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Potential for New Nuclear Testing Brings Up Old Harms to Idahoans

National Nuclear Security Administration/Flickr
Fallout from nuclear tests in Nevada in the 1950s and '60s affected the health of many southern Idahoans.

Restarting discussion about nuclear-weapons testing is on the table in Washington, D.C., even as Idaho still is waiting for recognition of the harms from testing in the 20th century.

Senior White House officials say it could bring China and Russia to negotiations over nuclear arms, and Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., won approval to add $10 million for testing in the National Defense Authorization Act for next year. However, Hannah Smay, a Snake River Alliance board member, pointed out that southern Idaho felt the health effects of fallout from Nevada tests of the 1950s and '60s.

"Idaho has for a long time been a 'sacrifice zone' for downwind contamination," she said, "as well as a storage place for nuclear waste that comes with the production of nuclear weapons."

The National Cancer Institute has identified southern Idaho counties as having some of the highest exposure rates to radiation from Nevada tests. However, the state wasn't included in a compensation fund for "downwinder" communities passed three decades ago. In eastern Idaho, the Idaho National Laboratory processes nuclear waste from across the country.

Before testing would restart, Smay said, communities affected by nuclear testing should have a chance to speak up.

"Having a lot of transparency from the agencies -- from the Department of Energy, from the Idaho National Lab and from those in the administration who are floating this idea of resuming nuclear testing -- will allow communities to have their input," she said.

More than 70 scientists and scholars have signed a letter urging the administration not to go forward with nuclear testing. Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., has introduced the Preserving Leadership Against Nuclear Explosives Testing (PLANET) Act, which would prohibit the use of funds for nuclear-weapons tests.

The National Cancer Institute report is online at cancer.gov, the scientists' letter is at sciencemag.org, and the PLANET Act is at markey.senate.gov.