One cost of secrecy at the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant is suspicion.
So when an Environmental Protection Agency chemist discovered that one chemical in a creek at the plant had been tested to determine whether it protects cells from radiation damage, congressional aides and environmentalists became especially interested.
"It could be a black project," a congressional aide noted.
One question raised by the critics is whether Rocky Flats, a Department of Energy facility not known for its medical research, is testing the drug on humans in some super-secret project.
The particular chemical, 1,3-dihyro-2-H-indole, 2-one, is itself so elusive that it was misspelled in the FBI affidavit that revealed it to be in the water.
"We don't know what it is," a Food and Drug Administration spokeswoman said. " . . . We know of no investigational nor approved uses for it, nor of the chemical, either."
Calls to experts at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and the Lovelace Inhalation Toxicology Research Institution, the Energy Department's primary medical research institution, produced similar responses.
"If this is an important chemical to society, I would have guessed that I would have read, or heard something about it," said Dr. James Sun of the Lovelace institution in Albuquerque.
By Friday, congressional staffers had found one research paper on the compound, in a 1974 edition of the journal, Yakugaku Zasshi, written in Japanese. The abstract is in English: "Chemical protectors against radiation. Radioprotective activities of indole compounds," the heading says.
43 Kinds of Compounds
The abstract says the article analyzes the "relationship between the chemical structure of 43 kinds of compounds, having indole and indoline as their fundamental skeleton, and their effect in protecting radiation damage was examined in mice irradiated with 800 R of X-rays."
The FDA spokeswoman noted that the military has a "collection of these products. . . . It might be one of theirs."
Cheri Abdelnour, spokeswoman for Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute, said that although scientists at the facility were aware of the chemical, all of the institute's research is done at its laboratory outside Washington.
"We don't do research on humans, period," she added.
The question remains: What was the chemical doing in Rocky Flats' water? A committee chaired by Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) plans to put that very inquiry to Energy Department officials.