A Department of Energy official told a House subcommittee yesterday that at least 900 persons at atmospheric nuclear weapons tests in Nevada and the South Pacific from 1951 to 1962 received radiation exposure doses that exceeded then permissible levels.
In answer to questions from members of the House Commerce subcommittee on health and environment, Dr. Donald M. Kerr, acting assistant energy secretary for defense programs said his agency presently has no plans to conduct follow-up medical examination of the individuals involved.
His statement drew criticism from Chairman Paul Rogers (D-Fla.), who is directing the investigation into possible increased risk of leukemia and other cancers for soldiers who participated in nuclear weapons tests in the 1950s.
Rep Tim Lee Carter (Ky.), ranking GOP member of the subcommittee, asked Kerr about Baneberry, a 1970 underground shot run by DOE's predecessor agency, the Energy Research and Development Administration.
Baneberry vented and sent radioactive fallout 20,000 feet in the air. The fallout drifted over a nearby tent city where 900 test site employees had to be evacuated and 86 of them examined for higher, than normal radiation levels.
Since then, three persons involved in the accident have died in leukemia.
Two widows are suing the government.
Carter asked the DOE officials whether the fallout had caused the leukemia. The response was that DOE expert witnesses will testify at the lawsuit that the radiation that day did not.
"What did they do, eat some chocolates?" Carter a doctor himself, asked sarcastically.
Carter asked if DOE had one a followup on the 900 Baneberry victims and was told none had been done.
"How do you make a judgement unless you study these people?" Rogers asked.
Rogers noted that as successor agency to the Atomic Energy Commission, DOE, carries on research to determine radiation effects on humans.
After being told the $6 million is being spent this year studying Japanese survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Rogers exploded, saying, "Nothing near that is being used to follow American soldiers who were used in these [nuclear weapons] tests."
On Wednesday, the subcommittee was told that eight leukemia cases have been discovered among 500 soldiers who took part in one 1957 test nicknamed Smoky.
"You took no action on Smoky," Rogers told the DOE officials who were testifying. "It has to be activated by" the Atlanta-based federal Center or Disease Control.
Rogers added bitterly, "We'll never find out if low-level radiation has any effect if we don't look."
Kerr told the subcommittee that the Department of Defense in 1953 requested and received control for the radiological safety of military troops used in the Nevada tests.
At the time of Smoky, Kerr said, the Army forces "were independent and furnished their own radiological safety and support."
Kerr testified that since the "AEC was not responsible for troop activities" during Smoky, it was the Defense Department's responsibility to do any medical follow-up.
Dr. William Burr, DOE's deputy director of the division of biomedical and environmental research who controls human radiation research programs, said a study of the soldiers exposed to radiation in Smoky and other nuclear tests would be difficult because film badges, which registered some radiation exposures, were not given to all the troops.
Kerr said after the hearing. "It makes the scientific people nervous to make assumptions" as they would have to if they took up a study of the exposed soldiers.
Another commitee member, Rep. Douglas Walgren (D-Pa.), also criticized the DOE witnesses for the lack of interest in the soldiers who had been exposed to radiation at the nuclear tests.
"We have a record that is development evidence below level radiation being a serious health hazard," the freshmen congressman said, "and you people [referring to the DOE officials] institutionally or personally have not been suspicious . . . I'd feel much more comfortable if we had someone skeptical enough to believe that something adverse may be happening."