For years, a large team of federal researchers has been engaged in something called the Hanford Dose Reconstruction Study, trying to estimate how much radioactivity was released. The study's authors now believe that, from 1944-47--the peak period for Hanford leaks--about 685,000 curies of radiation were released. The Three Mile Island leak was about 17 curies. Yet it may be that Hanford workers are not especially sick.
The most basic reason for this counterintuitive outcome is that most of the radiation, like most radiation in bomb-test fallout, did not result in exposure. Though nuclear wastes have half-lives thousands of years long, the most common form of radioactivity in fallout and Hanford leaks was iodine 131--with a half-life of eight days. If washed out of the air by rain, iodine 131 can be quite dangerous. If carried away on the winds, it soon cools to harmlessness. Most of the Hanford leaks, like most nuclear-test fallout, was carried away rather than washed down onto the innocent.
There were tragic and horrible exceptions. Some people who lived immediately downwind, particularly children who played outside because their parents were not warned, suffered horrible deaths at young ages. But the majority of "downwinders" were only mildly exposed.
Another reason the Hanford leaks may have done less harm than expected is the emerging scientific understanding that all mammal bodies possess some genetic resistance to radiation. After all, human beings evolved in an environment constantly exposed to natural radiation from the sun and from mild natural radioactivity in some ores and some forms of soil.
Here's a paradox: The natural background radiation in Denver, Colo., is about 50% higher than in most U.S. cities, because Colorado has mildly radioactive soil and the thinner air of the mile-high city allows in more solar and cosmic radiation. Yet, Denver also has a notably lower rate of cancer than other cities.
Oddities such as this have caused some researchers, prominently Rosalyn Yalow, to suspect that small exposures to radiation may be slightly beneficial. Yallow won the Nobel Prize in 1977 for her part in the development of the radioimmunoassay--the basic test by which radioactive harm to the body is measured.
The important message of the unauthorized 1950s radiation tests is that even liberal democratic governments sometimes cheerfully ignore the rights of citizens. No warning of the danger of casual government abuse of civilians can ever be exaggerated.
By contrast, the instant-doomsday aspects of the scandal appear largely hyperbole. For years, the environmental community has advanced the notion that even small amounts of radiation represent a mystical mega-danger, of which society ought to live in utter dread. Why do they so vehemently warn against what is, at worst, a speculative threat? Because nuclear-power plants cannot explode but can emit tiny amounts of radiation. Continuing public dread of even tiny levels of radiation is the enviros' main argument against nuclear power--which has many problems but which, on ecological grounds, may actually be good for society. (No greenhouse gases, no air pollution, no strip mining or oil spills.)
Now, as the radiation-testing abuses and radiation leaks of the 1950s continue to be disclosed and assessed, and the health damage caused continues to appear nowhere near as bad as projected, the 1950s scandals may become an argument that low levels of radiation are far less worrisome than once assumed.