Downwinders Catch The Drift


They have heard it all before. Residents near the Nevada Test Site, 65 miles from Las Vegas, call themselves “downwinders” because they 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, the Shoshone Nation, and legislators on both sides of the political aisle went on red alert. 

 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, what downwinders fear is the Bush administration’s aggressive pursuit of new nuclear weapons and renewal of underground tests that have been 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 by 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-UT), “and how they supported the program because they were strong patriots, who believed in their country and trusted their government.” Today neither Matheson nor his neighbors trust the Bush administration’s assurances that funding new nuclear weapons won’t lead to testing them or that underground testing is foolproof. Why should they? According to a Department of Energy (DOE) 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, Congressional authorization, and independent radiation monitoring. 

For 47 years downwinders in Nevada and Utah heard and read the Atomic Energy Commission’s (later DOE’s) insistence “there is no danger,” 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.” 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. There have also been 21 subcritical nuclear weapons tests since 1997, most recently in February 2006. Though the site has been renamed an “Environmental Research Park,” 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. 

“Back in the ’50s,” says Preston “Jay” Truman, who heads Down- winders, a Salt Lake City-based organization of those who were exposed to radioactive fallout, “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 told me. But sweet as the Divine Strake victory was, the downwinders know they are fighting a Goliath in the weapons industry. 


 Some of those fighting 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 myelo- genous 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 1990s, 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 U.S. ever detonated. To allay fierce public opposition, then chair of the AEC 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 Department 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 U.S. military could better understand radiation poisoning. After many small tests, in 1954 the U.S. exploded a hydrogen bomb, code-named BRAVO, and islanders (U.S. citizens all) 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 because of fallout from nuclear tests and accidents like Chernobyl. “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 accident in 1954, Russia and the U.S. denied health risks and delayed evacuating residents. Fallout continues to be treated by U.S. officials as the inevitable price for military superiority. 

After President Bush’s Star Wars speech on May 1, 2001, when he argued that Mutually Agreed Deterrence (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. A 1961 issue of Life,  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 treatments of fallout, like the film On the Beach (1959), were condemned by the FCDA “because it produced a feeling of utter hopelessness, thus undermining efforts to encourage preparedness.” More entertaining films, like Mickey Rooney’s The Atomic Kid (1952) and Them!, (1954) 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 onto the Trinity site at Alagomordo, New Mexico in 1946 to collect Trinitite and local shops sold it as souvenirs. In September 1945 more than 1,000 U.S. servicepeople were sent to Hiroshima and Nagasaki to help reconstruction. They were given no protective clothing, dosimeter badges, or any precautionary advice. Meanwhile, in the U.S. 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 and “low-use segment of the population” for expendable down- winders. It talks about “clean bombs” that release a bigger bang, but less radiation than “dirty bombs,” calls the MX Peacekeeper missile a “damage limitation weapon,” and speaks of a “limited nuclear war.” It justifies nuclear weapons research as “science-based stockpile stewardship.” Aware of U.S. 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 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, U.S. 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. 

No wonder downwinders are protesting—they’re catching the drift. 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 or having the nation’s nuclear waste dumped at Yucca Mountain means to them and their families. 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.” 


Lisa Mullenneaux is a journalist whose work has appeared in U.S. and Canadian newspapers and magazines for over 20 years.