Ten years ago, when we were in the Utah House of Representatives, we passed a unanimous bipartisan resolution in support of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty because we saw the damage nuclear testing caused our constituents. In it, we expressed “the fervent desire and commitment to assure that such a legacy will never be repeated.”
So, when The Washington Post broke the story that, according to a senior administration official, a nuclear test could “prove useful from a negotiating standpoint as Washington seeks a trilateral deal to regulate the arsenals of the biggest nuclear powers,” alarm bells started ringing.
We have seen firsthand how nuclear weapons testing puts Americans at greater risk for cancer and hurts our livelihoods. This administration should not use our lives as a bargaining chip for a last-ditch attempt at a trilateral arms-control deal with unwilling parties.
For many, in Utah and across the country, the horrors of nuclear testing never ended — even after it was made illegal both above ground in 1963 and underground in 1996.
Though the consequences of testing are difficult to calculate, we know that the scope is far-reaching. From 1951 to 1992, the U.S. conducted 1,032 nuclear tests in Nevada, exposing an entire generation of downwind Utahans to radiation, which left them with cancers and rare diseases that now render them more susceptible to COVID-19.
Nuclear testing is especially harmful to women and children. A report from the Nuclear Information and Resource Service have found that the ”harm to women [from cancer] is 50% higher than the comparable harm to men.” Young girls aged 0 to 5 were twice as likely to develop cancer sometime over their lifetime than boys the same age exposed to the same dose of radiation.
One second-generation downwinder, Norman Jeffery Baker, described his mother’s battle with cancer for The University of Utah’s Downwinders of Utah Archive: “It started as breast cancer, and it had gone into remission … But because she had spent so much time in the Downwinders area of Southern Utah and Nevada her cancer is almost certainly due to the testing.”
“If [the Atomic Energy Commission] had just said to us, ‘Don’t drink the milk from the local cows that came from the radiated grass,’ that would have greatly reduced the exposure to radiation to all of us,” said Craig Booth, a physician who practiced medicine in his hometown of St. George, Utah.
But it isn’t just our health that suffers from the government’s harmful policies; the livelihood on which Utahans rely is also endangered by nuclear testing. An instrumental part of the American West, our ranching families took heavy losses — and some never recovered.
“The ewes had scabs on their noses, ears and mouths where they had eaten,” one Cedar City rancher, McRae Bulloch, described to The New York Times in 1982. ”The lambs were small, deformed; some were even born with no wool. We took a truckload of sheep into the mountains, the ones that couldn’t go on their own, and by the time we got to the mountains every one was dead.”
It is an uphill battle trying to get justice for downwinders of nuclear testing that “ended” decades ago. The Bullochs and six other ranching families received a small measure of recognition from the U.S. government that fallout from the testing did in fact cause his sheep to die, but it was 26 years after the fact.
Others affected by nuclear testing out West are eligible for compensation from the government under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which expires in 2022. Though the government has compensated almost 40,000 people to the tune of $2.4 billion, it is highly insufficient. Do we really want to add another generation of Americans to the list of those who are unfortunate enough to apply?
Our fellow Utahans comprise just a portion of the hundreds of thousands of Americans across the country who have been affected by nuclear weapons testing. Not to mention civilians from other areas where U.S. nuclear testing took place, like in the Marshall Islands, who still struggle for recognition and reparations from the consequences of testing.
With our world in the midst of a crisis, we must put our energy and resources into making smart decisions that protect us and our neighbors.
Besides, we know more about how nuclear weapons function than we did during the era of testing, and our new technology models nuclear testing with far better results than actually detonating a nuclear bomb. So, there is no reason that we need to go back in time and use old technology that only hurts Americans.
Nuclear testing is already an ugly stain on our American history, and too many have already paid the ultimate price for our nuclear arsenal. New legislation in the Senate could stymie the funds needed for future testing. We urge the Trump administration to reconsider breaking the moratorium on nuclear testing before it comes to that.
Jennifer Seelig (D) is the former Utah House Minority Leader and board member of Women’s Action for New Directions. Ryan Wilcox (R) is a former Utah state Representative and senior policy adviser to Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah).