The federal government prevailed in the fallout-cancer court cases in Salt Lake City, "but at a terrible cost," both to the citizens and the integrity of the government.
That is the conclusion of a new book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Philip L. Fradkin, "Fallout: An American Nuclear Tragedy." Published this month by the University of Arizona Press, Tucson, the book is already making ripples.Fradkin attended all of the lengthy fallout cases in Salt Lake City in 1982. He also researched thousands of documents and conducted hundreds of interviews.
He details many cases of cancer among residents downwind from the Nevada Test Site, which includes a large part of southern Utah, eastern Nevada and northern Arizona.
Fradkin is to appear on the Today Show on March 23 to discuss his research into the fate of people and livestock downwind from the Nevada Test Site during the open-air nuclear testing of the 1950s and early '60s.
Writing about the testing program and the alleged coverup of the effects, he says, "At one end of the scale of injustice, this breach of faith could be viewed as an act of sustained stupidity, while at the other it resembled a perfidious deed carried out by a government against its own people."
The story of the testing and its effects has been told by the Deseret News during its own investigations and several court trials, but Fradkin has turned up some startling new information.
He discloses that President Harry S. Truman nearly dropped atomic bombs on China and the Soviet Union. He also shows how one man operating in two different branches of government may have had a profound influence on the whole question of justice for fallout victims.
In 1953, thousands of Utah sheep died after being exposed to fallout. Ranchers sued, the government said the animals had died from poor range conditions, and in 1956 the government won. Then a generation later, after a Deseret News investigation, the case was re-litigated.
U.S. District Judge A. Sherman Christensen, the Salt Lake-based jurist who presided over the original trial, ruled in the 1980s that the government had deceived him. But he was overruled by the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, Denver.
The case ended up before the Supreme Court, where the stockmen lost. Chief Judge Warren Burger disqualified himself from the case, giving no reason for doing so.
In 1956, Fradkin wrote, an assistant federal attorney general named Warren Burger was in charge of the Justice Department's Civil Division. He apparently knew of the machinations going on involving the original sheep case, the author believes.
"Burger's name appeared at the end of a letter dated June 20, 1955. The letter was sent to the AEC's (Atomic Energy Commission's) general council," it said.
This letter discussed the way a Justice Department lawyer and three AEC officials visited a veterinarian who had inspected the sheep, Dr. R.E. Thompsett. The veterinarian had concluded that radiation killed the sheep or contributed to their death.
The letter says Justice Department lawyer John J. Finn spoke with Thompsett and "he advised that he had amended his findings and opinion previously enunciated and reported to the Atomic Energy Commission and to the sheepmen personally."
Plaintiffs - and later, Christensen - believed the Justice Department was part of a great cover-up of the dangers of fallout.
Fradkin writes that Burger may have had far-reaching effects on the case. At the most obvious level, he was the chief justice when the suit was reopened, and thus the head of the judiciary of the United States.
All of the major fallout cases brought to date have resulted in defeats for the plaintiffs. Yet, Fradkin believes, people died as well as livestock.
U.S. District Chief Judge Bruce S. Jenkins, Salt Lake City, ruled in 1984 that the government testing was conducted negligently, causing cancer among the downwind population.
Yet in 1986 he was overturned by the 10th Circuit. As Fradkin writes, that decision was "based solely on the discretionary function," the rule that the government cannot be sued in matters of national security.
The Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal.