Walker, Permissible Dose

Published by Jacob Darwin Hamblin in Environmental History 6:3 (2001), 480–481

J. Samuel Walker, Permissible Dose: A History of Radiation Protection in the Twentieth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).

Radiation protection has been a “hot” topic for well over half a century, and the United States government has long been pilloried for not keeping the public safe from the harmful effects of radiation.  Yet the terms of debate, the state of scientific knowledge, and the details of personal and bureaucratic infighting often have shifted.  With this short book, J. Samuel Walker has sorted out these details and presented a valuable overview of the controversy over radiation protection in the United States, based largely on archival materials.  He asserts that the ambiguous character of scientific knowledge about the effects of radioactivity led to sharp conflicts between the public and the government agencies regulating the “permissible dose” of radiation from military, industrial, and medical sources.

The book has a few minor shortcomings: the detail- and acronym-rich text is often challenging and the coverage is not balanced (strongest on the 1970s and 1980s).  Although Walker has done an admirable job avoiding the stigma of his book seeming like an “official” history, he seems conspicuously unwilling to criticize the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) for wrongdoing.  Walker’s subdued coverage of the now-infamous plutonium experiments stands in striking contrast to Eileen Welsome’s recent exposé, The Plutonium Files: America’s Secret Medical Experiments in the Cold War (New York: Dell, 1999).  To Walker, most of the AEC’s secret practices were consistent with medical standards at the time.

Walker’s intention is not to point fingers, however, but to discern the scientific and political sources of change in radiation protection policies.  He begins by briefly summarizing the dangers of radioactivity known prior to World War II, and then describes the first attempts by “health physicists” to limit the amount of harmful radiation received by humans.  Many of Walker’s conceptual benchmarks are terminology shifts, as when the National Committee on Radiation Protection (NCRP) replaced the term “tolerance dose” with “maximum permissible dose,” reflecting the early awareness that no amount of radiation could be considered harmless.  Walker explains some major controversies, such as that over nuclear power, the jurisdictional dispute between the AEC and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and debates over reports of the National Academy of Sciences, taking his narrative well into the 1990s.

Walker demonstrates that changes in “permissible dose” often arose from public anxiety rather than genuine technical requirements. Amidst the fallout controversy of the 1950s, public clamor moved the NCRP to lower its recommended maximum permissible dose.  Later, outspoken critics of the AEC’s radiation standards – Livermore Laboratory scientist John W. Gofman characterized them as “legalized murder” – had their greatest impact not upon scientists or AEC officials, but upon the public, whose fears were fueled through the efforts of the media (p. 42).  Walker treats the public as an ill-informed yet powerful influence, sometimes making mountains from molehills, to which policymakers often were compelled to respond.  He devotes substantial attention to the minutiae of policy negotiation, such as terminology, models of analysis, and data interpretation.  In doing so, Walker displays an impressive mastery of technical detail and shows us how the real decisions were made, and by whom.  His book provides a telling portrait of America’s atomic bureaucracy and illustrates the acute difficulties arising when public policymaking confronts scientific uncertainty.


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