Two years after the community of St. George, Utah, had been showered with radioactive fallout in 1953 and badly frightened by the experience, the old Atomic Energy Commission viewed the residents' concern over a new round of tests as little more than a public relationsproblem.
Documents released yesterday by a Senate subcommittee show that the commissioners' principal concern was that their 1955 testing program mvoe ahead as planned.
Their discussion, according to the documents, went this way:
H. D. Nichols of the AEC said there was concern about the weather and whether St. George would get another heavy dose of radiation if the test in the Teapot series went ahead.
Chairman Lewis L. Strauss said, "I have forgotten the number of people at St. George."
He was told the town had 4,500 residents.
"So you can't evacuate them," Strauss said.
Then Dr. John C. Bugher of the AEC staff went to the nub of the matter. "St George is hypertensified. It is not a question of health or safety with St. George, but a question of public relations."
Thomas E. Murray, another commissioner, said, "We have a criteria that we agreed on. Who is getting worried, and why?"
The thing was, Bugher continued, that "we regarded the southern Utah [sic] as a forbidden zone for future fallout in this series . . . Actually from the health and safety, it is a solemn attitude there."
Nichols said it appeared the test would go ahead as planned, but technicians didn't want public criticism.
Commissioner Murray looked over at his chairman. "Lewis," he said, "I am all for sticking to the criteria and telling him to get on with the test."
That picture of the AEC at work emerged from hundreds of pages of previously classified documents released by the Senate public health subcommittee.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), chairman of the subcommittee which is investigating the effects of low-level radiation, interpretreted the picture this way:
"In retrospect, it is clear that the people of St. George had every right to worry about fallout - they have had an uncommonly high incidence of cancer there, explainable only be the atmospheric test."
Kennedy said the AEC documents, declassified and turned over to the subcommittee by the Department of Energy, offered unusual insights into attitudes of public officials who were overseeing the nuclear development program.
The documents indicate, among other things, that while the AEC was the officially designated overseer of the nuclear program, the military in some instances carried the bigger stick.
One 1958 document, for example, indicated that while the AEC could produce a "clean" weapon for testing at the Nevada proving grounds, the military had another idea.
Military officials wanted a device that would produce radioactive fallout to give troops stationed in the area a sample of the real things.
Minutes from a November 1958 AEC meeting quoted Commissioner Willard Libby as saying there was "a desire by the military for some degree of off-site radiation for troop training purposes."
Libby said the AEC could go along with a suggestion that future tests be conducted underground, but he felt "it would impair the Department of Defense training program and DOD weapons development."
Much of the recent furor over the atmospheric tests in the 1950s was generated by veterans of the Nevada program, who claimed their cancers resulted from exposure to radiation and inadequate safeguards at the site.
AEC members discussed the liability they might incur if soldiers were injured because of DOD policies. But they then wen ahead and authorized the military to proceed with its plans.
The Army, for its part, was telling servicemen who took part in the Nevada testing that they had very little, if anything, to worry about from exposure to fallout.
The stack of newly released documents includes Army brochures that downplayed the dangers of radiation, assuring GIs of their safety, and equating the soldiers' role of "selling" weapons tests with "selling" a milkcontrol or mosquito abatement program.