nuclear history

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,  https://doi.org/10.1093/envhis/emy066

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.

Bringing DOWNWIND to the City of Salt

Sunset from the roof of the Salt Lake City Public Library, Tuesday October 20

Sunset from the roof of the Salt Lake City Public Library, Tuesday October 20

In the past three days I've been able to present Downwind: A People's History in three different and really special Salt Lake City venues.  Tuesday night I visited the beautiful downtown library in SL and had a conversation with downwinder activist, playwright, KUED Director of Services, and all around force of nature, Mary Dickson.  It was a great format. Attendees sat in a semicircle of chairs and we sat in the center, sharing stories and fielding some fantastic questions.

Mary and myself speaking to a lovely audience at the SL Library. Thanks to Christina McWhinnie for this and all other photos from this event.

Mary and myself speaking to a lovely audience at the SL Library. Thanks to Christina McWhinnie for this and all other photos from this event.

 I met Mary over ten years ago, when I was first begining my research on these issues.  I'd gone to hear writer and downwinder Terry Tempest Williams speak at USU in November of 2004. After her talk I waited in line to meet her and I told her that I was thinking about writing my master's thesis on the downwinders. She clasped my hands, gave me her best wishes, and told me I'd better call Mary, whose number she scribbled down on the margin of a program.  Mary immediately agreed to let me interview her, but she quickly became more than an informant for my project. She took me out to eat, she took me to the movies, she shared everything she knew. We spent one long night sitting up eating Girl Scout cookies and making postcards to send to elected officials in protest of the planned Divine Strake test.  Several years later Mary wrote a remarkable play, Exposed, about her journey to awareness as a downwinder, which was performed in SL and around the state to critical aclaim.  It was an honor and a pleasure to be reunited at this event to talk about our respective journeys and our work. This event (and in fact, most of my Utah tour) wouldn't have been possible without the help of several key folks. Rob DeBirk (who happens to be Mary's nephew) who worked for many years with HEAL, connected me to Michael McLane of Utah Humanities. Michael set up this and most of my other Utah tour events, lending his passion for the subject and his extensive connections around the state.

Michael McLane, the organizer of the Utah Book Festival and most of the  Downwind  Utah tour. Michael is an  exceptionally talented writer  and a particularly kind human being, to boot.  

Michael McLane, the organizer of the Utah Book Festival and most of the Downwind Utah tour. Michael is an exceptionally talented writer and a particularly kind human being, to boot.  

   The SLC Public library audience was full of really lovely people. I so appreciated each of their questions, comments, and stories, and their willingness to come out and participate in this event. Also, big thanks to SLC's   Weller Book Works , who sold books at this and my Utah Archives Event. They have signed copies available in their store. 

 

The SLC Public library audience was full of really lovely people. I so appreciated each of their questions, comments, and stories, and their willingness to come out and participate in this event. Also, big thanks to SLC's Weller Book Works, who sold books at this and my Utah Archives Event. They have signed copies available in their store. 

On Wednesday I visited the Utah State Archives as a guest of Archives Month, where I spoke to a great crowd of archivists and community members about some of the archival documents that informed Downwind. (A link to a video of my talk can be found in the caption of the slide image below). Prior to my talk, Justin Sorenson and Heidi Brett of the University of Utah Downwinders Archive offered a short presentation about the remarkable work they are doing to preserve and share Downwinder oral histories, documents, and data. 

Click  here  to access a video of my presentation at the Archives. 

Click here to access a video of my presentation at the Archives. 

After my talk, archivist Jim Kichas gave me a fantastic tour of the facilities. People, there are SO MANY BOOKS in this room waiting to be written.  Get yourself to an archive and ask a brilliant archivist like Jim what's good. Its pretty magical when they set down that box on the table and you get to pull out those folders and see the literal pieces of history tucked inside.  

Behind the scenes at the Utah State Archives.  

Behind the scenes at the Utah State Archives.  

Thursday I joined staff and several very special supporters of HEAL Utah for a luncheon to discuss Downwind and the work of building awareness and action around these stories.  Whenever I feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the work to be done on this issue, I take great comfort from clicking over to HEAL's website to be reminded of the incredible work they are are doing every day to advocate for the environment and the people of Utah. It was amazing to meet them in person, and to hand over my small, heartfelt donation from the first year of Downwind's royalties. Keep up the good work, you amazing people. 

with the fantastic staff of HEAL Utah: Laura, Ashley, Matt, and Sophia. (Their official titles with HEAL are in caption below).

with the fantastic staff of HEAL Utah: Laura, Ashley, Matt, and Sophia. (Their official titles with HEAL are in caption below).

HEAL staff and some of the remarkable people who support HEAL's work through their own extraordinary activism, scholarship, civic engagement, and political work.  Back row: Professor Danielle Endres of U of U, Matt Pacenza, Executive Dir of HEAL, downwinder activist Eve Mary Verde, former Utah State Representative Jennifer Seeling. Middle row: Ashley Soltysiak, HEAL Senior Policy Associate, Jean Welch-Hill of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. Front row, Laura Schmidt, HEAL Outreach Coordinator, Mary Dickson, downwinder activist and KUED Dir of Services, and me. Not pictured because she was taking the picture: HEAL Associate Director Sophia Nicholas.

HEAL staff and some of the remarkable people who support HEAL's work through their own extraordinary activism, scholarship, civic engagement, and political work.  Back row: Professor Danielle Endres of U of U, Matt Pacenza, Executive Dir of HEAL, downwinder activist Eve Mary Verde, former Utah State Representative Jennifer Seeling. Middle row: Ashley Soltysiak, HEAL Senior Policy Associate, Jean Welch-Hill of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. Front row, Laura Schmidt, HEAL Outreach Coordinator, Mary Dickson, downwinder activist and KUED Dir of Services, and me. Not pictured because she was taking the picture: HEAL Associate Director Sophia Nicholas.

I've had the great pleasure of staying with dear friends in SLC... thanks Christina and Sadiki! Now its on to events in Malad, Idaho and Emmett, Idaho this weekend.