Killing Our Own: The Disaster of America’s Experience with Atomic Radiation. By Harvey Wasserman and Norman Solomon with Robert Alverez and Eleanor Walters, New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1982, $12.95.
By John Northrop
Vol. 4, No. 6, 1982, pp. 19-20
Hiroshima proved that the atomic bomb could wipe out cities, but it was years later before many people began paying much attention to the possible side effects of radiation. Big mistake.
Evidently, Americans have paid an extraordinary price for nuclear technology from almost the very beginning. Immediately after the war, American G.I.’s were assigned to help sweep up the rubble in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A few years later the veterans were dying from cancer in unusual numbers. Soldiers who had served as observer/guinea pigs near subsequent bomb tests also fell victim to cancer at an unusually high rate. Adding insult to injury, the Veterans Administration has denied most claims, refusing to acknowledge the apparent connection between radiation and the atomic veterans’ diseases.
True enough, it’s nearly impossible to prove exactly what has caused any given individual’s cancer, but statistics and common sense should tell us something. When men are dropping dead of the disease at rates of up to ten times greater than the rest of us, and the obvious common denominator is uncommon radiation exposure, we at least should give them the benefit of the doubt.
But there, precisely, is the problem. From the beginning, the burden of proof has fallen on those who believe that atomic radiation is dangerous, not on those who would have us think it safe. As a watchdog, the federal government has shown a feeble bark and a more feeble bite, proving most attentive to safety claims by pro-nuclear radiation authorities. Official radiation standards have tightened only as embarassing evidence has mounted that no amount of radiation can be considered “safe.”
Killing Our Own surveys the damage. Chapters discuss a host of radiation issues, including the use and misuse of medical X-rays, the hazards of occupational radiation exposure, and the health threat of routine releases from nuclear power plants. One of the worrisome problems with even low-level radiation is its potential impact on later generations. Genetic damage to a few individuals now can show up as widespread birth defects a few decades down the road.
Not that we’ll have to wait for other damage. In 1976, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commisssion admitted that the nation’s nuclear power program will cause 1,1001,300 cancer deaths and 2,100-2,400 genetic defects by the year 2000. This may seem a piddling sum compared with annual U.S. traffic deaths of up to fifty thousand each year. However, the NRC figures fall low in the range of atomic casualty estimates, and they don’t consider the consequences of an accident.
Like at Three Mile Island. In a chapter entitled “People Died at Three Mile Island”–an ironic reference to bumper stickers claiming otherwise–the authors point to official Pennsylvania state health statistics which show a sudden rise in neo-natal and infant deaths in the TMI area shortly after the 1979 power plant accident. The authors also show how Pennsylvania health officials have been playing games with the same statistics, trying to prove their own figures lie.
The authors don’t guess why, but one reason is plain enough. The state was a bit slow to order an evacuation of young chidren and pregnant women during the TMI crisis. If TMI radiation did kill those babies, who deserves at least some of the blame . . . ?
Which brings to mind a story from a quarter-century earlier than TMI. Atom bombs and reactors have much in common, as would any parent and child. Certainly their
radioactive by-products are similar, as well as the health effects of these substances. For years, the bomb people freely polluted the atmosphere and wide areas of the American west with weapons test fallout. Until the 1960’s, the old Atomic Energy Commission, now broken up into the NRC and other agencies, steadfastly held that the fallout was almost harmless, despite a growing clamor by knowledgeable scientists that thousands of human beings would die from radiation effects.
In 1954, a Hollywood movie crew came to St. George, Utah, a bit downrange from the government’s Nevada bomb test site. The crew stayed three months filming The Conqueror, featuring John Wayne. By 1979, ninety-one of the crew’s 220 members had developed cancer, and half of those had died of the disease. Among the victims were the film’s stars–Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead, Dick Powell and Wayne himself.
When People magazine put it all together in 1980, the implications were embarassing. “Please, God,” a Pentagon official was quoted, “don’t let us have killed John Wayne.”
The Duke is dead, but nuclear energy lives on. Every section of the nation has its share of nuclear facilities. In the South, Mississippi was the site of two underground bomb tests in the mid-1960’s. Tennessee Valley Authority electricity has powered uranium enrichment facilities since the beginning of the A-bomb program. Even with recent cutbacks, TVA’s nuclear power plant program is one of the largest in the world: South Carolina hosts one of the nation’s two major high level waste dumps. There’s even uranium mining in Florida.
As the nation’s poor (and everyone else) struggle through our new era of limitations, at least one industry maintains its favored status at the government trough. Big federal bucks still go to nuclear research and development despite ham-fisted cutbacks in alternative energy programs. Indirect nuclear subsidies also continue, like the legal monstrosity known as the Price-Anderson Act. Price-Anderson limits government and industry liability to a mere fraction of the multibillion dollar costs possible in an all-out nuclear power plant disaster. This means that if your neighborhood nuke goes haywire and your property is rendered uninhabitable for centuries, you’ll have to swallow most of those losses.
One suspects there won’t be much change soon in federal performance where radiation and health are concerned. Over the years, federal officials have ignored and even suppressed evidence that radiation is far more dangerous than atomic promoters would like.
Much of this is not particularly new. Killing Our Own consolidates a wealth of information from Peter Metzger’s The Atomic Establishment and other sources, all carefully noted. Indeed, this is one of the book’s strong points; it is an efficient overview of radiation information from a perspective not backed by industry money or government promotion.
The book’s other strong point is people. The authors have incorporated the personal stories of a good many radiation victims. Confronted by their anguish, the reader sees beyond the statistics and finds human faces. Individual agony speaks more directly to our sympathies and reinforces the impression that government and industry have behaved with insensitivity, even criminality.
Critics already have accused Killing Our Own of trafficking in hearsay. That’s a bit much, although it’s fair to concede that some of the evidence against the radiation establishment seems circumstantial. No matter. Convictions are won–and conviction shaped when circumstantial evidence is cogent. Killing Our Own probably won’t be the last word on its subject, but it will help shift the burden of proof in the court of public opinion. As the public grows more aware of the real and potential threats of atomic radiation, the nuclear establishment–including cooperative federal and state “regulatory” agencies–will be forced to admit the danger of its wares.
At last we’ll get to the real issue: Is nuclear energy really worth its high human costs?
John Northrop is a member of the Conservation Committee of the Birmingham Audubon Society.