Women. Power. Peace.

Amanda Hill-Attkisson: Attack of the Giant Radioactive Mole

I felt like I walked into a black and white cult camp classic 1950’s thriller – you know like where the ‘54 Chevy convertible is sitting in the shadow of a rock wall with the prudent young couple not making out, when all of the sudden - the foreleg of a giant tarantula creeps over. They look over their shoulder and visible shock on their face as they realize the nightmare they are about to face. My own personal horror flick recently was viewed live in the Nevada desert and in full color. I have named it ‘Attack of the Giant Radioactive Mole’

Last week, I had the opportunity to visit the Nevada Nuclear Test site, just 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada. As part of a training conference with the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, there were about 35 anti-nuclear activists riding a Department of Energy(DOE) tour bus through the site with an ex-DOE worker, John, as our tour guide Poor John. He soon realized that we had a different interpretation of the DOE spiel he was spouting, a different side of the story, and he quickly took a less opinionated role for the rest of the day.

The Nevada Test Site was established in the early 50s for the testing of nuclear devices, and is composed of roughly 1,360 square miles of desert and mountainous terrain. Nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Site began with a 1-kilotonne-TNT bomb dropped on Frenchman Flat in January of 1951. Our tour guide proudly called it Ground Zero, as we drove through the concrete and rebar wreckage. Many of the iconic images of the nuclear era come from this testing - for instance, the nuclear blast scene in the latest Indiana Jones film where he hides in lead-lined refrigerator that shows real building blast footage of the model homes and staged mannequin bodies being blown to bits. According to our guide, there were approximately 900 underground tests and over 100 atmospheric nuclear detonations (a.k.a. above ground) that occurred at the NTS site.

All that I could think of as we kept driving past another giant radioactive pit was …Why? The land was so vast and open and beautiful. The destruction of a sacred space , the ruination of the beauty and tenacity of desert life was appalling. How could someone come here so long ago and see only what they wanted to destroy for their own purposes and not what they needed to protect? It is incredibly scary that the men who tested here were so completely indifferent and were without any regard for land or human life. In a report by the National Cancer Institute, released in 1997, it was determined that ninety atmospheric tests at the NTS deposited high levels of radioactive iodine-131 across a large portion of the United States, especially in 1952 through 1957. These doses were large enough to produce 10,000 to 75,000 cases of thyroid cancer. The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act of 1990 allowed for people living downwind of NTS for at least two years in Nevada, Arizona or Utah counties, and suffering from certain cancers or other serious illnesses deemed to have been caused by fallout exposure to receive financial compensation. By January 2006, over 10,500 claims had been approved, and around 3,000 denied, for a total amount of over $525 million in compensation dispensed to downwinders.

Dust blew across my shoe as I left the bus, and I hesitated slightly in fear that it may be still highly radioactive. But I walked over to its edge to view the last ‘mole’ hole of the day – staring down deep into the sloped endless walls that descending into hell. I thought to myself – how crazy is it that I could hope the snout of a giant mole to nudge the dirt and then to pop out and eat us up…. At least then we wouldn’t have done it to ourselves.

Amanda Hill-Attkisson serves as the Managing Director of Georgia WAND.  She is an experienced organizer on environmental justice and women's empowerment issues and a dedicated anti-nuclear and peace activist. She brings a strong technical background to her work, as an electrical engineer who was previously employed by NASA.


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