Botched atomic fallout shelter study put millions at relief

By Peter Eisler
Copyright 1998 USA Today
September 16, 1998

WASHINGTON -- Federal scientists mismanaged a controversial study on fallout from Cold War atomic bomb tests, failing to detail nationwide health risks and stalling publication for five years, Senate investigators say.

In an internal memo prepared for senators leading a hearing on the matter today, investigators say the National Cancer Institute "virtually shelved" findings that fallout from Nevada tests spread over much of the nation.

Millions of Americans didn't learn for years that their exposure to radiation may have left them with a higher-than-usual risk of thyroid cancer.

The study, which tracked fallout from the 100 above-ground explosions at the Nevada Test Site from 1951-1962, was drafted in 1992. But it wasn't released until USA TODAY detailed its findings in July 1997 -- nearly 15 years after Congress ordered it.

"At almost every juncture, when officials confronted a choice of providing detailed information to the public in a timely fashion or (limiting) public access to its research . . . it chose the latter," said the memo, prepared by investigators working for Sen. John Glenn of Ohio, ranking Democrat on the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs.

Investigators also assailed the study's authors for failing to assess health risks associated with the radiation doses, noting that subsequent calculations tied the fallout to somewhere between 11,000 and 212,000 thyroid cancers.

Earlier this month, a blue-ribbon panel of scientists at the Institute of Medicine confirmed the fallout study's findings, which showed that people who were children in the Rocky Mountain states and parts of the farm belt at the time of the tests likely received the most radiation.

But the panel urged the government not to undertake medical screening or other services, concluding that such efforts would have little chance of accurately identifying fallout-related illnesses.

At today's hearing, Glenn will ask officials who oversaw the fallout study to respond to his investigators' findings.

Richard Klausner, director of the National Cancer Institute, said the study's release was delayed unnecessarily. "A more clear, more rapid and more aggressive plan for dissemination of the results was called for," Klausner said.

But the memo by Glenn's investigators alleges deeper problems. Among the findings:

-- The cancer institute and the Department of Health and Human Services "performed virtually no oversight" of the project after Congress' request in 1982. Decisions to delay its completion went unnoticed by top officials.

-- The study ignored Congress' order that the report assess public health risks from the fallout. Thyroid cancer estimates prepared after the report's release were "last minute," lacking context.

-- The cancer institute ignored "potential . . . conflicts of interest" by assigning the study to a scientist who had worked for agencies that ran the nuclear weapons program. That scientist, Bruce Wachholz, also helped defend the government in suits filed by people claiming fallout-related ills.

The National Cancer Institute took issue with the conflict of interest question, saying Wachholz's experience was the reason he was chosen. "We needed an outstanding radiobiologist to oversee the radiation fallout study," said spokesman Paul Van Nevel.

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