WASHINGTON -- The U.S. government should compensate victims of radiation testing conducted as part of its Cold War nuclear program, Energy Secretary Hazel R. O'Leary said yesterday as disclosures mounted about extensive experiments involving humans as often-unwitting subjects.
"We ought to go forward and explain to the Congress what has happened and let the Congress of the United States and the American public determine what would be appropriate compensation," Ms. O'Leary said in an interview on Cable News Network.
Ms. O'Leary's comments marked the first time the federal government has indicated that it is willing to acknowledge liability for possible harm done by hundreds of government-funded tests conducted from the late 1940s into the 1970s. Government compensation for test victims across the country could total hundreds of millions of dollars and could end in costly lawsuits brought by several citizen groups.
Ms. O'Leary said that up to 800 people were subjected to the experiments and exposed to potentially harmful amounts of radiation, some apparently without their informed consent.
Under Ms. O'Leary, the department has vowed to "come clean" on the secrets of nuclear testing. Her department and an independent task force it has named are conducting investigations of dozens and possibly hundreds of government-sponsored experiments in which humans were subjected to radiation.
The Energy Department established a toll-free phone line late last week for individuals to call if they believe they have been subjects in a test involving radiation.
Since last Friday, the department has received roughly 100 calls per day.
In recent months, reports on radiation testing have cited experimentsthat included conducting nuclear tests over populated areas and injecting patients, including newborn babies, with plutonium and radioactive iodine.
Asked yesterday if the disclosures leave the government vulnerable to lawsuits, Ms. O'Leary said: "My view is that we must proceed with disclosing these facts and information regardless of the fact of whether it opens the door for a lawsuit against the government. Many have suggested, and I tend to agree personally, that those people who were wronged need to be compensated."
A report yesterday said that a top radiation biologist warned in 1950 that the research had "a little of the Buchenwald touch," a reference to a Nazi concentration camp where medical experiments were carried out on inmates.
Dr. Joseph Hamilton, who worked for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, made the analogy to Buchenwald in a memo outlining his concerns about experiments designed to gauge levels of radiation that would injure soldiers.
According to the New York Times, which quoted from Dr. Hamilton's memo in yesterday's editions, Dr. Hamilton warned that officials "would be subject to considerable criticism" for conducting experiments that exposed people to potentially harmful doses of radiation.
If Congress approves compensation for subjects of radiation experiments, the payments would likely ease the legal barriers for many who have sought reparations from the U.S. government. Courts have frequently turned away suits in such cases.
At the same time, however, a decision to compensate for radiation experiments could limit strictly the amounts the victims could receive.
One expert suggested such a decision also could give momentum to hundreds of claims that have been filed by workers at U.S. nuclear production plants, many of whom allege they have been exposed to unsafe levels of radiation.
"If we're going to engage in a debate over what to do with [unwitting victims of] dangerous radiation, we should include in their numbers those who were exposed on the front lines of the Cold War: the nuclear production workers, who were no less exposed," said Paul DeMarco, a Cincinnati attorney who has handled several class-action suits against the government on behalf of nuclear workers.