FOR THREE DECADES after World War II, top medical scientists
in the nation's nuclear weapons industry undertook an extensive
program of experiments in which civilians were exposed to radiation
in concentrations far above what is considered safe today.
The experiments, at government laboratories and prominent
medical research institutions, involved injecting patients with
dangerous radioactive substances such as plutonium or exposing them
to powerful beams of radiation. Energy Department officials say
many patients did not know they were the subjects of experiments.
At the time that much of the research was undertaken,
considerably less was known about the hazards of radiation. It was
common in the 1950s, for instance, for shoe stores to use X-ray
machines to fit customers.
In addition, the government's nuclear scientists, conducting
their work as though atomic war were imminent, placed a top
priority on research to understand the effect of radiation on
soldiers and civilians. And some doctors credit such research for
early advances in the forms of nuclear medicine that now fight
disease and save lives.
Although glimpses of this program have been made public in the
past, most recently in a 1986 congressional investigation, the
government fought efforts by journalists, private investigators and
family members of the patients involved to make the full story
Now, Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary has vowed to shine a bright
light into what her aides say is a dark corner of America's cold
war legacy. Prompted by questions raised by The Albuquerque Tribune
in a series of articles last month about one such experiment,
O'Leary has ordered the most thorough investigation ever of her
Department's biomedical research program.
The department has hired six archivists to comb classified
records at the National Archives for documents on human medical
experimentation and other government nuclear research in which
civilians were secretly exposed to potentially harmful levels of
radiation. O'Leary has also increased the number of employees who
review and declassify documents in her own department from three to
six, and she has announced plans to train more people to do such
In an interview, she said the investigation was motivated by
"an obligation to put the public's mind at rest and expose things
that need exposing."
There is broad support among those concerned with such issues,
in and out of government, for her initiative, which, if successful,
would help improve the department's image as officials work to
resolve huge conflicts over dismantling the nation's nuclear
arsenal and cleaning up its weapons complex.
Two of the experiments under review by the department ended in
the early 1970s and involved exposing the testicles of more than
100 healthy prison inmates in Oregon and Washington state to very
high levels of radiation from X-ray machines.
Documents show that the prisoners were paid small sums and were
required to sign consent forms in order to take part.
Robert Alvarez, a special assistant in the Office of Policy
Planning and Program Evaluation - and one of the many influential
critics of the Energy Department who now work for O'Leary - said
the consent forms had not fully explained the risks of the
experiment, especially the risk of developing testicular cancer. No
follow-up studies were conducted on the men who participated, he
"These prisoner studies were clearly unethical," Alvarez said.
But Dr. C. Alvin Paulsen, a retired professor of medicine at
the University of Washington School of Medicine who helped conduct
the experiments in that state, defended the study. He said he had
kept audio recordings of interviews with inmates that show they
were well informed about the intent of the research and the risks,
"The question we asked was: `What was the minimal effect of
radiation that would interfere with the development of sperm,' "
said Paulsen, who is now 69 and lives in Seattle. …