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United States: Washington Journal: U.S. Pays For Cold War Experiments

  • Julie Moffett

Washington, 21 November 1996 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. government has agreed to pay $4.8 million to settle the claims of 12 persons who were unknowingly subjects of radiation experiments conducted during the Cold War.

U.S. Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary said on Tuesday that the cash settlement was part of an ongoing effort by the government to make amends for experiments conducted by the Defense Department and the Atomic Energy Commission on unwitting patients. The experiments began in 1946 and continued into the mid-1970's.

The current settlement centers on particular experiments that were conducted primarily at a hospital in the northeastern state of New York. There are still thousands of other cases pending.

Records of the classified experiments which were made public in 1993 and 1994 on O'Leary's orders indicate that the radiation experiments were intended to help U.S. scientists and doctors understand the effects a nuclear fallout would have on the human body.

Many political observers believe the experiments were fueled by the Cold War and the fear of a nuclear holocaust if the Soviet Union and United States ever went to war.

Dr. William Kincade, a professor of history at American University in Washington, D.C., told RFE/RL: "You have to understand, the Cold War created a rivalry that resulted in a number of radiation experiments by both governments."

Kincade said the race to be prepared in the event of a nuclear catastrophe drove both governments to conduct highly unethical research on unwitting citizens in an attempt to be the first to understand the complexities and potential application of the science.

Records of the U.S. radiation experiments indicate the research was often conducted with little concern for the patient's well-being.

One woman received 43 times the amount of radiation an average person absorbs in a lifetime. Others received direct injections of plutonium and uranium into their bloodstreams.

Eleven of the people who were named in the suit are now deceased. All of them were injected with high doses of plutonium. The only survivor, a woman who still lives in New York and is now in her 70's, was injected with uranium.

Doctors and scientists who are currently reviewing the released data say that because of the small number of subjects, it is impossible to determine for certain whether or not the victims died as a result of the experiments. But many of the patients' families reported a long string of strange illnesses that plagued their loved ones for many years.

However, there are some people who believe the radiation experiments, although highly unethical, also led to medical breakthroughs. An unnamed government official quoted in the "Los Angeles Times" said the experiments were instrumental in diagnosing and treating thyroid problems, heart disease, cancer and other conditions.

But would the experiments have been conducted if not for rivalry of the Cold War?

"That's a difficult question to answer," said Kincade. "The Cold War certainly heightened the desire of both governments to know more about the science, including its effect on the human body."

Kincade said he believes the fierce competition between the two countries resulted in a complete disregard for ethical and acceptable scientific methods.

It also accounted for the secrecy.

"It is important to remember that both governments wanted to focus public attention on the explosive power of nuclear energy, not the consequences of what a fallout might mean to the human body," Kincade said.

He added: "If the general public was fully aware of the destructive nature of radiation to humans, then they would also be aware of the possibility that a radiation cloud might someday float back over them. Understandably, this would not encourage popular support for the issue."