At the Dimona Nuclear Reactor, Employees No Longer Drink Uranium

Special committee of inquiry reprimands researchers who carried out medical experiments on employees.

Last August, Haaretz revealed that workers at the Dimona nuclear reactor had been required to participate in an experiment in which they drank a certain quantity of uranium mixed with juice. Following the publication of that report, Dr. Shaul Horev, the director general of the Atomic Energy Commission, which is in charge of the reactor, appointed a special committee of inquiry to look into the matter.

The committee submitted its findings a week ago to the AEC management. These findings include a recommendation that new and clear procedures stipulating when and how it is permissible to carry out medical experiments on workers be established.

The experiment involving the consumption of uranium was conducted in 1996, when Yitzhak Gurevich served as director of the reactor. The experiment was performed at the initiative of Dr. Zeev Karpas and Dr. Avi Lorber, who ran the facility's analytical chemistry laboratory. After drinking the liquid, workers were required to give urine samples which were then sent for testing at the lab. The aim of the experiment was to examine how uranium is excreted through the urinary tract.

About two years later, the two researchers published their results in the scientific journal Health Physics. However, the experiment was performed without authorization from the management of the reactor or the AEC, in gross violation of the Helsinki Committee rules - which stipulate when and how it is possible to carry out experiments on human subjects. The experiment was also performed without authorization from the Health Ministry. Moreover, the authors of the article revealed the names of the participants in the experiment without having asked their permission, thereby violating their privacy.

The affair was exposed in the wake of a lawsuit filed by a former employee at the reactor, Julius Malick, who claimed he was forced to resign after he exposed safety flaws. Malick said he participated in the experiment because he was afraid his professional advancement would be hurt if he refused. He worked at the reactor for 13 years and is continuing his legal battle to receive appropriate compensation.

The appointed investigative committee was headed by industrialist Zvi Kamil, chairman of the Committee for Nuclear Safety appointed by the prime minister, which acts in tandem with the AEC. In addition to Kamil, the panel was comprised of five other members, all of whom also serve on the nuclear safety committee, and who have asked that their names not be revealed: two senior doctors, two engineers who both have a background in managing industrial plants, and the committee coordinator.

The panel heard testimony from those who had been involved in or connected to the experiment, as well as from top administrative personnel at both the reactor and the AEC, among them doctors and persons responsible for safety.

Over the course of their investigation, the committee discovered that the experiment involving the drinking of uranium was not the only trial conducted at the reactor without the proper authorizations. The report details cases which on the surface appear less grave than the uranium-drinking experiment, in which invasive examinations were performed and samples taken from workers' fingernails and hair to determine whether they contained traces of radioactive or other dangerous substances.

With respect to the uranium experiment, the committee states it is "convinced it entailed no immediate or potential risk to the health of the workers who participated in the research. It was also found that no authority or duress was exerted on the workers with the aim of influencing them to participate in the research."

Two workers who were asked to participate in the experiment refused and their advancement was not affected. The committee was also persuaded that the research had "considerable scientific value and importance for understanding issues related to assessment of risks to the workers' health, and it was aimed at improving the knowledge concerning the curve for the excretion of uranium from the human body." This, after a new device which enabled precise measurement of such data had already been brought into the reactor.

The initiators also participated

The committee emphasizes that the two initiators of the research themselves participated in the study and drank the uranium beverage. "They were not aware of the regulation requiring Helsinki Committee authorizations," the panel writes, "and had they applied for Helsinki Committee authorization it his highly likely they would have received it."

Taking all these circumstances into consideration, the special committee decided only to reprimand verbally the two researchers who initiated the study for deviating from the procedures. Both men are still working at the reactor. Udi Adam, the current director of the reactor, and Horev, the director general of the AEC, have decided not to note the reprimand in their personal files.

In summation, the committee recommends that AEC headquarters formulate "procedures defining the process of authorization for research on human subjects and implement them within a prescribed period." It also recommends "publishing instructions for researchers and involving the suitable medical personnel in the procedures of initiation, authorization and supervision," and that "on every irrelevant issue there will also be authorization from the institutional medical doctor."

AEC spokeswoman Yael Doron issued the following response: "The director general of the AEC has adopted the recommendations of the external special investigation team and has instructed that the recommendations be implemented and the required procedures be assimilated, in light of administrative flaws the team found in the matter of approving the study."

According to Doron, new procedures have already been written. Moreover, the necessity of preventing the recurrence of such an incident was stressed last month at a conference for the directors and chief safety personnel of the Dimona and Soreq centers.

Malick said in response that he is disappointed with the weak findings of the committee and had hoped that the AEC and the management of the nuclear reactor would take responsibility for the malpractice.