I’ve been reading Killing Our Own: The Disaster of America’s Experience with Atomic Radiation by Harvey Wasserman & Norman Solomon, published in 1982. Chapter 4 describes the US atmospheric testing in the 1950s. The dangers to the public of these tests were publicly played down.
But by 1955, the upsurge in radioactivity only hours after nuclear tests in Nevada was becoming alarming. Two scientists at University of Colorado Medical Center, Ray Lanier and Theodore Puck, went public.
Dr. Lanier also pointed out the absence of any "safe minimum below which danger to individuals or their unborn descendants disappears. Or at least we do not know what it is."
Colorado’s governor immediately said that the two men "should be arrested". But other scientists were also beginning to become concerned.
The press gave only limited coverage to scientists who challenged the wisdom of atomic testing. Those complaining about radioactivity were routinely accused of ignorance, hysteria, or involvement in Communist manipulations. Nevertheless concern among scientists mounted.
In June 1957 Linus Pauling estimated in a Foreign Policy Bulletin article that ten thousand persons had died or were dying from leukemia because of nuclear tests. A month earlier Pauling’s colleague E. B. Lewis had published a more detailed analysis in Science. Using four sets of data, Lewis showed that there was no safe level of exposure; leukemia incidence seemed to be directly proportionate to the amount of the radiation dose. These articles documented the absence of any "safe" dose of radiation.
Strangely enough (H/T Rose), it was Dr Richard Doll, who’d linked smoking and lung cancer a few years before, who swung into action.
The nuclear testing continued unabated.
Meanwhile strontium 90 levels in milk were rising dramatically, according to the AEC’s own data. The northern Great Plains–particularly the Red River Valley dividing North Dakota and Minnesota–were fast becoming the most strontium-90-contaminated area in North America. Strontium 90 in the region’s milk supply was far in excess of the AEC’s own safe limit for human consumption…
During this period Dr. Karl Z. Morgan attended an NCRP meeting where Teller gave a speech about fallout. "To my amazement, and certainly to the amazement of others, Ed [Teller] was claiming that since naturally occurring radiation played a part in the evolutionary process, the increase in fallout would simply speed up the evolution."
Linus Pauling persisted, drafting a petition to governments to stop nuclear tests, which was signed by 2,000 scientists. The petition ended up with over 11,000 signatures from scientists from all over the world, including over 200 from the Soviet Union. Attempts were made to brand Pauling as a Communist sympathiser.
The huddled government scientists observed that radiation dosages at least as high as those besetting Los Angeles had been found the previous year in Salt Lake City. But twenty years would pass before residents of either city learned about what was said at that closed governmental meeting.
Nevertheless a temporary moratorium on nuclear testing by the USA and the USSR was called in November 1958. It continued until 1961, and in 1962 there were more nuclear tests than ever before, until the Partial Test Ban Treaty was signed in 1963, halting atmospheric tests. But this didn’t keep all the radioactive material underground.
If nothing else, radioactive gases escaped relatively easily. From 1966 to 1975, Colonel Raymond E. Brim was responsible for monitoring off-site fallout.
"This effluent cloud was tracked continuously by Air Force planes until it reached the border of Canada where standing orders prevented tracking outside the United States," Brim revealed more than a decade afterward…
"There is indisputable evidence on record that shows that the people, not just of Utah and Nevada but of a much wider and more encompassing area of the United States, were unknowingly subjected to fallout of radioactive debris that resulted from ventings of underground and cratering tests conducted at the Nevada Test Site," Brim told the congressional panel. "Because of weather and wind patterns, this debris was frequently carried much farther than has been reported to the public."
Underground weapons testing continued until 1991, in both the USA and USSR. The weapons got bigger and bigger. And the underground test sites continued to vent radiation.
It’s not just fallout from weapons tests that was adding to the radiation burden. The book concludes:
All in all, there’s a lot of evidence that supports the notion that it was the introduction of radioactive materials which was the more likely cause of most of the epidemic of cancer which began at the dawn of the 20th century. Nobody realised how dangerous the stuff was. And for several decades a variety of radioactive products were sold commercially all around the world – radioactive face creams, radioactive soaps, radioactive suppositories, radioactive water, even radioactive chocolates -. Radiation was seen as beneficial and life-enhancing. By the time nuclear weapons testing started in the 1940s, there was already a considerable amount of radioactive material in circulation, and it was already causing a lot of cancer.
But by the 1950s, nuclear tests were regarded as essential in the Cold War. Nothing could be allowed to stop them. So the dangers were routinely downplayed, and the escapes of radiation concealed, and the critics vilified. In Britain, Dr Alice Stewart struggled to win funding. In the USA, Linus Pauling never got another cent of federal money.
But perhaps during the 1950s something else started happening. Desperate to keep the nuclear programme going, governments began looking around for something else on which to blame the growing epidemic of cancer. Cigarettes and smoking were groomed to become the patsy onto which the blame would be loaded. Once the US Surgeon General pinned the blame for lung cancer firmly on smoking in 1964, and nuclear tests went underground, the finger of suspicion began to point away from radioactive fallout. It was probably a stroke of luck that JFK had been assassinated the previous year, because he too seemed to think that fallout might get in people’s lungs.
And once the focus had been switched to tobacco, it had to be kept there. Cigarettes gradually came to cause not just lung cancer, but every other sort of cancer. And heart disease as well. Smoking was made to seem to be be more and more dangerous. It wasn’t just active smoking that was dangerous, but passive smoking as well. The more the spotlight was kept focused on tobacco, and greater the hysteria over tobacco grew, the less any consideration would be given to any other possible cause of cancer.
And, in time, all the dangers associated with radiation were entirely transferred to tobacco. There is now "no safe level of tobacco smoke" just as Alice Stewart and others had found out about radiation back in the 1950s. And just as the youngest children were in greatest danger from radiation – because any damage to their dividing and multiplying cells would result in damaged cells continuing to reproduce, resulting in stillborn or sickly infants – so also tobacco had to be presented as above all a threat to mothers and children. Tobacco was made to do everything that radiation could do.
Seen from this perspective, the War on Smoking is intimately linked with the Cold War and the nuclear arms race. It was part and parcel of everything else that was going on.
But the Cold War is over, isn’t it? So why go on? Well, perhaps it’s just over temporarily, and is set to start up any day all over again. And also, when all the new environmentally friendly windmills fail to provide enough power to maintain Western civilisation in the manner to which it has become accustomed, there’ll be renewed calls to build nuclear power stations. In fact there are already. The last thing the nuclear lobby would want is for doubt to be cast on the culpability of tobacco in causing all the cancer and heart disease of the past century.