Survivors of Cold War Nuclear Testing Say No to Revived Weapons Program
by Lisa Mullenneaux
They have heard it all before. Residents near the Nevada Test Site, 65 miles from Las Vegas, call themselves “downwinders” because they disproportionately suffer from cancers, leukemia, and other fallout-related illnesses. They know the government’s deceit carries a deadly payload. That’s why in 2006 when the Pentagon’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) announced a test of 700 tons of explosive (50 times the power of our largest conventional weapon), anti-nuclear groups in four states and the Shoshone Nation gave DOE a blast of their own.
Downwinders didn’t share DTRA head James Tegnelia’s euphoria that the test, code-named Divine Strake, would send contaminated dirt sky high. “I don’t want to sound glib here,” Tegnelia told reporters, “but it is the first time in Nevada that you’ll see a mushroom cloud over Las Vegas since we stopped testing nuclear weapons.” In February 2007 the agency cancelled Divine Strake, replacing it with plans for “smaller blasts” aimed at underground enemy targets.
Small or large blasts, what downwinders fear is the Bush administration’s aggressive pursuit of new nuclear weapons and renewal of underground tests, banned since 1992. They have reason to be wary. In 2002 Bush accelerated the Doomsday Clock by reneging on an agreement with Putin to destroy 4,000 nuclear warheads, and rejecting the Anti-Ballistic Missile and Comprehensive Test Ban treaties. In 2003 Congress reopened the door to research and development of low-yield nuclear arms by repealing the Spratt-Furse ban, but has since balked at funding more ambitious programs like the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrators (“bunker busters”). Undaunted, the Bush White House this year requested $88 million for “Reliable Replacement Warheads” to upgrade the existing nuclear arsenal. Just in case those warheads need to be tested, an “enhanced” Nevada Test Site—cost: $25 million—will be ready.
“I remember my father telling me about how people in southern Utah would watch the sky light up from the nuclear tests in Nevada,” says Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah), “and how they supported the program because they were strong patriots, who believed in their country and trusted their government.” Neither Matheson nor his neighbors trust the Bush administration’s assurances that funding new nuclear weapons won’t lead to testing them nor that underground testing is foolproof. Why should they? According to the Department of Energy’s 1996 report, radioactive material escaped from 433 underground tests between 1961 and 1992. In 2004, Matheson introduced the Safety for Americans from Nuclear Weapons Testing Act, that would require health and safety assessments prior to tests, Congress to authorize those tests, and independent radiation monitoring.
Downwinders in Nevada and Utah heard and read the Atomic Energy Commission’s (and later DOE’s) insistence “there is no danger” for 47 years, often in the pages of the New York Times and Washington Post. Not until 1980 did Congress admit what downwinders already knew: the danger of radiation was “not only disregarded but actually suppressed,” as a House of Representatives Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations concluded.
In 1990, Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, but for many victims and their families it was too late. A total of 928 above- and below-ground nuclear tests were conducted at the Nevada Test Site between 1951 and 1992 and 21 subcritical nuclear weapons tests since 1997, most recently in February 2006. Though the site has been renamed an “Environmental Research Park” by the DOW, it’s not a park you would want to picnic in. Soil at the site and for miles around is contaminated with radioactive material—which is why downwinders want to ban all tests.
Says Preston “Jay” Truman, who heads Downwinders, a Salt Lake City-based organization of those who were exposed to radioactive fallout: “Back in the ’50s, we were given a booklet on the first day of kindergarten that read, ‘You people who live near the test site are, in a very real sense, active participants in this nation’s testing program.’ We had no idea then how much we were at risk, but in opposing Divine Strake, we showed how much we have learned since then. When DOE refused to allow public hearings on the project, we held our own hearings. The government got 11,000 comments.”
Another Downwinder, Salt Lake City journalist and cancer survivor Mary Dickson premiered her play this year about the effects of radiation poisoning called “Exposed.” “I like to think the people do have power so I can go on thinking this fighting we do matters,” Dickson says. But sweet as the Divine Strake victory was, the Downwinders know they are fighting a Goliath in the weapons industry.
Some of those fighting Goliath lost family members who worked on the construction of test sites. Beverly Aleck’s husband Nick helped drill the mile-deep pit for the Cannikin test on Alaska’s Amchitka Island in 1971; four years later, he died of myelogenous leukemia. Aleck, an Aleut, has waged war with the DOE ever since to open the records and begin a health monitoring program for Amchitka workers. When the Alaska District Council of Laborers of the AFL-CIO investigated in the early ’90s, at Aleck’s insistence, the DOE claimed none of the workers had been exposed to radiation. They later admitted that exposure records and dosimeter badges had been lost.
Amchitka was the site of three large underground nuclear tests, including Cannikin, the most powerful nuclear explosion the US ever detonated. To allay fierce public opposition, then AEC chairman James Schlesinger claimed, “The site was selected—and I underscore the point—because of the virtually zero likelihood of any damage.” But the AEC already knew from Nevada tests there was no guarantee that radiation released by the blasts could be safely contained underground. In fact, research by Greenpeace and the DOE show it began to leak almost immediately. Amchitka remains the only national wildlife refuge chosen to test bombs.
Environmentalists, the Deptartment of the Interior, and the Auke Tribe all failed to save Amchitka or to change a pattern of military secrecy established years earlier in the Pacific. When Bikinians and others in the Marshall Islands were relocated starting in 1946, they were never told their homelands would be unsafe for 30,000 years. They were never told they would be used as guinea pigs in their new locations so the US military could better understand radiation poisoning. After many small tests, in 1954 the US exploded a hydrogen bomb, code-named BRAVO, and islanders experienced fallout over 7,000 square miles. Its gruesome results are cancers and malformed children called “jellyfish babies.” Darlene Keju-Johnson, a public health official born on Ebeye Island, has dedicated her life to interviewing Marshallese women and exposing their fear of ever bearing normal children. “They know they’ll be dying out soon. They are dying now—slowly.”
Russian women fear the same birth deformities as the Marshallese because of fallout from nuclear tests and accidents like Chernobyl. A 2005 conference organized to mark the 51st anniversary of the first hydrogen bomb test at Bikini Atoll allowed survivors to compare the patterns of secrecy that led to their radiation exposure, including still-classified government documents. “The reason the exposure [at Chernobyl] was so bad,” said Dr. Lyudmyla Porokhnyak, “is that we were lied to all the time.” After Chernobyl in 1986 and the BRAVO nuclear test in 1954, Russia and the US denied health risks and delayed evacuating residents. Fallout continues to be treated by US officials as the inevitable price for military superiority.
After President Bush’s Star Wars speech on May 1, 2001, when he argued that Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) could no longer guarantee our national security, companies began getting orders for fallout shelters for the first time since the Cold War. This year Huntsville, Alabama, dusted off its civil defense manual and announced plans to create a fallout shelter in an abandoned mine large enough for 20,000 people. Fighting the Red Menace during the 1950s was a bonanza for companies that sold pre-fab shelters, protective clothing, first-aid kits, disposable toilets, and books with titles like How to Have a Baby in a Bomb Shelter and America Under Attack! But while Eisenhower and Kennedy wanted nuclear preparedness they didn’t want national panic. An issue of Life, September 1961, devoted to the importance of fallout shelters, advised taking hot tea and aspirin for radiation sickness. “You can recover from a mild case of radiation sickness just as you can recover from a cold it’s not contagious. It loses its deadliness rapidly.”
Created in 1951, the Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA) was a shill for the weapons industry, designed to convince Americans they could survive a nuclear war by, among other things, ducking under a “sturdy table.” Its mascot was Bert the Turtle, who taught kids with a catchy jingle to “duck and cover” when the air raid siren sounded. Serious treatment of fallout, as in the film “On the Beach,” was condemned by the FCDA “because it produced a feeling of utter hopelessness, thus undermining efforts to encourage preparedness.” More entertaining were films like Mickey Rooney’s The Atomic Kid (1952) and Them! (1954) that exploited bizarre effects of genetic mutations.
Though scientists knew more than the public about radiation, their level of ignorance is astounding based on what we know today. As described by Gerard J. DeGroot in The Bomb: A Life, visitors were allowed into the Trinity site at Alagomordo, NM, in 1946 to collect Trinitite—the glassy substance of melted sand created by the blast—and local shops sold it as souvenirs. In September 1945, more than a thousand US servicemen were sent to Hiroshima and Nagasaki to help reconstruction. They were given no protective clothing, dosimeter badges, nor any precautionary advice. Meanwhile back in the US, secret experiments were being conducted in hospitals and prisons to study the effects of radiation on human beings. When the details of the experiments were released, the son of one of the women injected with bomb grade plutonium said: “I was over there fighting Germans who were conducting these horrific medical experiments. At the same time, my own country was conducting them on my mother.”
Part of the military’s pattern of secrecy is to use “nukespeak,” words that sanitize the horror of nuclear war: “collateral damage” for human death, “low-use segment of the population” for expendable downwinders. It speaks of “clean bombs” that release a bigger bang but less radiation than “dirty bombs,” calls the MX missile (Peacekeeper) a “damage limitation weapon,” speaks of a “limited nuclear war.” It justifies nuclear weapons research as “science-based stockpile stewardship.” Aware of US commitment under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to the cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament,” the Bush administration speaks covertly about its own testing plans while decrying those of other nations.
Pushing in 2003 for funds to research a new generation of mini-nukes, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was careful to insist the Pentagon wanted to study them, “not to develop, not to deploy, not to use” them. From a low of $3.4 billion in 1995, US spending on nuclear weapons rose to $6.5 billion in 2004, far surpassing average yearly spending during the Cold War. “All the saber-rattling leads me to fear that they might try to resume testing,” says Nevada State Senator Dina Titus, who has written extensively on the state’s history of weapons testing. “We won the arms race, so why are we starting it again?”
No wonder downwinders are protesting—they’re catching the drift. And why should we worry? Because if studies by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER) and National Cancer Institute are correct, we are all downwinders, exposed to radioactive fallout carried thousands of miles and lodged in food chains. Downwinders in Nevada are like canaries in the mine. They know what reactivating the Nevada Test Site means to them and their families or to having the nation’s nuclear waste dumped at Yucca Mountain. Chip Ward, who lives near the Nevada Test Site, writes, “Once again in a new age of nuclear testing, American citizens will be the first victims of our own weapons. We will live with uncertainty and doubt while waiting for the results of our own military folly to unfold in our tissues, our blood, our chromosomes, and our bones.”
Defense Threat Reduction Agency
Pentagon Plans Gigantic Explosion at Nevada Site, Reuters, March 30, 2006
Scientists Say Planned Blast a Part of Nuclear Testing
The Las Vegas Sun, April 6, 2006
Online at CommonDreams
Experts: Divine Strake ‘mushroom cloud’ could have sickened many
The Las Vegas Sun, June 27, 2007, from AP
The Spratt-Furse Law on Mini-Nuke Development
Union of Concerned Scientists, May 2003
Bush Speech on Missile Defence, Nuclear Reductions, May 1, 2001
Online at the Acronym Institute
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Reprinting permissible with attribution