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Fierce advocate for ‘downwinder’ cancer victims of atomic testing dies

J Truman succumbs to cancer that he blamed on upwind tests in Nevada.

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) J Truman, left., talks during an Oct. 3, 2018 panel at the University of Utah with playwright Mary Dickson. Truman died Thursday of cancer, which he blamed on fallout from nuclear weapons testing.

J Truman said his earliest memory was sitting as a child on his father’s knee in Enterprise, Utah, in 1955 transfixed by a light show in the sky from nuclear-bomb testing in nearby Nevada, including watching pink-gray fallout clouds pass overhead.

“My parents died from cancer,” he said in an interview three years ago, blaming those radioactive clouds. That would eventually lead him, beginning in the 1970s, to launch a fight that spanned nearly a half century for compensation for “downwinder” victims and to prevent more nuclear testing.

On Thursday, he became another victim of that testing — finally succumbing after a long fight with cancer that he blamed on the old nuclear testing. The first time he had been diagnosed with cancer was as a 17-year-old in 1968, which went into remission.

“He was a downwinder who fought like hell for justice, who was determined, indefatigable and fierce in his lifelong work on behalf of those who suffered from 928 nuclear blasts in Nevada that spread fallout across this country,” said journalist, playwright and fellow downwinder Mary Dickson in a Facebook post.

Another longtime activist, Steve Erickson, said, “He really dedicated his whole adult life to this effort for justice and to see that no testing would ever happen again to cause this kind of suffering. It was also an anti-war statement, trying to bring the world to its senses when it came to nuclear weapons.”

Truman, 69, was the longtime director of Downwinders, Inc. Erickson said his full name was Preston J. Truman, but in recent years he usually went by the name “J,” without punctuation. But he also used several other versions of his name at different times of his life, “just to be ornery and different, which he was,” Erickson said.

(AP file photo) In this April 22, 1952, file photo, a gigantic pillar of smoke with the familiar mushroom top climbs above Yucca Flat, Nev., during nuclear test detonation.

Truman was among activists who pushed hard for a bill passed by Congress in 1990, and expanded in 2000, that gave some compensation to victims in 10 southern Utah counties, for example.

But Truman always contended that too many victims had been excluded from compensation — saying many areas hard-hit by fallout were never included — and that the $50,000 paid to victims who were compensated was too little.

That $50,000 “doesn’t even cover the first round of chemo,” he said in 2018, when he supported another bill — which failed in Congress — that would have boosted compensation to $150,000.

“You learn quickly that the first victim of nuclear weapons or nuclear power is the truth, and the first casualty is the government’s ability to tell the truth,” Truman once said.

He pointed out for years that the government had told people living downwind of nuclear tests that the fallout was safe, which was false. Congress eventually apologized and paid compensation to some.

But he always wanted to expand that.

“Salt Lake County was hit just as hard by fallout” from some nuclear tests as areas in southern Utah that have long qualified for compensation, he said in 2018. “So was the Uinta Basin,” according to federal fallout studies ordered by the earlier bills.

“We need justice. Not ‘just us,’” he said. “There must be equal justice for all exposed and sickened.”

Even last year — as he went through radiation and chemotherapy to battle his cancer — Truman joined in a fight against reports that the Donald Trump administration was considering restarting nuclear testing.

“We should have learned our lesson by now,” he said then. “And testing would continue to ensure we go on with nuclear weapons.”

Erickson said Truman’s activism led him to live a simple life, often on the verge of poverty. But he said Truman’s work led him to become friends with many Noble Prize-winning scientists in his work against nuclear weapons. “He was friends with Linus Pauling and Andrei Sakharov.”

Also, Erickson said his work strangely led him to become an adviser to former Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev “and helped him come to the conclusion to let go of the stockpile of nuclear weapons that had been deployed there when they were a Soviet satellite.”

Dickson said on Facebook that Truman was “a one-man movement,” and his “loss for the downwinder community is enormous.” She remembered that he always told her to “sharpen your pitchfork” whenever there was talk of renewed testing, and said, “We’re gonna raise hell.”

Erickson added, “He sure made a difference in his time.”

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