Utah downwinders denounce Trump’s talk of restarting nuclear tests

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Playwright Mary Dickson, whose 2007 play “Exposed” chronicled the effects the above ground nuclear tests had on the downwind population in Utah speaks at launch event for “Downwinders of Utah Archive” at the J. Willard Marriott Libray at the University of Utah on Oct. 3, 2017. She is among activists and downwinders who denouce talk by the Trump administration of resuming nuclear arms tests.

The Trump administration is talking about restarting nuclear arms tests, which alarms Utah “downwinders” — who suffered cancer from atomic tests conducted upwind in Nevada decades ago.

“I burst into tears when I read that,” says Mary Dickson, a longtime advocate for downwinders. “I live every day with watching the effects that testing all those years ago had on so many people I know and love. We’re still living with the consequences of fallout from testing… Their cancers are coming back. They are more at risk during the pandemic. But we think of doing it again.”

Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, opposes any new nuclear testing.

“Utah families are still suffering and dying as a result of health effects from nuclear tests conducted decades ago,” McAdams said. “Radiation from nuclear tests is poisonous to our health and environment, and I am not willing to subject more families to this type of exposure, not to mention subjecting the world to a renewed nuclear arms race.”

The reactions comes after The Washington Post reported that administration officials are discussing resuming tests possibly to help draw China into negotiations with Russia and the United States in a trilateral deal to regulate their arms.

Any new tests would likely be underground, unlike the open-air tests that especially hurt Utah downwinders.

“But underground tests often leak” and vent radiation downwind, said Preston J. Truman, a longtime leader of downwinders. He just finished radiation and chemotherapy for more cancer that he blames on fallout from when he was a child in southern Utah. “And testing would continue to ensure we go on with nuclear weapons. We should have learned our lesson by now.”

Discussions about new tests follow accusations from Trump administration officials that Russia and China are conducting low-yield nuclear tests — an assertion that has not been substantiated by publicly available evidence and that both countries have denied.

The United States has not conducted a nuclear test explosion since September 1992 — which was underground at the Nevada Test Site — and nuclear nonproliferation advocates warn that doing so now could have destabilizing consequences.

As Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, told The Post, “It would be the starting gun to an unprecedented nuclear arms race. You would also disrupt the negotiations with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who may no longer feel compelled to honor his moratorium on nuclear testing.”

Deb Sawyer, chairwoman of the Utah Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, said, “It would be one of the worst things that the administration could do with respect to international security."

Sawyer said a better step to make the world more secure would be ratifying the proposed Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, but Trump has backed away from that — which has made the ban a partisan issue.

Steve Erickson, another longtime downwinder advocate, said Utah downwinders “have been concerned about the potential for a resumption of testing since the Trump administration took office,” and worried about reports that it may seek a new generation of nuclear arms.

“If you’re going to deploy a new weapons design, you’re going to want the assurance of a real-scale test to determine whether or not what you’ve made is going to work in the field,” he said. “Once you start down this path, you’re going to build a certain amount of institutional momentum that is hard to curtail or reverse.”

He added, “There is a reason why we’re seconds from midnight on the atomic doomsday clock these days. And that has occurred largely in the last three years of the Trump era.”

Dickson sees restarting testing as “utterly immoral and almost criminal,” and added, “My biggest problem is I do not trust the administration to do it right.”

Neither does John Tierney, a former nine-term Democratic congressman from Massachusetts who now leads the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

“It is beyond reckless to provoke a possible widespread return to explosive testing simply to make a political point. No one doubts the nuclear supremacy of the United States — least of all China,” he said in a written statement.

Because of the experience of downwinders, Tierney called on members of Congress from Utah and Nevada especially to fight the proposal.

McAdams, the Utah Democrat, said he opposes resuming tests, although the Republican members of the Utah delegation did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

McAdams also noted that Congress is considering bills to expand compensation to some downwinders and uranium miners who did not qualify for previous payment programs at the same time that the Trump administration is talking about resuming testing.

“We have not yet compensated thousands of Utahns injured by their own government, who told them there was 'no danger’ from nuclear weapons tests,” he complained.