''They never gave us that alternative,'' he says. ''They always said it was nothing to worry about. Come five years later, this started happening.''
Last summer, the Government acknowledged for the first time that radioactive emissions from a nuclear-weapons plant may have harmed large numbers of people living nearby. After a nonbinding trial before a Federal jury, the D.O.E. promised to pay at least $73 million in settlement of claims made by 24,000 neighbors of the plant in Fernald, Ohio, where hundreds of thousands of pounds of uranium dust have been emitted since 1951. The Government did not acknowledge that the dust had made people ill; instead, it said the money was compensation for emotional distress and diminution of property values.
OF THE SURVIVORS of the 1946 accident, Alvin Graves, who stayed with the atomic program, died of a heart attack in 1966. The 1978 follow-up study suggested the attack had been caused by complications from radiation exposure.
That study also found that two others who had been in the lab were still alive and healthy, that one had died in the Korean War, one had died of clinical aplastic anemia (which results when the bone marrow fails to produce adequate blood components), and one had died of leukemia. The accident itself has gone down in history, most recently being re-enacted in the movie ''Fat Man and Little Boy.''
Allan Kline was a physicist. He had measured his exposure levels. He went to law school and learned how to fight. Unlike other injured workers who accepted the Government's assertions that their ailments were unrelated to exposure, Kline was certain that his were.
In July, I flew to California to inform Kline about the impending release of this story. He was aware of my attempts to contact him, but made himself unavailable for comment. Upon checking out of my hotel, after trying to reach him for three days, I found a letter from him attached to my hotel bill. Once again, he objected to the release of the story.
But everything in the documents and cover-up indicates that Kline's case was the apex of a pyramid, that hundreds of other claims like his were effectively suppressed.
Kline's case tells us about far more than what happened to Allan Kline. It was the first, and probably the most extensive. For the Government, it was the proving ground.