Downwinder Thoughts

Two years ago today, August 19, 2009, I had the last of six chemo treatments for breast cancer.  My doctor gave me a three week ‘break’ to get my strength back before pushing through a 35 dose radiation regimen.  My life, my outlook and attitudes, my spirituality is now divided into BC/AC– yes, Before Cancer, After Cancer.

My life, BC:

I grew up in southern Utah, Garfield County, in the 50s and 60s.  It was a wonderful childhood in a beautiful setting with few worries other than staying out of trouble.  The remoteness of our area meant that we had no TV until the mid-60s and our daytime radios (AM only) picked up one station out of Cedar City.  I remember hearing every once in awhile about “testing” and “weird clouds” but few specifics and no explanations or warnings of any kind.  Maybe the adults were talking about it more outside the range of our children’s ears or attention, but looking back, I doubt it as there was no sense of connection to anything outside our little valleys.  I do remember my cousins and I talking about something one day, someone had mentioned hearing about a “big test” and that we might be able to see the cloud.  This was quite exciting to us as it was ‘out of the ordinary’ so on that day we were all outside straining to see who could be the first to call, “I see it!”  I don’t remember who got that call, but I remember a yellow sky, not necessarily yellow clouds, just an undefined summer haze that had a yellowish tint.

Looking back, and knowing much more now, that particular yellow sky was probably the result of what was called the “sedan test.”  I’m not going to talk about the nuclear testing in Nevada; it happened.  I don’t even know for sure if the fallout from the testing is what caused my cancer and the cancers and many other significant illnesses that downwinders experienced.  The things I do know are that we were all downwinders, that many got very sick, many died, and I was diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer in March 2009.

For the sake of brevity, and also because this isn’t the venue for my life story, I’ll skip about forty-five years of my life.

My life, AC:

Having a doctor look directly at you, making sure that your attention is on him/her completely, and speak the words, “I’m sorry, the news is not good, the biopsy shows cancer” is one of those pivotal moments that stand alone, your life spinning at the apex.  My physical experience of modified radical mastectomy, chemo and radiation was something to get through, to recover and heal from.  Deeper and longer lasting (I hope) were the emotional and spiritual surgery, recovery and healing.  My “self”  that was, has changed. I feel that I was stripped, ripped and raw; that I had shed the old self and could now be alive again with a newness of vision and purpose.

Part of that vision and purpose is to speak out for those things that I truly, deeply and completely believe in.  I couldn’t do that before.  This is why I have become more active, more outspoken on environmental and human issues.  Always a lover of the environment, I now will speak out, write congressmen, write letters to the editor, talk to people — all things that I shied away from before.  This brings me to my true topic: I’m ready to speak out against nuclear power plants — not because we don’t need the energy, but because we can’t trust those policy and decisionmakers nor the corporations lobbying them.  I know that here in the United States there are safety regulations, building standards, etc. that will make nuclear plants “safe(r).”  From my own downwinder experience I also know that none of these people can be trusted with the safety and health of the people who would be affected by a problem with one of these facilities.  It was our very own government (the best, the greatest, etc.) who, knowing the effects of radiation (the atomic bombs in Japan were in 1945), detonated nuclear tests time after time.  They knew air circulation patterns, they knew where the fallout would go, they knew the effects of radiation on the human body.  We’ve heard the term “collateral damage” used more recently but it is just as applicable in the case of downwinders.  We were that collateral damage, the expendable ones.  Was that because the rural population was not only relatively low and remote, or was it because there was no industry that would be affected?  Was it because the median income was below poverty level, because there were no politicians or corporate CEOs?  I don’t think we will ever know.

We do know that nuclear power plants are being proposed, even here in Utah.  Again we hear platitudes about safety and minimal environmental impact.  I am not willing to trust any of the proponents of these proposals.  I realize we are not in Russia with all the inherent problems of Chernobyl, nor are we in Japan with the threat of seismic induced tsunami.  The price, however, of even the potential of a problem is too high.  We must choose a better way.  In our LDS culture we speak often of “sacrifice.”  My feeling is that the sacrifice we make should be of consumption and energy glut rather than human lives.  Will we make those sacrifices?  I hope so; the choices are ours, and to me, the alternative is unacceptable.


16 responses to “Downwinder Thoughts

  1. Nicole I August 20, 2011 at 9:18 am

    First, welcome. Second, how awful to deal with what probably was preventable cancer.

    I’m torn on the matter of nuclear power. I can totally see where you are coming from. But I don’t think it is realistic to live without all power altogether. The energy glut you speak of is enormous. It certainly could be trimmed but I doubt it could be eliminated altogether at this point. I just don’t see us going back to 1900.

    That means we need a stable 24-hour power base from somewhere and I’m frankly sick of coal and natural gas (killers in their own right). Some areas have a good hyrdo base but we risk destroying salmon runs up here in the PNW doing that. Wind might be able to provide a base if you have a diverse enough set of fields, but then I read something about an owl disappearing completely from the wind fields of northern California and I pause.

    I see where your distrust of government, nuclear industry, and regulation comes from, I really do. But I don’t think that the irresponsible way we dealt with nuclear in the 40s, 50s and 60s (and it was irresponsible to the extreme) necessarily prohibits well engineered plants with excellent emergency procedures 50 years later when the general population and experts are much more aware of the risks.

  2. Karmen August 20, 2011 at 11:16 am

    Thanks, Nicole. Your PNW and the hydro base there are an excellent example of energy/environmental issues.

    I agree with you that we cannot nor would we want to return to a pre-industrial lifestyle. We require energy for much that we will no longer live without. Nuclear, fossil fuel, hydro, even solar and wind energy all have problems and I think we should focus resources — intellectual, engineering, research, etc. — on what we know to be the least problematic. We know what fossil fuel burning does to the body and the atmosphere, we know the potential risk of nuclear, we are learning about the problems with wind, etc. With that knowledge comes responsibility to act accordingly. Knowing requires that we stop doing the most damaging and find an alternative.

    Oil and gas companies (re: Gasland) know what they are doing as much as the government knew the effects of radiation. Coal will never be “clean.” If we won’t be responsible as individuals and hold government and energy corporations accountable we are doomed. I realize how fatalistic that sounds, but I refuse to believe that we as a people, as God’s own children, don’t have the ability to make the changes required to protect ourselves and all of his other creations.

    Why don’t we have have solar panels on our homes? Why do we have vast industrial and commercial rooftops without solar panels for energy production, green roofs to cut energy consumption and water recycling systems? Why don’t gyms or homes have fitness equipment with generating systems? Those pieces of equipment (treadmills, cycles, etc.) go round and round, are willingly and energetically powered by a human who wants to be in good physical condition, and could be generating electricity that would help power appliances, lights or whatever. BYU and other businesses or institutions are experimenting with doors that generate electricity as they continuously open and close — why aren’t those things more accessible? I raise these questions because I think we need to stop thinking about energy sources that we know are harmful to either us or the environment and rethink our possibilities. I don’t ask that we give it all up and return to pastoralism. Even as much as I enjoy being outdoors I like my computer, I like my hot water and I like being able to turn a light on and read after dark.

    As for nuclear power itself, yes, I have a general distrust of the government and any energy company that might ever have a part in it, regardless of engineering advancements. That is because our technological progress has not been accompanied by the moral equivalent. Vulnerability to greed of money or power is just as much a part of our humanness as it has ever been.

  3. mfranti August 20, 2011 at 11:45 am

    Karmen, this is an excellent post. I am sorry to hear about your cancer but dang glad you’re here to tell us about your experience.

    You are right, on every point, imo. I don’t like nuclear. It’s not just for the risks of a meltdown (which they assure us is not likely) but for the waste it creates and the water it consumes/damages. I think we’re just trading in one set of pollution problems for another. There’s a reason why states and other countries don’t store that stuff in their own backyard.

    If we gave up gas/coal/nuclear, we will still have electricity. We’re not going to go back into the dark ages. We have enough technology that would ensure that every house would have light. What we wont have is cheap energy that is easily wasted. That means homes and business will be forced to conserve and use only what is needed.

    When we run out of cheap oil, we’ll be forced to rethink how we build our houses, our cities, and how we do business (insert manufacturing, transport, etc. here).

    I do believe we will be forced to convert to a type of pastoral and very localized/regional way of life. (see above)

    Karmen is right to distrust the government/energy companies. Unfortunately, our government is owned by them(and others) and guess what? It’s our own damn fault. We traded our in our voices and some of our rights for “stuff”. By not being equally determined to fulfill our responsibilities as a citizen of a community and of this land as we are about our exercising our individual god-given ‘rights’. IOW, we wanted something for nothing and now we have to pay the consequences. Can we change things? No. I don’t believe we will.(<—that statement scares me. It makes me stomach and heart ache). It's not that we can't, it's that we wont. (there's a post on this in my journal that I'm too lazy to publish)

  4. mfranti August 20, 2011 at 11:48 am

    And Karmen, your voice may be small and barely audible, but I hear it and so do a few others. You inspire me to ask for more.

  5. mfranti August 20, 2011 at 11:51 am

    Why don’t we have have solar panels on our homes? Why do we have vast industrial and commercial rooftops without solar panels for energy production, green roofs to cut energy consumption and water recycling systems? Why don’t gyms or homes have fitness equipment with generating systems?

    Because these things require effort, whether physical or financial, and we’re just not conditioned to pay for the energy we consume. That’s why we’re so wasteful of it.

    Plus, they interfere with our god-given right to cheap energy. And fitness equipment with generating systems? What are you, a Socialist? 🙂

  6. Nicole I August 20, 2011 at 1:37 pm

    It is so interesting to see the variation of solutions/realities from people who agree that there is a problem! I know a lot of people who argue the pastoral solution to a peak oil situation. And for all I know, it might be. Personally, I think it will be very dense urban living with carefully managed agricultural peripheries to maintain local.

    From a technology standpoint, the problem really is finding a stable load for night. Solar plus other renewable choices can get us through the day. But if society thinks they ought to be able to live with more than just lights at night – think air conditioning and in some places heat – then a stable night energy load is required. We are nowhere near close enough to be able to store that amount of electricity, so the choices become replace the entire housing stock with passive energy buildings (most buildings cannot be retrofitted to this standard, you have to build new which is a whole can of worms of waster) or to have some sort of on demand generation which puts us right back in coal, gas, hydro, or nuclear territory.

    All in all, terrible choices. And, as much as I hate to say it, we are really bad as a society in even thinking through the easy choices (putting up solar panels for one). Blah.

  7. Karmen August 20, 2011 at 1:50 pm

    Nicole: you are SO right. and I second your “blah”! So much to think about, so much to do. I still think there is a bankable energy solution out there somewhere.

    Melanie: LOL, how’d you guess?! Thank you, btw, I’m glad to be here and hopefully my weak voice will join with all other voices — the chorus WILL be heard!

  8. reader Rachel August 21, 2011 at 6:41 am

    I can still remember my trip to the Nevada test site and Yucca mountain. I felt awed and physically sickened at the sight of the enormous craters in the ground, the destroyed model houses, and the thick (10 inches?) solid aluminum bunker that had been twisted like tin foil. You have to have a sense of respect for forces that powerful, which I fear is lacking in our general culture and political decisions. And I left with a deep conviction that we absolutely should not be creating a waste product that is so hazardous for so long. We are not responsible enough to be custodians of that waste for its very long half life, so we have no business producing it for the fleeting benefit of energy that is consumed now, and long gone while the waste remains.

  9. Alliegator August 21, 2011 at 9:13 am

    In our LDS culture we speak often of “sacrifice.” My feeling is that the sacrifice we make should be of consumption and energy glut rather than human lives. Will we make those sacrifices? I hope so; the choices are ours, and to me, the alternative is unacceptable.

    Yes. I wish we could spread this message to the hearts of everyone.

  10. missy. August 21, 2011 at 10:08 am

    Karmen, this post is really sobering. I spent some time in the Marshall Islands, where the U.S. conducted a series of atomic bomb tests during WWII. People are still living with the fallout. It was the first time in my life that I had ever realized the extent to which the American government has exposed human beings to totally unnecessary threats. I later learned that on the day of the first test, the winds were stronger than weather reports had predicted. The experimenters knew that the fallout would drift directly onto a nearby inhabited island and that people would die… and they chose to conduct the test anyway, rather than postpone it for one more day. Staggering, staggering arrogance.

  11. Mike H. August 30, 2011 at 3:58 am

    I’m a techno-geek, for sure. My father was a Physicist. His Doctorate project in the late 1950’s at the U of U was a cosmic ray detector for astronomy use. But, it also doubled as a Geiger counter, and he could tell every time they did a nuclear test in Nevada. He insistent to my mother & grandparents on keeping my sisters indoors (this was before I was born) every time they had a test. He also had to hose down & scrub the roof of the building after each test to get good cosmic ray results.

    I’ve heard of things, like 25% of the young men in southern Utah in one town towards 1960 were found to be sterile! And, old timers in St. George remember the “Harry” fallout landing in their area. The dose map on the “Sedan” shot looking fishy to me.; A bunch of fallout in Iowa, but little in Nevada or Utah?

    My sister is a breast cancer survivor. We seem to have that gene in our family, but one wonders about chemicals & radiation. A girl that grew up next door to us in San Jose died of breast cancer. I have no idea where she lived before the Nuclear test ban treaty in 1963.

    I’m also irked that cooling water leaks are being ignored at US Nuclear plants. What if the corrosion is worse than thought? Oil & gas pipeline fail all the time, due to corrosion being worse than thought.

    I’m glad you know of Gasland. Some shale gas frackers are still using diesel fuel, benzene, EDB, organophosphates, and hexavalent chromium, even with cancer & toxicity dangers they have.

    When we run out of cheap oil, we’ll be forced to rethink how we build our houses, our cities, and how we do business

    Mel: We may be at the point of “Peak oil” right now. New oil finds do little to decrease oil prices, and the new tar sands oil from Canada is being developed, despite the increased processing requirements.

    Missy: Strontium 90 and cesium 137 are formed in pretty big amounts in atomic tests & reactors. Strontium acts like calcium, and cesium acts like potassium. So they get into the food chain, and into your body:

    “The results of a study of hundreds of thousands of teeth collected by Dr. Louise Reiss and her colleagues as part of the Baby Tooth Survey showed that children born after 1963 had levels of 90Sr in their deciduous teeth that was 50 times higher than that found in children born before the advent of large-scale atomic testing. The findings helped convince U.S. President John F. Kennedy to sign the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with the United Kingdom and Soviet Union, which ended the above-ground nuclear weapons testing that placed the greatest amounts of nuclear fallout into the atmosphere.”

    Cesium 137 has a half life of about 30 years, and strontium 90 around 29 years. So, a bunch of it is still from the tests. So, they won’t go away anytime soon, it take about 10 half lives to not be a hazard. Iodine 131 is also formed in nuclear tests & reactors, but, thankfully, only has a half life of 8.1 days, so in 3 months after leaving a bomb or reactor, it’s basically gone.

  12. Mike H. August 30, 2011 at 4:12 am

    It was the first time in my life that I had ever realized the extent to which the American government has exposed human beings to totally unnecessary threats.

    Here’s something else I just found; US troops view an A-Bomb test:

    No gas masks, no special suits, just GI’s in normal attire.

    We have at least 2 Presidential candidates who want to abolish the EPA, in the name of lower business costs, and we should just trust industry to do the right thing with pollution. Yeah, right.

  13. Karmen August 30, 2011 at 7:28 am

    Mike: Thanks for your comments — good ones all. About the Sedan image — I noticed that, too, and wondered about it. The only thing I could think of (and didn’t find anything to support it) was that because the power of the blast was so strong that perhaps it shot most of the “stuff” higher up into the atmosphere where air circulation patterns took it to the east before it could start falling out. That left a sort of “umbrella” effect over southern Nevada. The measurable fallout from that test extending into the midwest and central states–Dakotas and Iowa– seems to indicate that possibility. Not being a physicist, I’m not sure if that is a reasonable assumption but I see it with the sprinklers in my yard — the higher I extend the head, the larger the ‘umbrella’ or unsprinkled area closest to the sprinkler. What do you think?

  14. Mike H. September 1, 2011 at 2:53 am

    This gets into meteorology, but the jet stream & other weather could have made that pattern, yet I’m still suspicious of that map. I did find another one that does concern me:

    There were 100 above ground nuclear tests in Nevada, 1951-1962:

    “A 1979 study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that:

    A significant excess of leukemia deaths occurred in children up to 14 years of age living in Utah between 1959 and 1967. This excess was concentrated in the cohort of children born between 1951 and 1958, and was most pronounced in those residing in counties receiving high fallout.”

    Then, at least one underground test had an immediate release:

  15. Karmen September 1, 2011 at 6:52 am

    Mike: These are very interesting. As I said in the post, my breast cancer showed up in my 50s, but I didn’t mention that I have had thyroid dysfunction since my 20s. I haven’t researched the incidence of thyroid cancer/dysfunction but I know many, many people who lived in northern Utah at the time of the testing who have or have had a form of thyroid problem. The Radiation Compensation Act doesn’t include thyroid unless it is cancer, and it only includes the south/central counties — those with low populations. Fallout maps indicate that the problem was not limited to these counties, however, as those with an understanding of atmospheric flow would know.

    The testing was inexcusable. There is absolutely nothing, however, that indicates that it was put to bed. On the contrary.

    As late as 2003 (Bush, Rumsfeld and Congressional Republicans) new proposals have emerged:

    The US Senate has never ratified the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, a few sane presidents (including Bush, Sr.) have placed a “moratorium” on testing but so far, no signing of the actual treaty. We expect other countries to do so, but not us. The rationale for “mini-nukes” (Rumsfeld, Cheney) is frightening and many who supported the strategic nuclear devices (mini-nukes) are still in congress (e.g. Jon Kyl, R-AZ). Utah’s own, Orrin Hatch, voted NO to $29 million to fund the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Preparatory Commission (S 2334, 9/1/98) and
    voted IN FAVOR of underground nuclear weapons tests for safety & reliability (S 1745, 6/26/96). These were, as you can see by the dates, both before 9/11, Afghanistan, and the invasion of Iraq, so we know where he stands on nuclear weapons.

  16. Mike H. September 1, 2011 at 10:24 am

    Thyroid dysfunction may be possible from iodine 131 exposure. It has been proven to cause thyroid cancer, for that is why they handed out potassium iodide tablets after Chernobyl & Fukishima, since saturating the thyroid gland with stable iodine reduces thyroid uptake of radioactive iodine.

    Now, for more about chemicals & breast cancer. This is in north Texas:

    Then, there’s DDT, PCB’s, and a number of other chemicals that are accumulated in fat tissue, which the breast have a large amount of.

    Nuclear retaliation may deter rogue nations, but not terrorists. I know Mitt Romney, for one, said he would use a nuclear response to a WMD attack on the US, but bomb who? Kill thousands, and irradiate millions, just to get a few dozen people? And, bomb where? Bin Laden was hard to find for years, for example, the US didn’t know what nation he was in.

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