True, but, as many Utahns know, some people live more in J. Robert Oppenheimer’s world than others. And many people here and in other states have died in it, as well.
Oppenheimer, described in a 2005 biography by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin as “a theoretical physicist who displayed the charismatic qualities of a great leader,” was also, and perhaps above all, the enigmatic and conflicted father of the atomic bomb.
But it was the incessant testing, beginning with that first bomb in New Mexico and extending into Nevada and on Pacific islands through the mid-20th century, that destroyed the lives of countless people living downwind. The federal government conducted about 215 above-ground tests, beginning with Trinity in 1945, often telling nearby residents there was no danger.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest they knew better, and that they knew the dangers were spread far and wide. In 1946, scientists working for Kodak in Rochester, N.Y. found radiation on packing materials from Indiana causing fog on developed film, for heaven’s sake. Maps using data from the Atomic Energy Commission, the U.S. Weather Service and the Defense Nuclear Agency show that fallout from the tests reached every state in the continental United States.
In 1990, as cancer cases multiplied in parts of Utah, Arizona and Nevada, Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, allowing one-time payments to the people who have become known as downwinders. The program is limited. People have to prove they or a deceased family member lived in certain areas during the right times, and that they had certain types of cancers, even though evidence exists to show the tests caused a much wider variety of cancers than those listed.
Those benefits are set to expire next year, but the Senate has just passed an extension that would allow payments for another 19 years, and that would include people who lived in any part of Utah, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Idaho, Montana and Guam.
For Utah author and activist Mary Dickson, the movie about Oppenheimer seems like just the kind of break she and others have been waiting for — even though the movie says nothing about downwinders.
“When you look at the numbers of people who’ve been exposed and who have suffered and who have developed illnesses, it just seems that now is really a good time to finally do justice by all these people,” Dickson told the Deseret News/KSL editorial board this week. “I just think this is a golden opportunity.”
A downwinder cancer survivor herself, Dickson speaks with authority on the subject.
Today, as in 1990, cost is a big issue. Compensation has long had bipartisan support. The original bill was championed by the late Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Republican, and the late Utah Rep. Wayne Owens, a Democrat. And yet some politicians have worried that compensation could get out of hand, which is a reason why it has been limited.
These concerns might also keep the House from passing the expanded bill.
Dickson has a powerful answer to all that.
“I’ve always said that if the government views nuclear weapons as a part of its defense, part of that cost includes the human cost to the people those weapons harmed.”
Since the nuclear age began, she said, the government has spent more than $12 trillion on nuclear weapons. In the 33 years of compensation, it has spent only $2.6 billion to help the Americans the government made sick.
Among the reasons Dickson believes the time to expand compensation will never be better is that few victims remain and the passage of time is beginning to allow ignorance to spread. First, many eligible downwinders are not aware they qualify for compensation. Second, as she visits Congress to lobby for the bill, Dickson said she is “shocked by how many of them (lawmakers) don’t even know our nuclear past.”
It’s a past that, more likely than not, has affected people in their own districts, regardless of where that is. Oppenheimer’s world is a big place. Congress should do the right thing and help as many of the victims it created as possible.