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The Politics of Plutonium

Health Studies from the Military-Industrial Complex

by David Richardson

In a perverse vision of the future, the military, not to be left out, has described plans for "space forces...to protect military and commercial interests and investment."

We can see the possibility of a shattering effect on the morale of the employees if they became aware that there was substantial reason to question the standards of safety under which they are working. In the hands of labor unions the results of this study would add substance to demands for extra-hazardous pay ... general knowledge of the results of this study might increase the number of claims of occupational injury due to radiation and place a powerful weapon in the hands of a plaintiff's attorney.

—Memorandum dated December 20, 1948 from Clyde E. Wilson, Chief, Atomic Energy Commission Insurance Branch to Anthony C Vallado, Deputy Declassification Officer, Declassification Branch

With the launch of the Cassini space probe, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) fired a rocket carrying seventy-two pounds of plutonium from Cape Canaveral on a trip towards Saturn. To pick up speed for its trip, the satellite will loop back around earth (within a few hundred miles of the surface) in August, 1999. NASA hopes we all don't suffer an "unexpected reentry problem," but has reassured the public that we shouldn't worry about the plutonium on board the satellite. In the event of a crash, they say, the radiation dose that an exposed person would receive is "hundreds to thousands of times smaller than the radiation dose such a person will receive from natural background radiation ... comparable to the dose a person would receive during one round-trip airplane ride from New York to Los Angeles."

Outside the agency, however, there are those who are less sanguine about the safety of the Cassini project. Michio Kaku, a professor of nuclear physics at City University of New York, has challenged NASA's description of how widely plutonium might disperse after an accident, and on whom it would fall. Equally important are questions about the danger of even small exposures to plutonium. For the people who may be at greatest risk—pregnant mothers, infants, children, the sick and elderly—there is little information with which to make projections about the long term risks from plutonium exposure. The required research has not been done, and given the difficulty studying low-level exposure to plutonium, a good understanding of the dangers of plutonium may not be available for a very long time.

According to the President's Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experimentation, the agency responsible for much of the research on plutonium, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), had reasons not to study the question too closely. After all, the same agency was responsible for exposing workers and the public to plutonium, with widespread contamination caused by nuclear weapons testing. "By the mid-1960s the possibility that data gathering could only get the AEC into more trouble became an incentive to 'not study at all.'"

Early on, the AEC established a policy limiting what the public would be told about nuclear matters. Within the agency, documents were classified as Confidential if, "while not endangering the National security, would be prejudicial to the interests or prestige of ... any Governmental activity, or individual, or would cause administrative embarrassment." Leading scientists doing research on the health effects of plutonium felt pressure to keep potentially troubling information within the agency. Gregg Wilkinson, formerly head of epidemiology at Los Alamos National Laboratory, was in charge of the DOE's study of plutonium workers.

After reporting evidence of excess cancer at the Rocky Flats nuclear facility, Wilkinson was "called to the Director's office at Los Alamos and berated," and told that, "we should not be publishing to please peer reviewers, but rather we should be publishing to please the Department of Energy." Scientists outside of the DOE repeatedly pressed for a detailed study of cancer incidence among plutonium workers; in fact, the head of the DOE's external advisory panel in the 1980s resigned because of the Department's disregard for their recommendations to conduct a large-scale study of plutonium workers. A recent panel of independent physicians and scientists concluded, "The findings of DOE-sponsored studies offer no firm basis for the repeatedly expressed official position that the health of workers and the public has been fully protected."

Which brings us to 1999, and the return of the Cassini probe with its 72 pounds of plutonium. Apparently, officials at NASA have taken their cue from the AEC. Alan Kohn, a former NASA safety official and member of the Radiological Emergency Force Group at the Kennedy Space Center, reported that "The pressure comes from NASA headquarters ... I was told that the job was cosmetic, that nothing was going to happen..." Kohn went on to describe that, in the case of a radiation accident, "The only protective measure I could have taken at that time, of course, would have been to wet my pants.... my own immediate management told me: lay off, keep a low profile, don't let the public know, above all don't let the protest-groups know that there is any danger at all."

Given the high cost and danger of this project, it is fair to ask what we stand to gain. After all, the Cassini project is undertaken at a time when the government has cut funding for basic social service programs. Clearly the project is a boon for the contractors, such as General Electric, Westinghouse, and Rockwell, who provide the nuclear material and aerospace components. In the nuclear weapons industry, these companies are now bidding for the billion-dollar contracts to clean up the environmental contamination they left behind after 50 years of profitably building nuclear weapons for the government. Projects like Cassini offer another buyer for their nuclear technologies. According to NASA, the Cassini project is just the first in a series of plutonium-powered space craft scheduled to be launched.

In a perverse vision of the future, the military, not to be left out, has described plans for "space forces ... to protect military and commercial interests and investment." They perceive that "there will be a critical need to control space to ensure U.S. dominance." It is time to question what has come to pass for progress. As Alan Kohn said of NASA, "I don't know what in a democracy they think gives them the right to do a thing like this. They have no such right. There is no right in the government... You cannot put people at risk because someone makes a decision that nothing is going to happen."


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