The first question the doctor asked Missoulian Nancy Wilson after he told her she had thyroid cancer last May was where she was raised. She said “Helena” and he told her he wasn’t surprised.
That’s because Helena is just west of Meagher County. And a newly released National Academy of Sciences (NAS) study on the dispersal of fallout from nuclear testing in Nevada in the ’50s and ’60s finds that Meagher County received the highest estimated per capita dose of radiation from those tests in the entire nation.
The study also finds that 14 other Montana counties—Broadwater, Beaverhead, Jefferson, Powell, Judith Basin, Madison, Fergus, Gallatin, Petroleum, Lewis and Clark, Blaine, Silver Bow, Chouteau and Deer Lodge—are also on the high end of the dosage spectrum, which confirms the results of a 1997 fallout study by the National Cancer Institute (NCI).
That Montanans were exposed to radiation blown in from the testing in the first place—as were others across the nation, albeit at lower levels—is one issue. That Montanans aren’t covered by the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, a 1990 attempt to compensate people who developed cancer and other diseases from living downwind from or working on the test site, is another. Only downwinders in certain counties of Nevada, Utah and Arizona are currently eligible for the $50,000 payout. A wider coverage area and higher levels of compensation are reserved for the uranium miners, millers and transporters who have developed problems in the decades since the testing.
On Monday, in response to the study, Sen. Conrad Burns introduced amendments to the act that would make ailing Montanans eligible. Other states, like Idaho, experienced relatively high levels of radiation and remain without coverage as well. Although the most concentrated contamination was showered upon the West, it sprinkled down from coast to coast.
Until the new study came out, Wilson, 51, hadn’t thought much about what caused her cancer. In the past year, she has concentrated mainly on getting through her treatments and getting back to normal because, she says, “I just wanted to have it be over and move on.” She says she just feels fortunate to have a good job with insurance that made it possible for her to take some time off and recover. But Wilson, who says there’s no history of cancer in her family, feels strongly that “If [fallout] is the reason I got thyroid cancer, I think the federal government should compensate Montana the same way they’re compensating everyone else.”
To qualify for compensation, downwinders must have lived in designated areas for at least two years during the period from Jan. 21, 1951, to Oct. 31, 1958. They also must have developed any of a host of medical problems linked to radiation exposure; thyroid cancer is among the most common because of the sensitivity of thyroid tissue, but other types of cancer, like leukemia and lymphomas, are included in the list. The people who are most likely to have been harmed by radiation are those who were milk-drinking children in the 1950s. As radioactive Iodine 131 floated from the sky and settled onto the earth and in the water, radiation often accumulated in humans through cows, which transmitted irradiated particles in their milk.
Since the onset of the act, more than 12,000 claims—two-thirds of them from downwinders—have been approved and more than $900 million has been paid, according to the Department of Justice. The NAS study found that more than two-thirds of downwinder claims have been approved, but recommended widening the geographical coverage boundaries and making the process easier for claimants.
The news of Montana’s decades-old contamination comes as efforts are building to develop new nuclear weapons and, consequently, to resume nuclear testing.
President George W. Bush’s 2006 budget includes $8.5 million for development of Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrators, otherwise known as “bunker-busters.” Last year, Congress gutted similar funding for the weapons and in March, Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, reintroduced legislation that would make it more difficult to resume testing at the Nevada Test Site.
But the United States has a long and determined history of nuclear testing: Between 1945 and 1992, the government conducted more than 1,000 official nuclear tests.
In 1992, President George H. Bush began a moratorium that was continued by President Clinton and made official by Clinton’s signing of the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
As America’s children of the ’50s begin to display the effects of round one in our testing history, Wilson and many others wonder at our apparent inability to learn from the past. The prospect of future testing, Wilson says, can be summed up in one way: “That’s just crazy!”
If Montana is eventually recognized under the Radiation Compensation Exposure Act, Wilson says she would want to be included. But if the process of proving that radiation caused her cancer were drawn-out, she thinks it would be better just to move on. She says she could never be compensated for the time and stress required by the endeavor. And she feels the same way about other people and lands affected by nuclear testing.
“Can we really be compensated for all the poor environmental decisions we’re making?” she asks.