Nuclear Half-Lies

Mallinckrodt's workers were poisoned and the government said it would pay. So far, those promises haven't been kept.

As one of the older contractors in the nuclear program, Mallinckrodt was a frequent target for radiation studies. "Everybody recognized how heavily irradiated the workers were," says Richard Miller, the public-policy analyst.

In 1965, the Atomic Energy Commission hired Dr. Thomas Mancuso, a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, to study cancer risks associated with low-level radiation. The study included Mallinckrodt's operations as well as nuclear facilities in Ohio, Illinois, Tennessee and Washington state.

In 1974, while Mancuso's research was underway, Dr. Samuel Milham of the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services reported incidents of cancer among workers at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Richland, Washington. Mancuso -- enlisting the help of statistician George Kneale and Dr. Alice Stewart, a respected British doctor and the first researcher to discover that radiation on pregnant women significantly increased birth defects -- turned his attention to Hanford. Mancuso's study confirmed the increased risk of cancer at Hanford, and Dr. Stewart encouraged him to let the AEC know the results before they were released. The AEC fired him.

When Congress investigated Mancuso's firing, others came forward to allege the AEC had suppressed studies that exposed dangerous conditions and pressured researchers to alter work. Although he'd been fired, Mancuso tried to finish his work on Mallinckrodt. He asked for help from Alvarez, who was then working with the Environmental Policy Institute, a public-interest environmental group. And they also enlisted the help of Kay Drey, a prominent anti-nuclear activist who lives in U. City.

Alvarez recalls that the federal government tried to take possession of Mancuso's data, but the researcher was adamant about holding on to it. The reason was clear: After Mancuso was replaced, hospital records he'd collected for the government on workers at the Oak Ridge, Tennessee, Gaseous Diffusion Plant were destroyed.

Alvarez's public interest group gave Mancuso funding to finish the Mallinc-krodt study, and Drey helped track down former workers. But the mammoth undertaking wasn't finished. "It had to do with resources and money," Alvarez says.

But according to several sources who've tried to get access to the records for several years, Mancuso turned his research and documentation over to Drey -- something Drey declines to confirm.

"I don't know what she has," Alvarez says, "but if she has things that could help workers prove they worked there, or worked in a given area, or might have been exposed to something, of course it would be helpful. Knowing Tom Mancuso, it would certainly be consistent with his wishes."

Richard Miller notes, "This is a narrow window in history where this program is going to operate and then it is going to go away. And no one is going to come back and re-do this because somebody decided to release information thirty years later."

Mancuso, who is now in his 90s, declined comment.

Thomas Mancuso's termination did more than unfairly damage his reputation in some circles and trigger protests from activists: It also ushered in the era of Oak Ridge Associated Universities, a not-for-profit consortium of 85 universities. According to its federal tax filing, ORAU is "principally a management and operating contractor for the U.S. Department of Energy."

According to Richard Miller, ORAU's scientists testify on the government's behalf in toxic tort lawsuits filed by workers and residents who live near nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants. And its scientists lead "how to" seminars for Justice Department attorneys looking for ways to defend lawsuits.

More significantly, ORAU scientists produce research that tends to downplay the risk of low-level radiation exposure at Mallinckrodt and discount studies that link exposure to worker deaths. In a 1980 abstract, Dr. Elizabeth Ellis Dupree wrote: "To date, there is no indication that the occupational exposure to radiation has increased the cohort's mortality." Then a 1995 study, again led by Dupree, concluded that there was no dose-response relationship between lung cancer risk and radiation doses.

When Dupree did conduct a study of Mallinckrodt workers that found a high incidence of cancers, those findings remained hidden at ORAU -- until Alvarez, then working for Energy Secretary Richardson, discovered them. Dupree and ORAU, it turns out, conducted the study on Mallinckrodt workers that showed alarmingly high cancer rates among workers, and yet that research never made it into the medical journals.

Despite -- or maybe because of -- ORAU's track record of minimizing radiation's harmful effects, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health hired ORAU to do dose reconstructions to process the claims of ex-nuclear workers. "It's a conflict of interest," Brock says.

Alvarez agrees. "At issue is not the integrity of the individuals, but the integrity of the institution. ORAU is essentially owned by the Department of Energy." But he adds that there are so few researchers who have worked in this area that NIOSH might not have had much of a choice.

And NIOSH director Larry Elliott says his agency is making every effort to ensure claimants get fair treatment. For example, they can ask that their cases be analyzed by someone at NIOSH instead of at ORAU. And NIOSH also uncovered research and records that should help claimants. "We have a lot of the Mancuso data. We've actually found information that was not well-known, information we found in the health and safety lab in New York." That was Eisenbud's lab. Elliott adds that NIOSH has also discovered information in Oak Ridge.

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