It sounds sensational to suggest that there’s a vicious, quasi-official campaign against anti-nuclear dissent, involving everything from physical and electronic surveillance to assassination. But it’s hard to ignore the evidence.

“An ever growing domestic political espionage system [has] become an institutionalized response to dissent,” writes attorney Frank J. Donner in The Age of Surveillance. The targets used to be the political dissidents and protestors of the Vietnam era; today they’re anti-nuclear activists.

One target was Karen Silkwood, a young nuclear worker killed in a highway crash which was intended to appear accidental. But there are an ever-increasing number of documented instances involving break-ins, threats, attempted murders and suspicious deaths. According to Washington attorney Daniel Sheehan, chief counsel for the plaintiffs in the Silkwood case, the nuclear industry, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the FBI, the CIA and other official agencies are involved in this secret war. His view is supported by many other investigators.

A more recent apparent target is Dr. Rosalie Bertell, a petite, soft-spoken woman whose research on the dangers of low-level radiation has brought her up against the combined forces of government and the nuclear industry.

Dr. Bertell is a member of the Roman Catholic order, Gray Nuns of the Sacred Heart. She earned her Ph.D. in mathematics from the Catholic University of America in 1966, and is a specialist in biostatistics, a field that combines mathematics with biology and medicine.

From 1969 to 1978, she was top cancer researcher for the Roswell Park Memorial Institute in Buffalo, New York. Funded by the National Cancer Institute, she conducted a comprehensive study of the causes of leukemia, “The Tri-State Leukemia Survey.” Her findings proved low levels of radiation to be more harmful than had been previously acknowledged. Not only was the ordinary medical X-ray found to be the most important environmental cause of leukemia, but this low level radiation was conclusively linked to diabetes and premature aging.

Dr. Bertell’s findings were easily extended to nuclear power and weapons facilities. In her 1979 study, “The Nuclear Worker and Ionizing Radiation,” published in the American Industrial Hygiene Association Journal in May, 1979, she showed that the level of “permissible” radiation seriously endangered plant workers. Dr. Bertell concluded that, “Public policy should risk error on the side of protection of human health rather than protection of corporate economic investment.”

The “Tri-State Leukemia Survey” was published in 1977. In 1978, Dr. Bertell’s funds were cut off and she was forced to abandon her radiation research project.

On October 4, 1979, someone apparently tried to kill her. The incident was eerily reminiscent of the Silkwood case.

In 1978, Dr. Bertell had been in Rochester, N.Y., to debate the hazards of nuclear power with an official of the local nuclear plant. The official’s argument was embarrassingly weak, much to the chagrin of the plant’s vice-president. After the debate, Dr. Bertell said, the vice-president shook his fist in her face and warned her to stay out of Rochester. “We’ll get you” were his parting words.

She was back in Rochester a year later to speak to the staff of the Highland Hospital and the New York Medical School about her work. After her talk, she left immediately for Buffalo, a two-and-a-half-hour drive.

As Dr. Bertell told Peter Barry Chowka of New Age magazine:

“It was about 4:30, rush hour, and I was driving alone on the expressway. I was still within the Rochester city limits when I realized that there was a car very close to me on the left side. First the driver tried to force my car over into the next lane, and then he pulled directly in front of me. Suddenly he dropped a heavy, sharp metallic object about the size of a gas can out of his car, right in line with the left front tire of my car. The traffic was heavy and I couldn’t get out of the middle lane, so I tried to straddle the object, but it hit my car. It cut the inside of the left front tire . . . making a gash about three inches long.

“The tire blew out immediately, and I had a hard time controlling my car. I was going about fifty miles per hour. Fortunately, the driver on my left let me through the traffic so I was able to get to the median strip and make a stop.

“It was then that another car which had been following a little further back pulled off the road and stopped next to me. It was a brown car marked ‘sheriff.’ From where I was standing, I couldn’t see the driver, but the passenger — neither of them got out — wore a navy blue t-shirt and no insignia of any kind. He asked me what happened. I explained, and he seemed determined to know whether or not I had seen the license number of the car or had retrieved the object. I answered no to both questions, after which he told me it wasn’t their jurisdiction but that the Rochester police had already been informed and would send a car to help me. Then, the ‘sheriff’s’ car pulled out and left me in the median strip.”

The police never appeared. Dr. Bertell flagged down a motorist to help her change her tire. With the assistance of her brother, an attorney, Dr. Bertell confirmed the brown “sheriff’s” car was a fake. There was every indication that it was in no way connected with local, county, or state authorities.

“The Rochester police told me they don’t have any brown cars and that everyone riding in a sheriff’s car must be in uniform. Further, the metal grate that divides the front and back seats of all official cars is gold, not silver, like the one in the brown car.”

However, the Rochester police and other authorities refused to investigate the incident because of a lack of concrete evidence.

The apparent attempt on her life has not deterred Dr. Bertell. “After the incident on Oct. 4, I felt pretty well taken care of,” she said. “Whoever was looking after me clearly was more powerful than the forces trying to destroy me. But anyway, after you’ve stumbled onto something like this, there aren’t any choices. There’s no way you can forget it and live with yourself.”

I talked with Dr. Bertell last month when she came to Asheville, N.C.

— Robin Flynn


SUN: Did you experience harassment anytime before the attempt was made on your life?

BERTELL: Anybody who’s tried to speak out as a scientist on the health hazards of radiation has had pressure to be quiet. Their grant money is threatened or cut off. I was at one of the national cancer research centers and I started to get orders that I shouldn’t talk to reporters, or if I was going to talk to a reporter, I should go to the public relations office of the institute first and report what I was going to say. Or they give you less space, you know, those petty kind of things. It’s insidious when you realize how much is at stake.

SUN: When did this interference start?

BERTELL: In connection with my work on leukemia, I spent five years studying the effects of diagnostic X-rays, which is low level radiation well within “permissible” limits. I didn’t have too much problem as long as I stayed in the research world and published in the Journal of Surgical Oncology, and talked at the meetings of the American Public Health Association. But then I went to a hearing for a nuclear power plant they wanted to build in New York right next to the farm where they make Gerber’s baby food. That was my first connection with a nuclear power plant, and my first experience with how a utility company operates in order to get the license and approval of a county legislature. I was horrified at what they were telling the public about radiation. I can’t say they were out and out lies, but they were part truths minimizing the effect, only talking about death from cancer and not about the other things that can happen from radiation exposure.

The next day the Niagara County Legislature voted a moratorium on nuclear power plants. People attributed it to what I had said that night. So I found myself suddenly in the middle of the whole controversy, and I didn’t know anything about power plants except they were releasing radiation. They were saying their radiation was only like a few chest X-rays, and I was telling people what a few chest X-rays did to them, and that was apparently what tipped the balance. When I realized there were political reasons why people didn’t want me to speak out on this issue, I became suspicious. So I started to find out more. The more I found out, the more upset I became about the careless exposure of the public to radiation.

SUN: Has anybody ever refuted your findings with scientific evidence?

BERTELL: No, until I challenged the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to a hearing on worker levels of radiation. Since then there has been one article published last February trying to refute what I said.

It was a very poor article, published in The Health Physics Journal. I was shocked that I wasn’t notified and asked to give a response in the same issue. This is usually done. Not only that, but the criticism was very poor; I don’t think the article even had peer review. This was an axe job. It means be quiet, you’re rocking the boat.

SUN: Do you think the scientific world was aware of the dangers of low level radiation before you published your work?

BERTELL: When you say the scientific world, that’s part of our problem. Most of the scientists involved in the nuclear field are physicists, engineers, or chemists, so biology and the health professions were not their specialties. They believed that if they stayed within regulations set by the so-called experts everything would be all right. There is an International Commission for Radiological Protection which sets standards for how much radiation a human being can be exposed to, and the nuclear engineers stay within these standards. So they’re proud of themselves. They think they did a good engineering job and they don’t understand why people are upset.

My problem is with the law itself. It’s inadequate. But you have to understand that the members of this commission, which got together in 1952, were the users of radiation. They were the medical radiologists, they were those involved in the production of nuclear weapons — there were no power plants at that time — they were people who had studied the effects of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and who were designing the weapons facilities and the bombs and had seen the bomb tests in the Pacific. They set themselves up as authorities. And they were a very closed body. In order to belong, you have to be recommended by a present member and be approved by the executive council. Nobody can get in that’s not in their club.

More importantly, you have to look at their record. They’ve never spoken out in the interest of public health in any of the major radiation questions. They didn’t speak out against above ground weapon testing, even though it destroyed islands in the Pacific and whole cultures of people. They never spoke out against the deliberate exposure of U.S. military men in the bomb tests in Nevada. They never spoke out against deliberate experimentation on terminally ill patients or prisoners in jails who were experimented on without their consent. They’ve never spoken out against excessive medical uses of radiation, or the uranium mining problems. We now have 1,100 dead or dying miners from inadequate ventilation in the mines.

SUN: So what do they do?

BERTELL: They just set standards and make recommendations so all the countries in the world can excuse themselves by saying: we didn’t make these rules, we’ve just followed what’s been set down.

SUN: Have they changed their standards recently?

BERTELL: Right now, they’re trying to increase the amount of permissible radiation exposure for workers and the general public because they can no longer stay within the limits they’ve set.

SUN: Because there have been more power plants built?

BERTELL: It’s not a matter of more. Rather, what happens after you operate a nuclear power plant for more than fifteen years is that it becomes radioactive. A plant is basically a steam boiler, and over the years, the pipes get clogged with the salts in the steam. This accumulation, which is referred to as crud, is radioactive, so the pipes become radioactive. The worker exposure levels go up very rapidly after the first fifteen years. No one anticipated this. Some nuclear engineers are saying that the plants should be closed down after the first fifteen years, or else they have to raise the standards and give people more radiation. This means more premature aging, heart disease, arthritis, cancer, leukemia, and more genetic effects showing up in the children.

SUN: What is the solution to this? Should we shut down the plants after fifteen years?

BERTELL: The power won’t do any good if there aren’t any people. Producing energy and killing the population is not a good solution. I guess what you need to ask is, how did we get into this in the first place, and do we really have an energy crisis? I don’t believe there’s an energy crisis. I believe there is an oil shortage. There’s a very big difference. People equate heat and electricity but there’s no reason to turn heat into electricity and electricity back into heat. That’s very wasteful. Only one third of heat goes into electricity so it takes three times as much energy to heat your home when you convert it to electricity. Solar heating is very economical; it doesn’t require this extra step. It’s a known technology, it’s ready to go in the form of space heating, air conditioning, and water heating. It’s cheap, clean, and environmentally sound.

When, in the 40’s, the government decided nuclear weapons would be our military strategy, it needed uranium mines and miners, the cooperation of the universities to produce nuclear engineers, the acceptance by the public of transporting nuclear materials through the streets, and, of course, all the nuclear facilities. It needed an attractive and acceptable purpose for all of this. So it developed what was called the peaceful atom program. It was a front that everybody could relate to. A lot of people put their time, energy, and talent into this program because they thought they were solving a domestic problem. Many of these people never would have done this for weapons. So you have this whole industry out there that the military needs.

The utility companies didn’t come along until the 60’s. The government said, here’s a way to produce electricity, we’ve done all the research, we’ll build them for you, we’ll show you how to run them, we’ll make the fuel rods for you, we’ll even insure them for you. Now they’re saying they will get rid of the waste for them. That’s unheard of for a commercial industry. The utilities went right in. Now they’re stuck. They’ve got big capital expenditures on the power plants, and people don’t want them anymore because they’re realizing what was built in their backyard.

SUN: So solar energy could be used right away on a national scale?

BERTELL: Oh, sure. We could immediately pick up heat with solar methods and relieve a lot of the load on oil and natural gas. The cheapest and smallest power plant is an engine, like an engine in an automobile. We could have small gas-run engines to produce electricity. We have wind stream machines, biomass, geothermal, oceanthermal, photovoltaic cells — all sorts of ways to be energy independent, conserve life, and be compatible with the biosphere.

SUN: But isn’t this only possible with a complete reversal of the public attitude?

BERTELL: Or a complete reversal of the arms race. We’re stuck in this because of the military. They have their programs and research, and the energy is just a spin-off. Also, much of the energy is needed directly for the military. That means our national security strategy is killing us. And I mean that literally. It’s causing inflation, unemployment, economic disaster, but above that, it’s poisoning our air, land, food, and water. Not only is it causing health defects in the present generation, but we’re producing children who are slightly damaged and physically less able to cope with a hazardous environment. Their children will be worse. Within four or five generations, everyone will know what’s happened.

There’s a phenomenal quickening of the aging process. If you want to see it right now, you can see it in dairy cows. Their reproductive span is only two years, so the increased effects on subsequent generations can be seen. If you look at dairy cows that have lived around a nuclear power plant for ten years, you can see what will happen to people. Spontaneous abortions, stillbirths, deformed calves, increased incidences of disease, and earlier death. Animals born with no hindquarters, calves born with the intestines outside the body instead of inside the body, bladders that are porous and won’t hold water. Odd things, weird things.

SUN: How many generations are going to pass before we start seeing this in humans?

BERTELL: Probably the same. In the situation with the dairy cows, only the mothers live in the contaminated area. The sperm is brought in from elsewhere and supposedly protected. But with people, both parents are affected. With this increased effect, it’s probably safe to say that we will start seeing effects in four or five generations.

SUN: Is this only for people living in close range of a nuclear facility?

BERTELL: All of us. The tests in Nevada contaminated the air, food and water. All of us living in the northern hemisphere have plutonium in our bones. This is well known and well documented. Everyone living now has radioactive material in their bodies.

So many people deceive themselves. Of course a lot of people are ignorant, but geneticists and radiobiologists should know that this excessive irradiation of the population will cause a loss of vigor in the gene pool and a loss of mental ability. They should expect a loss of fertility in the population. The fertility rate in the U.S. has gone down dramatically since the above-ground weapons testing. And this isn’t due only to birth control campaigns. One out of every five males cannot even father children. SAT [Scholastic Aptitude Test] scores are going down. This can’t be blamed on bad teachers who suddenly appeared on the scene or T.V. T.V.’s been around since 1950 and the scores began declining in 1967. The above-ground weapons testing began in 1951. The children born in that year would be 16 or 17 in 1967, which is the age of the people taking those tests. Since 1967, they’ve been going down every year. The other overt sign is overweight Americans. The average weight has increased rather dramatically. This is a logical outcome of the presence of radioactive iodine in the average American diet having gone up. The radioactive iodine goes to the thyroid gland and destroys some of the thyroid cells so you have a lower level of thyroid hormone. This means you’re slightly less active, which means your weight goes up. The latest tests show that there has been a reduction in calories in the American diet, but the average weight has gone up. And with the average person we’re talking about low levels of exposure, compared to the worker in a power plant who is allowed five rem a year, which is equivalent to one thousand chest X-rays a year. In our tri-state leukemia survey we found significant increases in leukemia in people who had thirty to forty chest X-rays over a twenty-year period. This suggests the inadequacy of the set limit.

If you look at dairy cows that have lived around a nuclear plant for ten years, you can see what will happen to people. Spontaneous abortions, stillbirths, deformed calves, increased incidences of disease, and earlier death.

SUN: After you published the leukemia survey and began speaking out, your grant money was cut off by the government. What reason did they give you?

BERTELL: Well, they had hearings in the House of Representatives. They said I had changed my research design in the middle of the project, but you’re allowed to do that by the rules. Besides, I didn’t exactly change it, I expanded it and added new things. So it seemed like they were fishing around for something. The real reason was that we had objected to a program of putting up satellite radiological stations all over the country to breast-screen women. They would have caused more than twelve cancers for every one they picked up. We made the radiologists very angry, and there were three or four of them who wrote in against our grant. I think that was probably the prime cause. Some people on the committee disliked our speaking out against the low level radiation. One of the men had provided all the information from the atomic bomb casualty studies that are backing up the present standards for radiation exposure. So it was a loaded committee. I’ve reapplied for a grant to some private foundations, but since I’ve seen how much politics are involved in federal funding, I haven’t tried again there.

SUN: Are you doing any research now?

BERTELL: I’m acting as a consultant to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on worker levels of radiation, and am also a consultant to some other research projects.

SUN: Do you encounter the same resistance to your efforts working with the NRC?

BERTELL: It depends on what section of the NRC you’re working with. There are some that are working very hard to improve things, especially with respect to worker health. On the other hand, there are sections involved in the licensing of plants who are only concerned with how much money you have to spend to decrease worker levels of radiation, not how many lives you save. It’s not easy. It’s a big bureaucracy.

SUN: Has your work prompted any specific improvements?

BERTELL: I’m forming a network of scientists and physicists all over the world who all cooperate with each other. I’m providing back-up services for the workers in such areas as computer analysis of their data which they can’t get done, or performing rare blood tests for them. I’m trying to build a credible service comprised of people with different scientific talents where anybody can call in for information they can’t get elsewhere. We test people’s well water to find out if it’s contaminated, things like that.

SUN: Do you have any specific goal?

BERTELL: I think the most important thing is to make the problems visible, and let people realize what we’re doing to ourselves. This is the time now for setting aside nationalism and realizing that we’re members of the human race. We need to make the U.N. work, and this has to be for real. There isn’t any war now and we have to stop playing war games. We have to stop talking about limited nuclear war and the rest of this insanity. If there’s a World War III, it will be over in a half hour.

SUN: Do you believe that such a complete reversal of attitude is possible?

BERTELL: I believe it’s possible, and I base that belief on the very foundation of the United States. My relatives and a lot of other people’s ancestors found themselves in a position where there was no future, and they set out across the oceans to radically change their lifestyle and their future. They gave up their homes, set out on ships for three months, they didn’t know where they were going, what they were doing, and they did all this for the sake of their children. That’s a pretty strong heritage, and there’s no reason at all why we can’t do that. But we have to understand first that we’re killing ourselves.

SUN: Have you gotten feedback from the governments of other countries?

BERTELL: I’ve worked with most of the European countries. I’ve been to Ireland, England, West Germany, Switzerland, France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Denmark, I’ve been to India, all over Australia. I would say there’s a division in every country in the world. It’s usually the government against private organizations. Governments are worried about national survival and economic prosperity. They’re bent on a nuclear future, and the more militaristic they are, the more they want it for the bombs. They are opposed by many of the population who just know that’s wrong.

SUN: So it’s the government against—

BERTELL: Right. The government is the biggest employer of the nuclear industry in the U.S. Also, big business has its money invested in the power facilities and in the military. The university system is also profiting from the extensive grants it receives from the government to turn out the engineers and physicists. You’ve got General Electric and Westinghouse against you, and Babcock and Wilcox who supply the hardware; you’ve got all the oil companies and all the nuclear industry, Exxon, Mobil, Arco. You have the Chase Manhattan Bank and all the people who profit from lending money to the people who buy the reactors. It’s the biggest monopoly we’ve ever had. And they have to know that there are people who aren’t going to stand for what they’re doing anymore.

I don’t think we want to take the power away from them because we couldn’t do much with their power if we had it. The real power rests with the agencies who are not elected representatives of the public, who are operating in secret for national security. They’re the ones who are telling Congress what we have to do or else we’ll have a bomb dropped on us, or are saying, “The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!” or that we’re all going to freeze in the dark. They’re being highly emotional.

What I’m out for is citizen participation in decision making at the level of collective bargaining and binding arbitration. That means that if people aren’t happy with a hazardous plant moving into their community, they can say: you don’t meet our standards, you can’t come into our backyard. People are saying: we care about our life and our children and we want to be able to control what hazards are moved into our area. We’re not going to tolerate the selling of technology like a breakfast cereal. We want to take charge again. That doesn’t mean overthrowing the government, but we need new structures. If industry had just expanded and we never had labor unions, the worker would have been destroyed by now. Labor unions provide a counter-force. They didn’t have to destroy industry, but they needed people who could get up there and participate in decision making. We’re in the same position now between government and population. We need to have a negotiating position and form a protecting balance. This is the basis of democracy.