By Marie I. Boutté

Editor's Note: In 1995, the Agency for Nuclear Projects began a project aimed at developing a system for identifying and monitoring potential negative health impacts to Nevadans from DOE’s Yucca Mountain repository program and any future related nuclear waste transportation activities. Dr. Marie Boutté, a medical anthropologist with the University of Nevada Reno, was chosen as the principal investigator for the research. She has been working with pilot communities, State agencies, and national experts over the past two years in designing a framework for the Nevada study and pioneering community-based methodologies for tracking radiation-related health problems.

Residents of Nevada, especially those of southeastern Nevada, have been exposed to radiation throughout the history of nuclear weapons testing at the Nevada Test Site (NTS). They were first exposed from atmospheric testing in the 1950s and 1960s, and then from venting of numerous underground detonations until the early 1990s. From evidence presented in lawsuits, congressional hearings, epidemiological studies, and from passage of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, it is now widely acknowledged that there have been health effects as a result of these exposures.

 Atomic test at the Nevada Test Site on May 25, 1953

Atomic test at the Nevada Test Site on May 25, 1953
In lawsuits and congressional hearings, individuals gave compelling personal testimonies regarding health effects as a result of fallout exposure. The results of the University of Utah’s thyroid epidemiological study, one of two major research efforts undertaken by the federal government to identify health impacts of atomic testing, showed that exposure to radioiodines from weapons testing was associated with an excess of thryoid neoplasms in exposed children. A companion leukemia study also found an association between radiation exposure to bone marrow and all types of leukemia. The federal Radiation Exposure Compensation Act continues to provide monetary compensation for those with childhood leukemia and other types of cancers if they resided in specific downwind counties in Nevada, Utah, and Arizona during the period of atmospheric testing.

The storage and transport of spent fuel present health risks to workers and the public

The storage and transport of spent fuel present health risks to workers and the public
There is now the possibility that high-level nuclear waste will be transported and stored in Nevada, giving rise to renewed potential for radiation exposures to those who live and travel in the state. This creates a need to establish a program of health studies that will provide baseline data for assessing and monitoring possible health effects from exposure to high-level nuclear waste, something that was NOT done for weapons testing activities at NTS, with disastrous consequences for those who were exposed.

The epidemiological studies carried out in the past by the University of Utah had to rely almost exclusively on retrospective data, and while these studies were useful in showing associations between radiation exposure and particular health problems, the biggest limitations of the work have to do with the lack of adequate pre-exposure data. What is needed to assure that Nevadans are not again exposed to unknown and undocumented radiation risks from the Yucca Mountain project or from an interim storage facility at the NTS are prospective studies and the development of baseline data that can only be accomplished through collaboration between diverse state agencies such as the Health Division, Emergency Management, Environmental Protection, the Agency for Nuclear Projects, the university system, and vulnerable communities likely to be impacted by the Yucca Mountain Project or interim storage at the NTS.

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