Answers pledged on radiation

January 04, 1994|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- As calls continue to pour into a Department of Energy hot line for those who suspect they were victims of federal radiation experiments, the White House yesterday gathered together top officials from across the government to "get to the bottom of" secret Cold War-era human testing.

Senior officials from the departments of Energy, Defense, Health and Human Services, Justice and Veterans Affairs, the National Security Council, Office of Management and Budget and NASA will meet once a week to answer questions that were brought to light during 1986 congressional hearings, but have been dismissed until now, said White House Communications Director Mark Gearan.

"Two administrations have failed to answer some very troubling questions," said Mr. Gearan. "What we're committed to is getting to the bottom of the information and stepping up to the plate."

Mr. Gearan said the interagency group would coordinate the administration's efforts in uncovering the magnitude of the government's radiation testing, which began in the 1940s and involved at least 800 people. The effort will require the examination of millions of pages of previously classified documents that describe chilling nuclear-age experiments, including giving pregnant women radiation pills and injecting hospital patients with highly radioactive plutonium.

The White House spokesman also said the administration would "consider" financial compensation for victims who suffered from government-sponsored experiments, cautiously backing up Energy Secretary Hazel R. O'Leary's call for such awards last week.

"If it's determined that American people were wronged, we would have to consider what appropriate compensation and assistance would be," Mr. Gearan said. "We would work with the Congress on that and consult with them on what that would be."

Ms. O'Leary launched an investigation last month into tests conducted in the 1940s and 1950s by the Atomic Energy Commission, the forerunner of the Energy Department, as part of what she called her department's "new commitment to openness."

Other reports -- including a lengthy 1986 report by Representative Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts entitled "American Nuclear Guinea Pigs: Three Decades of Radiation Experiments on U.S. Citizens" -- have stated that such experiments were performed on prisoners, mental patients and others, sometimes without the subjects' informed consent.

Mr. Markey, who met with White House officials in a separate meeting yesterday, said he was assured by the administration that all federal agencies, including the CIA, would cooperate in a nationwide "scouring" for subjects of nuclear testing.

Mr. Markey, whose report described 31 experiments conducted across the country from the 1940s through the 1970s involving nearly 700 individuals, said it was impossible to know how many people should be compensated or how much such awards would cost the government.

But he called for a nationwide effort to identify victims and their families, determine through medical analyses the harm they've suffered and compensate them for any damages.

"We cannot afford not to compensate people," he said. ". . . We have a moral and legal obligation."

His report, which included such experiments as exposing the testicles of prison inmates to high levels of radiation through X-rays, was based on Energy Department records alone. "It's impossible to tell whether my study was the iceberg, or only the tip of the iceberg," he said.

The recent effort spearheaded by the Energy Department was sparked by a series of articles published in November by the Albuquerque Tribune about five hospital patients who were injected with plutonium with out their informed consent.

Last week, the Boston Globe reported that dozens of retarded teen-agers were fed radioactive milk and cereal as part of a series of tests at the Fernald State School in Waltham, Mass., over a decade beginning in 1946. The tests were conducted by researchers from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In recent weeks the department has set up a hot line (1-800-493-2998) to answer questions and collect new information on such nuclear experimentation, and has so far received about 10,000 calls.

Other government agencies are conducting similar examinations of their own participation in such Cold War testing. Veterans affairs Secretary Jesse Brown said the VA is asking veterans service organizations to help raise awareness of the probe.

NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin said yesterday he would ensure that any human experimentation sponsored by the agency was made public.

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