Project Sunshine demonstrates the politics of death that organized the Atomic Energy Commission project and conduct. The August 6, 1953 Rand Corporation “World Wide Effects of Atomic Weapons: Project Sunshine” Report (R-251-AEC Amended) addresses health effects of internal radionuclides, particularly Strontium90:
The main concern of SUNSHINE is to examine the hazards of radioactive debris, that by one means or another, finds a way into a human being and thereby becomes a source of internal radiation damage; this latter hazard may be present in relatively local areas of earth or may be spread more extensively by natural means or through the commerce of man. (p 2)
The report indicates that PROJECT GABRIEL had identified Strontium 90 as among the most dangerous radioactive products because of its abundant formulation as a fission product and because “body ingestion is high,” with its “bone-seeking” properties constituting a special health risk:
the bone-retentive and radioactive properties of Sr90 endow it with a high carcinogenic capability; a given amount about threshold (which may be zero) fixed in the bone will cause a certain average percentage of the population to die of bone cancer comparable with that observed in victims of radium poisoning. (p. 4)
Young and growing tissue are identified as especially vulnerable to Strontium-90 accumulation.
The report explains that strontium is a biological analog of calcium and that higher absorption of strontium occur in calcium deficient diets (p. 8). It cites research finding that the human body cannot distinguish between natural and radioactive isotopes of an element so the ratio of radioactive strontium to stable strontium found in the bones of an individual will reflect the ratio of his/her environment (p. 5). The report warns that “the manner of production particular to this contaminant suggest that it will be readily available for incorporation into the biosphere” (p. 3).
The report explores the dispersion of Strontium 90 in the environment from a nuclear explosion. It suggests that aluminum oxide may be one possible trap for Sr90 during formation of particles during an atomic explosion, with adverse health implications if inhaled (p. 89). The report described difficulties in measuring atmospheric samples of Strontium because of small size of particles (p. 58). The report describes how Sr90 is “plated out on the surface of the debris particles” and “scavenged out in solution by rainfall,” rendering it “readily available for take-up by the biosphere.” The report explains that fallout is likely to be uneven and “blobby” and bioaccumulation in the local ecology will be somewhat variable, but over a fixed time period, strontium in soil will become bioavailable (p. 6). Biomagnification in humans will be conditioned by cultural practices that increase or decrease exposure.
The Sunshine report notes the growing ubiquity of contamination by Sr90. It explains that “within less than a decade” several kilograms of Sr90 were released “in the world,” resulting in “now detectable” levels in “inert and biological materials throughout the world” (p. 7). The average US adult, normalized to the “Standard Man,” was assessed as having 0.7 gm total strontium in his bones (p. 6). The report identified a Maximum Permissible Concentration for Sr90 set by the ICRP at 1 microcurie (i.e., one two-hundred-millionths of a gram), which it described as “an industrial standard for small numbers of people” that would not necessarily be appropriate for generalizing to the entire population.
Project Gabriel had predicted the “threshold” lethality for retained radiostrontium in humans was 10 microcuries (Lapp, p. 27). The Sunshine report offered the possibility for prophylactic control of dangerous levels of Sr90 though dietary controls and increased consumption of calcium, with the possibility of adding additional amounts of nonradioactive strontium in soil to dilute Sr90 intake (page 8).
Project Sunshine identifies key areas for additional research, including the role of the hydrosphere in “disposal of the radioactive contaminants, the effects of the contamination on life in the hydrosphere, and human dependence on its products.” Project Sunshine poses the fundamental question of ecology: “What is the effect on other forms of life as a result of the decrease in population of a given biological form through the action of Sr90?” (3). Project Sunshine was not publicly acknowledged until 1956, the same year that the 1956 Biological Effects on Atomic Radiation was published.
Findings from Project Sunshine on the risks of strontium bioaccumulation in the ecosystem had no immediate impact on atmospheric testing. Indeed, the entirety of atmospheric testing ranging from Trinity in New Mexico in 1945 through the 1980s constituted an unprecedented medical experiment upon entire populations by governments. The U.S., the Soviet Union, and the U.K., conducted atmospheric testing until 1963 when the limited test ban treaty was signed. France and China persisted in atmospheric tests through the 1980s. In sum, 504 nuclear devices are known to have been detonated above ground.[i] The U.S. conducted 1,030 tests total, atmospheric and below ground. The human and biosphere costs are incalculable and few governments in the world have incentives for attempting to calculate them.
Although the cumulative effects of atmospheric testing have not been tallied, research was conducted on specific populations accidently and deliberately exposed to atmospheric testing. In 1951, U.S. soldiers were intentionally subjected to nuclear fallout in experiments on the physiological response to radiation in an experiment requiring soldiers to walk toward a nuclear detonation called “Desert Rock.”[ii] Soldiers on the U.S. Mansfield in the Marshall Islands were required to observe a nuclear detonation fifteen miles away. The fallout engulfed them as they stood on deck observing the explosion.[iii] Radiation detonation experiments using U.S. soldiers continued until 1962, although some safeguards were incorporated after the 1953 Wilson Memorandum.[iv] Studies of the effects of atmospheric fallout in the U.S. suggest many lives were adversely impacted. One study funded by the National Cancer Institute published in 1993 found a 3.5-fold increase in risk of thyroid cancer in children exposed to fallout in Utah, Nevada, and Arizona in the 1960s and 1980s.[v] A separate study by the US Public Health Service focusing on two south-west Utah counties found a three-fold increase in leukemia among children younger than nineteen years. A 1997 National Cancer Institute report estimated that atmospheric testing produced at least fifty thousand additional cases of thyroid cancer. The full range of effects from exposure to atmospheric fallout will take many decades to unfold fully.[vi]
Atmospheric testing prevailed in a paranoid political context that viewed human lives as disposable in the race for ever more-nuanced control over atomic reactions and effluents. The field of “radiation protection” operated as a symbolic prophylactic as its authorities deployed mathematical models and Newtonian physics to quantify and measure the biological effects of ionizing radiation on hapless downwind populations.
[i] Steven L. Simon, André Bouville and Charles Land. Fallout from Nuclear Weapons Tests and Cancer Risk. American Scientist 94, p. 48.
[ii] Andrew Goliszek In the Name of Science: A History of Secret Programs, Medical Research, and Human Experimentation. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 125.
[iii] Andrew Goliszek, 126.
[iv] Andrew Goliszek, 127.
[v] Goliszek, 129.
[vi] Steven L. Simon, André Bouville and Charles Land, 56.