Written by Robert Holloway
In southern Mississippi two underground atomic explosions during the mid-1960s occurred near the town of Hattiesburg. A decade and a half later, an Associated Press dispatch noted, Governor Cliff Finch urged families nearby to evacuate “after the University of Mississippi reported that scientists had found radioactive and deformed toads, frogs, and a lizard above the Tatum Salt Dome, a shelf of salt used in the 1960s for nuclear explosions.” Tests of one frog detected radioactivity one thousand times normal.
From the book “Killing Our Own”
The above account sounds like an environmental disaster created by a cruel and thoughtless government agency. But like many accounts by the anti-nuclear crowd, it is far from the truth. A more complete account of this incident is given below.
Books that allege a conspiracy and coverup, especially by the government, seemed guaranteed to enjoy wide distribution and sales. One such book is “Killing Our Own” by Harvey Wasserman & Norman Solomon (1982). I have not attempted to investigate all of the outlandish claims in this book, but I happen to have personal knowledge of one incident cited in the book and know that the authors are guilty of sloppy and inaccurate reporting in this case. Because they have done such poor work in the one instance of which I have personal knowledge, I suspect that many of their other claims are bogus as well. Let me detail this case, in which the authors cite an emergency evacuation and a radioactive frog as examples of the misdeeds of the government.
An area in Mississippi was used by the Department of Energy in the 1960s to test nuclear explosions in salt domes, apparently to determine how difficult it would be to detect tests in such soft material. When the Environmental Protection Agency was formed in about 1972, the EPA Las Vegas office took over the responsibility for monitoring the area in the vicinity of the underground explosion. My first trip to the area was in 1981, as an EPA employee, and I made one or two other trips in later years. The work was uneventful and the best part about the trip was being treated to fried catfish at the farm of Billy Ray Anderson. Billy Ray’s farm surrounded the site of the underground explosion. During the visit, I heard the story of the “radioactive frog” that is cited in the book “Killing Our Own”.
As told to me by Billy Ray Anderson and the EPA employees, a college professor collected some frogs near the site and was surprised to find that one was highly radioactive from a radioactive isotope of sodium. The professor got in touch with the governor’s office and the governor ordered an evacuation, rousting the residents out of their beds in the middle of the night. It seems that the story soon made the papers and even the national news. But from the point of view of a nuclear scientist, the finding did not make sense. Radioactive sodium is not a product of fission and therefore would not be expected to be present in contamination that somehow might make its way to the surface.
Upon further investigation it was determined that the radioactivity was laboratory contamination. Apparently the professor and his helpers had bought that particular isotope for their laboratory and it had nothing to do with the environment around the test location. Billy Ray Anderson told me that the professor later came around to all the residents and apologized for his role in rousting them out of bed in the middle of the night. The puzzle of the “radioactive frog” was solved within a few days after it was first noticed, several years before it was cited as a “danger” in the book.
The authors of “Killing Our Own” apparently never learned the complete story of the radioactive frog and cited the incident in their book based only on the initial press reports. It is indeed odd that they never felt any curiosity as to the final outcome of the initial press reports. Can you imagine yourself writing a book and citing such a sensational story and not trying to learn the ultimate outcome? Would it not seem natural to wonder and try to find out if the residents had to permanently abandon their homes?
The most charitable conclusion is that these authors are substandard researchers and writers, because they wrote their book some years after the frog incident. They also interviewed Charles Costa of the EPA laboratory in Las Vegas, who knew the whole story of the frog incident. They could also have contacted the residents of the area, who knew the full story long before the book was written. Of course a darker explanation is that they followed up on the report and learned the whole story and yet failed to include it in their book. I wonder if all of the research that went into their book is as superficial and incomplete as this instance. Was there any radioactive contamination from the device? Down in the underground salt beds there is plenty. But at the surface, there is only a minor amount of tritium that is less than the drinking water limit.
The book “Killing Our Own” makes many sensational claims about adverse health effects caused by various uses of radioactivity. Based on my 25 years of experience in measuring radioactivity in the environment, most of their claims are as far off the mark as the one detailed here.
I have quoted above the section of the book “Killing Our Own” that discusses the frog incident. I copied the section below from a web site in February, 1998. The web site has portions of the book available for viewing and reading. Apparently the authors still don’t know of their mistake, 16 years after publication!
I provided the authors of “Killing Our Own” a copy of this page and they responded as follows:
We thank you for your critique of this small corner of “Killing Our Own”. It gives us quite a sense of Deja-Vu. The book was published 16 years ago and this is the first questioning of it since its initial appearance. We welcome the dialog and the continued interest in the subject.
While we are interested to hear your criticisms, we must evaluate them on the basis of journalistic standards. Our initial assertions about radioactivity surrounding the Mississippi Test Site were well documented, with written corroboration from legitimate print sources.
We do belive in the value of ancecdotal material in evaluating the killing effects of radiation throughout our history. We therefore are unwilling to dismiss out of hand your assertions about further findings relating to the confirmation of the presence of at least one radioactive frog in the vicinity of the test.
However, we urge that you also acknowledge that the article we cited did, in fact, appear in print and was properly cited. We also point out that this instance of potential radioactive poisoning, fits a much larger pattern of similar incidents at countless other irradiated sites throughout the United States and, indeed, in far too many locations in the rest of the world.
Therefore, while acknowledging the potential legitimacy of your counter-claim, we would, in the spirit of our own carefully documented researches, request concrete written documentation in keeping with acknowledged and widely accepted scientific practices. This particular assertion does not meet those standards, and at any rate does nothing to shake the trust of what was printed in “Killing Our Own”.
Norman Solomon and Harvey Wasserman
March 20, 1998
Mr. Solomon and Mr. Wasserman:
Thank you for your comments. I agree in general terms that the quality of the evidence should be considered in any such discussion as this. But before responding in detail, I must comment on your request to adhere to widely accepted scientific practices.
You are mistaken if you think that your book is a scientific publication. It is not. Results of scientific investigations are reported in peer reviewed professional journals by professionals who are trained in the area under investigation. Your book and your backgrounds do not meet that requirement. Also, much of your book is based on newspaper accounts, which by their very nature, are not first hand observations or experimental data. Your implication that your publication is based on scientific methods is of course, quite far from the truth. But you are right in wanting a high quality of evidence. Let’s examine the quality of your evidence, compared to mine.
Your reference in this case is a news report published in a Boston paper, a location that is 2,000 miles from the site under discussion. There is no indication that you interviewed anyone in Mississippi. It appears that the newspaper account is your sole source of information about this incident. You did not report on any further investigation of this incident. I find it hard to believe that this is all you knew about this incident. Had you investigated further, you would have found that the residents returned to their homes and that the alarm was a false one. How convenient for your theme, that you did not investigate more thoroughly! As Carl Sagan said “It is difficult to look critically at evidence that agrees with our prejudices.”
Since your book was published in 1982, I assume you must have written it in 1980 and perhaps 1981. In the summer of 1981, while you were probably writing about the “poisoned” site in Mississippi, I was actually working at that very site. I was in Mississippi taking samples at the very site that you were claiming was dangerously radioactive. A site that in your mind had undergone evacuation because of the danger. It is odd though, that you did not bother to find out the current status of that “poisoned site”. I was down there talking personally to the residents who were involved in that false alarm that you reported so incompletely. Which type of evidence is more convincing, your quoting of a Boston newspaper or my onsite discussions with the residents involved in the “evacuation”?
But if you want evidence that no scientist would deny, then that also is available. What you did not seem to realize when you wrote your book, is that the Mississippi test site was the subject of a thorough and comprehensive monitoring program for the very radioactivity that is the source of your concern. EPA has published reports of that monitoring effort every year since at least 1978. At this moment, I have on my desk a foot high stack of reports, some devoted exclusively to the site in Mississippi. I don’t want to take the time to quote all of these references, but I will list here a few representative titles. These data do not support your implication that the site was dangerously radioactive. There is a slight amount of tritium in surface waters, above the level found in surface waters all over the world. However, even that small amount is below the federal drinking water limit.
Mr. Solomon and Mr. Wasserman, you can drink the surface water at that site and not suffer any ill effects. Here is a sample of the published references that refute your claims:
1. Radiation Monitoring Around the United States Nuclear Test Areas, Calendar Year 1981. EPA-600/4-82-061
2. Radiation Monitoring Around the United States Nuclear Test Areas, Calendar Year 1984. EPA-600/4-85-035
3. Annual Water Sampling and Analysis at the Salmon Test Area, Lamar County, Mississippi, April 1996. EPA 402-R-96-019
In retrospect, it is easy to see what happened. The timing is important. The professor took biological samples at the site only a few weeks after the Three Mile Island accident. Because of the publicity from this serious accident, he may have been somewhat excited and anxious to find something unusual. Perhaps he wanted to find something that would bring him increased funding and publicity. He may not have had a solid background in environmental radioactivity. The very fact that he raised an alarm that proved to be false, suggests that this was the case. He was like a small boy, walking alone in the dark, who is frightened by an unexpected sound or the sight of moving branches. So he was excited, and maybe you were too. Certainly you failed to perform even the most elementary investigation of the case. You failed to do what 95% of good reporters would do if confronted by such a case. You could have followed up in many different ways. You could have called the professor, you could have read the EPA reports. You could have called the residents. But you did not. It is so true what Carl Sagan said “It is difficult to look critically at evidence that agrees with our prejudices”.
I have used a considerable number of words on this one incident, which is only a portion of your book. However, I happened to have personal knowledge of this case. I have been to the site, I have taken samples with my own hands. I have analyzed those samples with my own hands. In later years, I supervised others in the analysis of samples from this site. In the one case of which I happened to have personal knowledge, I have found your research to be so superficial as to be a joke. What am I to think about the rest of your book? Is it likely that by chance this is the only error in your book? The odds are against it.
I have in fact looked at other parts or your book and they are no better. As time permits, I will comment on those also.
Robert Holloway, Ph.D., Radiochemist