2. The Truth about Green Run

Chapter 1: The United States
Part 2: Three Mile Island--Ten Years After

What was the purpose of the Green Run experiment exactly, and how was it carried out? A study of the top-secret material released by the DOE on court order answered some of our questions and enabled us to trace the sequence of events making up Green Run:

December 2: Uranium fuel rods extracted from the cooling tank after sixteen days, a fifth of the usual cooling time. Later the same night experimental dispersal of radioactive material was carried out.

December 3: End of experiment at 5:00 a.m. Reports come in from the area surrounding the nuclear complex of radiation levels higher than those that would normally result in an emergency alert if detected inside the complex. (Quantities released—xenon: 20,000 curies; iodine-131: 7,780 curies. Dispersed over an area 1,200 by 400 miles.)

One of the scientists who took part in Green Run agreed to speak to us on condition that we did not stray from the material which had already been released. "The purpose of Green Run," Robert told us, "was to get a clearer picture of Soviet nuclear capability."

"The Soviet Union conducted its first successful atom bomb test in August 1949, bringing an end to the American monopoly of nuclear weapons," Robert said. "America needed to know what stage of development the Soviets were at. To do this, we had to use the same methods as they did. At the time, the usual cooling period for uranium fuel rods was approximately ninety days, which was thought necessary to minimize the release of iodine-131 (half-life: eight days). After ninety days the rods were moved to the plutonium manufacturing plant. In the Soviet Union, however, the cooling time was a mere sixteen days.

"We think they shortened this in an effort to speed up development time," Robert replied. "The experiment was called Green Run because green fuel was used--fuel that had not been adequately cooled."

We found it difficult to understand why local residents were not warned of the impending danger even though scientists had predicted the release of vast quantities of radioactive material.

"Well, it seems ridiculous these days when just about anyone can make an atomic bomb," Robert said, "but at the time the Soviets were desperate for any information they could lay their hands on concerning our nuclear program. Spies were on constant alert. What do you think would have happened if it had all been made public?"

We spoke to Martin, another scientist who had been involved in Green Run. He had been in charge of measuring the levels of radioactivity in the surrounding area.

"Of course we worried about the environmental effects of the experiment. But the military had complete authority, so we had no choice."

Martin, now retired, lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the birthplace of the Hiroshima bomb, "Little Boy." Since leaving, he has continued to maintain a strong interest in Hanford. "There's no doubt that the method of conducting Green Run has serious implications for the people's trust in government nuclear policy," he continued. "But what's more worrying is all the other radioactive material that has been released into the atmosphere since the 1940s."

According to Martin, the total amount of radioactive material released into the atmosphere over the thirteen years from 1944 almost reaches Chernobyl proportions. The total for 1944 and 1945 represents sixty percent of the whole amount, or 340,000 curies. During this period the Nagasaki bomb was being constructed at Hanford.

"At that time we were using sand filters to get rid of radiation—we had to make things up as we went along," Martin said. To us, it sounded as if the sand filters were more for peace of mind than anything else.

The testimony of these two scientists clearly demonstrates that safety was of secondary importance in the race to produce atomic weapons.