DOE Openness: Human Radiation Experiments: Roadmap to the Project
Chapter 11: ConclusionWhile the intentional releases described in this chapter put people at risk from radiation exposures, with limited exception, they were not undertaken for the purpose of gathering research data on humans. Thus, in contrast with the biomedical experiments studied by the Advisory Committee, they were not intended as human experiments.
Fifty years ago, unlike today, there was no formal and published body of laws that defined and limited the ability of the government to release potentially hazardous substances into the environment. Nonetheless, the duty to limit risk and, by implication, the duty to balance risks against potential benefits was understood by those who engaged in intentional releases. In the case of the Green Run, risk from the intentional release could be gauged against preexisting guidelines for operational releases; in the case of radiological warfare tests, a separate safety panel was established to consider releases.
The intentional releases studied by the Committee often engaged national security interests and were conducted in secret. However legitimate and well-motivated the releases were, security classification prevented any public notice or discussion of the Green Run--an experiment conducted for intelligence purposes--the radiological weapons field tests, or the RaLa experiments testing atomic bomb components. The essentially complete secrecy surrounding these tests prevented any warnings that might have allowed members of the public to protect themselves from whatever risks might have been inherent in the tests.
In retrospect, and with limited information, it is difficult to know whether and how national security interests affected the decisions to conduct these intentional releases. In the case of the Green Run, for example, how did decision makers seek to balance the national security interests in learning about Soviet bomb testing (and the risks of not performing the Green Run and thus not gaining relevant information) against the potential risks to the local population of the release?
The health and safety risks posed by the intentional releases appear in retrospect to have been negligible (the Green Run, for example, in comparison with other exposures at Hanford). But this does not mean that the intentional releases were without negative consequences. The secrecy that surrounded the conduct of these releases and the failure to deal forthrightly with citizens after the fact has taken a substantial toll. People living in the affected communities have been robbed of peace of mind, and the government has lost the trust of some of its citizens.
Could this happen again? Could there be another Green Run? The answer is a qualified yes.
In fact, an intentional release like the Green Run probably would not be contemplated (because the scientific and strategic value would seem minimal), but actions that raise similar concerns if undertaken in secrecy could still happen. Environmental regulations apply to secret programs, but the oversight procedures are not fully in place to ensure adherence to these regulations. The public review process that is at the heart of current environmental protections could be limited or rendered nonexistent if the government were to invoke exceptions for "national security interest" to avoid these constraints.
Any government action that is conducted in secret is likely to cause suspicion and distrust, even if the risks to members of the public are minimal or nonexistent. Public policy should operate with a strong presumption favoring public disclosure and openness. There doubtless are limited circumstances under which it is justifiable to conduct an intentional release in secret. The lesson of the Green Run and the other intentional releases is, however, that unless great care is taken to preserve and honor the public's trust, the cost to the body politic of such an action is likely to be substantial. The Committee believes that the current regulatory structure does not go far enough in this regard. Provisions must be made for timely public disclosure, and records must be created and maintained capable of satisfying the affected populations that their interests have been protected. And mechanisms need to be developed to approximate the scrutiny of the public when security interests require the classification of environmental impact statements or otherwise limit disclosure of information to the public. Without such protections, the greatest casualty of the Green Run--the distrust it engendered--cannot be prevented in the future; where this happens, official concern that the public cannot be trusted to appreciate sometimes-complex information about health and safety will become an ever-more-corrosive self-fulfilling prophecy.