Downwinder Thoughts

This is a post I wrote for  Our Mother’s Keeper.

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, having overheard someone talking 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” and I would have been nine years old.  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 her/him 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, chemotherapy and radiation treatments 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 in this “greatest of all countries” 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 (Mormons) 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.