WASHINGTON -- The U.S. government exposed an untold number of Americans to radioactive fallout during a dozen secret weapons tests from 1948 to 1952, according to a report released yesterday.
The tests were kept secret for more than 40 years until the General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm, had the information declassified at the request of Sen. John Glenn, an Ohio Democrat.
"The Cold War frenzy which gripped the nation immediately after World War II created a climate where tests such as these were deemed necessary," Mr. Glenn said. "20/20 hindsight gives us a much different view. There is no justification for the government to keep this information secret."
Last week, Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary announced her intention to lift the secrecy that has shrouded nuclear weapons testing during the Cold War. She released information showing that 204 nuclear weapons tests had been conducted and that plutonium had been injected into 18 civilians during experiments in the 1940s.
Eight deliberate releases of radiation -- two in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and six in Dugway, Utah -- were part of an effort to develop a radioactive weapon, the GAO reported.
Four other tests were conducted in Los Alamos, N.M., to track thefallout after simulated nuclear devices were exploded. One radioactive cloud was tracked 70 miles east of Los Alamos. A second was found 10 miles to the north.
Workers at the sites undoubtedly were exposed to the releases, but without more detailed records, it's not possible to tell how many people were exposed or at what levels, said Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Takoma Park.
"This is the first step," said Mr. Makhijani, an electrical engineer specializing in nuclear fusion. "The Department of Energy and the military owe the American people a thorough and independent evaluation."
The GAO report represents the strongest evidence so far that the government was building a systematic radioactive warfare program in the 1940s, he said.
The new disclosures follow revelations in 1989 of experiments done in Hanford, Wash., that spread radiation over large areas of Washington and Oregon.