by Public Broadcasting Service –
(January 30, 2004) PBS — BOB ABERNETHY, Anchor: We have a special report today on the debate over new atomic testing. The administration has proposed that testing resume in Nevada — underground — to develop so-called bunker busters: nuclear weapons that could destroy whatever was hidden deep in the ground. The proposal has raised many questions, military, political, and moral, about whether resumed testing would advance national security and, if it would, how to balance that against the fears of people who live downwind from the test site. Lucky Severson reports.
LUCKY SEVERSON: For 47 years, until the first President Bush signed a moratorium in 1992, the US government tested nearly 2,200 atomic devices, an average of one every eight days. Over 500 were open-air tests, many in the Nevada desert northwest of Las Vegas. Now the administration of President George W. Bush has asked Congress for funding to study and develop new types of nuclear weapons, and to prepare the old Nevada site to resume testing on short notice.
(To Baker Spring, Heritage Foundation): Would you sleep better knowing that we were resuming nuclear testing?
BAKER SPRING (Arms Control Expert, Heritage Foundation): Absolutely. Absolutely.
SEVERSON: Baker Spring is an arms control expert with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. He says the Bush administration’s rationale to upgrade its aging nuclear arsenal and develop new, smaller weapons makes sense.
Mr. SPRING: It is based on, in my judgment, the correct perception that we’re in a completely different strategic environment than we were in the Cold War. As a result, we may need different tools to maintain deterrence in a post-Cold War world.
SEVERSON: It’s the so-called rogue nations like North Korea and Iran that worry the administration, particularly their deep bunkers that may be hiding weapons of mass destruction. So the Pentagon wants to develop low-yield bombs that can destroy those bunkers. Critics say it’s a dangerous policy because it proposes using battlefield nuclear weapons to destroy even non-nuclear targets like chemical and biological weapon stockpiles. Daryl Kimball is with the Arms Control Association.
DARYL KIMBALL (Executive Director, Arms Control Association): I think it’s a very dangerous notion to suggest that nuclear weapons should be viewed as just another weapon in our arsenal. By any standard, these are, no matter who has them, weapons of mass terror and destruction. So the US should not try to expand the role of nuclear weapons from deterring nuclear threats to deterring chemical and biological threats.
Mr. SPRING: Nuclear weapons are inanimate objects. They don’t have any moral content. It is the purposes for which they are used that have moral content. I think that is what we have to focus on.
SEVERSON: One of the biggest concerns among critics is that it will provoke a new nuclear arms race.
Mr. SPRING: I disagree fundamentally. I think on balance, the US nuclear deterrent is actually having the effect of dampening down the appetite for nuclear weapons and in the context of adversaries, like North Korea, who, I think, if they saw the US was really traveling down the path of unilateral nuclear abolition, would actually increase the appetite for nuclear weapons.
Mr. KIMBALL: The fact that the US has nuclear weapons that can destroy Teheran and Pyongyang has not deterred either state from pursing nuclear weapons so far. The fact that the US is developing new kinds of nuclear weapons to strike leadership targets in those countries is making the leaders in those states even more committed to developing the kinds of deterrent capabilities that can stop a US attack.
SEVERSON: After an extended debate on Capitol Hill, Congress, in November, voted to approve even more funding than the administration requested. The debate was intense, but it was little noticed outside of Washington, except in communities near the Nevada test site.
Like St. George, Utah, where there are a large number of people who are extremely upset about the prospect of new testing. Michelle Thomas, for instance.
MICHELLE THOMAS (St. George Resident): You can’t say to the world that “We’re not going to allow you to have these kinds of weapons, you don’t know how to handle them,” and turn around and do it yourself — that’s hypocrisy in its highest form.
SEVERSON: Michelle Thomas and thousands like her call themselves “downwinders” — downwind from the test site. Mary Dixon, an executive at Salt Lake public television station KUED, is a downwinder. She’s unalterably opposed to more testing.
MARY DIXON (Creative Director, KUED-TV): I think to do that again, to me, that’s immoral. Why? Because you do not put your own people at risk. You just do not do that. This government’s job is to safeguard its citizens. That’s not protecting us. That is putting us at risk.
SEVERSON: The reason downwinders are so angry is because of their personal tragic experience with radioactive fallout. Many were living here during the above-ground testing that ended in 1963. They were assured by the government that the tests were safe, that there was nothing to fear. Claudia Peterson is a downwinder — a cancer victim.
CLAUDIA PETERSON: My biggest fear as a child was what the Russians were going to do to us, not what our own government was doing to us.
SEVERSON: It wasn’t until the late 1970s when the truth came out that the US government had deliberately timed dozens of atomic atmospheric explosions on days when the wind blew across communities in rural southern Utah. The wind carried dangerous levels of radiation. But the news came as no surprise here.
Local cemeteries are filled with an unusually high number of cancer victims. One was Mary Dixon’s sister.
Ms. DIXON: We’ve lived with this legacy; we are still living with this legacy. People are still getting sick from the fallout that happened in the ’50s and ’60s. The way radiation works is it doesn’t make you sick right away. It mutates cells and affects you. And thyroid cancer, that one that I got, can take up to 27 years to show its effects.
SEVERSON: But the radiation didn’t stop in the West. It dusted communities across America. The largest doses were in upstate New York. The National Cancer Institute reports that there may be as many as 75,000 cases of thyroid cancer among those exposed, although the institute says there is no “certain” link.
Ms. THOMAS: With the kind of breast cancer I got, they knew it was a fallout-related one because it was the same kind the women in Nagasaki and Hiroshima got so many years after the attack there.
SEVERSON: Finally, in the early 1980s, Congress determined that there were indeed casualties of testing and set up a fund to award victims and their families, particularly those who suffered specific kinds of thyroid cancer and leukemia. By mid-June of 2002, 4,200 downwinders had been compensated.
The only Utah politician who voted against a new study was Congressman Jim Matheson. It was his father, Governor Scott Matheson, who spearheaded the battle to get compensation. A few years later, his father died of one of the cancers covered in the downwind legislation.
Rep. JIM MATHESON (D-UT): It was a situation where the government lied, and it’s something that a lot of people in southern Utah feel strongly about; and it touched my family in many ways, so I feel strongly as well.
SEVERSON: The government argues that new tests would be safer, because they will be conducted underground. People here disagree.
Rep. MATHESON: Even the underground tests did emit radiation into the atmosphere, so I don’t feel that it’s safe just because it’s underground. It may be different from the above-ground testing, but it still causes a lot of concern for me.
SEVERSON: Over the years, southern Utah has become a popular retirement center with thousands of new residents, some of whom are more inclined to trust the judgment of the government. Russ Butcher is a retired computer scientist.
RUSS BUTCHER (Retired Computer Scientist): Because of the way I feel about our way of life and how we’ve gotten to where we are as Americans and the type of freedom we enjoy, and I know it’s under constant threat, if it requires nuclear [weapons], then I would have to say I am for it. I think America will always be trusted not to use something like that unless it is an absolute must.
FRED ESPLIN (Vice President of Relations, University of Utah): I think we have been far too cavalier in assuming our own virtues and our motives in this.
SEVERSON: Many Utahans, like Fred Esplin, a downwinder, understand the administration’s “compelling” reasons to upgrade our nuclear arsenal but still question the morality and wisdom of it.
Mr. ESPLIN: I do believe that the United States is and continues to be the last best hope for democratic reform around the world. How we go about it, and whether we are throwing our weight around or whether we work collaboratively and cooperatively with other people, has long-term implications. We have had far too much of the former and far too little of the latter.
SEVERSON: Congressional supporters say just because $29 million has been approved for research doesn’t mean the government will actually get down to testing. But arms control analyst Baker Spring says he won’t be at all surprised if testing resumes as soon as possible.
Mr. SPRING: No, I wouldn’t be, and the reason I wouldn’t be is that most people agree that if you’re going to treat an entirely new nuclear weapon, you’re going to need to test it. …
Mr. ESPLIN: There are all of the assurances of safety, but you have people that have been burned once and aren’t prepared to be burned twice, literally burned once and don’t want to be burned again.
Mr. SPRING: Is it completely risk free? No activity is. But I think we can clearly reassure the people of Nevada and Utah that there is going to be absolutely ironclad commitment to making this activity as safe and reliable as possible.
Ms. DIXON: I cannot ever again believe assurances that this is 100 percent safe. I just cannot believe assurances anymore. I will always be skeptical.
SEVERSON: The earliest testing could resume is 2006. By then, there will be intense public debate that will reach beyond the safety, security, and strategic concerns to the moral implications of resuming nuclear testing. For RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, I’m Lucky Severson from St. George, Utah.
Posted for educational and research purposes only, in accordance with Title 17 USC. section 107.