Book Review by Sarah Fox published by Oxford journal of Environmental History

I recently had the privilege of reviewing an important new book on the 1970 Baneberry incident at the Nevada Test Site, and the ensuing 25 year legal saga. 

Review: The Baneberry Disaster: A Generation of Atomic Fallout. By Larry C. Johns and Alan R. Johns

The Baneberry Disaster: A Generation of Atomic Fallout. By Larry C. Johns and  Alan R. Johns. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2017. xvi + 210 pp. Illustrations, glossary, notes, index. Paper $24.95.

Review by Sarah Fox, Environmental History,

Published: 20 August 2018

Larry and Alan Johns’ The Baneberry Disaster is a gripping and timely account of an American nuclear episode that is long overdue for closer examination. The December 1970 Baneberry underground nuclear test vented close to 7 million curies of radiation, more than double the amount released in the Three Mile Island accident in 1979. Numerous workers were exposed to contamination from the Baneberry test, and two died of leukemia within a few years. The workers’ widows became plaintiffs in a lawsuit brought against the contractors of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) by two young lawyers, Larry and Alan Johns. The lawyers were brothers just beginning their law practice; the Baneberry case would drag on for twenty-five years.

The Baneberry Disaster began as a memoir project for Larry Johns. After the lawsuit concluded in 1996, he began working with Alan to reconstruct the events of Baneberry and the ensuing saga of research and legal efforts. The book is based almost entirely on their notes and legal briefs as well as the testimony of expert witnesses, including test site workers and managers, meteorologists and geologists, and specialists from the fields of radiation health, cytogenetics, and epidemiology.

Baneberry fits into a well-documented historical pattern of disregard by the AEC and AEC contractors for health and environmental risks connected to nuclear development, dating back to the inception of the AEC in 1946. Larry Johns admits this pattern was not always visible to them as lifelong residents of Las Vegas: “The AEC became part of our community ... A-bomb tests became so commonplace we paid little attention” (p. 3). With the shift to underground testing in 1963, nuclear development receded further from local view. Baneberry was not the first underground test to vent into the atmosphere—numerous tests in the Plowshare series were designed to breach the surface for cratering research, and other tests did so unexpectedly—but Baneberry surpassed them all in severity. Surveys of the area prior to the test indicated geological instability, but the decision was made to detonate the ten-kiloton device regardless. No evacuation plan was prepared, and workers remained dangerously close to the detonation site. When the vent occurred, evacuation orders were delayed nearly two hours and then carried out by security guards instead of properly trained and outfitted radiation safety monitors. One of these security personnel, Harley Roberts, spent the entire day in the radioactive cloud; four years later, he died of leukemia.

Much of the lawsuit the authors filed on behalf of Roberts and other workers hinged on the complex task of reconstructing radiation doses, then connecting them to genetic changes and illnesses. To tackle this challenge, the Johns brothers sought out Dr. Shields Warren, the AEC’s first director of biology and medicine, noted epidemiologist Dr. Alice Stewart, and Dr. John Gofman, one of the original Manhattan Project scientists and the first medical director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Discussions about working with these researchers offer some of the book’s most interesting material.

Another valuable contribution of The Baneberry Disaster is its accessible discussions of the legal nuances of this and other efforts to hold the federal government accountable for health impacts from domestic Cold War nuclear contamination. While the authors ultimately lost the Baneberry lawsuit, and other lawsuits on behalf of exposed workers and citizens also failed to provide redress, these cases heightened awareness of nuclear risk and federal malfeasance and helped lay the foundation for the 1990 Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.

The Baneberry Disaster’s primary limitation is its form as a memoir-based history. The authors’ intention was to record their own experiences and reconstruct the scientific and medical understandings available at the time of the trial. While the book succeeds in doing so, some sections have a distinct popular history feel, which will engage non-academic readers but may not satisfy those looking for a more rigorous historical analysis. The history of American nuclearism is impossible to apprehend with the tools of any single academic discipline. A willingness to approach these events with interdisciplinary tools and careful attention to the experiences and narratives of those living and working in proximity to nuclear sites is crucial. The Baneberry Disaster is a strong example of this sort of approach and an important contribution to the field.