Democratic Senate challenger Walt Minnick blames federal nuclear sites like the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory for health problems from cancer to heart defects - some in his own family.
Minnick made the assertion in a fund-raising letter mailed last week, but seemed to back away from it on Thursday.
The letter drew immediate fire from Republicans and INEL boosters.
An aide to Republican Sen. Larry Craig accused the Minnick campaign of fear-mongering, and a leader of a local pro-nuclear group said Minnick’s science was out of whack.
At issue is nuclear waste storage at the INEL, a recurring point of debate in the race between Minnick, former chairman of TJ International in Boise, and Craig. Minnick spends three paragraphs in a Feb. 1 fund-raising letter calling the INEL waste shipments a health threat.
“When Larry Craig rolled over and let Idaho become the nation’s high-level nuclear waste dump, I simply couldn’t sit by and do nothing,” he wrote.
“I thought about my mother, a Hanford downwinder who has cancer. I thought about my 2-year-old son, Dixon, who was born with a defective heart. I thought about my older son who had to be operated on only 12 hours after he was born. What about other families? Do you think families and future generations were on Larry Craig’s mind when he sold the people of Idaho down the river?
Craig campaign manager Mike Reynoldson said the letter would backfire.
“He’s trying to tie health problems in his family to the INEL,” Reynoldson said Wednesday. “It’s in bad taste.”
It also is bad science, said John Commander, a retired site employee active with the Idaho chapter of the American Nuclear Society.
Radiation exposure can cause some types of cancer, Commander said, but heart defects are rarely linked to radiation exposure.
Minnick is “way off base,” Commander said. “There’s no evidence. … All they’re doing is playing on people’s fears.”
Minnick spokesman Bill Broadhead defended the fund-raising letter.
He said Minnick grew up on a wheat farm north of Walla Walla in the 1940s and 1950s, putting him downwind of the Department of Energy’s Hanford nuclear production site. Hanford was the most aggressive and, critics say, the dirtiest of the Energy Department’s Cold War defense plants.
“The story of Walt’s family is pretty much representative of what happened” downwind of Hanford, Broadhead said.
Minnick’s mother is dying from an inoperable form of breast cancer, while both of his sons suffered from rare and potentially fatal birth defects.
His oldest son, Adam, underwent a risky operation soon after he was born to connect his internal organs, Broadhead said.
But on Thursday, Minnick said he was trying simply to point out that he is sensitive to health issues related to the nuclear industry.
He stopped short of blaming his mother’s cancer or his sons’ birth defects on Hanford.
“You can’t do that, except in a statistical sense,” Minnick said. “I’m not claiming that they are connected to being a Hanford downwinder in any way.”