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Editorial Director of US.News & World Report

obody can escape Chernobyl. Even as Mikhail Gorbachev made his lamentably late public statement 18 days after the disaster, his radioactive rain was falling on the United States. Low levels of the dangerous iodine 131 were turning up in milk in Western states. The findings were accompanied, as usual, by official statements that there is nothing to worry about. But there is. There may be no cause for immediate alarm, but there is durable cause for skepticism because the history of radiation is a history of assurances falsified by time. Chernobyl will yield some benefit if it forces everyone to confront that issue squarely and, of course, soberly. Gorbachev was disingenuous when he denied that the Soviets had delayed warning their neighbors, but unhappily he was able to find refuge in criticism of sensationalism in the Western media. Headlines such as the New York Post's "15,000 Buried in Mass Grave" are not merely wild; they divert attention from the more insidious issue of the effects of radiation over long periods. The mortal words on the subject of the risks from fallout were uttered not by Gorbachev but by Dr. Bill Burr, deputy director at the Energy Research and Development Administration's division of biomedical and environmental research in June, 1977: "Let's face it, the U.S. goofed." Dr. Burr was commenting on the prevalence of thyroid cancer in natives of the Marshall Islands 23 years after the U.S. bomb tests. The theory when we set off the bombs was that islanders received only low-level radiation so that a detailed follow-up was not necessary. It was wrong. That was not an aberration. From Hiroshima on, most of the statements on radiation, mainly by physicists on corporate and government grants, have been proven blindly optimistic. We were told no one was at risk from small doses of radiation below a certain safety "threshold." In 1980, an expert panel of the National Academy of Sciences confirmed wha.t the biologists had long been saying: There is no such threshold. Every increment of radiation increases the risk of a cancer or of genetic damage for succeeding generations. Clearly, some risks have to be taken for the



benefit of medical diagnosis, but the concept of the threshold was less concerned with X-rays than with calming public anxiety about involuntary radiation from weapons fallout and nuclear power and resisting compensation claims from Army veterans, power-plant workers and the citizen victims living downwind of the Nevada test site. And despite the effective rebuttal of the threshold, we are even now fed pablum about "acceptable" levels of radiation. Acceptable to whom? The answer is that they are acceptable to successive bureaucracies in all the nuclear powers that have fought hard to keep the truth from the people. The Department of Energy cut off a longterm research contract with Dr. Thomas Mancuso of the University of Pittsburgh when in 1975 he started coming up with findings linking cancer deaths at the government's Hanford, Wash., plant with exposure to low-level radiation. Dr. Robert Pendleton of the University of Utah was cut off when he began to finger high radiation from underground testing in 1974. Crucial medical records were destroyed at Oak Ridge, Tenn. And only last month, the Department of Energy tried to conceal yet another release of radiation from the Nevada test site. That this nuclear testing is obnoxious and unnecessary, as I believe, is a proposition that some would debate. But who can defend the absurdity that most of the money for radiation-health-effects research comes from the Department of Energy, which has a vested interest in nuclear power and weapons testing? And why should military nuclear stations escape the scrutiny of the already limp Nuclear Regulatory Commission? Einstein warned that we had unleashed a malevolent genie. Would that it could be speedily bottled up again. By the end of this century, all the peoples of the world may be exposed to twice the level of radiation from natural sources. Between 1971 and 1984, there were 151 significant nuclear-safety incidents in 14 countries. We cannot afford any more accidents. We ought not to tolerate the specious glosses on our predicament. They are nothing less than a betrayal of mankind. •


U.S.NEWS & WORLD REPORT, May 26 , 1986