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The history and aftermath of US, Soviet nuclear testing

Under the Cloud: The Decades of Nuclear Testing, by Richard L. Miller. New York: The Free Press, A Division of Macmillan Inc. 397 pp. $24.95. Richard Miller's account of United States and Soviet efforts to develop the bomb and the history of nuclear testing in the US from the first bomb up to the abolishing of the Atomic Energy Commission in 1974 is outstanding. Mr. Miller, who owns and operates a Houston-based firm specializing in environmental and toxicological investigation, has an evenhanded approach and lets the material speak for itself. And the net result is a very clear picture of the dangers of peacetime testing.

The portions dealing with the US are more detailed than those on the USSR. Miller describes in some detail the nature of each US test series and the track the radioactive clouds took as they were carried by wind currents across the nation. He recounts the efforts in the 1970s and '80s of government, scientists, and others to address the effects of fallout and their impact on those exposed to the tests.

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Research into the effects of radiation and the byproducts of fallout in particular eventually led scientists to believe that the radioactivity posed more danger to the populace than had been anticipated. For example, Ernest J. Sternglass, a professor of radiation physics at Pittsburgh University Medical School, researched fallout and infant mortality in the Troy-Albany-Utica, N.Y., area. In his view, ```at least one of three children, who died before their first birthdays in America in the 1960s, may have died as the result of peacetime nuclear testing.'''

In the 1970s and '80s, more scientists were becoming interested in the long-term effects of fallout. Studies of health and fallout were initiated in areas downwind of the tests. Researchers found that individuals in these areas had substantially higher incidence of cancer. Miller reports that ``During the years 1972-1980, the incidence of cancer was ... 12.5 times'' the rate scientists would project for this region.

Miller gives a full account of the difficulties faced by scientists who began to suspect that radioactive contamination might be dangerous and to convince resistant government officials that they should inform the public. According to the book, some who spoke out lost their jobs and were unable to obtain funding for research projects. Miller says that some reports were either suppressed or published with crucial data missing. But he also notes that, at the time, officials were under substantial pressure to come up with a weapon that would be effective in a war with the Soviets - who were working on weapons, too - and this seemed to outweigh other factors.

The sections on the development and testing program in the USSR make clear that Soviet citizens have also been exposed to radioactive fallout. Since not much is published on these activities, Miller's account allows a useful comparison with the work done in the US at the same time.

Finally, the author asks: Who in the US really was responsible for the exposure of civilians and members of the military to what scientists believe are dangerous levels of fallout and for contamination of areas outside the test sites? Instead of citing the Atomic Energy Commission or the military as scapegoats, he suggests that all citizens in a democracy - whether they are apathetic or totally absorbed in the military programs - are to some degree responsible. He writes:

``If there is blame, we all share it, those who were fascinated by the bomb as well as those who made it. If there was a mistake made, it was a simple one made by everyone associated with the bomb, from the designers to the politicians to the AEC officials to the people: They assumed more than they knew.''

Miller's account of the tests and of the thinking behind them should help citizens and their leaders guard against such mistakes in the future.

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