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Sweet Dreams, Nuclear Regulatory Commission

July 04, 1993|Thomas Frick

American Ground Zero: The Secret Nuclear War by Carole Gallagher. (MIT Press: $39.95 until Sept. 1, $50 after, cloth; 427 pp.; 129 duotones) This heartbreaking book tells, in the most painfully intimate terms, the story of a crime and a cover-up perpetrated by the U.S. government on its own citizens, particularly those ranchers and small-town dwellers in southern Nevada and Utah called by the Atomic Energy Commission "a low-use segment of the population."

The appalling story of the United States' aboveground nuclear testing program is not unknown. John Fuller's 1984 book, "The Day We Bombed Utah," did much to alert the public to its horrifying consequences, and the government's continuing culpability in denying them. But never has there been such a massive and intense portrayal of the human costs.

In 1981 New York photographer Carole Gallagher "dropped out of life" as she had known it by renting a room in St. George, Utah, from two Mormon widows. She spent the next decade documenting, with camera and tape recorder, the devastating experiences of civilian "downwinders," "atomic veterans" and test-site workers, all of whom were deliberately and repeatedly exposed to massive bursts of radioactive fallout and persistently lied to about its dangers. Gallagher's discipline in becoming "a blank slate upon which the stories and images could be written" has resulted in a document of immense authority and humane urgency.

The massive outbreaks of peculiar and unprecedented cancers in this healthy, clean-living and relatively closed population are abstractly known about. But Gallagher elicits the deeper particulars of suffering. One man becomes suicidal and unable to work after the birth of his son: "His face was a massive hole . . . everything was just turned inside out. I wanted to die. I wanted him to die." Another man recounts his (now long dead) wife's chilling scream from the bathroom one morning: All her hair had fallen out as she brushed it. Ranchers describe five-legged lamas, no-legged lamas, transparent lamas. There are dozens of other, grimmer stories. The perplexity and depression, bitterness and paranoia of these simple and patriotic people in the face of their government's continued refusal to acknowledge responsibility for their miseries is hard to bear.

By making simple portraits and allowing the subjects room to tell their own stories, Gallagher has avoided a paradox inherent in photography: In trying to make a statement and at the same time practice their art, documentarians often unwittingly aestheticize their material. Here we simply feel privileged to look these honest people in the eye and hear what they have to say.

"American Ground Zero" does not constitute legal or scientific proof of anything. But given the machinations of lawyers and the duplicities of nuclear scientists recounted herein, what it does provide is far more important--human testimony pervasive and damning enough for anyone to understand.

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