Cold War’s Unwitting Warriors Wonder About the Past, Future : Nuclear tests: Robert Giordano tended sheep exposed to radiation at Camp Parks, Calif. Later, his daughter died.


Robert Giordano never thought of himself as an unwitting guinea pig or believed a daughter who died of severe birth defects was a Cold War casualty.

But now he wonders.

As a teen-ager, he was paid $1.25 an hour to tend sheep that were part of hundreds of radiation experiments at Camp Parks, an obscure military base 40 miles east of San Francisco in California’s picturesque Livermore Valley.

Giordano’s chores included burying the droopy-skinned, black-faced beasts who died of radiation. Their limbs would fall off in his bare hands as he pitched them into graves.

His work at this atomic ranch didn’t concern him even when a daughter was born in 1983 without a trachea and with damaged internal organs. But renewed interest in radiation experiments has created a nagging unease.

“I would like to know if there’s any possible connection to those experiments and what happened to my daughter. Nothing will bring that baby back. But it would be a little easier to put behind us if we knew for sure one way or another,” said Giordano, 47.


“I knew they were testing the animals for radiation, but I was never given any warnings or special instructions,” he added in a recent interview. “Shouldn’t I have had some type of protective clothing or gloves or anything? How hazardous was it? Were they 100% sure we weren’t wandering in the wrong area? Does being exposed to radiation cause birth defects?”

Giordano’s questions, fears and doubts--despite assurances that they are unfounded--aren’t the only ones with elusive answers.

Thousands of people and their relatives have been pondering the legacies of the nuclear age since December, when U.S. Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary asked the government to review all radiation experiments and to compensate those who were harmed.

One of these Cold War battlegrounds was Camp Parks, a 2,000-acre site where the Navy and the Office of Civil Defense conducted tests between 1959 to 1980 on how to survive a nuclear attack.

Hundreds of tests were done with fallout shelters, crops grown in irradiated soil, farm animals bombarded with radiation, and radioactive sand used to simulate fallout.

At the same time, people lived on or around the base. The Pleasanton School District operated a school seven blocks from where the radioactive sand was made. And the Job Corps--a federal program for disadvantaged children--used buildings where experiments were done.

Although precautionary fences and warning signs were erected around “hot” areas, similar tests under modern-day standards would be impossible because of the threat of exposure.

“They wouldn’t be allowed to do that today. It would never be approved. Never. There would be more controls,” said James L. Thomas, who served as a radiation safety officer at Camp Parks for seven years. “You’d have to be absolutely 100% sure (that) the radiation would be contained and enclosed and that no one could get into the area.”

Thomas and those who conducted the tests say there are no health hazards, and inspectors said the base was clean in 1983. But to dispel fears, camp commander Lt. Col. Mark Nelson ordered a re-examination of the work. A report is due by the end of March.

“We’d all like to know if there really is a nuclear bogyman out there,” said Nelson, who served in the Persian Gulf War as a combat engineer with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. “I’d like the image to go away (that) we’re some kind of time bomb.”

The review is being done by the earth sciences consulting firm of Woodward-Clyde. And some of the report is being written by James Sartor--project manager on many of the Camp Parks radiation experiments.

“There’s no danger in what we did,” Sartor said. “There were no human guinea pigs involved in any of the experiments. Employees were never purposely part of the tests. We had a very rigid health physics program.”

The tests were monitored independently by the Atomic Energy Commission, which in 1975 became the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

“There was no problem. They took air samples and radiation surveys. There was no hanky-panky. Everything was above board. These were highly competent people,” said Ray Fish, a retired safety officer with the AEC who monitored the tests. “People should have a whole lot of confidence in the end results and in their inspectors.”

During an era when people were building back yard bomb shelters, a Camp Parks test involved a 100-person fallout shelter.

To determine its habitability, volunteers lived inside the bunker for up to 14 days--the time it would take fallout to dissipate. One test involved inmates from the nearby Santa Rita County Prison.

And on April 15, 1960, the bunker was rimmed with tons of burning scrap lumber to test its ability to withstand the heat of a bomb.

Robert Campbell, an adviser to the National Assn. of Atomic Survivors, contended more than wood was involved, however. He said radioactive material--code-named “Rolla"--was placed in the flaming piles to simulate a nuclear bomb, and volunteers were exposed to “hefty doses” of radiation.

Sartor, Fish and Nelson flatly deny Campbell’s allegations. Any documents that could prove or disprove Campbell’s claim are under review by the Department of Energy and are unavailable for viewing.

“There exists no public documentation of it,” Campbell admitted. But he added: “It shows what happens when the government or a group of people go amok with science.”

Officials said the bunker was tested for its ability to shield against radiation, but no humans were inside at the time. Measurements were made by instruments.

Other tests at Camp Parks included:

* Testing the long-term effects of fallout on plants. From 1962 to 1965, crops were grown in soil spiked with plutonium. The radioactive material was later packed into drums and buried in Beatty, Nev.

* Determining the effects of whole-body radiation with animals. Behind a series of fences and warning signs, sheep were zapped with cobalt-60 from 1963 to 1973. The radiation was stored underground behind lead shields, and mechanical arms lifted the cobalt from its protective envelopes. Some sheep were exposed for up to 23 hours a day, 74 days at a time. Exposures were done about a mile from the sheep pens, where donkeys, beagles, pigs and mice were also housed. In a separate experiment, about 100 sheep were injected with an iron isotope in 1971. When they died, these injected sheep were also buried on site.

* Decontaminating buildings and grounds. A site called the Target Complex, which simulated a typical neighborhood, consisted of abandoned barracks, streets and lawns. Workmen sprinkled the area with radioactive sand using spreaders pushed by hand or towed behind a truck. The stuff was then hosed, swept or plowed away during cleanup. The sand contained lanthanum-140, which has a half-life of 40 hours and decays to normal background levels within 14 days. Ropes, warning signs and a barbed wire fence were eventually erected around the 17-acre area. The buildings were turned over to the Job Corps and then torn down to make room for a federal prison, where Patricia Hearst served time.

* Simulating the effects of radiation on ship’s hulls. Inside a gymnasium, the Navy sprayed sea water containing lanthanum-140 onto metal panels to test the effects of vessels if a nuclear bomb threw sea water into the air. Tests were done between 1961 and 1963, and the gym was turned over to the Job Corps in 1965 (former heavyweight champion George Foreman trained there). In 1983, demonstrators at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab were supposed to be detained there, but U.S. District Court Judge Marilyn Hall Patel said, “The risks are so grave and unknown, no court should be in the position of placing anyone in such risk.”

Anti-nuclear activists are particularly concerned about the Camp Parks school, which was closed in 1971--not because of radiation concerns but because it didn’t meet earthquake standards.

A 1961 report by the AEC cited lack of proper safeguards. “If one of the students did become contaminated, no one would find out,” the AEC said.

“This is part of the pattern where certain people were considered disposable by the nuclear Establishment,” said Marylia Kelley of the Tri-Valley Citizens Against a Radioactive Environment. “Unless the scientists claimed that they control the wind, they cannot have been guaranteeing those children’s safety.

“I don’t think these experiments can be justified either today or yesterday. If the community had known more about them at the time, (we) probably would have acted to stop them,” Kelley said.

One of the people pressing for answers is Peggy Stewart, who lived at Camp Parks and attended school there. From 1957 to 1973, her father, Emory Pettigrew, was chief of fire protection and base security.

As a child, Stewart roamed the base freely with her go-cart and dune buggy. She admits to youthful mischief, sneaking into buildings and getting past fences.

And she kept quiet until reports of radiation experiments resurfaced.

“It’s almost seemed like ‘Silkwood,’ ” she said, referring to a movie about Karen Silkwood, a nuclear power plant employee who died under suspicious circumstances after contending that the plant was unsafe. “Everyone always lived with the fear that if you opened your mouth, you better fear for life.”

What’s worrisome is that her father died of bone cancer in 1990 and suffered horrible headaches and sterility. Her mother lost a child at birth and later had a hysterectomy. Stewart, 39, has been diagnosed with fibrous tumors and has suffered from headaches, swollen lymph glands, anemia and high blood pressure. She also recalls pet sheep and rabbits that died on base.

“I don’t think I’m entitled to remuneration, but I’d sure like to have some questions answered,” said Stewart, who now lives in Carefree, Ariz. “Could some of these things have been related? Is that the stuff that killed my rabbits and sheep? What do these things do to people? What did you expose us to? What are our families going to be exposed to? Did you take all the safety precautions? . . .

“If you’re going to do experiments, fine. But don’t allow people to live in and around the place,” Stewart said. “To be exposed to risk without being told about it is very wrong.”

Michelle Locke in Walnut Creek, Calif., and Elizabeth Weise in San Francisco contributed to this report.