In 1952 and 1953, Pentagon officials disregarded warnings from Atomic Energy Commission health specialists and moved troops so close to atomic test explosions that they were exposed to higher blast and radiation levels than the civilan agency's scientists considered prudent, according to government documents made available to The Washington Post.
Decassified Army reports show that at one 1953 test, two Army battalions were in trenches just over two miles from a 52.5-kiloton shot.
At the same test, eight volunteer officers were entrenched just 2,000 yeards 1.2 miles from ground zero.
The Hiroshima bomb was rated at 12.5 kilotons.
The Army after-test reports also showed that volunteers in the forward trenches in the 1953 tests recorded radiation exposures of 10 to 16 roentgens. At the time of the 1950s tests, the AEC limited its personnel to 3.9 roentgens over a 13-week test period.
A roentgen is a measure of radiation absorbed by an individual. The current standard considered almost risk-free by the government is five roentgens over a 12-month period.
There is controversy over the longterm health effects of these low levels of radiation and a White House task force last week called for additional research to detremine whether the current levels are risk-free.
A government study of ex-GIs who had been in a 1957 Nevada nuclear test called Smoky has found twice as many leukemia cases as expected.
The Army and Marine Corps are now attempting to put together rosters of those who were in 1952 and 1953 tests.
The declassified Army after-test reports disclose, however, that individual GIs and Marines who took part in those large 1952 and 1953 troop maneuvers did not have film badges to record exposure. Because the Army photodosimetry unit was not fully staffed at the time, badges were given only to one of two men in a unit and their results applied to all the others.
Review of the documents nd reports discloses the AEC hesitated to approve the Pentagon plans in 1951 and 1952 meetings. Then, in late 1952, according to the documents, the Army was given full control over the radiological safety of its own men and the AEC standards were not followed.
The Korean War was on and the AEC, according to one paper, recornized "the necessity for realistic training by the military in all fields [is] often accompanied by serious injuries..."
The record shows, however, that the AEC insisted on a press release at the preshot news briefings which began: "The Department of Defense has assumed responsibility for the safety of troops participating in military exercises at the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission's Nevada Proving Grounds."
The Army, according to the AEC documents, beginning in late 1951 insisted it should control activities of its troops "within reasonable bounds of peacetime safety requirements" so that it could conduct "close-in operations... in the face of stomic explosions approximating as nearly as possible actual wartime conditions."
In 1951, when the AEC set the rules, the troops were kept in trenches seven miles from ground zero.
In a March 31, 1952, AEC report by the director of military application, the Pentagon proposed that "AEC allow troops to be stationed as close as 7,000 yards (3.9 miles) to ground zero."
The report also notes that "so strong is the feeling about this being a tactically realistic distance from ground zero that the Marines have stated they would not participate if the seven-mile limitation... were imposed again."
Dr. Shields Warren, in 1952 the director of AEC's division of biology and medicine, recommended against permitting troops closer than seven miles.
Warren noted that "while there is very little likelihood that the fallout of fission products would be a hazard... there is uncertainty of the factors controlling blast effects."
He also suggested that since the nuclear devices were experimental yields "cannot be predicted with accuracy."
The four 1952 troop tests went off without any major problems so that in the fall of that year the Army pressed for even more control.
The Army post-test report that year contained recommendations that troops be allowed even closer than 7,000 yards and that the Army be given "responsibility for the planning and implementation of its own radiological safety plans in future exercises..."
It also sought to have the radiation dosage limit for troops raised "materially above the present level of three roentgens."
AEC documents from 1952 and 1953 show the commission again had its doubts, but yielded to the military.
This time the rationale was that the AEC recognized "that doctrine on the tactical use of atomic weapons, as well as the hazards which military personnel are required to undergo during their training, must be evaluated and determined by the DOD."
Whe the Army noted it wanted to raise the minimum dosage to six roentgens, the AEC paper noted that "a maneuver where individuals are exposed to 3.9 r (the AEC limit) would be no less realistic..."
The 1953 troop tests were dogged by problems, according to the Army reports.
On the second shot of the series, a wind change brought the atomic cloud over the troops and fallout in the maneuver area.
So much of radioactive material was deposited in one area that troops had ot be withdrawn, the report said.
It noted, however, that the Army monitors, marching ahead of the troops, did not give "any indication of their readings to their unit commanders." When the radiological safety officer finally ordered the troops out, "the unit commanders seemed to experience difficulty in withdrawing their men," according to the report.
At another shot, a Marine unit ran into a radiation hot spot after the shot and had to withdraw with recorded dose levels of six roentgens.
When the 1953 shot series ended, the Army recommended "nuclear radiation tolerances be increased to permit maneuver closer to ground zero."
The service also asked that it be given "limited numbers of stockpile weapons" so that a large scale exercise could be planned "for which it is completely responsible."
The exercise, the report noted, would use "tow or more disisions attacking a simulated enemy after detonations of multiple burst of stockpile weapons and in conjunction with the coordinated fire of conventional weapons."