Nuclear exchange

Thursday, March 3rd, 2005

From the point of view of the ones with fallout-related cancers, or who lost parents, spouses or children to such illnesses, this was a bad idea — kind of like creating a “happy” museum at Auschwitz.

Linton Brooks, undersecretary of energy for nuclear security, who gave the keynote speech at the dedication of Las Vegas’ brand new Atomic Testing Museum on Feb. 19, summed up the stakes involved in this $4.5 million public-private endeavor with dead-on accuracy: “We need to preserve the past so it can point the way to the future.”

Problem is, the future Brooks envisions is a United States with an updated, modernized arsenal of “usable” nuclear weapons and, no doubt, a resumption of the dress rehearsals for Armageddon that were ongoing at the Nevada Test Site for more than 40 years, from 1951 to 1992.

So what past do you preserve? Do you preserve the past that begins with the famous utterance of Manhattan Project director Robert Oppenheimer, upon witnessing the first atomic explosion in 1945, “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds” (quoting the Bhagavad-Gita); that continues through 1953’s fallout-spewing “Dirty Harry” blast and the decades of lies and deceptions of the Atomic Energy Commission about the safety of nuclear testing; and culminates, perhaps, in the anguished efforts of the “downwinders” many years later to get government compensation for their various radiation-related illnesses, as well as straight answers and an apology?

Or do you preserve a past where nuclear weapons are safe, patriotic and just plain fun?

“ . . . the history of testing, as told here, is largely the history of its justification,” Edward Rothstein wrote recently in the New York Times, reviewing the glitzy new museum, which was partially funded by such military-industrial-complex biggies as Bechtel and Lockheed Martin.

Rothstein describes the theme-park-like feel of the museum, which includes a sensurround theater, complete with air cannons and subwoofers, where visitors can experience the simulated (fallout-free) vibes of a real nuclear test; as well as a photo display of such ’50s pop-culture kitsch as “atomic hairdos” and Miss Atomic Blast of Council Bluffs.

“This is a museum that celebrates WMDs!” Mary Dickson, one of the downwinders and a survivor of thyroid cancer, exclaimed to me with bitter irony.

And a press release put out by Downwinders Opposed to Nuclear Testing — or DONT — described the museum as “nothing more than a monument to propaganda.” The release quoted Arizona downwinder Eleanore Fanire: “The government doesn’t want to acknowledge downwinders in the museum because they’d have to admit to America that they used their own citizens for guinea pigs.”

Another downwinder, Valerie Brown of Idaho, said that a message she had left on the museum’s electronic message board ( was removed because “Political messages will not be posted.”

My God, a publicly funded nuclear smiley-face museum and censorship to boot? I was appalled enough to look into the matter. What I found is that maybe the museum’s doors aren’t completely air-locked against dissent and a complex view of our nuclear legacy. I hope this is the case.

Troy Wade, who is president of the Nevada Test Site Historical Foundation and the driving force behind the museum, told me, “I worked at the test site since 1958 and had a lot of friends who died.”

He defended the museum’s fairness, noting that nuclear-testing critic Dina Titus, author of “Bombs in the Backyard,” is featured on an eight-minute tape loop in the theater. And he acknowledged that the removal of Brown’s posting from the message board was a mistake that won’t happen again.

This isn’t much, maybe — not in the context of cancer, Armageddon and Linton Brooks’ savvy comment about the future of the nation and the human race. But Wade also said, “I would welcome a conversation with any of the downwinders.”

Well, let the dialogue begin! I think the downwinders, enlisting the help of Nevada’s Sen. Harry Reid, whose spokesman told me their story must be part of any comprehensive history of the Test Site, should ask for a chance to present, in their own way, the ghastly human cost of America’s nuclear weapons program.

I don’t think they should settle for less than their own wing — perhaps in the part of the museum financed with public money.