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The Plutonium Files | The Nation

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The Plutonium Files

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Eileen Welsome, a mild-mannered 48-year-old reporter laboring away in obscurity for a tiny afternoon newspaper in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is no one's idea of a media Bigfoot. She doesn't give pop quizzes to presidential candidates. She doesn't schmooze with Tina Brown or Graydon Carter at the Four Seasons, or chat up Strobe Talbott at Maison Blanche. Instead, working largely on her own time and her own dime, Welsome helped unravel one of the biggest stories of the past half-century: the identities of those anonymous US citizens drafted as human guinea pigs for America's atomic arsenal.

About the Author

Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

In a gruesome plot that is impossible to square with our triumphalist ideology, between April 1945 and July 1947 doctors and scientists working for the US atomic weapons program injected plutonium directly into the bloodstreams of eighteen unwitting Americans, thereby committing all but one to slow, painful death. Their urine and stool samples were packed up and sent to Los Alamos for study.

Welsome discovered the experiments while sifting through some documents at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque in the spring of 1987, her curiosity piqued by a report on radioactive animal carcasses. Sitting inside a safe, the reports were "stiff with age and smelled of dust." They identified the victims only by code names.

Welsome's editor told her that while the story sounded very interesting, she had been hired as a neighborhood reporter. So she ended up working on the story in her spare time--tracking down retired scientists, reading the technical data, consulting historians and writing FOIA requests.

Welsome soon discovered that the experiments were part of an even more disturbing story, in which the people in charge of testing the US nuclear arsenal had exposed thousands of Americans, including soldiers, to radiation poisoning over a period of decades until 1962. While no one had discovered the identities of the eighteen victims deliberately infected--as Welsome eventually would--the larger scandal had been aired in a newsletter called Science Trends in 1976 and in Mother Jones in 1981. It had also inspired a 60 Minutes investigation and a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, chaired by a then-unknown Congressman, Albert Gore Jr. Gore impressively identified what he called "the critical question" facing investigators: "Were the treatments for the patients altered in order to satisfy or facilitate the acquisition of the data?" But he dodged the obvious answer. Gore's subcommittee decided that the radiation experiments were "satisfactory, but not perfect." When Ed Markey became chairman three years later, he released a thorough and damning report detailing thirty-one human radiation experiments involving 700 people. Its revelations, too, were roundly ignored.

In 1992, five years after happening upon the initial documents, Welsome was finally able to piece together the identity of one of the victims: "CAL-3" was an African-American railroad porter named Elmer Allen of Italy, Texas. Allen had received a hypodermic needle loaded with plutonium on July 18, 1947, for what was then believed to be cancer and had his leg amputated at midthigh. He had told a friend that the doctors had "put a germ cancer in his leg." Allen died in 1991 knowing nothing of his role in the experiments.

At this point, the editors of the Albuquerque Tribune (circulation 35,000) realized they had a great story on their hands and soon got behind Welsome in a big way, providing high-powered legal assistance for her FOIA requests. Working full time on her investigation, Welsome began to uncover the identities of the rest of the victims. One was a housewife, another a janitor, a third owned a cigar store. Each received potentially lethal injections of plutonium from the government and nothing more: no disability, no admission of responsibility, not even an apology.

When Welsome published the results of her investigation in a three-part series in the paper in November 1993, the silence, once again, was deafening. The American media remained unfazed by what was probably--in purely human terms--the grossest human rights violation committed against any group of Americans by any nation during the entire cold war. But on December 7 then-Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary, seeing the reports as a tool in her brave campaign to open up the records of her department, denounced the experiments; she later promised to compensate the victims. President Clinton appointed a committee to investigate, and finally the story exploded in the mainstream media. Suddenly Welsome and her tiny paper were deluged with requests for information. At one point every single phone in the office had someone waiting on hold to speak to her except the one she was then using.

The net result is that after a half-century of official denial and derision, the government is just now beginning to admit its responsibility for poisoning its own citizens. In late January O'Leary's successor, Bill Richardson, admitted that the government had both a moral and a financial responsibility to make amends to government workers exposed to cancer-causing radiation at nuclear-weapons-manufacturing plants. While the decision covers only a small number of the victims, the principle of official responsibility has finally been accepted.

Meanwhile, Welsome won every journalism prize imaginable, including a Pulitzer, a George Polk and many others. Dial Press has just published her riveting account of the entire shameful story, The Plutonium Files. When I spoke to her she was packing up to move to Denver to join her husband, where she has taken a job at that city's alternative weekly, Westword. When I expressed my disbelief that so brilliant and dogged a reporter had not been snapped up by one of the country's great journalistic institutions, she shyly admitted that she had received no offers. "I guess I've been working so hard on this story for so long," she explained, "I kind of lost touch with what's what in the world of big-time journalism." More likely, big-time journalism has lost touch with what was once--at least in principle--its reason for being.

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