IN 1950, SCIENTISTS began collecting data on the

casualties of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Through interviews and cross-checking of medical records, this Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission punched into computer models what will be, God willing, the only authoritative survey of the effects of high- and low-dose radiation on an unprotected public.

There are flaws in the ABCC study; for one thing, the radiation patterns of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs have never been--and never can be--precisely calculated. Since this survey was not begun until five years after the blasts, important information had already been lost. Also, much of the data was collected before the expiration of the latency period for many cancers. Scientifically, however, its principal defect is that the raw data on which conclusions about radiological effects have been based have never been released and so are unverifiable.

Nevertheless, the ABCC studies are--and should be-- respected. But no more than anything else in science, do its methodology and its conclusions deserve to be graven onto stone tablets. Subsequent research has called into question some of the findings of scientists from Archimedes down to Einstein. Why not ABCC? There is evidence that radiation, from bomb-test fallout, from nuclear-reactor "incidents," even from X-rays, has produced deaths and genetic effects not envisioned by the ABCC study. And there is evidence of a cover-up of these effects that makes Watergate, by comparison, look like a third- graders' cabal. Nobody died in Watergate, but people went to jail for it. What should be done about a 30-year conspiracy to conceal the cause of the 10,000 leukemia casualties that Linus Pauling estimates?

Effectively, these three books cover this conspiracy. Killing Our Own records its extent, tracking it into the White House of Truman and Eisenhower, who told the Atomic Energy Commission to obfuscate what was being learned about nuclear effects and leave the nasty word "thermonuclear" out of future press releases. Countdown Zero puts this cover-up on a personal level, telling the stories of victims who tried for years to establish that they were being killed by the latent effects of fallout from nuclear bomb tests. And Nuclear Culture reports on life around the Hanford nuclear reservation in eastern Washington, where for solid economic reasons --some 22,000 workers receive hourly salaries $3 or $4 above comparable averages--people choose not to learn the sorry lesson of this history.

In its way, this last book is the most disturbing. Reading Loeb's account of three extensive visits to the Tri Cities of Richland, Kennewick and Pasco, Washington, is a little like watching the recent Atomic Cafe film. The "boomtown cowboys" who poured into this region in 1943 when the Manhattan Project began building the reactors that fueled the first nuclear bombs created what they viewed as "the atomic age equivalent of a homey small town," and even today, he finds it "sufficiently secure and guileless that ten-speed bikes are left unattended on Richland front lawns, that people I'd just met would invite me into their homes and fix me tunafish sandwiches."

However, it is entirely a company town where the high school teams play under the name of the "Bombers," and part of their insignia pictures a mushroom cloud. The young nuclear boomers there, Loeb says, "ride their drug roller coasters, grab their sex on the run and seize all manner of other instant highs," while "the old hands, who have a stake in the surroundings that have now become their home, value restraint and order far too much to ever challenge official institutions."

What these Tri Citians least want to hear about are the effects of bomb tests, medical and workplace radiation and the contamination of air and water consumed by an uninformed, and unsuspecting public. The four authors of Killing Our Own tell--effectively--what happened to the residents of some other "homey small towns," that happened to be downwind of the Nevada test site, places like St. George, Utah and Fredonia, Arizona, where cancers and leukemias, unheard of before, became endemic after the bomb tests. More important, they show that literally thousands of victims, civilians and servicemen, were exposed without either protection or adequate warning to dangers that were well known to scientists--who wore anti-radiation covers while they scurried around the Nevada test site taking measurements from troops who were protected only by fatigues.

Would Hollywood executives have chosen the desert near St. George to film The Conquerer in 1954 if they had been told that Public Health Service surveys of bomb-test fallout there had been suppressed by the Atomic Energy Commission? Ninety-one members of that film's cast and crew of 220 had contracted cancer by 1980, and among those who died of it were producer Dick Powell, Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead, Pedro Armedariz and John Wayne. "Please, God, don't let us have killed John Wayne," a Defense Nuclear Agency aide subsequently prayed to a reporter from People Magazine.

Thomas H. Saffer and Orville E. Kelly, one-time military "observers" of atmospheric nuclear tests, bring this shameful story home in Countdown Zero. Saffer, a lieutenant, was told he had been "a real pioneer in experimentation" after he and fellow Marines climbed from trenches positioned two miles from ground zero of a 38- kiloton air blast. (The Marines had secured this eminent vantage point after threatening to withdraw from the Nevada tests unless they were allowed closer to them than previous Army observers.) Kelly, an Army noncom who lined up 22 times to watch Eniwetok explosions, has since died of the cancer that he fought for years to establish was attributable to his exposure.

Altogether, more than 200,000 servicemen participated in these tests--but it would be wrong to call them guinea pigs--guinea pigs, at least, would have been monitored and cared for. So far, 98 percent of these victims have been unable to get the Veterans Administration or, in fact, any part of the federal government, to allow their claims.

Although Saffer attributes this principally to the large cost of honoring Lincoln's pledge "to care for him who shall have borne the battle," he also offers this 1980 conclusion submitted on behalf of the Defense Department by its General Counsel William H. Taft IV, who wrote that a Senate proposal to grant this relief would create "the unmistakable impression that exposure to low-level ionizing radiation is a significant health hazard when available scientific and medical evidence simply does not support that contention. This mistaken impression has the potential to be seriously damaging to every aspect of the Department of Defense's nuclear weapons and nuclear propulsion programs. The legislation could adversely affect our relation with our European allies, impact upon the nuclear power industry, and raise questions regarding the use of radioactive substances in medical diagnosis and treatment."

Tragically, the "unmistakable impression" isn't a "mistaken impression" after all.