Downplayed downwinders?
A new Nevada museum devoted to the atomic testing era has drawn harsh fire—and an attack on the state’s senior U.S. senator.

The Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas was established in spite of a good deal of caustic comment (both around the nation and in Nevada) about its macabre subject.

The museum officially opened on Feb. 20, and on Feb. 18, Downwinders Opposed to Nuclear Testing (DONT) issued a statement calling the museum “revisionist history.” A spokesperson for the group said members had monitored the content of the museum all through planning of the facility.

Downwinders are people who live in areas where fallout from the Nevada tests fell. Many of those areas have higher-than-average rates of cancers and other maladies.

“Where are the exhibits to the victims of the Cold War? They once called us a ‘low-use segment of the population.’ Apparently, we’re such a low-use segment, we don’t even exist and don’t deserve a place in history,” said downwinder Darlene Phillips of Bountiful, Utah.

Mary Dickson, a Utah survivor of thyroid cancer, published an essay Sunday in the Salt Lake Tribune: “By excluding our story, the museum is essentially saying we don’t deserve a place in history, even though we were involuntary participants in what a New York Times writer once called ‘the most prodigiously reckless program of scientific experimentation in American history.’ The museum cannot be considered complete until it provides a full accounting of the very heavy price Americans paid for our nation’s four-decade nuclear-testing program. Otherwise, it is nothing more than a propaganda vehicle.”

Museum director Bill Johnson objects to the contention that the exhibits downplay the downwinders.

“This is not the case. We are interested in having those who feel this way visit the museum to see for themselves. As an example, the centerpiece of the museum is called the ‘Ground Zero Theater'…The beginning of the theater presentation simulates an atmospheric test complete with light, sound and benches that shake from the rumble. This theatrical effect is a prelude to the real feature—a discussion of the history of the Test Site and its effects. The downwinders are portrayed prominently.”

Johnson transcribed a dialogue that makes up the last six minutes of the videotape that plays at the facility, but that dialogue features no downwinders. Two of the participants are test site workers, and the third is Clark County Sen. Dina Titus, author of a book on atomic testing. In the dialogue, one of the test site workers is critical of the pro-downwinder viewpoint and the second worker—Troy Wade—concedes the merit of their view but rationalizes it: “The weapons that were tested here went into the nuclear deterrent, which … I think prevented a world war and caused the Cold War to end.”

Titus takes a pro-downwinder position, but the tape doesn’t include any downwinder speaking for him- or herself.

The criticism of Sen. Harry Reid came in the Feb. 18 prepared statement from DONT Coordinator Vanessa Pierce: “You would think that Sen. Reid would fight resumed testing as vehemently as he has fought Yucca Mountain. Instead, he has gone to bat for a museum spouting propaganda.”

Reid responded that his record of many years of support for downwinders speaks for itself.

“I am in favor of the museum. I think it’s excellent. I’m sure they mean well, but that museum is an important part of Nevada history.”

However, the downwinders say Reid’s defense of the museum avoids the issue. They say they’re not critical of the establishment of the museum, but of its glorification of the testing and its failure to provide an accurate portrayal of the terrible costs of atomic tests.

Reid also repeated what has become the mantra of the museum’s defenders.

“Many people believe that it [atomic testing in Nevada] was one of the reasons we won the Cold War.”

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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...