On the first Earth Days in 1970, many government agencies came in for their share of criticism or praise. One agency in particular was singled out as a threat to the environment—the Atomic Energy Commission, well known in Nevada for operating the atomic testing program.
“I am deeply conscious of the fact that, along with Nevada, only Alaska has been used to test nuclear weapons, and that the possible long-term effects of those explosions are awesome,” U.S. Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska told a Madison, Wisconsin audience. “As you know, the Atomic Energy Commission is dedicated to the promotion of nuclear energy. That is its charter under law. But it alarms me that the AEC is also the sole judge of the consequent hazards.”
In 1970, there was considerable debate about “tolerance”—how much radiation humans can safely endure. Gravel recounted how the AEC had trivialized dangers, avoided investigating radiation dangers, and kept data that conflicted with its stance secret, risking higher rates of “miscarriages, stillbirths, deformities, mental retardations and other tragic effects of radiation.”
The agency’s credibility had long since been called into question. The AEC misled the public repeatedly in the 1950s and ’60s, often by withholding damaging information. Journalist I.F. Stone later said, “AEC was just the worst agency. They were mendacious. They started out right off the bat by telling us that fallout was good for you, and it was all downhill from there.”
At the University of Minnesota on the first Earth Days, Lawrence Livermore scientists John Gofman and Arthur Tamplin spoke. They had worked for the AEC and had run afoul of the agency with studies that showed no such thing as “tolerance” existed. Their findings were smothered by the AEC bureaucracy.
“Three ingenious methods are available for dealing with such obstacles to technological progress: Study the problem. … Minimize the problem. … Develop the concept of a ‘tolerance’ dose,” Gofman and Tamplin said in their shared Earth Day text. The AEC, they said, was using all of those techniques.
In Nevada, where the AEC provided thousands of jobs, these messages were not heard. The state was still several years away from the founding of its first anti-nuclear organization, Citizen Alert. State leaders and businesspeople still treated all things nuclear as a form of economic development and sometimes questioned the patriotism of those who did not agree.
In a display of its dubious public relations skills, the AEC on the first Earth Day exploded two atomic bombs at the Nevada Test Site. Radioactivity escaped from the underground tests and the AEC claimed the leakage presented no health hazard.
The AEC is now called the U.S. Energy Department.