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Bomb tests: US deceived its citizens

Back in the days when the atomic age was young and bomb tests were an entertaining display of the new power, a few "nuts" protested their "dangerous" radioactive fallout. Most experts, especially at the old US Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), dismissed this concern out of hand. Fallout was no worse than natural cosmic radiation, they said, no need to become "hysterical."

For the most part, this was reassuring.How disconcerting to find out now that the protesters had a point, that the government lied, and that the AEC covered up data that would have exposed the danger.

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Referring specifically to mysterious deaths of sheep in Utah after two tests in 1953, the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations has concluded that the AEC "knowingly disregarded the suppressed evidence correlating the deaths of sheep to exposure to radioactive fallout." It now appears that fallout "more likely than not" was the culprit, the subcommittee says.

Among a sheep population of 11,710, something like 2,970 new lambs and 1,420 lambing ewes died in the spring and summer of 1953. Publicly, the AEC blamed lack of forage and bad weather. However, Harold Knapp, a former AEC official, put together his own study in his spare time. This indicates that the ewes had been eating radioactive grass and that the lambs had been prenatally exposed to radio-iodine. His report provided evidence for the subcommittee investigation which concluded that the AEC was also aware of these facts. Nevetheless, according to a report in Science, a lawsuit brought against the government by sheep raisers was lost largely because the AEC had classified the relevant information.

The subcommittee has been investigating government responsibility for the sheep deaths and for injuries to people who have lived downwind of the Nevada test site. Around a thousand such people have already filed damage suits. These studies have turned up what the subcommittee calls "sufficient evidence . . . for the government to accept at least compassionate responsibility, if not strict liability" for such injuries. It recommends passing legislation to provide compensation -- legislation such as that introduced by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) of Massachussets and Rep. Gunn McKay (D) of Utah.

However, the implications of the subcommittee findings go beyond these specific concerns. They imply that, if the AEC deceived the public in this case , it deceived it generally about the dangers of fallout.

This was a shocking breach of faith on the part of the government. Its reverberations today will further undermine public confidence in official assurances of the safety of low-level radioactivity released by nuclear power plants, which is the radiation hazard at issue now. There is an urgent need to reopen the whole question of the fallout hazard of the 1950s and 1960s, lay bare the secret records, and find out what actually happened. The US public is entitled to a full accounting.

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