Energy Dept. releases formerly secret records
WASHINGTON, D.C. — In early December, Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary revealed secrets from the cold war that the government had held for up to 50 years and she vowed to reverse agency policies that kept the public in the dark on wide-reaching government experiments with nuclear power.
She disclosed in early December that the federal government conducted 204 secret underground nuclear tests from 1963 to 1990; that 36 of the tests accidentally threw radioactive particles into the atmosphere (although apparently without lasting damage); and that government warehouses in six states hold 33.5 metric tons of plutonium, an extremely toxic substance.
O’Leary said disclosures of the department’s formerly secret records on these matters should be considered only “the toe in the bathtub,” the beginning of declassification of Department of Energy information and facilities to the extent possible while maintaining national security. In November, O’Leary ordered the department to identify records that can be declassified and to set up a means to make them public. The agency is responsible for most atomic weapons building and holds 50 years of information on nuclear weapons production.
She promised to declassify more information within the next six months and asked that other nations with nuclear weapons follow the U.S. government’s lead in making the disclosures.
At a news conference she expressed hope that the disclosures will “expose the impacts of the cold war” both on environmental health and safety and on the “psyche of the nation.” She also said the move should improve the agency’s low credibility ratings.
In future disclosures the department will give out information on “appalling” experiments of the 1940s and 1950s she said, describing tests conducted at hospitals by the Atomic Energy Commission in which 18 people were given small doses of plutonium, sometimes without their consent, so that AEC could study how quickly people excrete plutonium.
In a news release, the agency cited support of President Bill Clinton for the “bold new initiative” toward an informed public.