At an Atomic Energy Commission meeting in 1955, then-Chairman Lewis Strauss described St. George, Utah, as a town "they apparently always plaster" with radioactive fallout from nuclear weapons tests at the Nevada Test Site about 100 miles to the west, according to commission documents obtained by The Washington Post.
A 1953 nuclear test shot, the AEC documents show, dumped radioactive fallout measuring 6,000 millirems on St. George one morning at a time the commission's own permissible level was 3,900 millirems for a 13-week period.
Today, the generally accepted annual close to the general population is 500 millirems.
Recent studies have shown that children who grew up in the St. George area between 1950 and 1960 during the testing developed twice as many leukemia cases as those born there before and after the tests.
Investigators from a Senate health subcommittee chaired by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) have been looking into the way the AEC and other government agencies handled in the 1950s the potential long-range health problems of low-level radiation from fallout coming from the nuclear weapons tests.
At hearing scheduled for today in Salt Lake City, Kennedy is expected to pursue the St. George situation, which he considers only "the tip of the iceberg," according to one aide.
Beginning in 1953, the AEC played down warnings of possible health hazzards afrom radioactive fallout to residents of areas surrounding the Nevacia Test Site, where nuclear weapons test were conducted.
Notes of AEC meetings in 1953, 1954 and 1955 show the commissioners were concerned primarily about the public relations rather than health aspect of the fallout problem and the delay or increased cost it could have forr the nuclear weapons development program.
A February 1955 meeting illustrates the tone.
Ind discussing the "furor" from a recent test shot, Commissioner Willard Libby said: "People have to learn to live with the facts of life, and part of the facts of life are fallout."
To which the -Chairman Strauss responded: "It is certainly all right, they say, if you don't live next door to it." "Or live under it," added then-AEC General Manager Kenneth E. Fields.
Commissioner Thomas Murray then said, "We must not let anything interfere with this series of tests . . . nothing."
The 1953 test series named UpshotKnothole created a variety of problems for the commission because of fallout, the documents show.
Notes from an AEC meeting of May 13 show fallout from an April 25 test shot-"which had considerably exceeded the estimated yield"-had been heavy.
"Potential integrated doses in some areas had been as high as 10,000 rem," according to a commission scientist. "Fortunately," he added, "only thinly populated areas had been affected and the exposures incurred were not considered to be dangerous."
An internal AEC report dated May 11, 1953, to AEC General Manager Fields listed two shots were towns in Nevada recorded radiation levels that exceeded the commission's own 3,900 iillirems guideline.
The memo pointedly noted, under "effect on the population," that "there are so many unknowns about the biological effects of radiation no one can really say what the effects of this radiation are."
It went on to point out that a publication of a key member of the National Committee on Radiation Exposure suggested that 300 millirems a week was a permissible dose but "that this must be reduced by a factor of 10 for minors."
The writer went on to propose that the danger of fallout "in a populated area such as Las Vegas is quite possible" based on the way the winds shifted from predicted courses.
His suggestion to cut the danger was to limit shots on towers-which caused the high levels of fallout-to devices of 25 kilotons or less. More powerful shots, he said, should be fired as air bursts.
If his advice were not taken, the memo writer told Fields, there "almost certainly would be ultimate over exposure of nearby populations and conceivably the enforced closing of the Nevada Proving Ground."
The memo proved half-right. Fallout exposures, the AEC record shows, were higher in many instances, but the test site was not closed.
One week after the memo, a shot nicknamed Harry led to heavy fallout on St. George when the wind quickly shifted.
The populace was asked by the AEC to remain indoors from 9 a.m. to noon on May 19, 1953 while the fallout cloud passed over the town.
According to the AEC notes, "as a result of these precautionary measures, it was highly probable that no one exceeded the maximum permissible 13-week dose of 3,900 millirem."
Another portion of the commission filed reported that British and Canadian representatives at a three-nation conference on permissible levels of exposure held earlier in 1953 "had been unwilling to endorse the standards of [3,9000 millirems] in effect at the Nevada test site."
The British-Canadian position was that a 900-millirem dose was preferable.
The AEC official reporting this said to follow the lower level would require a "major change in present procedures" at the test site.
Although AEC officials were aware the St. George exposure exceeded the limits, they announced to the past at the time that the "radioactivity was too low to be harmful to human beings or animals," according to newspaper reports of May 20, 1953.
In the aftermath, however, the AEC meeting notes show an internal inquiry was made to see why the fallout had taken place.
The change in wind pattern was blamed and several commissioners declared that "the absence of any serious fallout or rainout on populated areas, although due largely to careful planning of the shots, was due in some part to good fortune."
The test manager, Al Graves, told the commission "extreme care would be exercised in the remaining shots" and AEC Commissioner Gordon Dean asked that "everything be done to avoid another falllout over St. George."
From that point on, the documents show, a major public relations effort was undertaken to wipe out the memory of the St. George fallout causing harm.
The local then-congressman, Douglas R. Stringfellow R-Utah), had publicly complained after the fallout. He was brought to the next major test-the May 25, 1953 firing of the atomic cannon.
Stringfellow was so impressed that he released a statement criticizing the AEC for "poor public relations" in taking precautions it had with the May 19 fallout by making people go indoors.
"The scientists knew there wasn't enough radioactivity to hurt the human body," Stringfellow was quoted saying in the May 26 newspapers.
At a June 10, 1953, commission meeting, two members, Eugene Zuckert and Murray, "discussed the serious public relations problems which had developed from the fallout incidents" and the importance of "an objective presentation of the AEC 'case' [by] men who would enjoy the full confidence of the public."
Zuckert also raised the prospect that the "AEC must be prepared to study an alternative to holding future tests at the Nevada site.
"It would take only a single, illogical and unforeseeable incident to preclude holding any future tests in the U.S.."
The AEC in February 1955 had to deal with another threat to the Nevada Test Site. Sen. Clinton Anderson (D-N.M.), one of the leaders in the push toward atomic weapons and power, wrote that he wondered whether the site could continue to operate efficiently and provide "no significant hazard to off-site public health.
Anderson asked that a study be made to see whether only "very small yield devices" should be detonated al Nevada and all bigger shots done in the Pacific test area, far from population centers.
The records don't show what happened to Anderson's request but large-size shots continued until the atmospheric test ban in 1963.