As nuclear papers become declassified, Americans have been shocked by experiments done on their behalf, but the latest documents have set a new level of amazement and anxiety. Part of the reason is the Energy Secretary, Hazel O'Leary, who oversees production and testing of nuclear devices; she is determined to unearth, once and for all, what the government did to its own people early in the Cold War. A hotline has been set up to discover unknown victims.
Three weeks ago Ms O'Leary revealed 204 previously unaccounted-for bomb tests and several hundred radioactivity tests on humans, to advance understanding of radiation poisoning. Most were done, she said, with the victims' consent. In those days, people had little idea of the side-effects of radiation.
But the government did. In 1950 the Atomic Energy Commission, then overseer of nuclear tests, was told tests on humans would invite comparison with Nazi experiments.
The tests included feeding cereal doused in radioactive iron and calcium to 19 mentally retarded boys in a state school in Massachusetts from 1946 to 1956, to help understand nutrition and metabolism. Consent forms mailed to the boys' parents never said radioactive materials would be involved. Results of the tests are not known.
In a test unearthed by the Albuquerque Tribune, seven newborn boys were given radioactive iodine, to see how the thyroid gland reacts to radioactivity. The mothers agreed to the tests.
In another case, a 48-year- old mother, in a New York hospital for a protein deficiency in 1945 was injected with Plutonium-239. The experiment was designed to find out how quickly the body rids itself of the radioactive substance. Her dosage was 43 times today's safety limit, but she apparently suffered no ill effects.
In a test in 1963, 131 volunteers at prisons in Washington and Oregon states had their scrotums irradiated by X-ray. Each prisoner was paid dollars 200 and had to sign a consent form that mentioned possible sterility and burns but not testicular cancer. The men were given 100 times today's annual limit. The results are not known.