The Plutonium Files



The accident occurred on August 1, 1944, a morning like any other in Los Alamos: hot, dry, the sky an indigo blue over the sprawl of wooden buildings and barbed-wire fences that constituted the core of the Manhattan Project. At seven thousand feet, the New Mexico air smelled of sun, pines, a trace of frost. Occasionally, the scent of dust spiraled up from the desert, where temperatures hovered around 100 degrees.

In twelve months, two atomic bombs would be dropped on Japan, and the secret work being carried out in the wooden buildings would be revealed to the world. On the morning of the accident, the atomic bomb had progressed far beyond mathematical theories but was still an unproven weapon. Plutonium, a silvery metal discovered about four years earlier, was one of the key elements that would transform the theories into a fireball. Read full excerpt

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What the Critics Said

“A disturbing look at what happens when scientists lose touch with their humanity in the single-minded pursuit of scientific advancement …the power of this book …derives from [Welsome’s] relentless pursuit of the names, forms, and personal histories of the victims of nuclear science.”
– The Washington Post Book World

“An expansive and valuable account …engrossing.”
– The New York Times Book Review

“There should have been – and should now be – hundreds of other reporters out there doing what [Welsome] has so brilliantly done here.”
– Newsday

“Compelling…[Welsome’s] portraits of leading officials are vivid and subtle, wonderfully capturing [their] deep moral ambivalence.”
– Los Angeles Times

A fierce expose of governmental duplicity and dangerous science …The literature on the official crimes of the Cold War is large and growing. Welsome’s stunning book adds much to that literature, and it makes for sobering reading.”
– Kirkus Reviews

What the Judges Said

“A harrowing account of inhumanity that we found to be unequaled in its significance, originality and professionalism. Singlehandedly, and with limited resources – other than her own brilliance and ingenuity, Ms. Welsome uncovered a grotesque series of experiments in which American atomic scientists turned eighteen unsuspecting citizens into human guinea pigs, with tragic results.”
– Judges for the Newspaper Guild Heywood Broun Award

“Because of Eileen Welsome’s distinguished investigative reporting, America and the world know of the human costs of deeds that some tried steadfastly to conceal, yet others can never forget.”
– Judges for the Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting

“A superb journalistic effort …The dedication to the task, the unwillingness to accept government stonewalling, and ultimately the impact of the work in changing government attitudes were extraordinary. It took fifty years to tell this story. The American public owes Eileen Welsome a debt of gratitude for bringing this to light.”
– Judges for the Scripps-Howard Foundation Public Service Award