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News from the National Academies

Date: May 8, 2003
Contacts: William Kearney, Director of Media Relations
Heather McDonald, Media Relations Assistant
Office of News and Public Information
(202) 334-2138; e-mail <news@nas.edu>

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Radiation Doses of Atomic Veterans Underestimated,
But No Significant Increase in Those Eligible for Compensation Foreseen

WASHINGTON -- The government has often underestimated the radiation doses for veterans who participated in above-ground nuclear-weapons tests, says a new report from the National Academies' National Research Council. However, the committee that wrote the report said it is not likely that many more veterans would qualify for compensation, even if the estimates of radiation exposure are updated.

The Defense Department agency that reconstructs the doses of radiation to which veterans were exposed should re-evaluate the methods it uses to estimate these doses, the committee added. And if the dose reconstruction program continues, it needs an independent system of review and oversight.

The United States conducted about 200 atmospheric nuclear-weapons tests between 1945 and 1962. Worry over the effects of radiation exposure on the health of thousands of military personnel who participated resulted in the development of the Nuclear Test Personnel Review program – run by the Department of Defense's Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) – to assess the radiation exposures of these veterans. Concerns about the accuracy of the reconstructed doses prompted Congress, which had authorized disability compensation for eligible veterans, to request the Research Council review.

The committee reviewed 99 randomly selected individual dose reconstructions of atomic veterans -- military personnel who were either involved in nuclear-weapons tests in New Mexico, Nevada, and the Pacific; prisoners of war in Japan when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed; or stationed in Japan after the war. Most of the individuals involved in testing were exposed to radiation from fallout, not directly from a nuclear explosion, the report says.

The primary means of estimating doses of radiation are film-badge dosimeters, which were worn by participants during testing. While the film badges are effective and usually provide reasonable measures of external exposure, many have been lost and not all participants wore them or kept them on at all times. Exposures varied substantially from one veteran to another.

The dose reconstructions conducted by DTRA estimate the radiation dose that a veteran most likely received, and also calculate a higher estimate called an "upper-bound dose," which is the one considered in deciding compensation. The goal of dose reconstruction is that there should only be a small chance – no more than 5 percent – that the upper-bound estimated dose is lower than the actual dose received by the veteran.

A number of laws and regulations apply to the dose reconstruction program. Under the "presumptive" law, if veterans are confirmed participants of the nuclear testing program and have one of 21 specified cancers, they are eligible for compensation regardless of their radiation dose. For other cancers, dose assessment is required to evaluate whether radiation exposure may have caused the disease. This is known as the "nonpresumptive" regulation.

After reviewing the 99 dose reconstructions, the committee found that while the methods used to estimate average doses are generally valid, the upper-bound doses of both external and inhaled exposures are often underestimated and are highly uncertain given the inconsistencies in film-badge data. A lack of comprehensive quality control over the dose reconstructions made it difficult for the committee to determine how doses were calculated, and the lack of a manual of standard operating procedures may have led to inconsistencies in how the doses were reconstructed. Questionable assumptions about soldiers' location and duration of exposure also contributed to the lower estimates.

While DTRA has accurately reported its reconstructed radiation doses to the veterans and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the veterans should be better informed of the significance of the measurements in terms of risk of disease and the probability that a disease was caused by radiation exposure, the committee said.

"The veterans have legitimate complaints about their radiation dose reconstructions," said committee chair John E. Till, president, Risk Assessment Corp., Neeses, S.C. "Atomic veterans should be better informed by the government about the risks they face from radiation exposure, and should be informed when the methods for calculating doses change so that they can ask for updated assessments and a re-evaluation of any prior claims."

The science of dose reconstruction has recently evolved, the committee noted, and implementing new methods could substantially change earlier estimates. However, except for exposure to beta radiation, which may cause skin cancer, it did not appear to the committee that the number of successful compensation claims filed by veterans would increase in the future, even with higher upper-bound dose estimates. In addition, with so many cancers falling in the presumptive category, many veterans automatically qualify for compensation. The committee said that only about 50 claims, excluding awards for skin cancer, have been granted compensation under the nonpresumptive program; however, the low rate of successful claims is consistent with the fact that there is extensive evidence indicating that ionizing radiation at the dose levels received by most veterans has a low probability of causing cancer.

If the dose reconstruction program continues, independent oversight should be provided by an advisory board, the committee said. The outside group would conduct random audits, review methods, and recommend changes; they would also meet regularly with atomic veterans and help DTRA and VA communicate with the veterans.

The committee's study was sponsored by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, nonprofit institution that provides science and technology advice under a congressional charter. A committee roster follows.

Copies of A Review of the Dose Reconstruction Program of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency will be available this summer from the National Academies Press; tel. (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242 or on the Internet at http://www.nap.edu. Reporters may obtain a pre-publication copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).


NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL
Division on Earth and Life Studies
Board on Radiation Effects Research

Committee to Review the Dose Reconstruction Program
of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA)


John E. Till (chair)
President
Risk Assessment Corp.
Neeses, S.C.

Harold L. Beck
Director
Environmental Sciences Divison
Environmental Measurements Laboratory
U.S. Department of Energy (retired)
New York City

William J. Brady
Principal Health Physicist
Reynolds Electrical and Engineering Co. Inc. (retired)
Las Vegas

Thomas F. Gesell
Director, Technical Safety Office;
Director, Environmental Monitoring Program; and
Professor of Health Physics
Idaho State University
Pocatello

David G. Hoel
Distinguished University Professor
Department of Biometry and Epidemiology
Medical University of South Carolina
Charleston

David C. Kocher
Senior Scientist
SENES Oak Ridge Inc.
Oak Ridge, Tenn.

Jonathan D. Moreno
Director
Center for Biomedical Ethics, and
Emily Davie and Joseph S. Kornfeld Professor of
Biomedical Ethics
University of Virginia
Charlottesville

Clarice R. Weinberg
Chief of Biostatistics Branch
National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
Research Triangle Park, N.C.

RESEARCH COUNCIL STAFF

Isaf Al-Nabulsi
Study Director