Early in the nuclear age, government officials agreed to keep experiments on humans a secret out of fear of public condemnation.
By 1947, top officials of the Atomic Energy Commission had adopted an internal policy that required the guinea pigs to be informed of the risks.
But they ignored their own policy and proceeded with clandestine experiments on people, according to Atomic Energy Commission records.
The revealing paper trail is being made public today in Washington, D.C., by the White House’s Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments.
“These are remarkable missing links,” said committee director Dan Guttman of the newly declassified documents.
“They show AEC’s attitude was: ‘We know what’s right, but if we don’t meet that standard, we’d better not tell the public,”’ Guttman said.
The documents also show AEC officials deliberately lied to the press and the public, saying the agency didn’t perform human experiments.
In the 1950s, AEC and its top medical experts also agreed to keep secret what officials describe in the documents as a “body-snatching” program.
Using a surreptitious worldwide network of doctors and hospitals, the AEC collected teeth, bones and other body parts from dead babies and adults.
The goal: to measure radioactive strontium 90 that the bodies had absorbed from nuclear bomb tests - without alarming the public by telling it what the AEC was doing.
Hanford was involved in a related program to collect nuclear workers’ bodies. Its repository for body parts is on Spokane’s South Hill.
“Human samples are of prime importance, and if anybody knows how to do a good job of body snatching, they will really be serving their country,” the University of Chicago’s Dr. Willard Libby, an AEC commissioner, said at a secret 1955 meeting.
The agency also paid for the program to gather body parts from nuclear workers for study. That program was transferred to Washington State University in 1992.
The controversial program has angered some workers’ families for taking body parts without their consent.
The advisory committee of scientists, doctors, historians and ethicists is reviewing hundreds of Cold War experiments, including:
Unsuspecting hospital patients, many poor and black, injected with plutonium.
Washington and Oregon prisoners whose testicles were bombarded with X-rays to find the dose that would make them sterile.
Retarded children fed radioactive cereal at a Massachusetts school.
Pregnant Tennessee women injected with radioactive iron.
Eastern Washington residents exposed to hazardous, radioactive iodine during a deliberate 1949 military experiment at Hanford called the Green Run.
Plutonium and promethium experiments at Hanford.
The newly released documents include a 1966 request from a top Hanford official for legal advice from AEC headquarters on two proposed Hanford experiments.
Hanford scientists planned to use “local college students” and Hanford workers in one experiment and state prisoners in the other, according to a memo from one top AEC official in Richland.
The experiments would have traced radiation uptake in the human body.
The memo is the first to mention that Hanford officials were planning a second experiment involving Washington State Penitentiary inmates.
Those experiments apparently were never done, said Dawn Zimmerman, a Battelle spokeswoman in Richland.
The AEC feared disclosure of its secret experiments, the new documents show.
Publicity about people who were “unwitting” subjects might hurt the agency’s reputation, AEC General Manager Carroll Wilson told Robert Stone, a doctor doing medical research in San Francisco.
Stone had asked the AEC in 1947 to declassify his research so it could be published openly.
Two months later, Wilson told Stone the AEC’s medical review board recommended that all reports on human experimentation, “except where the experimenter is the subject,” remain classified.
Wilson worried the public would condemn those radiation experiments that had no medical benefit.
“I am sure you appreciate the questions of medical ethics and legal rights that are involved,” Wilson said.
Committee members are preparing a report on the experiments for release this fall.
They may recommend medical follow-ups for participants in some of the experiments, including the Washington and Oregon prisoners, Guttman said.