Debating Downwind in Nevada

Tonight in Las Vegas--a town best known for slots, boxing, and spectacle--the Democratic presidential hopefuls gather for one of the final pre-primary debates.

The Democratic Party moved the Nevada caucus up on the 2008 election calendar--third after Iowa and New Hampshire--to allow for a greater range of regional diversity in early voting than in the past. (South Carolina was also awarded an early primary spot). One issue that won't be debated in Iowa or New Hampshire but will loom large in the Silver State is Yucca Mountain.

Watch for each candidate to oppose Yucca Mountain and the disastrous plan to ship our nation's nuclear waste thousands of miles by road and rail to be buried in an area with a record of earthquake activity.

Lurking behind those two words is an important living nuclear history in the state which deserves attention. Between 1951 and 1992, 928 above-ground and below-ground nuclear tests were conducted at the Nevada Test Site, just miles from where the candidates will be debating in Las Vegas. Initially, the public was assured "there is no danger" and urged to "participate in a moment of history" by watching the tests.

But, in fact, people downwind of the tests--downwinders--continue to suffer and die from the lethal fallout they were exposed to. Exposed, a new play by downwinder Mary Dickson, examines the Utah playwright's own struggle with thyroid cancer and her sister's death from lupus at the age of 46. It uses transcripts of hearings to explore similar experiences of other victims who became sick, and lost friends and loved ones. The government denied any link to radiation. The play spans fifty years, and downwinders keep "cancer charts" chronicling the afflictions of their neighbors. It also addresses the Bush Administration's proposed Divine Strake in 2007--a subnuclear test blast--and the downwinders' organizing efforts that helped to defeat it. The play ends with the reading of the names of downwinders who have died, and new names are added after each show.

We cannot forget this living history. As Dickson told me, "Understanding the full extent of that reckless human experiment should inform any decision on both the development of new nuclear weapons and the illusory promise of nuclear power. Without that understanding, politicians will be too easily swayed to consider mini nukes and bunker busters as strategically viable weapons in the 'war on terror'--just as they will too readily embrace nuclear power as a solution to global warming. The development of any new nuclear weapons inevitably opens the door to resumed testing in Nevada and leads to the destabilizing proliferation of nukes--both of which are a disastrous course that only put us more at risk. Nuclear power is an illusory solution to climate change--one propagated by the nuclear industry, which still cannot answer the vexing question of what to do with the dangerous waste it generates. Until the waste can be addressed, nuclear power is neither a viable nor a responsible option."

This living history is nowhere to be found at the Las Vegas' taxpayer-funded Atomic Testing Museum. The exhibits excise the stories of nuclear testing victims--instead celebrating nuclear weapons as "safe, patriotic and just plain fun." As the New York Times wrote, "the history of testing, as told [in the museum], is largely the history of its justification."

That living history, as told by Dickson, should inform voters in this election as the Bush Administration and its allies (and too many Democrats) look to create a new generation of usable nuclear weapons. It should inform us as Big Nuclear ignores the "serious issues of nuclear plant safety, security against sabotage and terrorist attack and waste disposal" in promoting new plants. And it should inspire participation in renewed anti-nuclear activism as the nuclear industry lobbies for new subsidies for its self-proclaimed "nuclear renaissance."