A Day to Remember

Today, people in communities throughout the nation will stop for a moment to pause and remember the toll of the nation’s nuclear weapons testing program on downwind citizens. Some will take part in official ceremonies; others are small groups of downwinders coming together to do something as simple as light candles in memory of loved ones who have died. They’ve waited a long time to be officially recognized by the government that harmed them.

Local and state governments have passed declarations echoing the U.S. Senate, which declared January 27, 2012, as the first annual “national day of remembrance for Americans who, during the Cold War, worked and lived downwind from nuclear testing sites and were adversely affected by the radiation exposure generated by the above ground nuclear weapons testing.”

“Adversely affected,” is a polite way of saying that they were made incredibly ill, that they have suffered with cancer and other autoimmune diseases, that they have lost their lives to those devastating diseases. It was a heavy price they paid during the Cold War when the United States detonated nearly a thousand nuclear weapons at the Nevada Test Site.
After each test, the radioactive mushroom clouds that originated in Nevada swept into the jet stream, blanketing Utah and raining hazardous dust indiscriminately over the rest of the nation. Tests showed exposure everywhere, from Idaho to the Midwest and even upstate New York. Clouds of fallout that included deadly strontium-90, iodine-131, and cesium-137 the nation, poisoning a generation.

The Day of Remembrance for Downwinders must remind us that in our nation’s fear of enemies, both real and imagined, we allowed our government to detonate nearly a thousand nuclear weapons on our own soil, causing sickness and harm to countless citizens. The National Cancer Institute published reports in 1997 and 2001 that estimated national rates of exposure to fallout. They found that as many as 212,000 cases of thyroid cancer nationwide may be attributed to nuclear weapons testing.

In 1990, the U.S. Congress voted to pass the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. RECA drew a line around southern Utah, parts of Nevada and Arizona. Downwinders living within the counties included in RECA became eligible for compensation for their illnesses. However, downwinders living outside of RECA’s boundaries, even those that received significant amounts of exposure and suffered the same sicknesses, were not eligible for RECA compensation.

A 2005 congressional report from the Congressional Committee on Government Reform made it clear that RECA’s boundaries were defined far more by politics than by science. Analyzing health and radioactive fallout exposure data, the report concluded that “radiation-associated cancer is actually more common in counties where residents are excluded from compensation than in those counties where residents are included under RECA law.” Fortunately, a bipartisan group of Western senators are working to expand RECA to compensate downwinders throughout the region and beyond. Unfortunately, their bill has largely stalled in the Senate.

This Day of Remembrance presents us with a critical opportunity –not only remembering those who were sacrificed, but to work for justice for those who remain.

Our nation was fortunate to secure a temporary moratorium on nuclear weapons testing in 1992. However, the moratorium is not permanent. The specter of renewed nuclear testing which was raised during the Bush administration was a stark warning that our leaders must permanently ban nuclear weapons testing, by ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

National security leaders of both parties support the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. While these political leaders speak to the national security benefits of the Test Ban Treaty –it’s downwinders who in their very bodies live the domestic reasons for supporting it.

Here in Utah, we remember the fallout accumulating in fields, gardens and yards during the days of testing. We also remember the supposedly safe underground nuclear weapons tests that vented radiation and sent plumes of debris downwind to renew the deadly downwind legacy on new unsuspecting generations. Via the air we breathed and the vegetables we ate and the milk we drank, we brought that fallout into our flesh, our blood, our bones.

Many of the Cold War’s monuments have been put aside, recognized as outdated relics of a reckless era. It’s long past time for the deadly practice of nuclear weapons testing to permanently join these fading monuments.

As we mark a national Day of Remembrance, it is critical that we do more than remember. We must act to ensure justice for surviving downwinders and, more importantly, to make absolutely sure that we never again create a generation of more downwinders.

Rob DeBirk is a native of Utah and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Campaigner at Heal Utah.