EVST 255: Environmental Politics and Law
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Environmental Politics and Law
EVST 255 - Lecture 3 - Nuclear Experiments
Chapter 1. National Security and the Threat to Democratic Participation [00:00:00]
Professor John Wargo: Okay, let me start in. This lecture is about national security, and it’s about the conflict that’s involved during the twentieth century between national security and environmental quality and human health.Â So I want to explore that, because so much money in the world is spent on national security, and it has the potential to invade individual rights, to diminish personal freedom, to diminish privacy. At the same time, it has the potential to concentrate power and authority among elites, political elites, wealthy elites, technical elites, so that it’s threatening to democratic participation and policy making in a variety of ways. And as we move through the course, you’ll find that secrecy is not just an issue that we need to figure out how to manage better in the public sector relative to classified information, and this is the topic of today’s session. But it’s also a critical issue in the private sector. The growing use of confidential business information, the growing obscurity of product ingredients as globalized markets cause products and services to cross national borders without any clear identity about components or potential effects.
So national security and environmental quality. I want you to think about this case and other cases that we deal with as a problem of managing intelligence. I’m not meaning to imply that other people are not intelligent, I’m meaning to hopefully get you to think about the idea of a legal system that would produce a public that was literate and capable of understanding the quality of the environment around them, what’s threatening and what’s not, so that potentially they could manage their exposure to chemicals, they could manage the effect of human behavior on a variety of environmental issues, such as endangered species. So the purpose for the title of my book that I’m having you read, you poor things, is the idea of thinking about the origin of knowledge. You know, where do we get the information? Where do we get the data? Where do we get the knowledge? Who produces it?
And what we’ll see today is that knowledge about the environmental effects of national security are produced predominately by the Defense Department. They control sites, they control the technology in weaponry and weapon delivery systems, making it extremely difficult for the public to understand really what the dangers might be. Where does the knowledge flow? Is it intelligible? Is it understood? The distinction between is it intelligible and is it understood is really critical. It involves literacy, it involves educational background, technical competence. And who owns it? This is really a key question for law. You can think about this in terms of it being an intellectual property right question. Should the public own it? Should the government be able to keep the knowledge from the public? Should the private sector be allowed to own it, and should they be allowed to keep knowledge from the public? So think about it as a problem of understanding production and flow of knowledge. Because environmental quality is always going to be elusive until we create a public that really is far more intelligent, so to speak, understanding, than it currently is.
So what are the purposes of secrecy? I’m kind of fascinated by the growing classification of information in the public sector. So that in U.S. history, never before has the government been classifying more information than it is today. You know, at the same time, there’s a very interesting cultural change that we’re witnessing in your generation related to Facebook. I mean, I have never seen a generation be so interested in revealing secrets or information about themselves as your generation is. So it’s a disconnect in a way between government policy and what’s going on in social circles among younger generations. How do terror and warfare depend upon secrecy? When does secrecy threaten national security? When is secrecy necessary for national security? And how is it related to individual rights? These are key questions that I hope you’ll keep in mind as we move through this lecture today.
There are common scripts in environmental history, no matter whether or not you consider this case or the case of endangered species, the case of managing water quality, managing sustainable agriculture. Who knew about the problem? Who knew about contaminants in this case? When did they know? When did they inform the public? And what did they do about the problem? These are critical questions, and secrecy is a central component of all of them.
Chapter 2. A Brief History of Secrecy: 1944-1963 [00:05:07]
So that the history that I want to go through today is really one that is very brief. It only spans the period between 1944 and 1963. So in this period, the atomic weapons, the first atomic weapons were designed and tested, the first one at Los Alamos in New Mexico in 1945, followed by two uses of atomic weapons, the only two aggressive uses in world history. One on Hiroshima and the other on Nagasaki, killing hundreds of thousands of people and resulting in injuries and death, inheritable mutations that have affected generations of Japanese. So this compressed period is really quite striking.
Now, why in the world would we be talking about this issue, which seems so old now, it’s part of the Cold War, in a class on current environmental law and policy? Well, I’ll tell you a bit of a story. In 2003, I was in the Beinecke Rare Book Library. And I don’t know if you have visited the Beinecke Library, but it really is a remarkable place. It’s got a wonderful, rich store of information, especially on the American West. But I found out just by surfing the net that they also have all of Rachel Carson’s original research material. Now, Rachel Carson wrote “Silent Spring” and “The Sea Around Us” and a number of other books, and is rather famous in environmental history, particularly for her work trying to get the public to wake up about the dangers of pesticides, especially related to wildlife because she was a wildlife biologist working for the Fish and Wildlife Service. Well it turns out that all of her original research materials, including about 120 boxes of material, are stored in the basement of Beinecke Library. So going through those, as I was trying to understand the history of pesticides, I found one file that was on nuclear weapons testing. And that file was incredibly dense. And as she conducted her research, by the way, it’s very different than what we do today when our research is almost all electronic. She would hand copy material, there were no copy machines that she had access to at that point in time. And then she would write notes, little side notes interpreting it as she went along.
So going through this, I realized that all of her work on pesticides where she wondered what happened to them once they were released. Where they went, how did they make their way into the soil? Why were wildlife, the canaries in the mine in a sense, what were the wildlife telling us about human hazards and human risk? And what was wrong with current law and policy that would allow that kind of release and non-accountability on the part of the private sector? So she learned that way of thinking, that narrative logic, she learned that, not by studying pesticides, by looking at the history of the Atomic Energy Commission in the 1950s and how they came to understand radionuclides and what happened to them and the kind of threat they posed to water quality, to air quality, how they got into wildlife, how they got into human tissue. So this is a story of today.
So the idea that the success in any of these cases is dependent upon very high quality science is a very important idea. And remember what I said the other day, that perhaps ninety-five percent of the science in the field of environmental science is conducted in the private sector, it never sees the light of day. Well in this case, this is probably the best example of state science at an enormous scale. The Atomic Energy Commission had an unlimited budget, they had unlimited authority, and they had unlimited capacity to tell a story about danger and the importance of pursuing atomic weapons development in order to protect national security.
So this time span just gives you the number of tests per year between 1945, or actually, the number of explosions, 1945 and 1962. In 1963, President Kennedy worked with the Soviets to pass the Limited Test Ban Treaty. And since that time, atmospheric testing has been severely limited. Known nuclear tests worldwide between ‘45 and ‘96, roughly about 2,000, maybe about 2,400. After 1963, the majority of tests, or the number of tests actually went up. But most of them went underground. So underground testing is allowed, and we’ll see later on in the lecture that there have been certain parts of the world, it’s been agreed among nations that have this nuclear capacity to avoid testing. So outer space is now off limits. Testing in the South Pacific is now off limits because it was the site of many highly intense tests of hydrogen bombs. And also, testing on the poles is restricted by international agreement.
So this was a very limited period of time, and many people don’t understand where these tests were conducted. Some in the South Atlantic, some in Mississippi, some in Japan, New Mexico, the Pacific Ocean, the Nevada Test Site, Johnson Island, Christmas Island, Eniwetok and Bikini, which are part of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific. I’ll be speaking more about this and show you some film clips on next Tuesday when we reconvene.
One interesting aspect of this history was the behavior of Klaus Fuchs, who was a theoretical scientist working at Los Alamos on the development of the first weapon, the first atomic bomb, during what is known as the Manhattan Project. And he had access to top-secret material. A very highly skilled physicist, and he passed most of what he knew on to the Soviets in the late 1940s. So he was tried and convicted of espionage in Britain in the 1950s, and he served nine years out of a fourteen-year sentence. This is fascinating to me. Think about the nature of the sanction here. So that the Soviets gained their understanding of how the U.S. produced nuclear weapons and gained an understanding of what our strategy was, how we were testing it, how we were monitoring the effects, what the intensity of the radiation was. And the man serves only nine years in prison.
The lesson is kind of curious. Most secrets have very short lives, and the more valuable they are, the more limited is their life. So I think about the idea of creating a secret as creating a property right. And so it creates a property right and its value is dependent on many aspects of its character, and we’ll explore that as we move through. The power of explosions on the Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific is something to take note of. Next Tuesday, we’ll come back to this story, where the Bikini Islanders were removed from their island through negotiation and the use of eminent domain. And then the U.S. proceeded to test about twenty-five, twenty-six different nuclear weapons, including the Bravo Test in 1954 that I’ll show you a clip of, which was one of the largest bombs ever exploded by the U.S. in the atmosphere.
The Atomic Energy Commission created what they called Project Gabriel that evolved to be called Project Sunshine — that lasted between 1949 and 1961. So Project Sunshine became famous, and it was the collection of scientists in the government working with the Atomic Energy Commission based predominately at the University of Chicago and Columbia University, the Lamont Laboratories. So scientists were given virtually unlimited funds to conduct research that would help the Atomic Energy Commission understand the power of their different weapons. And there were some 200 different types of nuclear weapons eventually that were designed. And some so large that they had to redesign aircraft in order to handle the weight, and others so small that they could be tactically carried in a suitcase and be used under field conditions that were very difficult. Different delivery mechanisms, delivery by aircraft, delivery by missile, delivery by artillery, delivery by suitcase, so that a variety of different types of bombs of different strengths were designed for different types of warfare.
So the Sunshine scientists really ramped up in the early 1950s. And what’s interesting is the way that they thought about environmental science. They wondered what happened to the radionuclides. Where do they go when a bomb explodes, what happens? Well, dust particles get blown up into the atmosphere. If you drop a bomb in shallow water, it will take the material on the bottom of the water and will take the fish and it will basically blow everything up and the coral up into the atmosphere. It will also kill any birds that are in close proximity. So every test has a story about birds raining from the sky, on fire. It will also cause a pattern of movement in the atmosphere that depends very much upon climate and wind conditions. And the power of the bomb determines how high up into the atmosphere the particles get. So dozens and dozens of different nuclides were created, some of which had never been recognized before.
So trying to figure this out, one of the first things they did was they set up a monitoring system. That made sense. If you want to figure out where something is going, you set up a monitoring system. In this case, it was rather simplistic, around the Nevada Test Site north of Las Vegas, about sixty-five miles. And people used to cluster on tops of the casinos and the hotels in the evening to watch the bombs explode, or get up really early in the morning to watch the bombs explode, highly visible, given the clear climate. So they set up their monitors and they presumed that they had captured the dispersal of radiation.
And then they began to get reports. Reports came in from different parts of the country, some in North Dakota from people that were mining for uranium that had carried Geiger counters. And one miner was telling a story where he was eating dinner at his campfire with his Geiger counter that he forgot to turn off. And the Geiger counter started to spit back at him, [stuttering noise]. And he said, “Oh boy, you know, I’ve got to have this thing serviced. It must be out of tune, it must be detecting something that is not there.” So he took it in to have it serviced and found out that it was actually in great tune, didn’t need to be recalibrated. He went back to his site and it happened again. So he realized gradually that something was going on in the atmosphere. It wasn’t measuring anything in the mine or in nearby rock because it normally in that place would be silent. He was picking up radionuclides that were raining down in North Dakota.
Polaroid became important in the process of understanding the distribution, Polaroid Film Company, because its film was found to be exposed when it arrived at doctors’ offices and hospitals in different parts of the world. And at that point in time, they used to put the Polaroid film, the eight-and-a-half by eleven sheets, into boxes. And then they would pack the boxes, you know, not with these Styrofoam kernels that we use today that will never go away. But instead, they used to pack it with cornhusks. So gradually, they figured it out because they could see in some cases the image of the cornhusk on top of the film matching directly. So what was happening?
Well, the radionuclides were intersecting a cloud, they were raining down, in this case in the Midwestern part of the United States, where the box had been packed. And the cornhusks were exposing the film, because they had absorbed the radionuclides. So they realized gradually that their donut 200 miles in diameter around Las Vegas was completely inappropriate to capture the scale of this problem. This is a very important lesson in environmental science and environmental policy. It’s like the analogy of the drunk leaning on a light post looking for his car keys. Why is he looking under the light post? That’s because that’s where the light is. So that there are many, many different stories about the failure of environmental science and the ineffectiveness of environmental law that flow from this problem of misunderstanding the need for a very sensitive sampling design.
In this case, the Stokes test in 1957 put radionuclides into the atmosphere, but they started moving at different directions at different altitudes. Ooh, there’s an interesting idea, that’s novel. No one thought about that before. So here, the dashed line at the bottom is moving at 30,000 feet, and it just nicks the southeast side of Idaho. Whereas the dust at 10,000 feet shoots all the way up to Montana. Then it arcs up over southern Canada, comes back over the Great Lakes. Then you see that arc of the dashed line coming right down across Lake Champlain on the New York-Vermont border, the Massachusetts-New York border, and then the Connecticut border. Well that’s pretty interesting.
Another test that they followed created dust clouds that again were driven by weather patterns. And you see in this case that at 30,000 feet, one swirled around Texas for about a week. Another one swooped all the way at 20,000 feet down into Florida, and probably would have been detected if they had rainstorms in Florida at the time of the dust cloud that got there, that would have been detectable in oranges, in orange juice, and in orange oils. So that crops were being threatened and exposed in a variety of different ways that were being driven by weather patterns. And we all know that even today, it’s hard to predict what the weather’s going to be within thirty-six hours in many parts of the country. So that the state of weather forecasting back at this time was quite primitive. So that basically told these scientists, and then again, I can just imagine what they were doing, sitting across the table looking at each other. How are we going to manage this? What’s going to happen if the public understands this? How are we going to maintain our political support for the weapons testing program so that we can keep on building these weapons to contain the Soviets or to strike fear into their hearts? Following their policy of deterrence, the bigger the bomb, the less likely we are to be attacked by other nations that would understand that an attack would be simply suicide.
Well, here is a chart, which is an amalgamation of different bomb blasts and the pathways that they took, and the darkest areas are areas that received the highest doses of radiation. And these nuclides have half-lives that vary between roughly three to four weeks up to forty, fifty, a hundred years. So that if you went to the center of the country in Iowa and you took tests of the soil, you could still detect many of these radionuclides in the soil. And they are transferable from soil to crops and up to fruits. So that this patchiness and fallout was eventually recognized by the Atomic Energy Commission in the mid-1950s. And gradually, once this information was declassified in the early 1990s, and the only reason I’m telling you this story is because most of this knowledge was eventually declassified. I couldn’t be here, which is kind of an interesting thought, I couldn’t be here right now telling you this story had the declassification process not occurred under the Clinton Administration. Once they realized that the Atomic Energy Commission had kept all this information from the public, when they really had no national security logic to do so.
Chapter 3. The Dose-Response Relationship [00:22:03]
So here is a map of the United States constructed by the National Cancer Institute in the late 1990s, that took the dose estimates that they got from the soils, because they could back calculate the concentrations from existing concentrations, knowing the decay rate of different nuclides. And they developed this map of expected doses. And then the Cancer Institute started asking questions, because they understood the dose-response relationship for radiation and these nuclides is really pretty clear. This not like you have to drink 10,000 cans of diet soda to absorb enough saccharine to elevate your cancer risk a little bit. This is a science that evolved in the 1950s largely because of the importance to the military that understood the dose-response relationship quite clearly. But understanding a dose-response relationship, meaning, let’s see, the best way to explain dose-response relationship if it’s not familiar to you, especially for college students, is to think about a six-pack of beer. So you get a six-pack of beer, you have one beer. You might feel a little bit of it. You have two beers within fifteen minutes. I know you’d never do that. You have three beers within twenty minutes. You have six beers within an hour so that the effect that you feel, the effect on your body, depends upon the dose and the concentration that you’re actually circulating in your system.
So they understood this relationship with great clarity with respect to these radionuclides, so that the cancer estimates really are quite robust. One interesting thing is that if you look at the pattern of testing that really, it peaked in the late 1950s so that you see this is radionuclides in rainwater. And then there was an agreement not to test for a period of two years. And you see that the rainwater levels declined. It’s in the rainwater. Hmm, that’s interesting. If it’s in the rainwater, what does that mean for fish? What does it mean for rivers? What does it mean for parts of the West that experience high levels of snowpack?
Well, it means that snowpack, for example, Jackson, Wyoming a couple years ago. Jackson Hole, Wyoming received more than 600 inches of snow in one year. And in a matter of about a month in the period between April and late May, you get basically warmer weather melting all the snow. So in this period of time you get this rush, you get this pulse of radioactive water that moves into a stream. And lo and behold, where could you test that? Well, you could test that in the supermarket. Where? In what supermarket? In the salmon in supermarkets, the trout in the supermarket. Buying trout in the supermarket. You could find these levels increasing in the Columbia River that goes by the Hanford uranium enrichment plant, plutonium enrichment plant in the state of Washington. So the water levels, concentrations were going up because the rainwater concentrations were going up, and the fish concentrations were going up. And also, people that were drinking water out of wells that were fed underground by the aquifer from the Hanford area, they were also being exposed. The per capita dose was calculated as well, and you see the dip between January of 1960 and late 1962 during the agreed cessation of testing. So this information was really quite robust.
So Project Sunshine basically pieced together this idea that these nuclides were in global circulation, they were contaminating every aspect of our environment, and they were making their way into humans, and particularly they were concerned about strontium-90, because if you have a diet that is low in calcium, your body’s going to absorb more strontium-90 into your bone. Also, if you have a diet that’s low in iodine, your thyroid is going to absorb more iodine-131 than it normally would. So understanding this relationship between calcium and strontium-90 is very important, because it eventually led to calcium enrichment of breads, of milk. So the fortification program really had its origination in recommendations by the Atomic Energy Commission. So the public thought, oh, we’re just getting more minerals in our diet. Well, that must be a good thing, the nutritionists must be arguing that this makes a lot of sense. But in reality, what was going on was that the Atomic Energy Commission was anxiously wringing its hands recognizing that they’ve got to figure out how to lower the dose being experienced in the population. The population had no idea what was going on.
So Project Sunshine scientists, they eventually obtained 15,000 bodies, dead bodies, trying to understand the distribution of these nuclides throughout the world. Bodies from New York, San Francisco, Houston, Japan, India, South Africa. Why from other nations? Well, predominately because they were worried about other nations coming back and telling the United States that we were contaminating not only their food supplies, which was going to harm their ability to trade products internationally, processed foods, water, just about any kind of crop you could think of, as well as animals. So that gradually over the period between 1955 and 1960, the Atomic Energy Commission grew to really understand the global distributional pattern and how people in certain areas of Latin America and tropical areas were really experiencing quite high levels of fallout. Why would that be? In tropical rainforests, they experience intense rainfall. So that the rain was so high that it would concentrate the nuclides in some of the tropical forest areas.
So permission to take the body parts was never sought or obtained. Family members were never consulted. Bones were cleaned and packaged in formalin. And then they were crushed and analyzed by laboratory technicians at Columbia and other prestigious U.S. academic institutions. And sometimes the bones were pooled together. Gradually they decided that they were going to look for geographic variability and they were going to look for age-related variability. Because they were finding that kids, for some reason, were absorbing more of the radionuclides, especially strontium, than adults were. So why would that be? Was it something about their diet? Was there something about their physiology? Well, it had to do with their rate of growth of bone. So kids are growing most rapidly at what point in their lives? Well, from time of conception roughly until the time of thirteen. But different organ systems and different functions in the body mature at different rates. So stature, for example, is quite linear, although you get this really serious growth curve in utero. And then it goes up gradually, gradually, and then more steeply during the early teenage years. So you could figure out the concentrations that were correlated with these periods of rapid growth and development.
Chapter 4. Studying Fallout Data [00:29:45]
So gradually, these secrets started to leak out. And the U.S. began to study fallout data. And once the Soviets had developed their own capacity to make and test nuclear weapons, the Atomic Energy Commission had this great argument. Well, there are nuclides in our food supply and in our bodies, it’s not our fault. Well, we take some responsibility, but it’s the Soviets’ fault. The Soviets were actually testing these weapons up in Siberia. And the Siberian radionuclides tended to come down across Alaska and across Canada and into the Western and Midwestern part of the U.S., so in threads that are similar to the ones that I showed you from the Nevada test site. So the U.S. was trying to at this point desperately maintain public support for continued testing, in part because they were wondering well, what would happen if we did have a nuclear war? Where would the nuclides go? And what would our capacity to respond be? So these were legitimate national security concerns that they were exploring.
So the U.S. began to release some of its information at the same time that states started their own testing programs. So just like you find variability in air pollution today from motor vehicles, depending upon climate and where vehicle use is most intense, you find in this case states being worried about specific patterns of concentration in the crops that they grow. Vermont cheese, for example, or Midwestern grains or cattle grazed in the Western U.S. So Minnesota, Vermont, and other states felt like they were environmental hotspots, and that their corporations were being hindered, their capacity to trade nationally and internationally was being diminished.
The U.S. finally started an open test of milk for radioactivity in 1957, twelve years after the explosions began. And Linus Pauling, who won the Nobel Prize for his work on nutrition, particularly related to vitamin C, came out with his conclusion that the body really discriminates against strontium and favors calcium uptake if the calcium levels were high enough. That prompted the addition of the calcium, as I was saying, to milk, bread, and animal feeds, as well as fertilizers. So this is quite curious. The Surgeon General for the U.S. denied that the fallout hazards were serious in the New York Times in 1959.
So there was really quite an open public debate in the late ’50s, in part that surrounded Eisenhower’s campaign to become president again in 1956. And his competitor was his vice president, Adlai Stevenson. So Stevenson basically broke the news that the Atomic Energy Commission had been hiding this information from the public. And in his last-minute campaign effort, he claimed that there were genetic hazards to future generations, risk of bone cancer, and the inability to conduct medical investigations. Now, this is interesting. So that there is exposure that is universal, everybody’s exposed because everybody eats. That means that you really don’t have any opportunity for a scientific control group that is unexposed to figure out what the long-term health effects might be.
Thirteen Yale scientists, including Arthur Galston of the Biology Department, who passed away just a few years ago, signed a statement endorsing the views of Stevenson. Stevenson lost, Eisenhower became president again. And what was interesting about it is that transcripts from his conferences, his national security team, had been released in the late 1990s as well. And Eisenhower eventually got to the point where he was telling his staff that the levels of radionuclides in the milk supply, the buildup especially in children’s bones, was unacceptable, and something was going to have to happen. And that prompted him to be more aggressive in trying to negotiate with the Soviets to create some sort of a treaty that would reduce atmospheric testing.
So I’m going to jump ahead here so I don’t run out of time. The Atomic Energy Commission also was found to have withheld data recognizing that there were these spikes in the New York cities’ milk supplies, data that was collected just prior to the election that they understood posed a problem. They held that until weeks after the election. So it’s kind of curious that milk became the standard for trying to figure out where the chemicals went, especially powdered buttermilk, because in its dehydrated form, it was easy to send around the country. And this chart I think is also interesting, because remember that the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963 really stopped the testing cold. And what you see is a gradual decline in worldwide fallout, represented by strontium-90 and cesium-137 in milk. So you see this gradual decline because of the residency time in the atmosphere, so that these chemicals don’t all wash out like quickly after the explosions. They go into global circulation. And there was great debate at the time about the amount of time that they stayed in the atmosphere. And the Atomic Energy Commission was arguing, don’t worry about it. They’re going to stay in the atmosphere for a long period of time. Why would they use that logic? Well, they wanted the radiation to dissipate so that by the time the nuclides got down to the ground that they wouldn’t pose such an intense radiation threat.
Now, that’s kind of an interesting story. So environmentalists and public health advocates were arguing, no, you don’t understand this pattern of deposition. It’s often more quickly that it reaches the ground concentrated in the higher intensity of radiation. So that this story played out over the 1970s and 1980s until gradually, you find 1995 it really leveling off to what it is today. Curiously, you see the spike in cesium-137 in 1987, 1986, 1987. Anybody have any idea what that might be?
Professor John Wargo: Chernobyl. Chernobyl released more cesium-137 to the atmosphere after the explosion, where the dome of the building blew off and there was a fire that was uncontainable for a period of weeks. It spewed more radiation into the atmosphere in the form of cesium-137 than many of the earlier atmospheric weapons tests did.
Chapter 5. The Narrative Advantage of Secret Holders [00:36:52]
So I began by telling you that under conditions of secrecy, the people that hold power over the secret have great narrative advantage. They not only control the search for the data, they control its interpretation and they control the story that’s told to the general public. And a couple of elements of this story are kind of fun to think about, because we’ll see these same narratives evolve for pesticides, for plastics, for a variety of different environmental problems. Is the problem human induced or is it more important to worry about natural sources?
Natural sources of radiation, hmm. So you see these comparisons between the dose that you would get by having a glass of milk or having the diet of a child, a comparison between that and number of flights that you would take across the United States. And you probably know that you get a measurable dose of radiation when you’re up in aircraft. So this comparison between human-induced exposure compared to natural exposure, another good example of that would be radon. And in Connecticut, we have a problem with radon gas, which is radioactive, being emitted especially from the kind of rock that we have here, and particularly along the coastline heading east down here along the Long Island Sound. And my basement in my house, for example, we had a radon problem where radon gas was not just measurable, it was really quite high. So we had to figure out how to remediate that. You dig a hole in your basement floor, you put a little fan and a pipe in, and you get rid of it. If you don’t do that, then you risk exposing your family to radon, which is a very well-known carcinogen. The estimates of deaths from radon exposure in the United States are actually quite high. You know, 40,000 to 50,000 people per year are believed to get lung cancer as a result of radon exposure. So that the comparison of natural sources of radiation to human-induced sources related to national security protection, there is some legitimacy to that and you have to be very careful about it.
Also, the idea of relative risk. Well, why are we worrying about radiation when we should be worrying about other kinds of risks? We’ll see that with respect to pesticides, where you find, say, the car manufacturers concerned about the emission technology requirements under the Clean Air Act for tailpipe emissions. And they point to other sources, other critical sources of human exposure to air pollutants, such as power plants or incinerators.
So this idea of risk comparison really was well honed in the 1940s and 1950s by the Atomic Energy Commission. In that case, the concern was to express the risk relative to misunderstanding the implications of nuclear war and not being able to protect the public from excessive patterns of exposure. That played out by the way in a variety of pretty unusual ways so that many people in the 1950s built fallout shelters in their backyard. My neighbors did it, my family never had the means to do it. But my neighbors had these concrete buildings that they built underground. They looked a lot like basements. And they would store water and food and they would practice air drills, where they would run down into the basement. And this was especially important during the Cuban Missile Crisis, where we came the closest that we ever have to nuclear war. So the idea of how long do you have to stay in the shelter to protect yourself? Well, you wouldn’t know that unless you had done these atmospheric tests and you understood how the concentrations diminished over a certain period of time. So the idea of relative risk also deserves merit.
This is also an interesting time when the first environmentalists had formed their organizations back in the 1940s and 1950s. They tended to be medical doctors, the very first environmentalists. And one of the interest groups that you recognize today is Consumers Union that produces Consumer Reports magazine, it compares product quality and often environmental or health claims of products. So Consumers Union was very active in collecting milk, in this case from forty-eight cities around the world.
No one talked about human milk, and I found this to be quite fascinating. So for the entire decade [1945-55], no one spoke about oh, well, if it’s getting into cow’s milk, why isn’t it getting into human milk? If it’s getting into human milk, what’s the capacity to be transferring these radionuclides across generations via breast feeding? Well in part, I think it was a shyness, a reluctance to talk about breastfeeding in public, which was common at the time. But it was clearly an issue that the Atomic Energy Commission had recognized. And I found a document, it was a document that was declassified that was produced in 1952 that demonstrated quite clearly that the Atomic Energy Commission had made the connection like that. It’s in cow’s milk, it’s going to be in human milk. We know that these compounds are capable of causing mutations in genes and some of those mutations are inheritable, they can be transferred across generations, in addition to the fact that we’re exposing the next generation via breast milk, in addition to infant formula in milk and other parts of a small child or an infant’s food supply. Also, the group SANE became famous at this point in time, a group that was politically active to protect pregnant women. And this history is the first history in the twentieth century where children’s health became a logic for a stronger set of regulations and rules relative to emitting something that could be thought of as dangerous to the atmosphere.
So gradually, by the end of the decade, the Atomic Energy Commission recognized that strontium-90 accumulated in soils, it accumulated in foods, it accumulated in kids. They knew how to calculate what the cancer risk was because they understood the dose-response relationship. So they were basically sitting on a gold mine of knowledge that they had kept from the public as best they could during this period of time.
So here’s a list of sixty years of experimentation with nuclear weapons, forty-three years, forty-five years of negotiation. And you see the Antarctic Treaty, the agreement not to conduct the testing in the Antarctic. This is common heritage for all of mankind, so to speak. You see the Hotline Agreement. Before a nuclear war was initiated, there was an agreement to call up the Soviets and try a last-minute attempt at negotiation. The Limited Test Ban Treaty that I just described, the Outer Space Treaty, the Seabed Treaty, it’s not legal to conduct experiments in the seabed. So that common property around the world is now protected by international treaty.
However, the United States is testing at a rate that has never been less. The testing, however, the majority of it is underground. And I’ll show you a clip next week of some underground tests that created earthquakes in different parts of the world, particularly in Alaska. And we also see a very curious effect where these former testing sites were eventually translated into fish and wildlife reserves. So that’s another interesting thing to try to explain.
And I’m going to close today with one more thought for you. This entire story unfolded between 1945 and 1963. The Environmental Protection Agency was created in 1970 and the Safe Drinking Water Act was created in 1976. So there was absolutely no protection, there was no monitoring of public water supplies through this entire period of time. The Clean Air Act was not in existence, so that there was no protection against the radionuclides as air pollutants or air contaminants. And finally, in 1976, the Environmental Protection Agency set an acceptable radioactivity limit for drinking water of 1 millisievert, or that can be translated into 0.1 rem [Rontgen equivalent man] per year.
How about radionuclides in food? One would think that this history would provide a very good logic for establishing limits for radionuclides in food. But as the Chernobyl event in 1986 unfolded, we realized that we were not alone in not having any sort of limits for radionuclides in food. Neither did any of the European Union nations, so trade was completely disrupted, tens of billions of dollars of food was lost following the Chernobyl event because Italy had one standard for acceptable contamination, whereas Germany had another. All the nations had different standards. But just keep this in mind, that the United States still has no maximum permissible limits.
The take-away point here, simply when secrecy is combined with the absence of environmental and health surveillance, the public opinion and politics favor the development of hazardous technologies. In this case, this knowledge was controlled by elites and then released selectively to an unknowing public in an attempt to encourage them to favor continued atomic weapons testing.
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