Letting the genie out
A Utah Congressmember has created a stir in that state by calling for a resumption of Nevada nuclear tests.

“What we really want here is deterrence. We want people to get out of their holes and into the democratic process, and we want to scare them out,” U.S. Rep. Chris Cannon said. “We need to give them the fear of destruction, and hopefully over time, people will recognize that the democratic system works.” He was apparently referring to people in other nations.

The idea of testing nuclear weapons as a civics lesson prompted a rush of letters to the editor and editorials. One reader of the Salt Lake Tribune wrote, “The only way we can make the world safe for the democratic process is to scare the hell out of them with the threat of nuclear devastation?”

Cannon’s stance in Washington goes sharply against the grain of recent developments back in Utah. The Utah Legislature this year unanimously voted for a resolution that said a resumption of testing “would mean a return to the mistakes and miscalculations of the past [and] would signify a dramatic step backward in the United States of America’s resolve to learn from its tragic nuclear testing legacy.” Gov. Jon Huntsman endorsed the resolution.

What gave Cannon’s proposal added public interest is his own background—he believes his father’s fatal cancer was caused by fallout from Nevada testing, and Cannon himself was once an attorney for downwind victims of the Nevada tests. He did not address the paradox.

“To the degree that we have people blow up our skyscrapers and hiding underground, we have to have the ability to respond to them,” Cannon said. “I don’t ever expect we’ll end up using a bunker buster, but the other side needs to know that we have them.”

The “bunker buster” proposed by the Bush administration is the next generation of nuclear weaponry. Known as the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, it would be a powerful nuclear bomb that would generate huge billows of fallout while causing large-scale destruction and death when used in metropolitan areas.

In an editorial, the Salt Lake Tribune said Cannon was at least being candid compared to Utah’s two senators, Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett, who the newspaper says support testing while saying otherwise in public. But the newspaper found little more merit in his position.

“He not only won’t pretend that the nuclear genie can be kept in the bottle, he is inviting it to come out. … [I]f forcing a new generation of nuclear weapons upon the world, and a new course of nuclear testing on Utah and the rest of the nation, constitutes democracy, the rest of the world is not likely to see its charms.”

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Dennis Myers

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...