Dennis Nelson Testimony, 2005: “The View from Downwind: Justice for the Victims? A Commentary

International Meeting 2005 World Conference against A & H Bombs

Dennis Nelson Support and Education for Radiation Victims (SERV) U.S.A.

The View from Downwind: Justice for the Victims? A Commentary

For almost 30 years the US Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) conducted atomic tests in the continental United States (US) with an absolute assurance of safety. Workers, military personnel and the civilian populations near the Nevada Test Site (NTS) were exposed to radioactive fallout from the bomb tests but were told emphatically that “there is no danger.” Sometimes this assurance was couched in the phrase “there is no ‘immediate’ danger.” Except for a few skeptics, such as my aunt Irma Thomas in St George, UT, these assurances were accepted at face value by the trusting residents of the downwind communities. Although there had been isolated incidents of skin burns and patchy hair loss experienced by downwind individuals after episodes of fallout, it was not until several years had passed that the first major indications of harm appeared. These were manifest by an early excess of leukemia and lymphoma in this population, and later on by an increased incidence of thyroid and other cancers.

I was born in St. George, Utah in 1943. It was an ideal hometown with about 5,000 residents, a rural lifestyle, deep patriotism and religious piety. It was a healthy lifestyle as well: we abstained from alcohol and tobacco; we grew most of our own food; there was no industry to speak of and the air and water were crystal clear. In December 1950, however, what had been an idyllic setting was about to change when President Truman designated the Nevada Bombing and Gunnery Range as the Nation’s continental nuclear weapons test site. Over the next 50 years over 900 atomic bombs would be detonated in Nevada (more than 100 above ground) as part of a global political power game played out between the two superpowers. Essentially, the United States of America fought a nuclear war with the Soviet Union only 120 miles from my home. This war cost thousands of people their lives and destroyed the health of countless more, with deadly fallout circling the globe.

On January 27, 1951 a one kiloton nuclear bomb was dropped from an airplane and detonated over Frenchman Flat at the Nevada Test Site. A huge mushroom cloud laden with highly radioactive fallout gasses and particulates soared skyward, and then began to slowly flatten out and drift Eastward toward St. George — my hometown. But, of course, this was not just an accident — the managers of the test site had already made their decision that bombs would only be detonated when the wind was blowing in the direction of St. George, the direction of their experimental fallout sampling grid.

1As the pressure to develop an H-bomb intensified in 1953, the tempo of the test program increased dramatically and safety precautions often gave way to expediency. The unthinkable happened on May 19, 1953 when shot Harry, a 32 kiloton thermonuclear device, rained intense fallout over St. George. Spot readings of 6 and 8 roentgens per hour were recorded. (By way of comparison, a 5 roentgens per hour measurement at Prypiat in the aftermath of the Chernobyl explosion resulted in the evacuation of 50,000 people.) The Southern Utah residents were told over the radio to remain inside for two hours while the fallout cloud passed over, despite the fact that the cloud had already deposited its deadly load two hours earlier. No instructions were given to the citizens on how to take precautions to minimize exposure. The government radiation monitors were told to take frequent showers, to discard their clothing and to eat only canned or imported food. By contrast, the residents were not even told to wash vegetables and fruits from their backyard gardens. They were not told to take showers, nor to avoid drying their clothing on an outdoor line. They were not told to turn off their evaporative coolers which sucked large quantities of outdoor air directly into their houses. In short, they were told nothing about taking precautions; instead they were repeatedly assured there was no danger. However, in secret, behind closed doors, the government agents fretted considerably over this incident.

In September, 1953, Howard L. Andrews, a Biophysicist with the National Institutes of Health wrote the following in a Nevada Test Site reevaluation report: “it seems necessary to adopt a rather conservative attitude toward the involuntary exposure of the general populations. An error on the radical side will not be immediately apparent, but the chickens will inevitably come home to roost at some later date.” For my family the first chicken came home to roost in 1966, and they have continued to return on a regular basis ever since.

My mother was the first to be diagnosed with cancer in 1965, a malignant brain tumor, and, after surgery, died at the age of 46. In 1969 my brother, age 19, was diagnosed with lymphoma. In 1977, at age 34, I was diagnosed with skin cancer, which recurred in 1982. In 1980 my father, age 61, was diagnosed with lung cancer and died shortly after receiving a regimen of chemotherapy and radiation. He had never smoked a day in his life. In 1991 my youngest sister, born in 1952 during a test series, was diagnosed with cancer of the colon and, after multiple surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation treatments, died in 1992 at age 40. At the time of her diagnosis, she was an assistant US Attorney in Salt Lake City and in the prime of her life. At present, the average age at death of my immediate family members is 49. Total out of pocket expenses for medical care, not including insurance payments, is in excess of $500,000.

Documents released in the late 1970s proved that: not only had the radioactive releases harmed US citizens; but that the government scientists and administrators had known and discussed this harm at the time the tests were conducted, but had chosen to keep this knowledge secret from the American people. In 1981, approximately 1,100 plaintiffs from the downwind areas filed a class-action lawsuit against the US Government alleging that negligence by Government agents at the NTS, by releasing large quantities of radioactive substances into the environment and contaminating the surrounding communities, had caused many cancers and deaths. In 1983 a
federal judge ruled that the Government agents had indeed been negligent and awarded monetary damages to 13 of the 22 cancer types in the lawsuit. He stated that the other 9 cancers types should be revisited later when there was more complete evidence. The decision was reversed by a federal appeals court and the Supreme Court refused to hear the case. This ended the pursuit of a judicial remedy for the Downwinders.

In 1990, the US Government officially admitted that fallout had caused an increase in cancer rates and congress passed a compensation bill for downwind victims of the Nevada Test Site, called the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA). This legislation granted compensation for those who had contracted one of the 13 radiation linked cancers designated in the original lawsuit and who had lived in the specified counties during the 1950s or early 1960s. This bill pays $50,000 per cancer or death to eligible recipients, their spouses or children but no medical payments nor reimbursements are authorized. The burden is not just financial however. My own children have been deprived of knowing their grandparents. They have become experts at handling the news of a terminal disease striking down yet another person they know and love. They too have learned what it means to be survivors.

RECA-1990 also contained many inequities, primarily the specific cancers which were either included or excluded and which fallout locations were covered and which were not. Because fallout covered the entire US and was not evenly deposited (but rather often came down in intensely radioactive hot spots) every community in America could potentially have been affected. For political and fiscal reasons, however, only about ten counties in the immediate downwind area were included in RECA-1990. Claimants sometimes found it difficult to find the necessary residency documents to qualify for compensation. The Native Americans communities who had lived in the area for centuries were particularly hard-hit because, by tradition, they lacked the necessary formal documents to prove their residency (or in some cases even their existence). Sometimes, even after a claim had been approved for payment, the sick or dying cancer victim was simply issued a Government IOU, instead of payment, because the compensation fund had run out of appropriated funds.

In 2000 the US Congress amended RECA-1990 in an attempt to rectify some of the worst inequities in the Act. This amendment added six new cancers to the RECA-1990 list and expanded the coverage area to include some additional counties; however, many counties in northern Utah and Idaho which had also received large deposits of fallout were still excluded. In 2001, Congress passed a radiation workers compensation bill which provides a one-time $150,000 compensation payment, plus future medical expenses, to workers in the US atomic weapons complex who contracted certain occupational illnesses and cancers as a result of their exposure to chemicals and radiation on the job. The Utah Congressional delegation vowed to match this level of payment for the Downwinders but to date they have been unsuccessful.

In late 2002 Congress passed an additional amendment to RECA but failed to increase the compensation payment or to add medical benefits for the Downwinders. This disparity is especially egregious since, during their employment, the workers were: 1) paid good wages; 2)
had knowledge that they were working with radioactive materials and dangerous chemicals, yet chose to remain at their jobs of their own volition; 3) were subject to continuous medical monitoring and health care; and 4) were protected by industrial hygiene procedures and safety equipment during their employment. The same was not true for the Downwinders, however, who: 1) received no wages; 2) had no knowledge of their exposure; 3) were offered no protection from the radioactive fallout; 4) received no health care nor monitoring; and 5) were not warned to take even the most elementary precautions to protect themselves and their families from radiation damage.

This preferential treatment of the bomb makers over the Downwinders raises some difficult ethical questions. How does the Government remain responsible to its citizens when the actions of its agents harm them; and how does it maintain the dignity of its individual citizens when it disrespects them? How can it really be serious about restitution for past wrongs, while, at the same time, planning to resume nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Site? There is no reasonable excuse for exploding nearly 1000 nuclear bombs in one’s own back yard, or anywhere else, and least of all to resume testing now that we know the terrible consequences of these actions. After paying several hundred million dollars already to only partially compensate a small subset of the victims from the first round of nuclear tests, the Bush Administration’s proposal to resume bomb testing in Nevada smacks of lunacy.

To make matters worse, the US National Academies of Science (NAS) has recently published a report which proposes to change the way compensation payments are determined for all cases of radiation injury and death regardless of exposure pathway. They have recommended expanding the geographical areas eligible for compensation (which makes sense since radioactive fallout covered almost the entire North American continent), but at the same time they recommend replacement of the current presumptive model with a so-called “probability of causation” (POC) model in which the compensation payment would be linked to the “probability” that the specific cancer was “caused” by the “estimated” level of radiation to which the victim was “supposedly” exposed. Since these exposures were never measured and estimates do not take into account internal exposures, this process is highly speculative and amounts to junk science at best and outright fraud at worst. The end result of following this NAS recommendation would most likely be that no one would receive any compensation at all. This report makes the incredible assertions that radiation is only a weak carcinogen, and that nuclear fallout is unlikely to have caused any cancers in the past. All this rhetoric appears to be just another wish by the new generation of nuclear weaponeers to return to the official dogma of the past: “there is no immediate danger.”

Are we supposed to call this justice?