During the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union conducted extensive weapons testing, including deadly biological and chemical agents, and most famously, nuclear weapons. By the early fifties, the public and politicians alike were both raising concerns about the potential hazards of nuclear fall out, especially after thermonuclear weapons testing accidentally irradiated the Marshal Islands in 1954.
Little did anyone know, however, that a year before the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) began a study to look into the matter of radioactive fallout. The goal was to try and ascertain just how widespread the worst product of fission, Strontium-90, were after the weapons tests conducted so far and what effects it would have on the biosphere and human populations. This data would be used to extrapolate what might happen if a full on nuclear exchange between the US and the USSR occurred.
A sensible goal. After all, if we were pumping ridiculous amounts of irradiated material into the atmosphere, it would probably be a good idea to figure out what exactly it was doing to the people, plants, and animals it wound up falling on. But the means to achieve that end were, as you will see, downright ghoulish.
In order to understand the macabre experiments known ironically enough as Project Sunshine, we will need to understand some properties of strontium-90, the main focus of the study. I won’t bore you with an in depth chemical analysis, which is beyond my ability anyway.
Put short and sweet, Strontium-90 is a radioactive element produced during a nuclear detonation, a product of the splitting of heavy uranium or plutonium atoms. It also occurs in thermonuclear bombs, because while fusion reactions are “clean” in terms of radioactive fallout, they need to be kickstarted by a “dirtier” fission device. It has a half-life of 27.7 years (meaning that, after 28 years, a 1 gram sample of Strontium-90 will have decayed to .5 grams Sr-90; the remaining mass will be products of decay.)
That is part of what makes Sr-90 deadly; it can persist in the environment for a long time. What truly makes this radioactive element a killer is its tendency to replace calcium in bone. This can lead to high rates of bone cancer in populations effected by Sr-90 exposure.
So, in order to study the effects of Sr-90 on human populations, scientists working with the AEC needed bones. Radioactive materials tend to have the biggest effect on rapidly reproducing cells (that’s why radiation is used to treat cancers, by the way.) Bones tend to grow more rapidly in younger people, stopping major growth by about age 20. So, in order to best study the effects of Sr-90, the scientists specifically needed the bones of young people, preferably those of babies.
And that is where things took a turn for the horrific.
Scientists associated with Project Sunshine ran into difficulties procuring ‘samples’ for their experiments. Not only did the study require baby’s bones (particularly thigh bones), but in order to extract the radioactive elements, if any were present, the bones had to be burnt to ash. Much of the population of the United States and other parts of the English speaking world are predominantly Christian, and many Christians strongly believe that a body has to be buried, not cremated, in order to be able to meet Jesus “in the air” upon his second coming. And no doubt having a baby die is a traumatic experience. Obviously, very few parents in such a bereaved state would take kindly to government scientists showing up on their doorstep, asking for the mortal remains of their dearly departed infant.
So, Project Sunshine scientists had to get creative. They became body snatchers.
That isn’t hyperbole, either. Dr. Willard Libby, who was AEC Commissioner in 1955, said: “…if anybody knows how to do a good job at body snatching, they will be really serving their country.”
However, this was a bit more sophisticated than the body snatchers of previous centuries, who dug up freshly buried cadavers in order to sell them to medical schools. Project Sunshine involved an entire web of medical professionals and scientists, among others, all over the world. Basically, the men working on the project worked their private networks to secure sources of samples. Hospitals in countries as varied as the United Kingdom, Australia, South Africa and Formosa all unwittingly contributed dead citizens to the AEC cause. Of course, samples were procured without the next of kin’s knowledge. When the body snatchers bothered to ask family members for permission to take their dearly departed’s remains, they never said exactly what they were planning to do with them.
While it is difficult to get a full tally, at least 6000 and probably more bodies were used over the course of the study, which ran on into the seventies.
The full story?
Due to the shady nature of the experiment, the fact that in 2014 we are fifty odd years removed from what happened, we may never know the full story of what occurred during Project Sunshine. Investigations by the US, British, and Australian governments and media in the 1990s turned up a great deal of evidence, but some aspects of the project remain unclear. For example, it is unknown exactly how extensive the body snatching ring was, and precisely how many remains were taken and from where. To add to the difficulty, some of the more sensitive documents remain classified, locked away in government archives.
Still, Project Sunshine remains a strange and macabre expression of the Cold War arms race, an odd incident that will hopefully remain unique to its time in history.
Advisory Committee Staff. “Documentary Update on Project Sunshine ‘Body Snatching’.” June 9, 1995. Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments. Accessed on: January 24, 2014. Retrieved from: http://www2.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/radiation/dir/mstreet/commeet/meet15/brief15/tab_d/br15d2.txt
Leela, Jacinto. “World Wakes Up to Horrific Scientific History.” ABCNews.com. ABC News. Accessed on: January 24, 2014. Retrieved from: http://abcnews.go.com/International/story?id=80970&page=1&singlePage=true
U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, U.S. Air Force Project Rand. “Worldwide Effects of Atomic Weapons: Project Sunshine.” US AEC. 1953 Retrieved from: http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/reports/2008/R251.pdf
Rabbit Roff, Sue. “Project Sunshine and The Slippery Slope.” Centre for Medical Education. Dundee University Medical School. Accessed on: January 24, 2014. Retrieved from: http://www.sehd.scot.nhs.uk/scotorgrev/Documents/Project%20Sunshine%20%20slippery%20slope.pdf