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Legal Fallout : Judge Rejects Claim That Nevada Test Site Radiation Caused Worker Illnesses


LAS VEGAS — Alma Mosley sits alone in her cluttered house and thinks about justice.

Fallen behind a chest of drawers, unreachable, is a framed certificate for work well done, illustrated with a mushroom cloud and inscribed with her husband's name: Hugh Mosley. He has been dead since 1978, lost to colon cancer--a victim, she says, of the Nevada Test Site, where he labored for 13 years at the height of the nation's nuclear weapons testing program.

But a federal judge here has disagreed, ruling there was not enough evidence to conclude that radiation caused the illnesses of Hugh Mosley and five other men who worked at the site in the harsh Nevada desert long ago. The judge said that for some of the men, lifestyles--diet or cigarettes or alcohol--may have been to blame.

"My husband was a clean man," says the diminutive Mosley, voice charged with pain, spine stiff with indignation. "He neither drank nor smoked. It was a slap in the face. . . . There's no justice in this government. They killed my husband, my children's father, and said they didn't."

The workers case, as Mosley's was called, was the last big Nevada Test Site radiation lawsuit against the government to finish trial.

This stretch of desert--a restricted swath of sand and sagebrush larger than Rhode Island, pocked with craters from nuclear blasts and shrouded with the secrecy of its Cold War past--was the site of more nuclear warhead detonations by the U.S. government than any other place in the world.

More lawsuits have been focused on this location, 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas, than on any other stop along the so-called Atomic Trail--the nuclear weapon's path from uranium mine through manufacturing plant to proving ground. More protesters have been arrested here than at any other target of anti-nuclear activity in the country--including more than 1,200 on one day alone in 1988.

But with the workers case possibly at an end--an appeal is uncertain--and U.S. nuclear testing halted for at least the next 14 months, a notorious chapter in the nation's weapons history may be coming to a close. As the United States heads toward next year's 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Nevada Test Site is on the precipice of a dramatic change:

* The world's nuclear powers began meeting again last week in Geneva to continue work on a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty that could render the Nevada site unnecessary.

* The U.S. Department of Energy is scrambling to figure out what to do with 1,350 square miles of irradiated Nevada desert. Among the options: turning the site into a Solar Enterprise Zone for solar energy research and development. A business/government task force met Saturday in Las Vegas to discuss harnessing the above-100-degree summer temperatures, which department spokesman Darwin Morgan euphemistically calls "our solar resources."

* No new lawsuits are in the works to hold the government accountable for alleged radiation exposure to men, women, children and animals between the first blast at the test site in 1951 and the last in 1992.

"The significance of the decision (in the workers case) is that, right or wrong, it ends . . . the legal history of the Cold War nuclear weapons testing project at the Nevada Test Site," says Larry Johns, an attorney for the plaintiffs.

Had the July 20 decision in U.S. District Court gone in favor of the six workers, says John Thorndal, an attorney involved in the government's successful defense, "it could have opened up the government to enormous financial exposure and probably clogged the courts for years here in Las Vegas."

Like the seven other major radiation exposure lawsuits to come out of the nation's nuclear weapons program, the workers case was actually a combination of many other lawsuits, in this case for a grand total of 220 plaintiffs. Because class-action lawsuits against the government are not allowed, six of the individual cases--including Hugh Mosley's--were chosen to go to trial.

As a result, "there was a substantial number of people claiming their diseases were caused by exposure at the test site, but the court ruled otherwise," Thorndal said.

Driving south on U.S. 95 toward Las Vegas, there is very little indication that the hot, flat desert and dramatic mesas to the left hosted nuclear detonations, both aboveground and below, for 41 years. The off-ramp for the test site is marked simply "Mercury," the name of the small support town within the restricted region. A "No Services" sign is tacked on for good measure.

Chain-link pens, constructed in the 1980s to hold protesters arrested during waves of demonstrations, gleam in the setting sun on the approach to the small, secretive town. According to the blue Adopt-a-Highway sign, the mile-and-a-half stretch of roadway bordering the test site was adopted last year by the Nevada Desert Experience, a "faith-based" anti-nuclear group whose members both protest the site and pick up its highway litter.

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