MERIDIAN — In a time before social distancing, the lecture hall of the Idaho College of Osteopathic Medicine was packed. Students, staff, politicians and community members sat intermixed in the seats, elbow to elbow.
But Kaaren Brodesser stood alone.
Before she started her lecture on March 10, she was introduced simply as an advocate. More than that, she is a witness, part of a small group of people fighting for the rights of Idahoans whose lives changed on July 16, 1945, when the U.S. conducted the first-ever nuclear test, setting off a series of events the world is still struggling to fully understand.
These are downwinders, and they are dying.
'THEY KNOW WHAT THEY’VE DONE'
In the 1950s and '60s, the bulk of America’s nuclear testing was done in a 680-square-mile piece of desert about 65 miles outside of Las Vegas. The Nevada Test Site was ground zero for America’s Cold War preparations, testing the effects and power of the nuclear bombs designed by the military. From 1951 to 1958, around 100 aboveground nuclear tests were conducted on the site. The site was chosen for its relative isolation from any densely populated cities; however, in the end, distance was not the solution it first seemed.
The term “downwinders” refers to anyone who lived in communities exposed to nuclear radiation during the end of World War II and the peak of the Cold War (roughly the late 1940s to 1980). During the construction and testing of nuclear weapons, wind patterns directed the fallout far beyond the safety perimeters of the sites, spreading radiation hundreds and even thousands of miles away.
In the book "Atomic Farmgirl," author Teri Hein details her life growing up downwind of Hanford, Washington, where the bulk of America’s plutonium was produced for many decades. She explains the fallout like this: When Mount Saint Helens erupted in 1980, ash drifted far past the state lines of Washington. The wind carried and then settled the debris into neighboring states. Nuclear radiation fallout can be thought of in the same way. The testing locations in Nevada and the production plants in Hanford are the eruption. The radiation then drifted into Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and beyond.
The radiation was in the air and, more importantly, in the crops and livestock of these communities. According to the National Cancer Institute, a significant portion of the Intermountain West was exposed to high doses of radiation from the tests, specifically the radioisotope Iodine-131. Iodine-131 is processed in the thyroid, the gland in your neck that regulates hormones. This is why children seemed to be the hardest hit from the fallout: their thyroid is still developing and isn’t strong enough to process the high dosage of Iodine.
NCI’s list of medical issues tied to downwinders is long, ranging from multiple sclerosis to various forms of cancer that slowly eat away at your life. That's something that Emmett resident Tona Henderson knows only too much about.
Henderson was born in the summer of 1960. Two of four siblings had cancer, her mother had breast cancer and her father had an aggressive disease of the thyroid that eventually caused the thyroid to decay until it dissolved completely. All in all, Henderson said 38 members of her family who lived in Idaho, mostly in Emmett, have had cancer.
“It had just become a given thing around town,” she said. “People died from cancer, and nobody ever questioned it because that’s just the way it was. You live your life like that, like it’s a normal thing.”
Around 2010, Henderson began to keep a list of everyone she knows in Gem County, which has a population a little over 17,000, who had been diagnosed with cancer. Her list contains 1,069 names.
During the Cold War, Emmett existed in the crosswinds of two major sources of radiation fallout: The Nevada testing site a little over 500 miles to the southeast, and the Hanford production plant almost 300 miles to the northwest. The geographic make-up of the town makes it easy for wind to blow in, but not out. Meaning that if radioactive clouds rolled into the valley, there was a potential for the clouds and dust to hover for hours or even days.
“My family remembers hearing it on the radio: Go outside tomorrow at this time and you’ll see a glow in the sky,” Henderson remembered. “You could have gone up in the foothills of Emmett and see it and within hours or days, depending on the wind pattern, it would be here. The dust. And people knew it was from Nevada but the government said, ‘No, no, don’t worry about it.’ But they know what they’ve done.”
In a scene straight of HBO’s "Chernobyl," Henderson tells a story of her uncle having a Geiger counter in his home, left over from his mining days. The instrument detects nuclear radiation. Once it started going off, he was sure something had broken inside the machine. Surely, there was no detectable radiation levels in Emmett.
That uncle died of liver cancer in 1985.
It wasn’t until 2004 that Henderson learned of the downwinders from an article in the Emmett Messenger-Index. Later that year, she held a town hall of sorts for residents of Emmett who believed they were suffering the effects of being a downwinder. As a long shot, she invited Idaho’s congressional delegation. She called their offices and told them that, regardless of if they came or not, there would be a chair reserved for them.
“I wasn’t trying to embarrass them, I just wanted them to show up,” Henderson said. “I told them, ‘Look, I’m going to reserve your seat, and if you don’t show up, there is going to be an empty chair with your name on it for the TV cameras.”
All four responded — Sen. Larry Craig and Reps. Mike Simpson and Butch Otter sent representatives from their offices, while Sen. Mike Crapo attended himself.
Since attending that meeting, Crapo has been working closely with Idaho’s downwinders movement. The issue that he faces is that, according to the government, Henderson, Brodesser, and Idaho downwinders don’t exist.
Passed in 1990, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) was, in part, a way for the United States to acknowledge the damage its nuclear testing had caused. The statute provides monetary compensation for people diagnosed with cancer and other diseases caused by radiation exposure. But, in its current form, the bill is extremely limited as to who can apply.
A study released by the National Cancer Institute in 1997 showed that 25 states had citizens exposed to high levels of radiation due to nuclear testing. Currently, RECA only covers three: Nevada, Utah and Arizona.
In an interview with the Idaho Press, Crapo talked about the long, uphill battle he’s faced trying to get Idaho added the list of states eligible for compensation.
“It’s been about 15 years since I first introduced the amendments,” Crapo said. “The reason it’s been so hard to get through Congress is that on the one hand, there is a small number of states that are concerned about it. … And on the other hand, the more states involved, the price tag goes up and the budget makes it more difficult to pass.”
Every few years, Crapo reintroduces his legislation. His most recent attempt was just year and so far, it has proved the most successful of his efforts. It even went so far as to get a hearing in Crapo’s committee, in which he invited Henderson to testify.
“The issue isn’t partisan, it’s more regional,” Crapo said. “So far we’ve gotten some stronger buy-in from Arizona, Nevada, Montana. Right now, our effort is to just build the justification. Right now, other states don’t realize that they should be concerned about this. It’s a very slow process of just expanding that understanding.”
“Sen. Crapo understands,” Henderson said. “A lot of people don’t understand until they have to go through it and see it firsthand, and I’ve done everything just to bring it to people’s attention, to keep it in the news. I just don’t know what more I can do. How do you make it important to somebody that it doesn’t affect?”
'WHEN, NOT IF'
While Henderson fights for the past, Brodesser is working on the future. Brodesser has been battling MS and a long list of other conditions cited in that NCI report.
Born in 1942, Brodesser grew up less than 68 miles downwind of that production plant in Hanford, a place now referred to as “the most toxic place in America.” In the '90s, she worked with The Oregon Health and Science University as a peer advocate for downwinders. Specifically, her role was to educate the general public about the health risks of being a downwinder. She said that, back then, the subject was still kept in the dark. People were suffering from these illnesses that doctors had no idea how to explain.
And it’s only going to get worse, according to Brodesser.
Though the Hanford nuclear production site is now decommissioned, there is a problem. A 56 million-gallon, $660 billion problem, in the form of the chemical and nuclear waste left behind after production stopped. During the course of production, 175 underground tanks were built in order to hold the waste from the plant. By 1989, 68 of the tanks had begun leaking into the air and into the groundwater where it has flowed into the Columbia River that runs beside the site.
“When there is an earthquake in that area, the radiation fallout will be equal to Chernobyl,” Brodesser said in her lecture. “When, not if.”
The site has been undergoing cleanup since 1989 and has faced one environmental and legislative set back after another, most recently in 2019, when the Trump administration announced plans to reclassify some of the country's radioactive waste to a lower threat level. This was done to save a potential $40 billion, as reclassifying the waste allows less strict (and less expensive) measures to go into cleanup efforts and would allow the waste to be moved off site. In 2017, officials with the EPA and the Department of Energy also proposed building new wells and barriers to better prevent the leakage of the waste into the groundwater.
But so far, neither of those things have happened. Meaning that the waste still sits in limbo in Hanford.
“We have to be prepared for a potential widescale release,” said Washington state Sen. Gerry Pollet. Pollet is the executive director of the Heart of America Northwest, a citizen watchdog group focused on the cleanup of the Hanford site and nuclear safety in the Northwest.
Pollet said the earthquake threat to Hanford is twofold: one, an earthquake to area could cause the facilities at Hanford to structurally fail and release plutonium and other radionuclides into the air. Two, an earthquake could cause a disruption in the water used at the facilities. On site there is, for lack of a better word, a swimming pool that provides constant cooling water to counteract the heat of the nuclear waste. A "reasonably sized" earthquake, Pollet explained, has the potential to prevent water from getting to the pool. Without that water, the waste would be exposed to air, overheat, and catch fire.
"The Energy department has sworn for years that they're going to move ahead with plans to get that waste out of the pool and into dry storage. But with the budget proposal from the Trump administration, it can't be funded this next fiscal year," Pollet said. "This is what Idaho needs to be prepared for."
Which is where ICOM, the medical school in Meridian, comes in.
“The idea of having Kaaren come in is that we want people to learn more,” ICOM President Dr. Tracy Farnsworth said. “That’s why we invited Kaaren to speak. As we train the future physicians of the Mountain West region, we understand that this is something they could encounter.”
For Farnsworth, however, the downwinders movement is also personal. His family grew up southern Utah, in a place he describes as the heart of the downwinders movement, and his mother, father, and four out of his six siblings were exposed to the fallout.
“I don’t have any memory of it, but my parents remember it vividly,” He said. “It’s been 60 years, but they can remember when they set off those massive explosions. And then 20 minutes later, they would physically feel the wind, the effects of the blast. But they weren’t worried. Because back then, they didn’t understand what radioactive fallout was. That realization occurred decades later.”
For Brodesser, Henderson and others working toward education on downwinders, the main enemy on their side is time. Downwinders are getting older; they are dying. Soon, all that will be left of those on the frontlines of the issue will be the stories they left behind. The Cold War is over but the cleanup of Hanford and other production and testing sites is still decades, potentially centuries, away. That’s why education about the issue is so important: They need the young to continue the fight when no survivors remain. Downwinders can't fix the mistakes of the past, but they can send a warning to the future.
Back in the lecture hall at ICOM, Brodesser finished up her lecture with a reference anyone would understand these days.
“With coronavirus, we didn’t know about it,” she said. “We weren’t prepared. But this, this we know about. And we need to be prepared. I just don’t want anyone to go through what I’ve gone through.”