Expendable Americans

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The Independent Culture
More than 40 years after nuclear testing began in the Nevada desert, the US is beginning to deal with the devastation it caused. But it is too late for those victims who were living or working around the test site at the height of the Cold War. Many are dead; others have spent years fighting for compensation as the legacy of radiation passes to their children; most suffer in silence. In 1983 Carole Gallagher went to find them. These are her pictures and their stories

BETWEEN 1951 and 1963, when the Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty drove testing underground, the Atomic Energy Commission detonated more than 125 atomic bombs above the Nevada test site, 1,350 square miles (3,500 sq m) of desert 65 miles north-west of Las Vegas. Each one of these bombs, it has now been estimated, released levels of radiation comparable to that released over the Ukraine after the explosion at Chernobyl in 1986. The fallout, carried on the wind, spread over much of the country, poisoning milk, contaminating wheat, soil and fish, killing sheep, horses and cattle and damaging three main groups of people: soldiers who were brought to the site for manoeuvres on a simulated 'atomic battlefield'; construction workers who set up the tests and had to clear up the debris, and the farmers and townspeople of the predominantly Mormon areas of northern Arizona, southern Nevada and Utah.

None of the inhabitants of these small towns had any idea what the effects of the explosions would be. 'If there had been any information of the danger when they started this testing,' said Isaac Nelson, who was born and brought up in southern Utah, 'if they had just said one word, I would have gotten out of here so fast it would make your head spin. The leaders of the departments of Energy and Defense looked upon the people of southern Utah and Nevada as expendable. 'We've got to conduct these tests, so if a few old Mormon farmers get killed, so what?' They just kept saying, 'Don't worry, there is no danger, there is no danger.' '

Isaac Nelson had served in the US Navy during the war and had escorted a troop transport ship to Nagasaki, where he had witnessed survivors of the Bomb, terribly disfigured, on the docks. When he returned to his old job in Cedar City, they heard the testing was going to begin in Nevada, but he didn't immediately make the connection. 'Everybody was really excited and thought we'd get a part to play in it and show our patriotism. We wanted to help out what little we could. My wife and I and a 100 or so residents of Cedar drove out to see the first one, our blankets around us because it was so cold, so early in the morning before daylight and we were chattering like chipmunks, so excited] Pretty soon, why, the whole sky just flared up in an orange-red flash, and it was so brilliant that you could easily see the trees 10 miles across the valley, and if you had a newspaper you could have easily read it, it was so bright. Quite a unique experience for us hillbillies here in a one-horse town to go out and see something like that.

'Later in the day, you'd see these fallout clouds drifting down in Kanarrville, and up through Cedar, and if you'd ever seen one you'd never mistake it, because it was definitely different from any rain cloud, kind of a

pinkish-tan colour strung out all down through the valley there for several miles. They'd float over the city and everyone would go out and ohh and aah just like a bunch of hicks. We were never warned that there would be any danger involved in going out and being under those fallout clouds all the time I lived there. I do recall hearing over the radio a time or two that there had been a test, and they were stopping cars down in St George and hosing them down, and we wondered why.

'Along about 1955, a cloud came over Cedar and my wife and I and the kids and the neighbours stood outside looking at it, and talking about it. Later on towards evening, my wife, her skin, her hands, arms, neck, face, legs, anything that was exposed just turned a beet- red. I thought probably she had a sunburn, but Oleta wasn't the type to develop a sunburn. She was an outdoors girl - she had real dark hair and a dark olive complexion. She got a severe headache, and nausea, and diarrhoea, really miserable. We drove out to the hospital and the doctor said, 'Well, it looks like sunburn, but then it doesn't' Her headache persisted for several months, and the diarrhoea and nausea for a few weeks.

'Four weeks after that I was sittin' in the front room reading the paper and she'd gone into the bathroom to wash her hair. All at once she let out the most ungodly scream, and I run in there and there's about half her hair layin' in the washbasin] You can imagine a woman with beautiful, raven-black hair, so black it would glint green in the sunlight just like a raven's wing, and it was long down to her shoulders. There was half of it in the basin and she was as bald as old Yul Brynner to about half-way back, the hair had just slipped right off. She was in a state of panic and I did the best I could to comfort her, but the hair never did grow back. She'd work her hair back over and cover up the best she could, but any time she'd ever go out in public, she'd always wear a hat.'

From then on, his wife became increasingly listless and ill. In 1962 she was diagnosed as having a brain tumour and doctors operated to try to remove it. They were unsuccessful and she died in 1965.

'And when,' Nelson added, 'the young boys and girls developed this leukaemia, dropping off like flies, a regular epidemic round here, nobody seemed to know. They were holding three or four funerals a week and that's a lot for a small town like this.'

It took years for the facts to emerge. The turning-point came in 1978, when President Jimmy Carter ordered the operations records of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to be made public. After a two-year congressional investigation, the report concluded: 'The greatest irony of our atmospheric nuclear testing programme is that the only victims of United States nuclear arms since World War II have been our own people.'

Three years later, in 1983, Carole Gallagher, a 33-year-old photographer from New York, drove cross-country to St George, Utah, to begin her mammoth project of photographing and conducting interviews with the people who had lived alongside, or worked on, the Nevada test site. She began by contacting radiation and anti-nuclear groups and attorneys that represented radiation victims. She raised funds for a mass mailing operation to contact 3,000 victims. She received nearly 200 replies, which became the basis of a book it would take her seven years to research.

Gallagher was working in a recognised American tradition of photo-journalism, following in the footsteps of Walker Evans and the Depression-era photographers who travelled to photograph people in their homes.

'In New York, photography is hyper- stylised and the photographers use it to manipulate each other and their subjects, that's why I like the older photographers. They weren't involved in the hype.'

Even so, she didn't find the Mormons conducive to her investigations. 'They're programmed not to question and not to act. That's the worst part of it. They're these pawns to be sacrificed to the greater cause.'

Soon after her arrival in St George, she was forced to move to Cedar City because of local disapproval. 'I had never married, had no family and they assumed the worst. Women are not thought capable of anything else.'

Gradually she pieced together harrowing testimonies from the 'downwinders', some of whom died during her research, some of whom have died since she left.

'One woman, I tried to trace her, had got clinically depressed and just left, packed up and moved out. Disappeared. I never found out what happened to her.' But all too many of them suffered terribly. Cancer rates were abnormally high despite the fact that Mormons don't smoke or drink alcohol or caffeine, and Utah has none of the air- pollution from cars or industry. Families lost mothers, fathers and children to rare forms of cancer and leukaemia. Farmers lost their livestock and their livelihoods.

In 1956 and 1982, three historic cases against the government were brought in Salt Lake City. The first two grew out of an incident in 1953, when sheep ranchers lost 4,500 of 14,000 sheep during May and June of that year, following 'Harry', a 32-kiloton blast on 19 May 1953 that produced an immense cloud of fallout carried downwind.

One rancher recalled: 'Never in my life have I ever experienced anything like I saw that day. The lambs that were being born didn't have any wool or skin on them, just a clear membrane covered their organs, and you could see their hearts beating and all the other organs functioning. In a matter of minutes they died.'

Convinced the deaths were due to radiation, the ranchers filed suit in 1955, but lost their case in the face of testimony from the AEC, which claimed the sheep had died of malnutrition and poor range conditions. In 1980, government investigators subsequently discovered internal memos that confirmed veterinarians had measured lethal doses of radiation in the sheep and lambs, but that these reports had been suppressed by the AEC. The new trial prompted a retrial, which ruled that the AEC had perpetrated 'a fraud upon the court for which a remedy must be granted, even at this late date'. This order was reversed by the Court of Appeals in Denver in 1983.

The third case was brought in September 1982 by 1,200 people of the area, in a huge trial (Irene Allen v the USA). All told, 98 witnesses testified and the medical histories of 24 plaintiffs with cancer were chosen as test cases - including four children who had died, and 19 adults, five of whom were still alive.

In May 1984, Judge Bruce Jenkins handed down a 489-page decision, the first to determine that radiation from the government's nuclear weapons industry had caused cancers. He awarded dollars 2,660,000 damages to 10 victims - only one of whom was still alive.

This ruling was overturned by an appeal court on 20 April 1987, on the grounds that the administration enjoyed constitutional powers 'to do no wrong' and so could not be held responsible for injuries suffered as a result of powers granted to the AEC.

In January 1988, this new ruling was upheld by the US Supreme Court, which agreed that 'the sometimes harsh principle of sovereign immunity' applied. The court concluded: 'However erroneous or misguided (the government's) deliberations may seem today, it is not the place of the judicial branch to now question them.'

Undeterred, and using the Jenkins decision as a guide, lawsuits seeking compensation for medical injuries and environmental damage have subsequently been brought against the Department of Energy's nuclear weapons plants in 10 states.

The first successful case was in 1989, when residents of Fernald, Ohio, were awarded dollars 78m for harm caused to their property by radiation from a nearby uranium processing plant. On 15 October 1990, the Radiation

Exposure Compensation Act was passed by Congress and a trust fund was established for the injured.

Three weeks ago, the Clinton administration announced that, for the first time in the history of the nuclear weapons programme, more money will be spent on cleaning up environmental contamination than on weapons.

Projected figures quote DoE expenditure in 1994 as dollars 5.9bn for maintaining the nuclear stockpile (down from dollars 7.2bn this year) and dollars 6.5bn for the clean-up (up from dollars 5.5bn). The Department of Defence will spend around dollars 4.5bn on clean-ups to deal with a variety of problems at various sites with toxic waste, and dismantle chemical weapons. A further dollars 1bn or so will be spread across other government agencies, such as the Department of the Interior, which controls 500 million acres (200 million hectares) of the American West, including most of Nevada, Oregon and Utah, and half of California.

Despite the increasing commitment of government resources for clean-up and compensation, according to Alan Burdick, in an article published in The Sciences, the magazine of the New York Academy of Sciences, the figures are nowhere near adequate: 'Critics of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (he writes) note that it offers meagre recompense - dollars 50,000 to dollars 100,000 - and that to only a narrow segment of the affected population. Those counties eligible for compensation lie adjacent to ineligible ones . . (and) of the more than 20 cancers classified as radiogenic by the National Academy of Sciences, only 13 are deemed worthy of remuneration under the Act. Nor does the Act compensate the second generation of victims: children born with defects, cancer or other chromosomal damage resulting from their parents' exposure. Adjudications under separate laws designed solely for atomic veterans have granted fewer than 3 per cent of the claims made so far.'

All the plants that made up America's Nuclear Weapons Production Complex, a network instituted to execute the Manhattan Project, have now been shut down. But only relatively recently, test site officials have admitted that, in the 21 years and 475 explosions since testing went underground in Nevada, there have been 62 accidents involving a release of radiation. Of these, 53 are classified

by the DoE as 'leaks' and 'seeps' - a gradual escape of radiation that usually, but not always, stays on site - and nine as 'venting', which the DoE defines as 'a massive release of radiation'.

The worst accident of this kind was the test code-named Baneberry. On 18 December 1970, a 10-kiloton bomb that had been placed in a vertical shaft 900 feet deep and 86 inches in diameter blew a radioactive plume of 3 million curies more than 8,000 feet into the atmosphere over a 24-hour period. It created a fissure in the desert floor long and a cloud of radioactive debris that was tracked by the US Airforce as far as North Dakota.

Underground tests continued in Nevada until October 1992, when Congress and the Bush administration signed a law temporarily halting all nuclear weapons testing in Nevada for the first time since the Manhattan Project to develop the Bomb began. Testing will resume in June if the moratorium is not renewed.

Copyright Carole Callagher, New York 1993

'American Ground Zero' by Carole Gallagher is published by the MIT Press on 26 April. It will be pounds 24.95 until 1 September, after which it will be pounds 32.25.

KEN CASE, 1984

Known as 'the atomic cowboy', by his fellow workers at the test site, Case was employed to drive cattle over ground zero after a nuclear detonation to test the effects of radiation on wildlife. He died of cancer in 1985.

'I had ridden the range all the time on horseback, checking for feed and water . . .'They brought in big helicopters, the sway-nose ones with double props. I think every mission, in the chopper, the pilot and I would be the first ones in. We would get over (ground zero: the epicentre of the blast at ground level) and bang, off-scale. When we went back over, about 30 feet off the ground, the sand it would be melted just like glass. Those ground zeros in the spring, they bleed a big circle in the snow. They had a few aerial bombs that planes dropped. As quick as it went, the area around the outside of that circle would be on fire. All the weeds and grass . . . Rabbits would run across there and they would be on fire. It was something.

'We took samples of the cattle twice a year. I think as far as having to do that for the results of radiation, they have been wishing their money away for the last 10 years.' He pointed to a testing-era photograph of himself on horseback, to the dust raised by horses and cattle. 'They got cancer and we got cancer,' he said. 'Only the animals were so much closer to the ground, they died faster.'


LaVerl Snyder, whose family used to camp in the mountains near their home in Ruth, Nevada, was pregnant in the summer of 1958, a year when atmospheric tests were at a their peak. Her daugher, Diana Lee, was born with a neuroblastoma tumour in her chest, removed by surgery when she was six months old, and given radiation therapy. She has spent her life in and out of hospital and her right lung doesn't function. At the time of this interview, Diana Lee, only 4ft 5ins tall, was suffering the 'moonface' side- effects of Prednisone, taken for pneumonia.

LaVerl: I remember seeing lots of clouds.

Different clouds. I broke out in a rash. Burns and blisters, little ones . . . (over) my entire body. I was sick a lot. Nobody knew what is was. My toenails fell off and some of my fingernails, and I lost a lot of hair. I thought I was a goner for a while. Diana was born real early, about three weeks early, and only weighed 3.2lbs.

Diana Lee: I'm bitter, definitely, 'cause all this is because they didn't warn people. My life now? I'm only 30 years old and I have to wear oxygen, be in a wheelchair most of the time . . . This last time, the pneumonia was real bad, so they had to put me on high doses of Prednisone, and I got diabetes from that. But I could be a lot worse than I am.


PRESTON Jay Truman was born on the Utah- Nevada border 11 months after the start of atmospheric nuclear testing in 1951. He developed lymphoma at 15, recovered, but still has radiogenic health problems.

'I was born in December of 1951. Testing started in January of 1951. I can remember one of the earliest memories of life: my mother and father would drive me out on the farm and watch the bombs go off. It was kind of weird in the sense that they were always there and they were very much a part of life. Not only did you have the bomb tests going off all the time, you also had the government's monitors and their PR shows going on in those areas. I can remember really well, right after kindergarten had started, this would have been in 1957, we had a general, he had ribbons all over his chest, talking to the schoolkids about testing and how it was necessary, and how the Russians would be here in the morning, that type of thing. How it was perfectly safe, we shouldn't worry. He did say little kids shouldn't go outside and play when the cloud was overhead, and he tried to explain a principle called 'cloudshine'. I remember very distinctly when he explained that cloudshine was the stuff in the cloud radiating on to the ground. Once that was gone there was no danger.

'I personally never really enjoyed watching the bombs go off. It was a sight to see the whole sky light up, and all of that, but to me they always sent cold chills up my back and scared me a great deal. By 1960 rumours were beginning to circulate that testing was the reason for the leukemia cases. I think it's very important to realise about the downwind residents that these are not isolated personal tragedies. They are a cultural tragedy, a part of everyday life. We've all lost loved ones, friends, and we've all been lied to and we've all been expendable.'


Carter holds a photograph of his platoon taken before shot Hood was detonated in 1957. Carter was the only one who looked out towards ground zero, eyes unshielded, biting his lip. At the time of this interview, aged 49, he was suffering muscle weakness, spinal deterioration and had had two strokes. His two sons are both abnormally small. Carter describes himself and one of his boys as clinically depressed.

'I was happy, full of life before I saw that bomb, but then I understood evil, and was never the same. I seen how the world can end. This world is a really thin sheet of ice between death and this happiness I had known all my life.

'I'm just a skinny guy in there, 140lbs. When the countdown came close I was scared to death. I thought, 'Well, I'm going

to die or maybe I'll be lucky and won't' The explosion went off, and I remember feeling the confusion that just blew me, it just blew me 40ft into the mountainside and all these men with me. I felt elbows, I felt knees, I felt heads banging, I felt my head hit the ground. I felt dirt in my ears, my nose, it went down my throat. I had a bloody nose . . . I remember the ground so hot that I couldn't stand on it, and I was just burning alive. I felt that I was being cooked. After the shot my coveralls were cracked and burned, there was so much heat.'

The soldiers then took part in a field exercise, a march toward ground zero where they would simulate battlefield manoeuvres devised to calculate the physical and psychological responses after the blast. 'I had a huge sunburn, and I remember being in a lot of pain going back to the base on the bus. The doctor told me he thought I had radiation illness because I was nauseated, dizzy, disoriented. They didn't know what to do.'


The widow of John Chester Ridgeway, a supervisor on the Manhattan Project who was a member of the AEC's think-tank and who was considered indispensable by his colleagues at the Nevada test site. He gave evidence against the testing before he died of cancer in 1981. June Ridgeway married her husband when she was 14 and he was 23.

'Everybody I used to talk to who worked at the test site is dead. It's like a bunch of ghosts out there . . Here, let me have this deposition and I'll show you what he said in black and white. They told him that he would be sterile. But he wasn't, honey, because he was the only man I've ever slept with, and he was the father of Jeff. They didn't tell him he could have cancer; they told him he would be sterile and he said, 'That's all right' because Sean was 19 at the time - and that's our baby - and we really hadn't planned on any other children. There was no training for radiation or anything. He worked out there 10 years. Their treatment for radiation was showers. That's all they did. Eight hours of showers. He had to leave his clothes out there because they were contaminated.

'I've got pictures of him that would scare you to death. My husband weighed 79lbs when he died . . . I can show you. He couldn't talk. I'd have to give him his water in a teaspoon in his mouth. He would hurt so bad . . . 'Momma, come and pray for me', and I'd take my hands on his bare stomach and pray to God for him, to help him get well. Yes, my dear, it was a horrible experience, when you live with somebody 41 years, most of my life.

'He had a hell of a death] And for those bastards to say, 'You're expendable'. I can't help it, I wish they were in those circumstances for one day. I don't want 'em to die,

I just want 'em to be in those circumstances for one day. They would never do that to another person.'


A bus driver on the test site, Walter Atkins was exposed for five hours to the fallout cloud of Baneberry, an underground test that went wrong in 1970 and released massive amounts of radiation. He died in 1988, after suffering numerous skin cancers and the removal of a cancerous lung.

'I was sitting there drinkin' my coffee, waiting for the boys to get through eatin' and git on the bus . . . Boy it shook. A blast, sounded like a clap o' thunder . . . ka-POW]]] And that turned our coffee cups over, we thought the mess hall was comin' down, and we run outside, and look right down the hill, and a big red flame and black and smoke was going up just like during the war at Iwo Jima . . . Everybody went crazy] I could just see it on my hands. Pink, kind of pink-lookin' stuff. Like a pink dust, my car inside was just

covered with it.

'They took us up to the bath-house and that guy run that monitor over me, and it like to flew out of the box] 'Oh man]' they said, 'get out of that car and into that bath-house]' And I went in there, and the damn hot water had broke down. We all had to take baths in ice-cold water. And I'd step in there and take my bath. I'd step out, he'd run that (geiger counter) over me and shove me back in there to take another one, till that happened nine times. The thing would just keep a-clickin' and I thought I was going to freeze to death.

'The doctors went over me with a fine- tooth comb. My hair, my eyes, my heart - a cardiogram. They were saying there wasn't a thing wrong with me, and I was strong] I worked for a while after Baneberry and then we got laid off. I don't know if it was because I was loaded with radiation . . . I didn't have no more energy. I'd get to burnin' inside the skin. Seemed like I'd start to ache, and my bone would burn down inside me.'

(Photographs omitted)