Bliss, Ignorance and Mushroom Clouds

Thursday, August 12th, 2004

“We are not disposable. We matter. Yes. We matter.”

This is what I wonder. As Karen Evans’ statement hung in the air of the Salt Lake City Public Library during a recent hearing of the Board on Radiation Effects Research, did the panel members return the woman’s eye contact, or did they look down at their notes?

This story begins in the 1950s, that time of bliss, ignorance and mushroom clouds. Between 1951 and 1962, the U.S. set off more than 100 open-air nuclear explosions at the Nevada Test Site — and Americans sat in folding chairs in their backyards and watched. If they were downwind, they got cancer, but that came later.

Freeze-frame the ’50s for a moment, before all the uterine myoma and myeloma and leukemia and thyroid cancer and liver cancer — before all the doubt — and simply savor, once more, the view. The nation-state was at its historic zenith, entertaining us with the mightiest display of military force ever seen. Patriotism required little more than a low whistle of awe. Behold the nation’s greatness.

Now collapse that moment into Salt Lake’s public library 50 years later and listen to the voices of the “downwinders,” as they call themselves, courageously displaying a brand of patriotism oft-belittled in that earlier time. They were standing up to the government that birthed The Bomb, demanding not merely reasonable compensation for their myriad radiation-related illnesses, for lost parents, lost children, but, good Lord, accountability. Acknowledge what you have done to us, they cried.

It turns out that’s asking too much — unless you hail from one of a handful of counties in Utah, Arizona or Nevada. If you lived in the right place during the testing era (underground tests continued until 1992) and you’re dying of a demonstrable fallout-related illness, you’re entitled to some money, under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.

That act, passed in 1990, ended four long decades of government stonewalling. Till then, its spokesmen denied that nuclear testing had ever harmed anyone — a shameful legacy of deceit. The act was mostly damage control, limiting compensation, arbitrarily, to 21 counties near the Test Site.

The Utah hearings, which featured wrenching testimony from numerous downwinders outside those counties, including U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson (whose father, former Utah governor Scott Matheson, died of suspected fallout-related cancer in 1990, at age 61), may result in RECA’s expansion. Or not. We’ll see.

A report to Congress is due next June, but recommendations are almost certain to ignore the direst testimony — that because of the way the jet stream carried radioactive fallout in testing’s glory days, virtually the entire country was a hot zone. Some counties in Kansas, Iowa — even New York — harvested more iodine-131 and other radioactive fallout than many of the Western states.

Talk about your can of worms! So far, RECA payouts have totaled something over $700 million to radiation victims and their families. Imagine if the government extended its liability beyond 21 counties to 48 states. Our spending to ease radiation-related human suffering would begin to rival the money we’ve squandered — in excess of $6 trillion — causing it.

This has to be said. The nuclear turn our country took was an unmitigated mistake: not only a health disaster but a values disaster. It reduced the individual to nothing. For instance, Matheson drew gasps at the hearing when he read from an old declassified Atomic Energy Commission report characterizing the soon-to-be-contaminated downwinders as “a low use segment of the population.”

But the expendable people, as they grow ill, as their understanding of the meaning of patriotism changes, are standing up and demanding to be heard. Theirs are the most passionate voices being raised against the greatest horror of all: not what happened yesterday, but what’s happening today and being planned for tomorrow.

The Bush administration has, for instance, appropriated $25 million to upgrade the Nevada Test Site, and has requested $96 million to study so-called “low-yield” nukes and earth-penetrating “bunker busters” — the next generation of nukes. These are weapons that would actually be usable and which, according to researcher Richard Miller, may necessitate a revival of above-ground nuclear testing.

Over our dead bodies, say the ones who have already lived the consequences of our world-domination complex.