Compensating for Health: The Acts and Outcomes of Atomic Testing

By Boutte, Marie I. | Human Organization, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Compensating for Health: The Acts and Outcomes of Atomic Testing


Boutte, Marie I., Human Organization


Thousands of individuals were exposed to nuclear fallout from atmospheric testing at the Nevada Test Site in the 1950s and 1960s. Many of these individuals and their families have sought various forms of redress for health problems perceived to be associated with this exposure. This paper focuses on the efforts of "downwinders" to obtain redress, primarily under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA). It is meant to be a first look at problems and issues associated with this particular act and the ensuing compensation program. Using the conceptual template developed by Brooks (1999), the paper questions whether RECA serves as a form of reparation, as it was intended, or is simply a flawed form of settlement. The paper suggests that rehabilitative redress should be included along with compensatory responses.

Key words: compensation, radiation exposure, atomic testing, downwinders, health, Nevada

I used to work as a nurse's aide at the local hospital in the long-term facility and I used to say that there were too many cancers. I have a friend with cancer of the cervix, her mother had breast cancer, her father had cancer of the bone, and her sister was diagnosed with it somewhere in her reproductive system. That's all in one family. I can just go on and on as to the number of cancer deaths. Some die at age 24 with cancer; one at 18 with leukemia; another had testicular cancer at 22 or 23. My father never had a problem and then boom, he had brain cancer They told us it wasn't caused by fallout, but then my mother got cancer and they paid us because it was the right kind for compensation. The money wasn't important but the government led us astray when they told us fallout wouldn't hurt us and it did. My brother's oldest daughter has four ovaries, and me and my daughters have had abnormal Pap exams (fieldnotes, Lincoln County, Nev., June 21, 1995).

On January 27, 1951, the first atomic weapons test was conducted above the desert floor of Frenchman Flat at the Nevada Test Site (NTS), located approximately 70 miles northwest of Las Vegas. From January 1951 through October 1992, a total of 100 atmospheric tests and 804 underground tests were conducted at this site (USDOE 1994, 1995). With few exceptions, the wind carried radioactive fallout from atmospheric testing over communities and ranches both proximate and distant to the Nevada Test Site, especially over southeastern Nevada and southwestern Utah (Kerber et al. 1993). Underground tests were conducted in shafts and tunnels and a few surface and near-surface crater shots were also designated as "underground" tests (USDOE 1995). Several of these underground tests are known to have "vented," releasing radioactive particles into the air, and crater explosions sometimes produced tons of throwout of radioactive dirt and debris that was carried off site by Nevada's desert winds. One crater shot named Sedan, a 104-kiloton thermonuclear device detonated in July 1962, lifted 12 million tons of radioactive dirt, stone, and dust into the air (USDOE 1994; Goin 1991). The downwind community of Ely, Nevada, had to turn its streetlights on at four o'clock in the afternoon when the large radioactive cloud passed over (Fradkin 1989:136).

Beginning as early as the 1950s, concern was raised in downwind communities in Nevada and Utah about immediate and long-term health effects of fallout exposures from testing at the Nevada Test-there still remains much concern for health effects from such testing. These concerns have led various groups to seek different forms of redress from the federal government. In this paper, I examine the group designated in early legislation as "downwinders"1 and their efforts for redress under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA). I draw upon the conceptual template developed by Brooks (1999) to frame the discussion of redress efforts that led to the RECA and discuss the key components of the RECA and the problems of downwinders in seeking redress. …

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