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Residents in Western US Fear Government Plans to Resume Nuclear Weapons Testing

Preston J. Truman grew up in Enterprise, Utah, a small farming community of 800 people located 100 miles east of the U.S. government’s nuclear weapons test site in the state of Nevada.

"My actual first memory of life is sitting on my father’s knee watching an A-bomb go off on the Nevada Test Site," he says. According to Mr. Truman, the U.S. government would warn citizens when they were testing and where the radioactive fallout cloud was moving. But he says officials insisted there was no danger, even after people started getting sick.

"Within a few years after the testing started, we had our first case of childhood leukemia in town, and then there were clusters in nearby communities and then pretty soon it was adult cases," he remembers. "And in a very short period of time we all knew that something was dreadfully wrong."

The U.S. government finally banned above ground nuclear testing in 1963, but underground testing continued into the 1970’s. It was only in 1990 that the U.S. Congress passed legislation to provide compensation to people who lived under the clouds of nuclear fallout, so-called Downwinders. Downwind refers to the fact that nuclear fallout was carried from Nevada by westerly winds across the continental United States.

The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, or RECA, provides $50,000 dollars to individuals living or working in 21 counties in three states who were downwind of the Nevada Test Site and who later contracted cancer as a result of this exposure. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 11,000 people in the United States died of cancers caused by exposure to radioactive fallout. In some instances, entire families were afflicted. One resident of Arizona, Danielle Stephens, has lost 26 of 31 family members to cancer.

Although radiation exposure in these 21 counties was high, there were similar so-called hot spots elsewhere in the United States. According to Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, the radioactive fallout has many components, including iodine-131, which tends to concentrate in animal’s milk.

"Milk contamination happened in hot spots where fallout rained out of the sky," he says. "And the greatest exposure was in those hot spots for farm children who were drinking fresh milk. So you could find people in say Iowa, Kansas, even in Vermont that were very highly exposed because they lived in hot spots."

Currently, these people are not covered under RECA, but that may change soon. The National Academies’ National Research Council is considering whether the U.S. Congress should amend RECA to include additional geographic areas and other types of cancers. Dr. Isaf Al-Nabulsi who is directing the study tells VOA that the report will be turned in to Congress at the end of March 2005 and made available to the public by the end of April.

Downwinders, like Utah resident J Truman, are anxious to read the report’s recommendations, especially since many of them fear the government is planning to resume nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Site.

"Why are they putting money into getting the test site ready to resume testing on a presidential order within a short period of time? Of course, it means testing if it goes forward," he says.

But Bryan Wilkes, spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration in Washington vehemently denies that. "We can foresee no need for any testing in the near future. We are not planning any tests. We are not discussing any tests. It’s just not on the table," he says.

According to Mr. Wilkes, the current budget does contain money to maintain the Nevada Test Site, but there are no plans to start mass producing nuclear weapons or testing them. "We do have money every year in the budget for what’s called test readiness," he says. "That’s because the Nevada Test Site is a huge complex that requires a lot of upkeep. And if we let that fall into disrepair that could mean that we wouldn’t have any means for testing. And there could come a point some day – we don’t foresee it right now – but there could come a point that there would be a need for testing."

Bryan Wilkes says the only reason the government would conduct a nuclear test is if there were some serious safety issue that couldn’t be resolved using computer models. But many Downwinders, who feel that they were betrayed once by their government, remain unconvinced.