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Nuclear Rocket Dumped Radiation on Los Angeles Residents in 1965 Test

By Melissa Healy
Los Angeles Times

A federal agency's test of a nuclear-powered rocket in 1965 produced a radioactive cloud that drifted over Los Angeles before dissipating over the Pacific Ocean, according to a lawmaker who charged Wednesday that the area's 6 million residents were used as human guinea pigs in the experiment.

Citing documents released by the Energy Department in recent weeks, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said the radioactive cloud of nuclear material was the result of an "intentional accident" designed to monitor the effects of a malfunction aboard the rocket.

While radioactivity levels were extremely low and unlikely to have caused illnesses, Markey said "an intentional reactor accident releasing a radioactive cloud should not be considered prudent public policy."

The incident is the latest disclosed as a result of an Energy Department effort to expose government testing programs in which humans may have been exposed to radiation without their knowledge or informed consent. A panel of scientists and ethicists commissioned by Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary is investigating a range of radiation experiments involving humans between 1945 and the late 1970s. The panel also is expected to recommend compensation and medical follow-up for victims.

In a letter sent to O'Leary Wednesday, Markey urged the secretary to refer the rocket test to the investigating panel for consideration as a human experiment. If the panel accepts the experiment as an episode of human experimentation, Los Angeles residents who can demonstrate they were affected by the test could be eligible for some compensation. More likely, however, area residents would be subject to efforts to trace the long-term health effects of the test.

"The history of the Atomic Energy Commission's nuclear-powered rocket program is already one of unrestrained radioactive hubris," Markey wrote in a letter to O'Leary.

The test was conducted by the Atomic Energy Commission, a predecessor of the Energy Department, with the assistance of the U.S. Public Health Service and a private contractor.

At 10:58 a.m. PST on Jan. 12, 1965, scientists conducted what they called a "controlled excursion."

The rocket took off from Jackass Flats at the Nevada Test Site and burned off part of its radioactive core in a spectacle that scientists said "resembled a Roman candle." Prevailing winds pushed the resulting cloud of radioactive debris Southwest from the test site, over Death Valley, and then onward over "the Los Angeles area," according to the documents. Aircraft stopped tracking the cloud when it drifted over the Pacific Ocean.

Public Health officials taking routine air samples from Barstow, San Bernardino, Los Angeles and San Diego observed "increased radioactivity" on the two days following the test, according to a 1968 report prepared by the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

In fact, levels of radiation released in the experiment were lower than scientists had predicted they would be, the Los Alamos report observed. At 15 miles from the test site, the maximum level of whole-body radiation exposure was measured at 5.7 millirad. That is well below current standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency for the exposure of the general public from commercial atomic power operations. Those standards dictate that over one year, a member of the general public should not be exposed to more than 25 millirad whole-body radiation.

Experts said that if individuals were exposed to 5.7 millirad at 15 miles from the test site, those in Los Angeles, some 200 miles away, would have had significantly lighter exposures. It is thus doubtful, said one aide to Markey, that the test caused measurable health effects among residents of the Los Angeles area.

But Markey and O'Leary have argued that even if exposure levels do not themselves prompt concern, the emerging picture of early radiation testing raises serious questions about the ethical standards observed by the federal government enforced in its experimental programs.