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Scars and Secrets: the Atomic Trail : Along the Nation's Bomb-making Circuit, Illness and Poisoned Land Mark the Cold War's Lethal Legacy

March 20, 1994|Michael D'Antonio | Michael D'Antonio's last article for the magazine was "Sound and Fury," about cochlear implants and deaf culture. He is author of the recently published "Atomic Harvest" (Crown)

On a dark winter day, five elders eat a quiet lunch in the tribal Chapter House in Red Valley, Ariz., a dry corner of the Navajo reservation where most everything is dusted with the windblown earth. The meal is traditional mutton stew. The conversation, shared in the soft sound of Navajo, is filled with grief. These men, who dug uranium that powered America's nuclear arsenal, have watched in anguish as more than 100 of their friends and family--all uranium miners--have been slowly killed by lung disease linked to radiation. And in the past week, lung cancer has claimed two more from their community of less than 2,000 people.

"They knew what they were doing to us," says former miner Russell Jackson. A tall man dressed in drab coveralls and a baseball cap, Jackson sits on a folding chair and stares at the floor as he speaks. A translator turns his words into English. "They didn't tell us uranium was used for bombs. They didn't tell us it would make us sick. But they knew. We were expendable."

Officials knew of the radiation hazard in the mines as early as 1951, but strict regulations protecting miners were not set until 1969 after congressional hearings on the issue. "The doctors were told not to tell them of the dangers, and they didn't," says Dr. Louise Abel, who works for the U.S. Public Health Service on the reservation. "An entire generation of men in some villages was decimated for the country's nuclear effort. It's an epic tragedy."

Similar stories have echoed across the country in the communities that composed the front line of the Cold War. Uranium traveled thousands of miles as it was transformed from rock to bomb, and documents from inside the weapons complex indicate that at many stops along this route, radiation was released during accidents, deliberate experiments and routine operations. Though bomb production has ceased, all the major facilities are now toxic-waste sites--among them some of the most contaminated places in the Western World--and estimates for the 40-year task of cleaning up the pollution, which will be lethal for centuries, exceed $500 billion.

It is impossible to be certain about how the radiation releases will affect the health of the more than 1 million people exposed. But all along the atomic trail, which stretched from coast to coast, communities feel and fear the ravages of radiation-related illness. "Trust in the government and science has been a casualty for these people," says Dr. John W. Gofman, a former government expert in radiation and health who is now an outspoken critic of the bomb makers. "A terrible political betrayal has taken place," he adds. "Increased disease will occur because of it."

As early as 1949, federal officials knew that radiation could be causing cancer in workers and people living near weapons plants. However, because virtually everything to do with atomic weapons manufacturing was classified as secret, much of the debate over radiation and health was kept from the public, which was, instead, reassured about radiation's safety. "We were in a Cold War that was real," says Newall Stannard, an expert in radiation and health who worked on many Atomic Energy Commission projects in the early years. Bellicose leaders of the former Soviet Union promised to "bury" the West, and the Soviets often matched or exceeded the United States in the race to build ever-more-horrifying weapons. The press reported on the competition to build better bombs and rockets as if it were an actual war. And to many people inside and outside of government, nuclear annihilation seemed possible at any moment.

"There was a real sense of urgency," Stannard says. "People believed that things had to be done and done quickly to keep the effort going. And because of the pressure to do things fast," he says, "many of us in the health and safety area weren't listened to."

Data on radiation found in communities near the bomb facilities was not widely disseminated. Health studies were often not followed up on. After two decades of radiation releases at the Hanford nuclear weapons facility in Washington, for example, doctors examined 5,500 children who lived nearby, but did not monitor them to see if any radiogenic illnesses developed later.

"They were treated like guinea pigs," says Robert Schaeffer, a spokesman for the Military Production Network, a nonprofit national alliance that represents citizens groups at more than a dozen nuclear sites. "The government made an effort to study these people after they died, but did not protect them adequately from exposure. It looks like a massive experiment."

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