Trinity: The plight of 'downwinders'

By Eve Mary Verde

Published: Friday, July 20 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

July 16 marked the 67th anniversary of Trinity, the first nuclear weapon test. Trinity ushered in the atomic age, helped end World War II and ignited the Cold War. Those of us who suffered from the effects of the nation's thousand nuclear weapons tests, known as "downwinders," have our own memories of the thousands of tests that followed.

My own memories begin in Carbon County where, as a 5-year-old, I remember the vivid fear I felt for a friend whose mother was dying of breast cancer. I had no idea what a "radical mastectomy" was, only that it must be something horrible because I heard my parents discussing how difficult it was going to be for her husband, who would soon be left to raise three small children. This was my introduction to cancer.

Little did I know that cancers would become commonplace in my small community of fewer than 10,000, where the incidences of this deadly disease are too numerous to count. In my immediate family of four, every one of us has been a victim of cancer. My father died of brain cancer in 1988. My mother died of colon cancer nearly five years ago. I have had breast cancer. My brother has had colon cancer. His wife died a year ago from uterine cancer.

Sadly, my family has more than our share of memories of the legacy of nuclear weapons testing.

The purpose of memory is to preserve the past — so as to protect the future. The anniversary of Trinity should be no different. Our memories of testing, along with the cancers we've contracted and the loved ones we've lost, demand that we act. Our memories demand that we bring a permanent end to nuclear weapons testing. They also demand that we fight for justice for those downwinders affected by previous tests.

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, or CTBT, if ratified, would ban nuclear weapons testing forever, laying to rest the specter of a reinvigorated Nevada test site. One need only recall the fight in 2007 against the Divine Strake test to be reminded of the ease with which we could return to testing.

The Senate should listen and act quickly to ratify the CTBT, preventing future generations from being sickened by nuclear fallout. In the meantime, Congress should act to compensate the downwinders who are sick now.

Unfortunately, many of these people are not eligible under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, or RECA, passed in 1990. RECA designated 10 counties as eligible for compensation based on proximity to the test site. They did not, sadly, base that choice on the extent of the population's exposure to deadly radioactive fallout.

A 2005 report from the independent Committee on Government Reform demonstrates that RECA's boundaries are arbitrary; that "radiation associated cancer is actually more common in counties where residents are excluded from compensation than in those counties where residents are included under RECA law."

Recently, Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho has pushed for an expansion of RECA's boundaries. Finally, after all these years, someone is working to bring justice to downwinders.

So where are Utah's senators on this? During the Senate campaign, Mike Lee pledged that he would support RECA's expansion. Sen. Orrin Hatch, on the other hand, who sponsored the first flawed RECA bill, has done nothing and given every indication that he will continue sitting on his hands until downwinders are little more than memories.

Let's make July 16 and the anniversary of the Trinity test not just a day of commemoration — but of action — on both the CTBT and RECA. We must ensure the past inspires a better future.

Eve Mary Verde is a resident of Murray and the associate director of development at Utah's Hogle Zoo.

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