Nuclear testing

Turning studies into policy
Larry Wissbeck, a long-time Nevada journalist who now owns a bookstore in Caliente, spent part of his adolescence in Nevada Scheelite, a now-abandoned mining camp in central Nevada. He remembers once getting up in the middle of the night to see the flash from an atomic test in southern Nevada.

“And you know who was sitting next to me?” he asks. “Nancy Gomes.”

Gomes, born in Lovelock and later a member of the Washoe County School Board and the Nevada Legislature, died of cancer in 1979. During her lifetime, she faced skepticism that her cancer was related to atomic tests in Nevada because she lived north of the Nevada test site. “Lovelock wasn’t exactly close to the fallout zone,” one newsman said.

In those days, fallout from the tests was generally thought to travel west to east, and only several counties in southern Nevada, Utah and Arizona have ever been recognized by Congress as fallout zones.

Then, in 1997, the National Cancer Institute jolted federal officials with a report showing fallout migration all over the nation, including north of the test site and far into New England. Those findings have now been upheld by a second study from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).

The findings came too late for Nancy Gomes, and other survivors—and their states—are struggling to figure out how to prove their cases. The NAS study further recommended ("Changing the law on downwinders,” RN&R, May 5) that the federal government stop using geography as a criterion for deciding who receives compensation and instead require proof from victims of linkage between their maladies and the testing.

That recommendation has distressed victims and their families who say it would be difficult at this late date to build such cases. But the difficulties in the west are nothing compared to those in the east.

In Vermont, the state identified by the NAS study as the hardest hit in New England, there are major problems. The state didn’t even collect cancer rate statistics until relatively recently. In addition, New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution technical advisor Raymond Shadis told the Vermont Guardian that events since Nevada testing have complicated the ability of the state to make its case.

“The issue is complicated by the fact that Vermont, particularly the ridge lines, took a heavy hit from the fallout generated by the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in 1986,” Shadis said. “All of this looms as background for our concerns about the risk of accidental radiological releases entailed in the proposed reactor power boost and continued dense-pack nuclear waste storage at Entergy’s Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station.”

Currently, federal law provides for compensation of people living in just 21 counties in the West—in Utah (Beaver, Garfield, Iron, Kane, Millard, Piute, San Juan, Sevier, Washington and Wayne), Nevada (Eureka, Lander, Lincoln, Nye, White Pine and a portion of Clark County), and Arizona (Apache, Coconino, Gila, Navajo, Yavapai and that part of Arizona north of the Grand Canyon).