Nuclear Fallout, Cancer and Politics

You've heard of our new enthusiasm for nuclear weapons: the Administration's pursuit of mini-nukes, its hit list of targets from Baghdad to Beijing and its talk of periodically detonating a few by way of "testing."

You've probably heard less about a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention , completed in August 2001, but only published in dribs and drabs over the past few weeks. Mandated by Congress, the study is the first ever to estimate what effect radioactive fallout from nuclear testing has had on the lower forty-eight American states.

The CDC finds such fallout has likely killed 11,000 Americans since the 1950s. They died from all manner of cancers, from melanoma to breast cancer to leukemia. Fallout has also caused about 22,000 nonlethal cases of cancer. For those keeping score, that's 33,000 cases of cancer among Americans, courtesy of global nuclear testing.

And it's not just Nevada anymore: The study's maps suggest the definition of "downwinder" -- someone living uncomfortably close to a nuclear test site -- needs revision. Fallout spreads surprisingly far and wide, with high concentrations in places like Idaho and Montana.

"Hot spots due to testing in Nevada occurred as far away as New York and Maine," says Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER), a Maryland-based think tank that has conducted its own analysis of the CDC's data.

"Hot spots from US Pacific area testing and also Soviet testing were scattered across the United States -- from California, Oregon and Washington in the West to New Hampshire, Vermont and North Carolina in the East."

A little perspective: Fallout cancers represent only a tiny fraction of all cases of cancer. The CDC notes, for example, that among the 3.8 million people born in the US in 1951, about 760,000 would normally be expected to die of cancer, while fallout exposure adds only an additional 1,000 deaths to that total.

But even so, it's a helluva price tag for testing the bomb: Eleven thousand dead Americans. Thirty-three thousand American cancers.

That price tag is a subtext in today's nuclear debates. Take Yucca Mountain: The Department of Energy says it will be safe for Nevadans to store the nation's nuclear waste there. But Robert Loux, executive director of the state's Agency for Nuclear Projects, says, "There's huge distrust of DOE here." During nuclear testing, he says, "They promised us it was all perfectly safe too -- even as DOE officials moved their own families out of town [on test days]."

Yes, that was then and this is now. But dismissing the ugly sides of this tale as relics of the cold war begs a question: Why were forerunners of the CDC study squelched as late as the mid-1990s? Robert Alvarez, a Clinton-era Energy Department official, recalled hearing in 1997 of a "suppressed" study of fallout by the National Cancer Institute, and asked for a briefing. "They were showing me these color-coded [fallout] maps of the United States. And I'm looking at this and it's really grotesque stuff, because I know what the numbers mean," Alvarez says. "And I look down at the bottom of the page and it's dated September 1992, and here I am in 1997."

That NCI study looked at one kind of cancer -- that afflicting the thyroid -- and concluded that nuclear-test fallout caused somewhere between 11,300 and 212,000 incidences of the disease among Americans. After it was finally published in 1997, Congress demanded a CDC follow-up.

A report to Congress on the CDC follow-up emphasizes its conservative approach. The study has a large margin of error-the mathematically modeled cancer tolls are more illustrative than definitive -- and it is only now being peer-reviewed by the National Academy of Sciences.

Caveats aside, the estimate of 33,000 cases of cancer seems restrained if only because it covers fallout generated over just eleven years, between 1951 and 1962, and sprinkled across the forty-eight contiguous US states. As the IEER notes, that omits:

* all Chinese atmospheric tests, which were conducted from 1964 to 1980;

* French atmospheric tests from 1963 to 1974;

* pre-1951 tests in the Marshall Islands and in the Soviet Union;

* the original three 1945 atomic blasts-in New Mexico, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The 11,000 Americans killed by an eleven-year run of nuclear testing represent a fraction of a larger story -- a cold war epic that spans five decades and dozens of nations.

Nuclear powers "owe the world a real accounting of what they did to its health," says Makhijani. "It is high time for the United Nations to create a Global Truth Commission that would examine-in detail comparable to the US government studies -- the harm that has been inflicted upon the people of the world by nuclear weapons production and testing."

Until that Truth Commission convenes however, the CDC's study is sobering enough. Alvarez says that any one of more than a dozen atmospheric tests in that eleven-year period released Chernobyl-scale radiation levels. "There were at least nineteen shots in the ballpark of the Chernobyl accident," he said. "We're talking about levels [of radioactivity] so large during that period that if today's existing safety standards to protect the public had been applied, large portions of the nation's milk supply would have had to have been withdrawn on numerous occasions." Makhijani of IEER adds that some US farm children who drank milk after the hottest atmospheric blasts were as severely exposed as "the worst-exposed children" of Chernobyl.

Reasonable people could argue, if they were so inclined, over whether 11,000 people in America killed by eleven years of nuclear testing is "a lot." But whether one sees it as horrifying or as merely a few thousand eggs broken for our cold war omelettes, the link between fallout and cancer is a reality oddly absent from discussions of busting bunkers under Baghdad or Tora Bora.


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