Preserving fallout data called vital for research
Salt Lake City
Dec 25, 2005
by Joe Bauman Deseret Morning News
Peter Rickards is thrilled about Congress' passing a measure that requires preservation of military records on fallout from nuclear testing. He says he knows what might happen to the records if the government is not forced to keep them.
The provision, sponsored in the House of Representatives by Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, became part of the Defense Department Appropriations Bill that has passed both chambers. Final action came Thursday.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, Rickards experienced the destruction of valuable fallout records while he served on a citizens advisory committee for a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study seeking to reconstruct radiation doses from nuclear material that had leaked from the Idaho National Laboratory.
"We had hundreds of boxes of documents earmarked for archiving that were destroyed right at the moment . . . right during their study," he said. "The DOE (U.S. Department of Energy) took boxes that were earmarked for archiving by the CDC and destroyed them."
Rickards, a podiatrist in Twin Falls, Idaho, has closely followed the fallout debate. He believes it's important to save whatever records still remain.
Although the National Laboratory, based in southwestern Idaho, did not produce atomic blast fallout, the Department of Energy facility did leak radiation. And fallout from nuclear weapons testing during the 1950s and '60s contributed to the overall radiation exposure in the region.
Winds blowing from the Nevada Test Site did not always deposit the radioactive dust near the NTS. A 1997 study by the National Cancer Institute says Montana and Idaho were slammed by fallout worse than other parts of the country, even harder hit than southwestern Utah, which is close to the NTS. Four of the five counties with most fallout are in Idaho and the fifth is in Montana, according to the institute.
Sorting out the history of radiation exposure is difficult, with researchers relying on scanty data. That's why Rickards and others feel it is imperative to preserve whatever information is available.
"The government does regularly dispose of older documents," he said, "and in this case they have a vested interest in destroying all of the great fallout data." That was data, he hastened to add, "which the CDC refused to use" in its study.
During many of the nuclear tests, according to Rickards, Defense Department aircraft tracked the plumes of atomic debris. They recorded where plumes went, levels of fallout, and where rain fell, he said.
Rain sometimes caused radioactive dust to fall from the plume.
Concerned about possible destruction of records, the National Academy of Sciences addressed the issue in a 2003 report reviewing a draft study by the CDC and the National Cancer Institute.
The report, "Exposure of the American Population to Radioactive Fallout from Nuclear Weapons Tests: A Review of the CDC-NCI Draft Report on a Feasibility Study of the Health Consequences to the American Population from Nuclear Weapons Tests Conducted by the United States and Other Nations." It is available on the Internet at books.nap.edu/books/0309087139/html.
The committee of the National Academy that reviewed the draft report recommended that Congress take action to protect the records.
"Data searches and cataloging will not be possible if the underlying records and related material are destroyed," the academy noted. "Recognizing that, DOE (Department of Energy) has placed a moratorium on the destruction of possibly relevant records.
"At present, there is no such moratorium on the destruction of DOD (Department of Defense) fallout-related records."
The academy recommended that the CDC "urge Congress to prohibit the destruction of relevant records held by federal agencies and the permit appropriate access to them."
Rickards said the destruction of DOE records was only for the duration of the Centers of Disease Control studies, "and needs to be made permanent."
Matheson's bill, the Department of Defense Historical Radiation Records Preservation Act, requires the department to "identify, preserve and publish" information in the records, says a release from Matheson's office.
"The NAS study found that both the Navy and the Air Force have important documents that should be archived," says the release.
Lynn R. Anspaugh, a research professor of radiobiology at the University of Utah, said preserving the records will help historians and scientists find answers about fallout.
Fallout is of interest to the country, Anspaugh said. "A lot of people think they were very much harmed by this activity."
The old records "really ought to be preserved for future scholarly activities," he said. Knowing the facts is better than "a lot of conspiracy theories and so forth," he said.
He has not heard about any ongoing effort to destroy the records and he would be a little surprised to hear of any such action. Anspaugh added, "I'm more concerned about neglect" of the information. Without protecting it, someday material "might get thrown out."
Anspaugh has been working with fallout research most of his professional life and was part of the first major reconstruction effort to calculate dosage to people living downwind.
"It's a difficult problem and I don't think we've seen the last word yet on what the actual doses were to people," he said.
F. Owen Hoffman, a Ph.D. environmental scientist who has worked with University of Utah researchers reconstructing fallout information, was pleased with the bill.
"I believe that it is imperative that these historic records be archived and preserved," he said in an e-mail note to the Deseret Morning News.
"Such monitoring records contain information of relevance to the scientific community and to those interested in full accountability of the public health legacy of the Cold War era."
Hoffman, based in Oak Ridge, Tenn., added that fallout records could be the basis for follow-up studies attempting to evaluate health risks from nuclear weapons.
Rickards said destruction of the fallout records would fit an unfortunate pattern, in which "the United States government is still refusing to take responsibility for the damage we have done to our own people."
According to Rickards, archiving Defense Department records could allow future researchers to reconstruct the impacts of nuclear testing.
"This is extremely important," Rickards said, because with the information protected, future researchers may be able to make much more detailed calculations of the harm caused by fallout.
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