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Ground Zero

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Since everyone appears to be thinking about nukes this week, I thought I might pass along part of an e-mail sent to me today by a former student who is now attending graduate school somewhere within driving distance of the Nevada Test Site. She ventured out to the proving grounds recently with her husband and sent back a lengthy report on the place. After describing some of the mock suburban neighborhoods built to test the effects of a blast on Main Street, C. describes a scene that is (almost literally) straight from Don DeLillo’s Underworld:

They also had several military/ammunition bunkers that were made out of steel re-bar and concrete that they tested at various thicknesses and distances from ground zero. . . . Along with this however, were several concrete and steel cages that they would also place at various distances from ground zero, with animals in them. They used rats and mice because of their rapid reproductive rate to see possible genetic effects. They said they used dogs, too, but didn’t say why. And they also used pigs because their skin is similar to human skin. What is sick about this — aside from the mere fact that they were animal testing — was that they dressed the pigs up in soldiers’ uniforms to see if their uniforms would provide any sort of protection. Also — and this really upset me — some of the cages were made of glass so that they could see what shards of glass would do to the pigs as well.

C. is only beginning to discover the horrors of the American nuclear landscape. Shredded, irradiated pigs aside, the region around the NTS remains one of the most devastated terrains in the United States, with at least 12 billion curies of radiation having been released into the air and soil through atmospheric and underground nuclear events. In 1959 alone, the Air Force staged at least eight reactor meltdowns in Utah, with total radiation outputs that exceeded — fourteen times over — that of the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island. In New Mexico, moreover, as many as 244 “simulated” nuclear tests were conducted in the vicinity of Native American and Hispanic communities during the 1940s and 1950s. These radiolanthanum (“RaLa”) tests were only performed when winds were blowing away from Los Alamos, where thousands of white professionals labored on behalf of the cold war. Affected communities not only failed to learn of the tests beforehand, but they were also never advised that soil, air and water contamination quite likely lingered for years after the tests were halted.

The native populations who reside in this nuclear landscape bear its weight disproportionately. Their lands have effectively been constructed in policy discourse as “wastelands” that are, nevertheless, available for resource extraction and waste disposal. Throughout the cold war — and after — the mining and milling of uranium took place in the Navajoan desert, on lands traditionally occupied by Navajo, Hopi, Pueblo and Ute peoples; additional ancestral land have been withdrawn from Western Shoshone, Southern Paiute and other communities to construct the nuclear West, including the Nevada Test Site; other research and testing facilities (such as Los Alamos and White Sands) are located adjacent to Pueblo and Apache land, creating toxic downwind conditions for those communities; and the disposal of high- and low-level waste has been centered on reservation land held by Mescalero Apache, Skull Valley Goshute, San Ildefonso Pueblo among other tribes. The controversial Yucca Mountain site, set to receive the nation’s entire supply of high-level nuclear waste by 2010 at the earliest, is located on sacred land for the Western Shoshone, Southern Paiute, and Owens Valley Paiute.

In 1994, the Clinton administration created the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments to document and evaluate the history of intentional radiation releases in the United States. The final report, published in October 1995, was a dispiriting catalogue of moral lapses and grotesque breaches of human rights by medical professionals, Department of Energy scientists, officials at the Department of Defense and other federal and private entities. From 1944 to 1974, so the report disclosed, unethical experiments had been conducted on American soldiers, prisoners, disabled children and Alaska natives, scores of whose thyroids were intentionally destroyed with iodine-131 in 1956 and 1957 for the absurd purpose of studying how humans acclimate to cold temperatures. Participants in the Alaska study earned $10 each. Prisoners in Washington and Oregon received $25 (plus an additional $25 for submitting to vasectomies after the tests were complete); when lawsuits were filed on their behalf during the 1970s, nine plaintiffs eventually shared $2215 in damages. Mentally retarded children at the Fernald School in Massachusetts received a quart of milk each day and extra trips to the beach; the milk itself was, however, practically glowing with radiation. Ingeniously, the children’s reward was also the delivery vehicle for large doses of iodine-131.

It is sometimes claimed that the world’s most dangerous regimes should not be trusted with the world’s most dangerous weapons. Reflecting on this history, I can only agree.

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