The National Academy of Sciences will hold an extra hearing in Idaho in November on the human legacy of atomic bomb fallout – part of a process to advise Congress on whether it should compensate thousands more people for illnesses they developed after radiation from nuclear weapons tests in Nevada swept through the West in the 1950s and early ‘60s.
The Idaho hearing was added to the academy’s schedule this month after hundreds of cancer-stricken Idaho residents contacted the state’s congressional delegation. They wanted to know why the academy scientists weren’t coming to Idaho, even though it was among the states hardest hit by the Cold War fallout.
It’s part of a pattern throughout the West, where thousands of people are demanding additional compensation for radiation-related illnesses, said Preston Truman of Malad, Idaho, founder of the activist Downwinders group.
“It’s offensive that only some of us are covered,” Truman said.
Two years ago, a doctor discovered a 3 centimeter benign tumor on Marjorie Amos Freeman’s thyroid gland. Freeman, who grew up in Moscow, Idaho, underwent surgery and must take thyroid replacement medicine for the rest of her life. Her 61-year-old brother also had to have his thyroid removed, she said.
These problems are only now beginning to show up in her friends and family, said Freeman, 59, an eighth-grade teacher in Meridian, Idaho.
“We were exposed to the fallout from Nevada, and also to Hanford’s radiation clouds. We are unhappy that the government used us as test subjects,” she said.
The Atomic Energy Commission, the agency in charge of the bomb tests, waited until the winds blew north – away from populated Los Angeles – to detonate the bombs. In a 1951 memo, the AEC described people living in the path of the fallout as a “low-use segment of the population.”
The fallout contained radioactive iodine-131, which fell on grass in a dusty white residue and was absorbed by people when they drank milk from cows that fed on the grass. Children, with their tiny thyroid glands, were most at risk.
The national academy’s Board on Radiation Effects Research is looking at the impact of the fallout on the entire country, spokesman Bill Kearney said. The committee staff agreed to add an Idaho hearing to its schedule after meeting recently with Idaho’s congressional delegation.
“We want to ask people where they were during the fallout and what their dietary habits were. These folks wanted an opportunity to be heard,” Kearney said.
Americans didn’t know the extent of the radioactive fallout until 1997, when the National Cancer Institute released a long-delayed study.
The Spokesman-Review broke the story of how the controversial fallout study, requested by Congress in 1983, had been finished in 1992 but had never been published – helping to force its release.
The fallout is expected to cause an additional 50,000 to 122,000 cases of thyroid cancer in people, now middle-aged, who were exposed as children, the study says.
The massive radiation came from a series of 100 above-ground and underground nuclear explosions at the Nevada Test Site 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas from 1951 to 1958. Radiation from one atomic test, carried thousands of miles across the country by wind, exposed film at a Kodak factory in Rochester, N.Y.
Babies and young children in the West were hardest hit and have the greatest increased cancer risk, the cancer institute’s study revealed.
Children in some rural “hot spots” in Idaho, Utah and Montana got thyroid doses of hundreds of rad, a unit of radiation exposure. There was no public warning and no effort to withhold fresh milk, the chief source of radioactive iodine, from the market.
Federal health studies show the lifetime risk of thyroid cancer doubles with a 10-rad dose, and current federal standards prohibit a radioactive iodine dose to a member of the public of more than .003 rad annually.
Those at highest risk for developing thyroid cancer lived in Montana’s Meagher County east of Helena and in four central Idaho counties: Custer, Gem, Blaine and Lemhi.
Congress responded by offering compensation to some fallout victims.
The 1990 Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, or RECA, sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has provided $50,000 “compassionate payments” to cancer victims in 21 counties in Utah, Nevada and Arizona who suffer from thyroid cancer and 18 other cancers. It includes workers who mined uranium for the government’s nuclear weapons program and later developed cancer. So far, $360 million has been paid out.
Although residents of the four central Idaho counties got some of the nation’s highest exposures, Idaho so far has been left out of the compensation program.
In 1997, after the fallout study was released, Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and then-Sen. Dirk Kempthorne, who is now Idaho’s governor, said they’d fight for compensation. But they didn’t try to add Idaho to RECA when Congress expanded it in 2000.
“They are now saying, we let the ball drop,” Freeman said.
Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, met with 250 people in Emmett on Sept. 11. When asked whether they had cancer or knew neighbors with the disease, nearly all their hands shot up, he said.
“It was very emotional,” Crapo said. “People were talking about what it was like when atmospheric nuclear weapons testing was going on – how they saw a powdery film on the grass in the mornings in the fields, and the concerns about their health that they have now.”
The Idaho downwinders’ experiences struck a personal chord.
“I’ve had prostate cancer. My brother died of leukemia, and a sister had cancer. We were all born and raised in Idaho,” Crapo said.
Crapo and the rest of Idaho’s congressional delegation agreed to request the academy’s presence in the state. While there’s little chance that any new legislation will move through Congress this year, the issue of including Idahoans in the compensation plan can be addressed in 2005, Crapo said.
The academy’s recommendations to Congress are due out in the spring.
The academy board is “reviewing the science on radiation exposure and will recommend to Congress whether the compensation program should be expanded,” Kearney said.
To Freeman, the money isn’t the most important goal. A government acknowledgement that it put people at risk during nuclear weapons testing is what most downwinders want, she said.
“I want a big-time apology. Compensation is very secondary. I just want them to admit they did something that was wrong, and they won’t ever, ever do it again,” Freeman said.
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