We nuked American kids, too: Downwind from the bomb

  • Published on August 6th, 2020

With the Trump Administration discussing restarting atomic testing after 57 years, it seemed like a good idea to bring back this piece I wrote for Albany, NY’s CAPITAL magazine in 1987. Unfortunately, none of the issues I raised here have changed at all. 

Nuclear Test Simon.
Nuclear Test Simon. (Image by Radiochemistry Society)

By Jeremy Bloom & Bill Heller

Great discoveries are often made by accident. When Sam Markowitz entered a corrugated-steel shed on the RPI campus on the morning of April 27, 1953, he was anticipating a fairly average day in a nuclear chemistry lab. What he discovered was the single worst nuclear fallout in American history.

The 22-year-old senior had just come over from baseball practice and was first in the lab. He turned on the Geiger counter, setting up the equipment for a normal lab. But the counter’s light seemed to be flashing too fast. There’s a certain level of normal background radiation everywhere; Markowitz was expecting about a 20 count. On this day, however, the background count was at 66. Three times the normal level.

“Aw, phlooey,” he thought. Something was wrong with his Geiger counter.

Then he tried two other counters in the lab and got similar readings. And when he put a portable counter on his baseball, the reading was even higher. The ball, which he had just been tossing around outside, was radioactively hot.

So was the outside of the building when he tested it; and he got the highest readings yet when he checked the building’s rain gutter, still wet from the previous night’s thunderstorm.

Was he scared?

“No,” he recalled in an interview from Berkeley, where he is was a senior faculty scientist at the University of California. “You have to be educated to be scared. But I was intensely curious and very excited.”

He went to his professor, Herbert Clark, who quickly put two and two together: the thunderstorm of the previous night, an unusually violent storm that had caused extensive flooding, could have brought down radioactive fallout. He phoned John Harley, a friend who worked with the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). Had there been any atomic tests in the past few days?

Harley’s first reaction was that his old friend was playing a joke on him, and he hung up the phone.

A few minutes later, Clark’s phone rang. It was Dr. Merril Eisenbud, Harley’s boss. Eisenbud knew it was not a joke.

There had, indeed, been a nuclear test in Nevada. Clark and Markowitz had detected the fallout, 2,300 miles away.

THAT BOMB, ONE of 11 in a series of tests named “Upshot-Knothole,” was called Simon.

Simon’s 43-kiloton explosion was the fourth largest atmospheric test, and it was what they referred to as “an extremely dirty test,” kicking up tons of radioactive dust and debris into the atmosphere. The deadly cargo was carried by the jet stream to Upstate New York’s Capital Region, where it smacked into the storm that sent it raining down on fields, reservoirs, and schools.

This chain of events was by no means unique – fallout came down with the spring rain the very next month over Boston, and later over Fargo, North Dakota, Saint Louis, Missouri, and other cities. But the severity of our storm was uniquely efficient at bringing down the fallout. The Capital Region was hit harder than many towns only a few miles from ground zero.

The U.S. government reacted swiftly and angrily when the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl blew in April of 1986, sending an average of 30 to 60 millirads per hour of radiation across Europe. (A millirad is a standard measure of radiation, based on the amount of damaging energy absorbed by body tissues.) But years after Simon, which sent an average of 80 millirads per hour of radioactivity to the Capital Region, the U.S. government continues to deny that there was any danger.

To this day, the public has not been told the entire story. Studies of Simon, most printed in obscure scientific journals, have been ignored or suppressed. Although a cause-effect relationship between fallout and cancer has been clearly established and documented, the extent of the relationship – and whether the U.S. is liable for cases of cancer linked to the bomb testing – has been consistently denied by the government. It is currently the substance of hundreds of lawsuits brought by the families of victims.

At the time, it was a curiosity for many local scientists, who shared Markowitz’s naïve enthusiasm. It is because of this – the GE and RPI scientists, plus amateurs, who went out and made measurements – that we know as much as we do about Simon.

Vincent Schaffer, founder of the Atmospheric Sciences Research Center at the State University of New York at Albany recalls, “At that time, we weren’t that concerned with it. It was perceived as an interesting phenomenon.”

The Mohawk Association of Scientists and Engineers newsletter of June 10, 1953 calculated a child sitting in a contaminated mud puddle at RPI emitting 5 millirads per hour external radiation would get a dose of 1,200 millirads, well within 1953 safety limits, if he sat there for the rest of his life.

The newsletter concluded,

“Although external gamma radiation is thus seen to be no hazard in this instance, there are a number of questions that could be raised about: external beta radiation; internally ingested alpha, beta and gamma radiations; breathing of dusts that are radioactive. What are the experimental lines of evidence upon which the AEC sets tolerance levels for such things? Not many of us would question the validity of the conclusions drawn, but we should like to know how the conclusions were reached…in other words, aren’t genetic effects cumulative, even if most tissues can recover from radiation damage in time?”

The people at the Atomic Energy Commission who set those tolerance levels were not interested in those kinds of questions. They were interested in keeping on schedule with their tests, with a minimum of fuss.

An AEC spokesman informed the Troy Times Record that,

“While the radiation was quite pronounced, it was not severe enough to cause damage to plant growth, nor to animal or human life.”

The Record followed up a week after Simon with an editorial.

“The total addition to the customary activity which came with the precipitation of Sunday, April 26, was so little that it could not have had any effect whatsoever on vegetation, human life, animal life, food or anything else. It was a minor fraction of the normal radiation which always shows under tests.”

(The alert reader will note that this is already incorrect – had the activity been a “fraction of the normal radiation,” Markowitz and Clark would never have discovered it.)

The Record’s editorial concluded,

“So – don’t worry. The pseudoscientists who are yapping about a dead earth, destroyed by continued detonation of these bombs, really don’t know what they are talking about. The radioactive particles carried by the winds far from Nevada exist and are precipitated in rain. But they are not powerful enough to do any damage at all.”

How did the Record know?

“We speak with authority, having talked with the Atomic Energy Commission, scientists on the Hill and others familiar with the facts. There are plenty of things in the world to worry about without the fantasies of a disordered or misguided imagination.”

The tests continued. So did the questions.

We now know that the AEC was fully aware of the hazards of fallout, since the Freedom of Information Act has provided access to AEC documents and meeting minutes. At a July 7, 1953, AEC meeting, chairman Lewis Strauss noted there was “no disposition on the part of the AEC to think that the fallout problem was not a most serious one.”

However, this was at the height of the cold war. The Soviet Union’s first successful atom bomb test in 1949 kindled the fear that an enemy could unleash a devastation like that at Hiroshima and Nagasaki on American soil.

Early tests had been conducted in the South Pacific, at Bikini Atoll and Eniwetok, to keep the radiation as far as possible from American citizens. But those tests were enormously expensive in time, money and manpower. The AEC scientists were lobbying for a “backyard” test site, which would allow them to return to their laboratories in between tests, instead of spending months overseas.

According to the 1953 AEC publication, Continental Weapons Tests…Public Safety, the main thing that had held up a continental site was “whether the blast or the radioactive fallout from test explosions might injure persons or damage property off the site.” In 1951, the AEC decided that the Nevada site, conveniently located three hours by air from the AEC’s Los Alamos Laboratory but hundreds of miles from any population center, would provide “adequate assurance of public safety.”

Was public safety really their primary concern? At an AEC meeting on February 23, 1953, commissioner Thomas Murray told his peers,

“Gentlemen, we must not let anything interfere with this series of tests – nothing.”

Commissioner Willard Frank Libby followed up with the statement,

“People have got to learn to live with the facts of life, and part of the facts of life are fallout.”

In May 1953, as Dr. John C. Bugher, director of the Division of Biology and Medicine of the AEC, was briefing the commissioners on the dangerous levels of radiation to which citizens in Nevada and Utah were being exposed, the AEC’s Gordon M. Dunning was assuring those same citizens that, “…the levels of radiation produced outside the test-control area were in no way harmful to humans, animals or crops.”

Dunning, after succeeding Bugher as head of the Division of Biology and Medicine – the division responsible for ensuring that the AEC was not endangering the life and health of Americans – told the United States Congress,

“If we continue to reduce the fraction of radiation we are willing to release, we eventually reach a cost of control which makes the operation prohibitive.”

That was the AEC’s priority – cost and efficiency, not health and safety.

The people of the Capital Region were told many times the fallout from Simon was not a health hazard. The AEC’s report for the first six months of 1953 said:

“…the concentration of radioactivity was from 100 to 200 curies per square mile. It is estimated that this level of radioactivity would result in about 100 millirad exposure for the first 13 weeks following the fallout. The exposure has no significance in relation to health.”

Three years later, the Simon fallout cropped up again in a National Academy of Sciences report, which said it had “amounted to 1 percent of the amount of radiation that would be considered harmful to reproductive capacities.” And a State Health Department statement called it “no more radiation than one receives in taking a normal chest X-ray.”

What do we really know about the dangers?

In an interview in 1987, RPI’s professor Clark said, “You can say with certainty any exposure to radioactive material should be avoided. However, to make predictions of what will happen if you are exposed is not any easy matter.”

Asked to assess the impact of Simon’s fallout, Clark said, “I would find it difficult to make any statement of value. It was an unnecessary exposure to radiation. You would never catch me saying there wasn’t any effect. It may take 30 or 40 years for some effects to take place, such as bone cancer. The only way you can show an effect is to make a precise study with information we don’t have available.”

One reason we don’t have more information was the attitude of the AEC.

Harold Knapp, a mathematician from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, began working with the AEC’s Office of Operations Analysis in 1962. His assignment the first day of work with the division was to prepare a rebuttal of a critical letter written by scientist Ralph Lapp, who charged the AEC had underestimated human exposure from atomic bomb tests. Lapp was suggesting studies be done on thyroid cancer rates.

Thyroid cancer is linked to radioactive iodine 131, one of fallout’s most insidious components. After being eaten by dairy cows at pasture, radioactive iodine enters into milk, where it is drunk by children. It is then concentrated by the children’s bodies in their thyroid glands. The result, eight to 10 years later, could be thyroid cancer.

While AEC scientists were blithely talking about “less radiation than an X-ray,” children were absorbing and concentrating this deadly cancer-causing agent.

X-rays don’t make radioactive iodine; atomic bombs do.

And X-rays stop causing damage when they’re turned off, but radioactive iodine stays in the body, causing nonstop damage for weeks or months.

It’s like the difference between nicking yourself shaving, and swallowing the razor blade.

In 1953, the AEC had not wanted to actually test milk. According to a report from the Los Alamos Lab, it was decided “extensive inquiry into such details would indicate the concern of the program…with the possibility of milk contamination and alarm an already worried community.”

Again, the AEC’s image was placed ahead of public safety.

Knapp was a trained scientist; in responding to Lapp’s charges, he decided to actually examine what data were available. Based on milk samples taken in St. Louis in 1958, Knapp was surprised to find that infants there had received a dose of 2,000 to 2,500 millirads to the thyroid, four to five times levels just established as a safe limit by the Federal Radiation Council. Knapp informed the AEC of his findings.

Knapp then made estimates of thyroid dosage in Utah and Nevada. In a deposition in 1982, Knapp testified in Federal court:

“I was astonished because it came out that the levels around St. George (Utah), for example, could have led to doses of several hundred thousand millirads to the thyroid. Mind you, people were excited already when it was 2,000 millirads in St. Louis.”

The AEC did not appreciate this line of research. Another AEC employee, Morgan Seal, recalls that when he gave a similar study to an unnamed top AEC official,

“[the official] got mad, red in the face, took it and threw it on the floor and stomped on it, saying `Don’t you do that.’ “

An AEC review committee was called, according to committee member John Gofman, “For the purpose of suppressing Knapp’s report.” Gofman recalls being told by Charles Dunham, the then-director of the Division of Biology and Medicine, “If this is published it will make us look like liars.”

Knapp left the AEC for a job as a research analyst at the Institute for Defense Analyses at the Pentagon in 1963. His report was published the next year, as an article in Nature magazine.

The AEC used even more heavy-handed techniques with Lapp, who was pushing for a moratorium on bomb testing until the health effects could be studied. In a phone interview from his home in Alexandria, Virginia, Lapp told CAPITAL:

“I believe I was the first scientist to protest open-air testing. I was public enemy No. 1. I had been opposing atomic bomb tests and writing about it in The New York Times, Collier’s, The Saturday Evening Post and New Republic. I found out government agents went to the editors to try to get them to stop publishing my articles. It didn’t work. I wouldn’t buckle under.

“There were other pressures,” he added, but declined to elaborate.

Even higher levels of exposure were calculated in 1966 – but languished in obscurity for 13 years.

“It’s not our fault the general public didn’t learn about it,” the report’s co-author, H. Leonard Fisher, told Capital Magazine. “We went to the symposium in New York City, and we didn’t get any coverage at all. The report was never hidden. It was always available to the public at a cost of $3 or whatever.”

The report, by Fisher and Arthur R. Tamplin of the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory at Livermore, California, was discovered and published in 1979 by the Deseret News, the daily newspaper published by the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City, Utah.

The study documented 203 readings from 25 different tests between 1952 and 1955. Although milk had not been tested during those years, by 1966 scientists were able to take the radiation readings that the AEC had collected and use them to estimate the internal radiation doses children would have received from radioactive iodine.

Of those external readings, the single highest one came from Albany following Simon.

Most of the readings were of 10.0 (measured in microcuries of radioactive iodine per square meter) or less; only four readings were greater than 50. Albany’s was 80. For reference, the current emergency level is 1.3. Simon’s fallout was 60 times that.

IN ASSESSING HOW much radiation children would have actually been exposed to, Albany’s figure (and only Albany’s) was reduced by 75 percent. In response to earlier questions about the radioactive iodine danger, Dr. James H. Lade of the New York State Department of Health had written in Science magazine that in fact, high levels of radioactive iodine wouldn’t have gotten into the milk because the Capital Region’s cows were, on average, first sent out to pasture on May 12. If they were feeding on hay indoors, he reasoned, they wouldn’t be eating radioactive iodine with their grass. Since radioactive iodine decays fairly quickly, only about 25 percent of it would have been left on May 12.

This is typical of the tactics the AEC and its allies have used for the past 40 years to minimize the dangers of radiation: factor in anything conceivable to lower official risk estimates, while ignoring any effects that might increase them. And talk in broad averages, which spread the risk out: like the child sitting in the “average” RPI mud puddle for the rest of his life.

The problem is, children don’t sit in average mud puddles, they sit in real ones, some of which were many times hotter than the average the Mohawk Association of Scientists and Engineers (MASE) quoted. MASE themselves had reported spots as hot as 13 and 15 millirads per hour in Schenectady as late as two nights after the storm; calling them “safe” because the average was only five millirads is fatuous.

And those spots would have been much hotter before 48 hours of radioactive decay.

Likewise, average farmers don’t send average cows to eat average grass. If only one real farmer had sent out his real cows as early as April 27 (when real grass is perfectly edible), then thousands of gallons of milk would have been contaminated, and drunk by thousands of real children.

If the Health Department conducted salmonella tests this way, people would be dying all the time from unexplained sickness that, it would be explained, couldn’t possibly have been caused by the “average” perfectly safe egg.

There is one place the law of averages does not apply: while radiation can increase the chances of cancer occurring, just as smoking does, scientists emphasize that it is impossible to link any individual case of cancer with any single cause. That has been the government’s main defense in the hundreds of lawsuits that have been brought against it as a result of the testing.

Averages only apply to cows, not people.

It should also be noted that fallout, in lower levels, continued to drift down on Albany’s pastures from subsequent bomb tests. Clark at RPI detected three more peaks of radioactivity in Albany’s water supply following the next three bomb tests in May and June. More radioactive iodine was entering the food chain, not less. But Lade wasn’t looking for ways to increase the dosage estimate.

Lade was an “expert,” in public health if not in dairy farming. So the scientific community accepted his word on the subject, taking his good faith for granted. To compensate for this factor, the Livermore study reduced its thyroid dosage estimate for Albany from 57,600 to 15,000 millirads. In comparison, Boston’s dose is listed at 18,800 millirads – and Boston never had as intense a fallout.

Current standards recommend doses of no higher than 1,500 millirads for an entire year. Even if the questionable “May 12 theory” is accepted, the Capital Region’s children still received a dose of radioactive iodine 10 times higher than the dose currently considered risky for an entire year.

According to Dr. Merril Eisenbud, founding director of the Department of Energy’s Environmental Measurements Laboratory and the man who had called professor Clark back on that fateful April morning, thyroid cancers can result from absorbed doses as low as 8,000 to 10,000 millirads. The Capital Region’s minimum dose was 15,000.

While the Livermore study calculated doses for the rest of the country based on readings taken after every bomb detonated from 1952 to 1955, 33 in all, Albany was not a regular testing station. The only readings the Livermore study had were for one single test: Simon.

So, while Roswell, New Mexico, had a cumulative dose of 56,900 millirads based on readings after seven bombs, Albany’s higher (unadjusted) dose is calculated from only one bomb. Clark’s water readings after the next three bombs are not factored in, and no readings from the other 29 bomb tests were ever made here, although fallout was detected in New York City, Rochester, Buffalo, Watertown, Boston and New Haven. If that fallout could be accounted for, the Albany dose would be even higher.

Iit’s easy to see why Tamplin and Fisher would have been willing to reduce the Albany figure. On the map, it stands out like a sore thumb. Scientists don’t like figures that are wildly aberrant.
But our fallout was an aberration: a powerful, “dirty” bomb, an unusually heavy storm, an unusually heavy fallout. What if we take the 57,600 level at face value?

Dr. Marvin L. Rallison of the University of Utah, author of a report comparing child leukemia rates in southern and northern Utah, said cancer of the thyroid is “likely to happen” with internal doses of 50,000 millirads or more. Lyon, asked what a dangerous dose to the thyroid is, replied, “If you said 50,000 millirads and above, I would be concerned.”

The thyroid cancer rate (which is independent of population growth) doubled in upstate New York between 1941 and 1962, and has continued to climb since then at a slower pace. As of 1980, we were coming down with thyroid cancer at six times the rate for the U.S. as a whole. For leukemia, upstate New York has nearly double the national rate; and in the counties of the Capital region, the rates are as much as 50 percent higher still.

Had the AEC been more concerned with health and less concerned with image in the spring of 1953, they could have simply pulled or monitored milk for a few weeks until the danger was past.

European governments did that after receiving comparable radiation levels from Chernobyl.

But our government has consistently denied that the levels of radiation produced were harmful, and refused responsibility for the groups – such as the “downwinders” in Utah and Nevada, or soldiers exposed to nuclear radiation – who have developed cancer and died in numbers way out of proportion to the general population.

The AEC whitewashed analyses of the danger of fallout to citizens in Nevada and neighboring Utah for 30 years until Congressional hearings, the Freedom of Information Act and stacks of lawsuits against the United States government pried the truth free in courtrooms.

In 1956, herdsmen sued the government after thousands of sheep – 25 percent of the herds in southern Utah and Nevada – died following bomb tests. Federal Judge A. Sherman Christensen ruled in favor of the AEC, but ordered the case, Bulloch et al v. the United States, reopened in 1982. Christensen ruled government agents had been “intentionally false and deceptive.”

In a separate trial, Federal Judge Bruce Jenkins ruled, on May 9, 1984, that the government was responsible for inflicting seven persons from Utah and Nevada with leukemia, one with breast cancer, and one with lymphoma – nine cases among thousands.

Although scientists stress that it is impossible to link any one cancer case definitively with fallout, Jenkins ruled that where cancer victims are negligently subjected to a hazard – radiation – which has been proven to be linked to their disease, they are entitled to compensation. For once, the averages were on the side of the victims. The government was held liable for failing to comply with its own AEC public-safety guidelines.

The government appealed that ruling, and in 1986 it was struck down by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Not on the merits of the case, but on the basis of the government’s “discretionary function,” which basically means the Federal Government cannot be sued unless it wants to be.

“While we have great sympathy,” wrote Judge Monroe McKay, “for the individual cancer victims who have borne alone the costs of the AEC’s choices, their plight is a matter for Congress.”

Chances of Congress acting are slim. A compensation bill sponsored by Senator Orrin Hatch, the conservative Utah Republican, was rejected by the Senate in 1985.

“I think it’s a sad day for the country,” said Stewart Udall, a former Utah state Interior Secretary and one of the lawyers in the case, “when a rich and powerful nation like ours hides behind a moldy 18th-century doctrine. It’s pathetic. Shame on the United States.”

Even more disgraceful are the actions of the Veterans Administration. At least 210,000 U.S. military personnel were exposed to varying levels of radiation, from the men who cleaned up at Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the men who sat in trenches a few thousand yards from ground zero in Nevada in order to test their psychological reactions to the bomb.

There have been thousands of benefits claims as a result, but the Veterans Administration has turned down all but a few of them. Last year U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel fined the V.A. for destroying documents essential to those claims, censuring the agency for “a pattern of misconduct…distortions, misrepresentations and misleading information.”

In 1982, Lieutenant Colonel Dale Keller of the Federal Department of Energy, the AEC’s successor, gave The New York Times some estimates of Simon’s potential effects. Among the 500,000 people who lived in the Capital Region in 1953, he estimated that Simon’s radiation could be expected to produce about 100 additional fatal cases of cancer.

The fallout may have endangered our unborn children, as well. “There is a correlation between radiation and mental retardation,” says Dr. Robert Peter Gale, director of the bone-marrow transplantation program at the University of California Medical Center in Los Angeles, one of several American doctors who worked with people exposed at Chernobyl.

Gale notes that data gathered following the atomic bomb explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 shows “you can see fetuses that were exposed to even relatively low doses have a risk of developing mental retardation…. There will be a small but definite number of people who were exposed in utero as a consequence of Chernobyl.”

There has never been a study of the number of children born mentally retarded in the Capital Region around the time of the testing. The results could be interesting.

In the four decades following Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Federal limits of external exposure per year were lowered from 15-16,000 millirads in 1953 to the present 500 millirads. We’ve learned much about radioactive fallout.

But when the AEC told the American people that, “Your best action is not to be worried about fallout,” and referred to radiation as “sunshine units,” it was not based on sound scientific evidence of health risks: it was based on the desire to test atomic bombs.

In spite of the AEC’s assurances, the U.S. Government ended atomic testing in the atmosphere in 1963. President John F. Kennedy was eloquent in urging the Senate to ratify the Test-Ban Treaty.
“…The number of children and grandchildren with cancer in their bones, with leukemia in their blood or with poison in their lungs may seem statistically small to some in comparison with natural health hazards,” Kennedy said, “but this is not a natural health hazard and it is not a statistical issue. The loss of even one baby who may be born long after we are gone should be of concern to us all. Our children and grandchildren are not merely statistics toward which we can be indifferent.”

About the Author

Jeremy Bloom is the Editor of RedGreenAndBlue. He lives in New York, where he combines his passion for the environment with his passion for film, and is working on making the world a better place.

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