Albion Monitor /News

Nuclear Testing Legacy Remains

by Elaine Hopkins

"We've all been affected by this radiation"

(AR) Years after the last nuclear tests in the U.S. mushroomed their way across the nation, pollution from that testing lives on.

"The tests have yielded so much radiation in our environment at this point that the statistics show one in three humans will contract cancer, and one in six will die from it," says author and photojournalist Carole Gallagher. "These people are us. We've all been affected by this radiation."

Gallagher is author of "American Ground Zero: The Secret Nuclear War," a book about U.S. nuclear testing, published in hard cover by MIT Press, and in paperback by Random House. She spent a decade interviewing and photographing the people who lived and worked near the test sites, primarily in Utah.

A display of her photographs will remain at Bradley University's Heuser Art Center through May 24. In a recent visit to the Peoria, Illinois, campus, she discussed her photography and the issues surrounding the testing.

126 bombs were exploded, most with fallout comparable to Chernobyl

Gallagher displayed a map of the U.S. showing radioactive fallout from atomic testing from 1951-1963 passing over areas throughout the U.S. Some areas took more radiation than others, she said blaming "a leukemia cluster near Troy, New York," on fallout.

More than 6.2 million people will die from cancer as a result of this testing, a number comparable to the extermination of the Jews by the Nazis, she said. "A kind of holocaust," she termed it, knowingly inflicted upon U.S. citizens by their own government.

Gallagher's stark, black and white photographs reveal the suffering from this radiation in a way that impersonal statistics can never match. A woman sits on a porch swing, her arm around a teenage daughter disfigured by birth defects. A man bears his throat swollen with tumors.

As an artist, she said, she looked for objects in people's homes that exemplified their culture. One family is photographed beneath a cherished portrait -- of John Wayne. A man, asked to choose his favorite things, lined up his gun collection for the camera.

Utah took the brunt of the testing, she said, leaving entire families devastated by cancer and other illnesses.

Government officials knew what was happening, but continued the testing, she said, until 126 bombs had been exploded, most with fallout comparable to Chernobyl.

Officials deliberately selected Utah because of its Mormon population, she said. Mormons were considered patriotic and accustomed to taking orders instead of questioning authority.

Meanwhile, the government was studying the long-term impact of this radiation on human beings. Stillborn fetuses were whisked away from Utah to be autopsied in Saint Louis, Mo., by scientists to determine the extent of the damage, she said. The entire program was kept secret, "classified."

Whistleblowers were accused of being communists, and their careers ruined, she said. Citizens who objected were termed neurotic. Lewis Strauss, head of the Atomic Energy Commission branded "fallout scare stories" as "communist-inspired."

Prominent journalists witnessed the atomic tests and understood the implications. But they kept quiet about what was really going on, she said. "They celebrated this as macho power," she said.

Workers dying as she interviewed and photographed them told her they continued to expose themselves to danger because they needed the good paychecks

Gallagher has focused on three groups of people affected by the testing -- the military troops marched into the test sites, the down-wind residents who brushed nuclear ash containing fallout from their bodies (they called it "snow in the desert"), and the workers, who worked at the test sites.

Workers dying as she interviewed and photographed them told her they continued to expose their bodies to the danger because they needed the good paychecks the jobs provided, she said.

The true horror and significance of the testing began to be known after 1979, she said, when President Jimmy Carter declassified 10,000 pages of Atomic Energy Commission documents. Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary is declassifying more material, she said, to the chagrin of military and some government officials. "Congress is trying to get her out of office," Gallagher charged.

The conspiracy of silence dies hard. Getting her book published took eight years, said Gallagher, 45, a native of New York City. Publishers kept telling her it wasn't news, that nobody cared.

She learned to approach her work interviewing and photographing suffering and dying people in Utah as a war correspondent, she said. "I had to channel the anger and horror into action rather than have a nervous breakdown."

After her talk before an audience at Bradley University, Army veteran Dan Pemberton of East Peoria approached Gallagher to tell her of his experiences in Utah. "I spent five months out there," he said, in 1953. He was 3,500 yards from the bomb, he said, and "saw eight or 10 tests."

The 63-year-old Pemberton said he has not developed cancer. He has been unable to secure his Army records to get information on his exposure, he said, because of a fire at the records center in Saint Louis, Mo.

Asked about his reaction to Gallagher's strong condemnation of government policy toward nuclear testing, Pemberton replied, "you had to live in the times to understand it."

Another legacy of the nuclear age, nuclear waste, also poses grave problems, Gallagher said. It should be placed in land geologically most suitable to contain it, in Wisconsin, she said. But political realities are propelling it into Nevada, she said, an unsuitable location, but with a small, malleable population lacking the power to object strongly.

"We all bear some responsibility" for the nuclear situation, she said.

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Albion Monitor May 5, 1996 (

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