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JUSTICE DOWNWIND: THE STORY OF AMERICA'S ATOMIC TESTING PROGRAM AT THE NEVADA TEST SITE by Howard Ball (Oxford University: $19.95; 288 pp.)

March 23, 1986|Carl J. Johnson | Johnson conducted the first investigation of cancer incidence downwind from a nuclear plant in a federally funded study published by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1981. and

America's atomic-testing program began with a 19-kiloton nuclear explosion, "Trinity," on July 16, 1945, on a 30-meter tower at Alamogordo, N.M., disseminating 1,500 tons of radioactive fallout downwind. The first population exposed to nuclear fallout was American. Howard Ball graphically describes succeeding nuclear bomb tests in the Pacific and on American soil. The Nevada test site was chosen because winds would carry radioactive plumes and clouds eastward over less-populated Utah; nuclear bombs have now been detonated at the site for more than 35 years. Of about 183 above-ground nuclear bomb blasts, 28 laid down a deadly swath of radioactive fallout over the "sparsely populated" areas to the east, with heaviest exposures in southwestern Utah and adjacent parts of Nevada and Arizona. Exposures occurred over the continental United States, with heavy fallout as far east as Albany, N.Y.

The author writes with conviction and authority, reinforced with hundreds of references and citations. A college dean at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, he interviewed many of those shaping the historical events described in this book.

Sharp internal disagreement resulted from conflict between the overriding urgency of Atomic Energy Commission officials to complete tests on schedule and the concern of those aware of repeated injuries to thousands of rural Mormon families receiving the brunt of the radioactive "pink-orange clouds of dust" from the test site. Radiation instruments went off the scale in city streets, and records were later falsified. The deaths of thousands of sheep in the path of the nuclear fallout clouds were dismissed as "malnutrition" by federally supported scientists in the early court case, as they took part in a "fraud perpetrated on the court."

U.S. Public Health Service agents burned their clothes and showered to decontaminate themselves, but under AEC orders, reassured local people that no precautions were needed. Children played outside during periods of peak fallouts, pregnant women worked in the gardens, and families ate their locally grown produce, milk and meat contaminated with fallout radionuclides, with little early evidence of the insidious injuries that were being sustained. The AEC used media professionals to convince a doubting public that there was no hazard, no need for even the simplest measures to protect themselves against nuclear fallout.

More people began to die of leukemia even in the early 1950s. High concentrations of radioiodine were found in the thyroid glands of children. These effects could not be reported to the public because (Ball quotes a deputy director of the Atomic Energy Commission, Division of Operational Safety) "we can't change our story now; we'll be in trouble." The few scientists who objected were told by the chair of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy: "Listen, there have been a lot of guys like you who tried to interfere with the AEC (now DOE) program; we got them and we'll get you." Many instances of deception, disinformation and intimidation of concerned scientists are now part of the public record.

Gloria Gregerson tells of the 50 families she knew in a downwind town. Only four had no cancer. One family had 12 miscarriages and seven cancers. She herself developed four types of cancer, dying finally at age 42 of leukemia after surviving 13 operations. Jay Truman from another downwind town was shocked at a high school reunion to find that none of his nine boyhood friends had survived beyond age 28, each one having died of cancer or leukemia.

Early studies of leukemia deaths understate health effects since Mormons have 23% less cancer than the U.S. population to which they are usually compared. Mormons have less cancer because their faith forbids tobacco, alcohol and caffeine. Death studies are incomplete because only half of the cancer cases die of cancer; i.e., half are not counted. Further, all were "area" studies, lumping Mormons and non-Mormons together, and not considering migration in and out of the fallout area. These problems are avoided by a cohort study of cancer incidence in which all Mormon families in a fallout area are identified, followed forward in time and their cancer experience compared to all Mormon families in Utah. This study, published in 1984, found a 61% excess of cancer and leukemia in the fallout area.

The conservative, patriotic, deeply religious people of the downwind farms and towns suffered in silence for many years but were finally moved to action, aided by the release of incriminating AEC and Public Health Service documents by HEW Secretary Joseph Califano at the request of Utah's Gov. Scott Mathesen in 1979. Former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall filed the first of 1,200 claims against the Department of Energy in December, 1979.

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