On Friday, March 28, after Pennsylvania's troubled Three Mile Island nuclear reactor had twice belched radio-active gases into the air, Gov. Richard Thornburgh posed a pregnant question to Joseph Hendrie, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
"Is there anyone in the country who has experience with the health consequences of such a release?" he asked.
Hendrie, whose specialty is nuclear reactor operations and not the health implications of their failure, responded: "Ah . . . not inthe sense that it's been studied and understood in any real way."
Hendrie was right. But it might not have been that way had the government heeded advice given more than 20 years ago to the U.S. surgeon general by a special consultant on radiation health.
In an October 1958 report, Dr. Russell H. Morgan, then chief of the Johns Hopkins Hospital department of radiology, recommended that radiation safety standards and health research be centralized in a single agency, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, according to documents obtained by the Washington Post.
Morgan's suggestion was not taken. But his report-which focused not only on radiation responsibility within the government but also on its health effects-is as pertinent today as when written. In many ways it shows how little progress has been made in this key area of public health concern.
Morgan, for example, noted in 1958 "uncertainty . . . where responsibility for radiation control lies in our governmental strucure."
That uncertainty persists today. A proposal is expected this week from a White House task force defining which agencies should control research and regulation in radiation health.
Morgan forecast in his 1958 report that radiation standards "will soon exert a profound influence on the U.S. economy" but said there was no "organized research effort focused directly on on the problem of providing scientific data specifically for use in standards development."
A major problem discussed in the recently released draft report of the White House radiation task force is a continued lack of overall direction in health research.
Pointedly, Morgan noted 21 years ago that it seemed "unwise" to give the Atomic Energy Commission the dual role of "promotion and development of atomic energy on the one hand and regulation of radiation safety on the other . . ."
"In its zeal to carry out its promotional activity," he wrote, the AEC may lose sight of its responsibilities in operational safety."
Morgan's solution was to focus radiation safety standards and research in HEW "in view of the large proportion of health and welfare problems involved in radiation safety."
Both the Eisenhower administration and Congress thought differently. Under public pressure to do something about the then newly discovered radiation problem, the Federal Radiation Council was established. But the public health research that Morgan emphasized was given minimal attention by that group.
Meanwhile, the NRC succeeded the AEC as the nuclear power regulator.
As NRC Chairman Hendrie's reply to Thornburgh illustrated, knowledge of health effects from radiation has not been one of his major concerns. Responding to the governor's question, he could cite only cases recently reported in the press.
"About the only comparable experience that occurs to me," Hendrie said, referring to low-level radiation exposure, ". . . were back in the days when they were doing bomb testing they managed to give groups of soldiers, and occasionally a few civilians, doses in the low rem range . . ." (Rems measure exposure levels.).
Hendrie apparently was referring to fallout from 1950s nuclear weapons tests in Nevada. Several controversial studies recently have reported excessive numbers of leukemias and other cancers among those exposed.
In 1958, these unexpected fallout exposures were being publicized, but not the latent health effects.
In his 1958 report, Morgan said "the long-range effects of ionizing radiation are identical to those experienced by individuals who are exposed to small, protracted doses." The effects, Morgan said, were genetic changes, development of cancers and a shortening of life expectancy.
Morgan said then there was an "urgent need" to develop the relationship between biological effects and radiation dosage.
Morgan now has been asked to take part in a National Academcy of Sciences study of health research programs being carried on by the Department of Eenergy.
In an interview last week, he said little had changed in 21 years, but "thank God it is not worse."