Nuclear Health and Safety

Examples of Post World War II Radiation Releases at U.S. Nuclear Sites Gao ID: RCED-94-51FS November 24, 1993

In reaction to the Soviet Union's first atomic bomb detonation in the late 1940s, the United States government began a series of nuclear tests that released into the atmosphere what are today considered potentially dangerous quantities of radioactive material. During the 1949 Green Run Test at Hanford, Washington, the military and the Atomic Energy Commission released a radioactive cloud that spread out over southeast Washington and Oregon. The details of these tests have been shrouded in secrecy over the years. This fact sheet provides information on the Green Run Test as well as 12 other radioactive releases at three other nuclear sites--Oak Ridge, Tennessee, Dugway, Utah, and Los Alamos, New Mexico--between 1948 and 1952. During two of tests at the Los Alamos site, for example, atmospheric radiation reached small towns 70 miles away. The potential health consequences of these experiments are still under study.

GAO found that: (1) the Green Run test was an atmospheric radioactivity monitoring experiment designed to detect evidence of far away nuclear materials; (2) the Green Run test released a total of almost 28,000 curies of radioactive material; (3) some of the nuclear plant's safety procedures were intentionally relaxed, resulting in a larger than normal radioactive release; (4) the Green Run test was not unsafe at the time but, according to the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), the Hanford release exceeded existing local limits for deposition in vegetation and animal tissue, and would not have been permissible under today's more stringent safety standards for U.S. nuclear sites; (5) a study of historical Hanford radiation doses is currently under way; (6) 12 other planned radioactive releases occurred at three U.S. nuclear sites from 1948 to 1952; (7) AEC conducted radiation warfare tests at its sites in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Dugway, Utah, to develop an air-dropped radioactive munition; (8) AEC conducted atmospheric radiation-tracking tests at its site in Los Alamos, New Mexico, to analyze the diffusion of radioactive gases and fallout effects; and (9) two of the Los Alamos tests resulted in the detection of atmospheric radiation over populated areas, but there was no documentation of potential health effects from these tests.

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