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The Low-Use Segment

Idaho's downwinders got their hearing. But are their voices being heard?


On November 6, hundreds of spectators gathered in Taco Bell Arena to hear firsthand accounts of one of the darkest chapters of Idaho history. They heard how qualities that have defined our state since its inception--independence, self-sufficiency and an affection for rural and small-town living--led the Atomic Energy Commission to infamously label the American Mountain West in the 1950s as a "low-use segment of the population." They heard grueling tales of how the U.S. government, in its quest to become a nuclear superpower, secretly treated its rural denizens like an expendable resource. And then they heard fears that it might happen all over again.

Between 1952 and 1962, over 100 atmospheric nuclear explosions or "tests" were conducted at the now-notorious Nevada Test Site. At the time, sparsely populated states like Idaho, Utah, Montana and Wyoming were specifically targeted to receive the brunt of the ensuing radioactive fallout. That much is known, from studying the weather patterns and government documents from the time of the tests. So is the process by which Idahoans became exposed: usually by drinking raw, unprocessed milk from cows whose pastures were tainted with fallout carried by rain clouds. What is not known is the full extent to which that fallout has affected the health of Idahoans and other westerners in the last half century. The Boise hearing was one of the most significant steps yet toward answering that question.

The hearing, which was the result of months of consistent pressure from local and national media and downwinders on the Idaho congressional delegation, was held to determine whether the National Academies of Sciences (NAS) should recommend to the U.S. Congress that Idaho be included in a possible expansion of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA). Since 1990 RECA has led to thousands of ex-nuclear-industry employees and downwinders receiving government checks--usually in the area of $50,000 to $100,000--for 19 different types of cancer which may have been sustained as a result of their exposure.

Over 80 Idahoans, some in wheelchairs and walkers, regaled the two NAS representatives--as well as all four congressional delegates and Governor Kempthorne--with detailed descriptions of tumors, surgeries and decades of chemotherapy, usually undertaken without a clue as to the cause of the illness. In the stands, other downwinders openly wept while the delegates patiently sat and listened, sometimes jotting a few notes or shaking hands with the speakers.

On the surface, the event seemed very encouraging. After all, no other downwinder hearing has ever had such extensive governmental representation. For a hearing about RECA expansion to be held outside of Utah was also unprecedented. All indicators seemed to show that Idaho's nuclear victims were finally being heard, and were on the fast track to justice. So why were so many, like Gary Riggs of Challis, not satisfied?

"I think what they're trying to do, by bringing this thing here, is bullshit us to sleep," argued Riggs, a sufferer of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, in the Arena's foyer during the hearing's lunch break. His discontent was echoed by speakers like Jeannie Burkhart of Twin Falls County, who openly resented having to "grovel" for recognition after decades of "lame excuses" from the government. The speakers' objections were as varied as their afflictions, but two very telling trends consistently appeared in downwinder testimony.

First, many speakers from heavy fallout areas displayed diseases that current nuclear research cannot adequately explain, and which do not qualify for compensation--which raises troubling questions about what information concerning radiation effects might continue to be withheld from the public. Secondly, and perhaps more commonly, downwinders expressed fears that our current administration is poised to disregard their suffering in the name of nuclear "progress" yet again.


In the months leading up to the hearing, iodine was the buzzword among Idaho downwinders and their supporters--and in particular radioactive I-131. The nuclear-bomb-test byproduct, known for specifically attacking the thyroid gland (and usually only the thyroid), put Idaho and Montana's downwinders on the map in 1997 when an NAS study announced that several counties in the two states had the highest levels of I-131 fallout exposure anywhere in the United States.

When asked by BW at the hearing, both Representative Mike Simpson and Butch Otter insisted that this summer's outcry was the first they had heard of that exposure--but if that is to be believed, then they ignored articles in The Idaho Statesman, The New York Times and USA Today in 1997 (when Otter was Lieutenant Governor and Simpson was speaker of the house for Idaho's legislature); a well-publicized letter from Dirk Kempthorne to then-Department of Energy Secretary Federico F. Pena demanding compensation for Idaho's iodine-affected downwinders; even personal correspondences from downwinder activists to all state officials to inform them of a September 1997 meeting in Idaho Falls to specifically address I-131 exposure. For media and downwinders alike, the delegation's unawareness and/or unwillingness to stand up for Idaho's I-131 victims seemed to represent the height of ignorance and apathy. At the hearing, however, many were shocked to learn that I-131 and thyroid cancer might just be the tip of the iceberg.

Janet Tomita of Salmon, for instance, grew up in the 1950s in one of Idaho's four "hottest" radiation affected counties. She does not, however, have thyroid cancer. Tomita suffers from multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease whose connection to nuclear fallout has long been viewed as uncertain--but in her mind, and in the minds of her Lemhi County neighbors, there is little doubt that fallout is responsible.

With her impassioned testimony, Tomita submitted a slim stack of papers simply titled "The List." Dozens of names long and almost genealogical in scope, this roster represents decades of effort by Tomita to catalogue the rash of abnormal diseases contracted by friends and ex-classmates of her age in Lemhi County. Thyroid cancer, while present in many cases, is accompanied by cases of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and numerous other cancers, but also by non-cancerous nervous system disorders like Parkinson's disease and MS--none of which have ever been linked in government research to iodine exposure, and the last two of which have never been included in RECA. Tomita's request, one which could devastate the nuclear program if conceded, was to "expand the compensation to the high number of autoimmune diseases that are occurring in people from Lemhi County."

"I knew in my heart that something had gone terribly wrong in Lemhi County," she told the NAS panel. "How could so many be sick so soon in life from such a small community?" The answer to her question, unfortunately, could be a long time coming. While neighbors of nuclear facilities such as Hanford Nuclear Site in Southern Washington have long claimed that nuclear fallout caused them to develop autoimmune and central nervous system diseases, the research necessary to prove or disprove those claims has neither been proposed nor funded. Indeed, while I-131 makes up only two percent of the fallout from nuclear explosions, very few studies have been conducted concerning the potential nationwide effects of the other 98 percent. And of those conducted, even fewer have been released.

Case in point: Since 1998, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI) have been working jointly for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to determine whether a study of the effects of all radioactive fallout from atmospheric tests is feasible. Many of the isotopes resulting from bomb blasts, such as strontium-90, plutonium-238 and cesium-137, stay radioactive for much longer than I-131; indeed, plutonium is still active to this day, and can affect far more than just thyroids.

In 2002, the two agencies gave the Senate Appropriations Committee, of which Idaho Senator Larry Craig is a member, a two-volume behemoth of a report concluding that it is technically possible to do such a study. The report also offered details on the likely methods to be used in this study, including initial estimates of the radiation exposure inflicted upon the American populace. Bearing the bulky title of A Feasibility Study of the Health Consequences to the American Population From Nuclear Weapons Tests Conducted by the United States and Other Nations, the report has sat for two additional years--long past its initial projected release date--and has not yet been released to the public by HHS. A very preliminary, 676-page long technical draft of the report, from 2001, is also avalaible on the CDC's Web site:

Whether the finalized report will see the light of day in time to provide information--positive or negative--to Tomita and so many other victims of mysterious afflictions in known fallout areas is unclear. Suffice it to say, after already dolling out over $350 million to downwinders with 19 different types of cancer in Utah, Nevada and Arizona, the financial consequences for the U.S. government to admit to substantial nationwide exposure could be staggering. Governmental hesitancy, in such a situation, can be expected if not exactly condoned. To downwinder activists, that hesitancy is where the line between science and politics is blurred.

"[To be recognized], you have to live in a politically acceptable county and have a politically acceptable cancer," explains Preston Truman of Malad City, a fallout victim and founder of the advocacy group Downwinders. "But if you open that door, then all kinds of questions pop up about what kind of damage [nukes] did to this country as a whole. If all that is put on the table, they'd never be allowed to do it again."

Jeremy Maxand, executive director of the Snake River Alliance, describes the politics of fallout research in slightly different terms. "We know that every person living in the United States was exposed to radiation from fallout--if I've ever heard a case for national healthcare, that's it," he says. To combat bureaucratic foot-shuffling, Maxand authored a recent letter to Sen. Craig, urging him to apply pressure to hasten the CDC/NCI report's release. In the letter, Maxand claims, "it is unconscionable that after years of inaction, HHS continues to sit on this information."

But Craig, when questioned at the Boise NAS hearing, did not share Maxand's view of the necessity to explore the effects of other isotopes. "We know about Iodine 131," the Senator responded. "And clearly, I-131 is almost exclusively thyroid. For me to ask to expand the number [of compensable cancers and diseases] ... might be a step too far. There are 18 other kinds of cancer [other than thyroid] that I think you can argue today are already identified [in RECA]. I am one who believes that is reasonably adequate."


Even before 9/11, the Bush administration openly declared an interest in reopening the Nevada Test Site for research into a nuclear "bunker-buster" bomb called the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP). Whether an actual test explosion could occur is a matter of great debate--Bush staffers have denied it, but the test-readiness of the site is a crucial part of the research and development program. In recent months, however, the rumors have finally come full circle. As early as Wednesday, Nov. 17, the current lame duck session of Senate could vote on whether or not to fund research into the RNEP.

The proximity of this vote to Idaho's downwinder hearing is coincidental, but from many downwinders' perspectives, the two issues are tightly related--especially because both Craig and Rep. Simpson sit on committees that could be crucial to the realization of that program.

"Here you've got the walking dead and wounded from round one, and you still haven't even buried them properly, paid their medical expenses or even said 'I'm sorry,' and now you want to go put them at risk again," declares Truman. "That says that they are still a low-use segment of the population. The politicians haven't grasped that, but downwinders have."

Craig, an open supporter of Bush's nuclear platform, expressed an opposite sentiment to Truman's while listening to downwinder testimony. When asked by BW if any of the speakers--several of whom called on him by name to change his stance out of solidarity with them--had affected his views on new nukes, the Senator insisted, "No, that issue is not this issue. This (testimony) is an issue about fairness, and establishing both a scientific and a human justification for substantially broadening RECA funds."

Craig's explanation is nothing new to downwinders. On Sept. 16 of this year, for example, a group of them, accompanied by members of the Snake River Alliance, met with his staff to ask the Senator to change or at least explain his stance. The group was told by Craig staffers at the time that while the Senator does support Idaho's downwinders, "We need to build new, more usable nuclear weapons to act as a deterrent to future 9/11's."

While Craig's views are not unique among Western Republicans, his stance does not represent that of the entire Idaho delegation. Rep. Simpson, who sits on the House Energy and Water Subcommittee in charge of voting on any Senatorial bunker buster legislation, insisted while taking a smoke break at the hearing that the issue of RNEP funding represents a basic rift between Idaho's political leaders.

"When [Craig] says 'The Delegation,' I should be included in that," Simpson said. "I've always been against [the RNEP], and I voted against developing the bunker buster--much to the chagrin of the administration." Simpson, a longtime Idaho Republican and supporter of Bush's Iraq campaign, left no doubt that his loyalty to the party line is broken when it comes to new nuclear weapons.

"I get a little upset with it," he said. "Why should we spend the money on it? It would be stupid to go over and use something like that. And they're saying 'Well, yeah, we won't use it, but we need it in our arsenal.' Bullshit." When informed of Craig's views concerning nukes as a deterrent to future 9/11's, Simpson reiterated his judgment. "That's just bullshit," he stated emphatically. "The United States will not use nuclear weapons unless we are bombed with nuclear weapons. The reality is we'll never use a nuclear device."

"Bullshit," alas, is the word of choice for downwinders like Riggs, who shook his head at the hearing after talking with Rep. Otter and said, "I simply cannot believe we've got legislators and congressmen who didn't know anything about this. I call bullshit on that."

It is also the word of choice for Truman, who says, "We hear all the time this myth that the people in Utah, in those 21 counties [compensated in RECA], got compensation because their congressional delegation was more attentive, more concerned and more proactive. Bullshit. They got it because the public gave them no choice. That's also why those four [delegates] and the governor had to sit there all day in Boise, and that's what has to keep happening. Otherwise, they'll keep treating us like little mushrooms: keeping us in the dark and feeding us more bullshit."

The pressure may be on, but there is no escaping the realization that the plight of Idaho's downwinders is now largely in the hands of a conflicted, seemingly disconnected Congressional delegation. Comfort can be taken in the fact that the downwinders' suffering is now on the official record, but whether that suffering has changed their status as "low-use" remains to be seen.