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She Crusades for Nuclear 'Downwinders'

March 06, 1987|LYNN SMITH | Times Staff Writer

It was 1953 and Janet Gordon was prouder than ever to be an American living in Orderville, Utah.

Then 12, Gordon had just watched a film at school made by the Atomic Energy Commission to reassure her and other civilians about the nuclear weapons tests that had begun upwind on the Nevada Proving Grounds.

Like many in southwest Utah descended from Mormon pioneers, she was already convinced--God and country first. The film drove the message home.

In it, she recalled a chaplain and a soldier, surrounded by cacti, having this conversation at the test site:

Chaplain: What's the matter, son? Worried?

Soldier: Well, just a little bit, Father.

Chaplain: Well, there's no need to be, son. Why, first you'll see a brilliant flash, feel the percussion, and then you can open your eyes and look up, and you can see the familiar mushroom cloud as it ascends into the heavens with all the colors of the rainbow. A wonderful sight to behold.

Gradually, Gordon grew skeptical, then shocked, angry and bitter about such reassurance. From 1951 to 1963, 84 bombs were exploded above ground at the Nevada Test Site, and an additional 16 in unsealed shafts also released radiation into the atmosphere, according to the Department of Energy.

As Gordon now believes, more than 100 of her friends and relatives died as a direct result of the radioactive fallout. "We were expendable," she says today.

Tonight Gordon will speak on "Radiation and Cancer: Is the Nuclear Industry Killing Us?" at UC Irvine. The program will begin at 7:30 p.m. in the Engineering Research Facility and include the documentary "Dark Circle." Admission is $3. Her lecture is sponsored by the Global Peace and Conflict Studies student organization and the Orange County chapter of Women's Action for Nuclear Disarmament.

A resident of Cedar City, Utah, Gordon, 47, has become an anti-nuclear activist and outspoken leader of the "downwinders," nearly 100,000 civilians who lived downwind from the Nevada test site.

"A lot of people are concerned about nuclear war and nuclear weapons," Gordon said in an interview in Anaheim, where she was staying with friends. "Our point is, for us, nuclear war has already occurred (with the tests), and people are already dying."

As co-founder of Citizens Call, an advocacy group for what they believe are the victims of radiation from U.S. nuclear testing, she has spent most of her recent years in a fruitless effort to win redress, or even admission of mistakes made, from the U.S. government. Its continued underground tests, she believes, still pose health threats to the population at large.

"I do not believe there will be any justice for the (downwind) victims until the testing stops," she said. "As long as they are protecting the new weapons systems, they can't acknowledge the real human costs," said Gordon, whose brother Kent Carroll died of cancer at 26, five years after a nuclear test was held upwind from his family's ranch.

The U.S. government has consistently denied that atomic testing fallout has caused illness or death in the downwinders. Moreover, the Department of Energy has argued that the government is immune from liability in any case under the doctrine of "sovereign immunity" and that the downwinders waited too long to file their suit, said Henry Gill, an attorney with the Department of Energy in Washington.

More than 1,000 downwinders filed a class-action suit against the United States in 1979. In 1982 U.S. District Judge Bruce Jenkins ruled that fallout had caused cancer in 10 of 24 representative claims and awarded $2.6 million in damages to nine of the 10 who were still living. The case is now under appeal in the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.

Earlier, in 1956, several ranchers sued the Atomic Energy Commission after nearly a quarter of the sheep herds in southern Utah and Nevada died in 1953. A judge ruled against them after the AEC attributed the deaths to "unprecedented cold weather." Based on information that government agents had committed a "species of fraud," the judge reopened the case, but last year the Supreme Court declined to hear it.

The family that lost the most sheep finally had to sell off its ranch last year, Gordon said. "They'd been struggling all these years."

Gordon believes that radiation poses dangers to workers in all phases of the nuclear industry--from uranium miners, laboratory and weapons-related workers to those handling or living next to nuclear waste.

Last year she chaired the National Committee for Radiation Victims, a public information organization in Washington, and spoke in Japan at the 40th and 41st observances of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. She also traveled to Moscow to participate in the Year of Peace events and spoke to the Soviet Peace Committee.

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