The American West at Risk: Science, Myths, and Politics of Land Abuse and Recovery

By Howard G. Wilshire; Jane E. Nielson et al. | Go to book overview

7
Creating the Nuclear Wasteland

No one disputes whether atomic radiation is harmful or harmless as they
did in the fifties because atomic downwinders wrote the answer on their
deathbeds
.

Chip Ward, Canaries on the Rim

In a very real sense, whenever weapons of mass death are unleashed, all
humanity is downwind
.

Lewis M. Simons, “Weapons of Mass Destruction”

“At the heart of the matter nuclear weapons are simply the enemy of humanity”— retired U.S. Air Force General Lee Butler, former Commander of Strategic Nuclear Forces, spoke these words in his testimony to a 1999 Joint Senate–House Committee on Foreign Affairs. They probably express the deep feelings of most of the world’s people, including most Americans. Towering mushroom blast clouds and the shapes of atomic weapons are common symbols of doom. The specter of nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists haunts us, and the possibility of attacks on U.S. citizens with “dirty bombs”—a bomb made of conventional explosives that scatters radioactive materials—raises major concerns. As it should.

Nuclear weapons and the nuclear waste that they generate truly are destructive to all life and must be controlled. If we fail to prevent their proliferation in the world and stop generating them ourselves, they could destroy us without respect for national boundaries—even without a real nuclear war or dirty bomb terrorist attacks. They already have poisoned great expanses of American lands from coast to coast.

American soil, water, and air started accumulating radioactive pollution during the World War II race to build an atom bomb. Radioactive contaminants spread into the environment at every step in the process, from mining the uranium for bomb fuel and purifying and enriching the uranium to make plutonium, to detonating bombs to test them and disposing of the wastes. Radioactive materials currently contaminate buildings, soil, sediment, rock, and underground or surface water within more than two million acres administered by the U.S. Department of Energy in the 11 western states.1

All sorts of Americans were carelessly exposed to radioactive bomb fuels during WWII and the Cold War, but especially the atomic scientists, uranium miners, and bomb plant workers who were exposed to them every day. For nearly two decades, U.S. atomic bombs blew up and contaminated American lands. Both

-181-

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