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Unmasking the Myth : While fighting for uranium miners, Stewart Udall came to startling conclusions about U.S. nuclear policy.

August 09, 1994|MICHAEL HAEDERLE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SANTA FE, N.M. — Stewart Udall is talking about 50 years of secrecy and deception by government officials obsessed with nuclear weapons, when he is interrupted by a phone call.

He spends several minutes in the next room talking to the family of one of hundreds of uranium miners he has represented in a 16-year legal battle with the federal government.

Udall returns looking glum.

"A new diagnosis of lung cancer," he says. "They just keep coming in."

The miners, many of them Navajos, were exposed to deadly concentrations of radon gas 40 years ago while digging uranium ore in several southwestern states for the nation's expanding nuclear arsenal. The link between the radioactive gas and incidence of lung disease was established and, according to testimony before Congress in the late 1970s, the government knew many miners would develop cancer and other lung ailments, but never warned them of the risk.

Udall, a former congressman and Secretary of the Interior, led a drive for legislation after federal judges dismissed lawsuits brought by miners and cancer-plagued "down-winders" (people who lived near the Nevada Test Site) on grounds of sovereign immunity--the doctrine that the government cannot be sued without its consent.

Since 1992, the federal Radiation Exposure Compensation Act has made reparations to some sick miners and survivors, but many claims are being rejected.

"They're interpreting this law very strictly and denying half of them," Udall says. "The Justice Department operates on the assumption that people would lie in order to qualify. That assumption is outrageous when you understand the Navajo Indians and their culture."

Helene Goldberg, director of the Justice Department branch that administers the program, concedes that half the claims have been rejected, but says many of them were for illnesses not covered by the legislation.

"We have consistently gotten these criticisms from Mr. Udall and they're just not founded," Goldberg says. "More than occasionally, someone doesn't qualify, but those eligibility standards were set by Congress." The program has dispersed close to $200 million since 1992.

Udall, who took the cases on a contingent fee basis, paid for the expenses of litigation through fund raising and out of his own pocket and for years received no legal fees. He now receives fees out of the compensation program limited by law to 10% of whatever his clients are awarded.

Why did Udall, who earns a modest income from lecturing, writing and legal work, stick with the miners? "Where I come from, if you take on a job, you finish it," he says. "Particularly when you look at the tragedy inflicted on these people--I just couldn't let it go."

Udall's outrage at this and every other aspect of U.S. nuclear policy is expressed in his new book, "The Myths of August" (Pantheon), which grew out of his handling of the uranium miners' claims.

Subtitled "A Personal Exploration of Our Tragic Cold War Affair with the Atom," the book portray's Udall's view that leaders and scientists, intoxicated by the awesome power of nuclear weapons, forged a secret "national security state" answerable to no one.

His most startling conclusion is that, decades of official assurances to the contrary, there was no military need for the United States to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the assaults that ended the war with Japan in August, 1945.

For Udall personally, the 11 years he spent researching and writing the book forced an anguished reassessment of his heroes, including Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman and Secretary of War Henry Stimson.

At 74, Udall is well-suited to his subject.

He experienced war as a gunner aboard a B-24 bomber in World War II. He later became a lawyer, and in the 1950s served three terms as an Arizona congressman. As Secretary of the Interior under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, Udall helped preserve vast tracts of wilderness and write far-reaching environmental legislation.

"I'm a preacher," he confesses. "My wife says I preach too much."

*

Udall's passion for public policy debate is remarkable, given that he has been out of government for a quarter-century. He left Washington in 1979 for Phoenix to work on the uranium miner cases. Lee, his wife of 47 years, and four of their six children assisted as investigators and by doing legal work. The Udalls settled in Santa Fe a few years ago to be near several children and grandchildren (son Tom is New Mexico's attorney general).

Despite his liberal political leanings and willingness to skewer sacred cows, Udall is the product of an old-fashioned upbringing.

He grew up in St. John's, a town of 1,200 in northeastern Arizona not far from the Zuni and Navajo reservations.

Udall's father was a Mormon lay leader and country lawyer who became chief justice of Arizona. With his five siblings (including brother Morris, who would succeed him in Congress), Stewart lived on a small subsistence farm.

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