By Rick Rogers
There’s no reason James Lyerly’s name should ring a bell. But his story is crucial to understanding the question every hamlet within plume-reach of a nuclear reactor should be asking.
How much radiation is too much and is the U.S. radiation standard defensible?
While no scientist, I can tell you that the exposure limits set by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission — which all Americans fall under whether they know it or not — are not based on medical consensus.
But to tell that story, I must touch on Jim’s.
Back when America was testing nuclear and thermonuclear weapons in the 1950s, James Lyerly was a young sailor assigned to the USS Walton, a World War II-era destroyer dispatched from Hawaii to conduct such testing in the Marshall Islands.
Lyerly claimed that during Operation Redwing in June 1956, he and hundreds if not thousands of other sailors were exposed to health-destroying levels of radiation. Decades later, Lyerly and about 220,000 others who took part in the testing would be dubbed “Atomic Veterans.”
I met Jim nearly more than a decade ago while working for a newspaper in Virginia. I wrote a 1,000-inch story on him and his family that won a reporting award from the Virginia Press Association in 2002.
What I learned is that history does not change, only the parts that people want to highlight – or hide.
For most of the last 70 years, the U.S. government has embraced 5-rems as the occupational yearly radiation exposure limit for U.S. nuclear workers. There’s a lesser limit for you and me should there be a nuclear breech like we are seeing in Japan.
A rem is a measure of radiation absorbed by the body. The higher your rem exposure, the greater the accompanying health risks, specifically cancer.
But the NRC’s standards – last tweaked in 1991 — are not based on undisputed health studies. Scientists have never agreed on a safe radiation exposure levels — not 70 years ago and not today.
The standards are, instead, an administrative compromise agreed to by the government and the nuclear establishment after World War II that did much to thwart future lawsuits, especially by nuclear workers.
Once the legal protections – i.e. higher exposure levels were codified into regulation — were quietly granted, the nuclear program kicked into high gear, according to Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Eileen Welsome in her book “The Plutonium Files: America’s Secret Medical Experiments in the Cold War.”
In the United States, the NRC sets the standard for radiation exposure, while most of the rest of the world follows guidelines set by the International Commission on Radiation Protection.
These organizations do not agree on what is safe.
In 1977, for example, the ICRP met in England to re-examine its 5-rem standard for the first time since 1956. Though its recommendation wouldn’t be binding on the NRC, it would have influence and was of particular interest in the United States.
The international body’s goal was to make nuclear work no more dangerous than any other occupation. It set an accidental death rate of 1 in 10,000 as acceptable.
By the ICRP’s estimates, 5 rems of exposure produces a 20 in 10,000 chance of cancer death, a 4 in 10,000 chance of passing on a serious genetic defect and a 9 in 10,000 chance of developing a non-fatal cancer.
Hundreds of millions of dollars and hundreds of lives rode on the ICRP recommendation and whether the NRC followed the commission’s lead as it had done in the past.
A compromise was reached that allowed the higher exposure level while recognizing that it should be reduced.
The 5-rem limit would stay, though it would no longer be acceptable.
In 1990, the international body again looked at radiation standards and this time recommended a 2-rem yearly occupational limit.
The NRC did not follow suit and kept the 5-rem ceiling.
The bottom line is that the United States allows higher radiation exposure levels than other countries, yet the American public believes these are uncontested standards. They are nothing of the sort.
At a 1998 Senate hearing, Dr. Rosalie Bertell, a specialist in mathematics applied to biomedical problems and a critic of nuclear weapons, testified.
“There is peer-reviewed published research,” Bertell said of the U.S. standard still in force today, “which shows that excess cancers have occurred at dose levels which are within the maximum permissible dose levels set for workers and members of the public.”
James Lyerly died an agonizing death few years ago arising, I believe, from his exposure to radiation that the government deemed to fall within permissible limits. He brings you his cautionary tale from the grave as his last act of devotion.
State and local veterans issues will be this week’s topic on “Front&Center: Military Talk Radio with Rick Rogers,” heard Fridays at 11 on AM 1000 KCEO. Tune in and check out San Diego County’s first and only military talk show.