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Opinion Column
For the week of May 31 through June 6, 2000

Finally—our government’s first step toward radiation accountability

Commentary by DICK DORWORTH


"We can now say, there cannot be a safe dose of radiation. There is no safe threshold. If the truth is known, then any permitted radiation is a permit to commit murder."

- John Gofman, professor of molecular and cell biology, University of California at Berkeley.


Just weeks ago, the U.S. government announced that it would "right the wrongs of the past" by unveiling plans to pay more than $400 million in compensation to thousands of ailing workers who were exposed to radiation while building the country’s nuclear arsenal.

For many reasons, this is good news. Righting past wrongs is good practice, good karma, good juju, and good for the soul as well as the material world. It is an official gesture that every responsible, thinking citizen should support, encourage, applaud…..and carefully watch. For it is only good news if it is the first step in a very long journey to governmental, industrial and—since governments and industries are neither faceless nor mechanistic—personal accountability for the horrors they have unleashed upon the citizenry, the environment and the wildlife of the world.

For more than 50 years the United States government and the nuclear industry (which works for which is a question that has not been publicly debated nearly enough) irresponsibly and knowingly exposed tens (hundreds?) of thousands (millions?) of American citizens to radiation, maybe many more.

These included other people than workers in the nuclear industry. Soldiers were marched through ground zero minutes after above ground atomic bomb tests in Nevada in the 1950s. Hospital patients were unknowingly injected with radiation to see what would happen. Private citizens all over America, particularly the "downwinders" of Utah and Idaho, were exposed to radiation fallout from those same bombs. And on and on and on.

For years the scientists who work for the U.S. government downplayed the dangers of radiation by, among other strategies, terms like "acceptable levels of radiation." It is a disingenuous term of nonsense. John Gofman, Professor of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California at Berkeley, co-discoverer of uranium-232 and uranium-233, founder and former Director of the Lawrence Livermore biomedical program, and an outspoken and knowledgeable critic of the Atomic Energy Commission and the Department of Energy, says, "…ionizing radiation is not like a poison out of a bottle where you can dilute it and dilute it. The lowest dose of ionizing radiation is one nuclear track through one cell. You can’t have a fraction of a dose of that sort. Either a track goes through the nucleus and affects it, or it doesn’t.

"So I said, ‘What evidence do we have concerning one, or two or three or four or six or 10 tracks?’ And I came up with nine studies of cancer being produced where we’re dealing with up to maybe eight or 10 tracks per cell. Four involved breast cancer.

"With those studies, as far as I’m concerned, it’s not a question of ‘We don’t know.’ The DOE has never refuted this evidence. They just ignore it, because it’s inconvenient. We can now say, there cannot be a safe dose of radiation. There is no safe threshold. If the truth is known, then any permitted radiation is a permit to commit murder."

If this initial gesture to "right the wrongs of the past" is not a first step, but, rather, an attempt at closing a shameful chapter in this country’s history, then the $400 million is only blood money, a salve for bad conscience, a bribe for including evil at the table of human decency, a payoff to try covering over all the malignant horrors the U.S. government and nuclear industry have inflicted upon the land and its creatures since the beginning of the atomic era.

It must not be forgotten that only in January of this year, after decades of denial, obfuscation, bogus science and outright lies, did the U.S. government confirm that nuclear weapons workers exposed to radiation and chemicals experienced higher-than-expected cancer rates. Many honest scientists, nuclear cancer victims, thoughtful people with common sense, as well as dishonest scientists, nuclear industry administrators and thoughtful people with an agenda in government, had known this for decades. But only after years of lawsuits brought against the government by cancer victims, years of nuclear workers’ medical records mysteriously vanishing, years of a whistle-blower here and there, years of uncovering more and more evidence of the correlation between radiation exposure and cancer, years of lobbying, years of death and sickness and indescribable suffering and anguish did this crack of a gesture appear in the government’s wall of silence, stonewalling and denial.

Gofman has said of science in government work, "It’s really a rather common story. There’s just no room for scientific truth in government-funded work when the truth in any way goes against a program that the government—or any of its special interests—wants to carry through. And I believe it’s an outrage that we’re taxed to support dishonest scientists…or to finance science that’s being paid to provide a facade.

"It is to be hoped that this first crack in the nuclear facade will widen and bring the entire edifice down."

Vice President Al Gore said of this initial step to "right the wrongs of the past" that compensation cannot undo the suffering of injured workers, but that "today this administration begins the process of compensating workers for their suffering and becoming an advocate for all contract workers no matter where they worked."

It is to be hoped that Gore is correct and that "the process of compensating workers" is only the first step.

If it is not the first step but only a salve and a bribe, the suffering at the table of human decency has just begun and the permits to commit murder will continue to be issued.

 

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