Changing the law on downwinders
A new report by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) on compensation for victims of Nevada atomic testing has caused concern.

The report suggests that geographic boundaries be done away with in determining who is a “downwinder,” the name for patients who contracted cancers, leukemias, emphysema and other illnesses as a result of the nuclear bomb tests. NAS proposes that using maps and other means for determining where fallout from the tests landed as a step toward screening victims be eliminated in favor of requiring patients to prove their maladies were caused by fallout.

That has prompted wide apprehension.

U.S. Rep. James Matheson of Utah issued a statement saying it is unduly burdensome to force victims or their families to assemble proof.

“Other than monitoring at the Nevada Test Site and neighboring states, only 95 monitoring stations were in operation across the entire country when the open-air tests were conducted,” said Matheson. “That makes any risk calculation a difficult task at best. I’m worried that moving away from geography as a basis for expanding RECA [Radiation Exposure Compensation Act] may result in thousands of downwinders falling through the cracks.”

On the other hand, some downwinders praised the elimination of the geography test while expressing dismay that victims might have to marshal proof at this late date—in many cases when death could be near, which arouses chronic suspicions that Congress is trying to wait out the downwinders’ life spans.

“It [the report] admits that fallout affected the entire country,” thyroid cancer sufferer Mary Dickson of Salt Lake City told the Deseret News. “But it is not possible for many victims to produce hard scientific evidence of their exposure because studies were not done at that time. At this point, all the government has to do is wait for the victims to die.”

No laws or legislation before Congress provide for rapid compensation of victims.

The NAS report also said that if the Bush administration goes ahead with the “nuclear earth penetrator”—a nuclear bomb designed to attack underground facilities—its use could cause “from hundreds to over a million” casualties. Prospects of developing the weapon, also known as the “bunker buster” and the “budget buster,” has prompted downwinders to oppose it for fear it will be tested in Nevada. Downwinder leader Preston Truman noted that the Bush administration was promoting the weapon on the same day as the release of the NAS report.

“Part of justice is acknowledging past mistakes and never letting them happen again,” Truman said.

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...