Under the Cloud

Author Richard Miller spent years uncovering the harm caused to Americans by nuclear fallout from atmospheric testing

first published in the Riverfront Times in the 1990s. 

BY C.D. STELZER

The image cast by the overhead projector showed a grainy snapshot of a boy with a crew cut crouched next to a tail-wagging dog. In the faded background, a pick-up truck could be seen parked next to a modest frame house. The time was 1955; the place Paris, Mo.

The bucolic setting could not have been more deceptive. When the spring rains fell that year, they permanently changed the lives of many residents of the small town in the northeast corner of the state, as they did countless other lives across the continent. But unlike the havoc reeked by floods or other natural disasters, the damage to humanity could not be immediately measured. At the time, few people knew anything about the effects of exposure to radioactive fallout. Nuclear weapons research, propelled by the arms race and the ensuing hysteria over national security, proceeded unimpeded. Between 1951 and 1963 more than one hundred above-ground atomic bombs blasts were detonated by the federal government at its Nev ada Test Site.

Richard L. Miller — the youngster in the photograph — has spent much of his adult life learning of the consequences of that nuclear atmospheric testing during the Cold War.

Last Saturday, the 50-year-old author displayed the black-and-white image from his childhood along with photographs of nuclear explosions at a conference of the National Association of Radiation Survivors, which convened at the Henry VIII Hotel on North Lindbergh Boulevard. Miller, who wrote Under the Cloud: The Decades of Nuclear Testing, feels both vindicated and disturbed by the findings of a recently released National Cancer Institute (NCI) study on the dangers of nuclear fallout.

“First and foremost, … it’s an admission by the government that they dose d the entire United States with fallout,” Miller told the audience. The NCI study made public in August took almost a decade-and-a-half to complete. It concludes that 10,000 to 75,000 people, who were exposed to high levels of fallout of as children, may contract thyroid cancer as a result.

The wind, rain and weather dispersed the isotope randomly across large sections of the U.S. and Canada, after the detonation of experimental atomic bombs blasts. Most of the children were exposed to the fallout, Iodine-131, by drinking contaminated milk.

Despite the belated confession by the federal government, Miller criticized the NCI report for excluding relevant data, which if taken into account would increase the potential health problems caused by the fallout. “There are two hundred other isotopes,” he says, “isotopes that can cause cancer in other parts of the body, including bone cancer and leukemia.” None of the those elements were factored into the study, however.

Miller found another oversight. “They did not include all the maps.” Miller caught the omission by comparing NCI data available on Internet with copies of 1959 Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and National Weather Service documents he had tucked away in his closet. Interestingly, the fal lout from the14 nuclear blasts excluded from the NCI study, all show fallout crossing into Canada, according to Miller.

“The NCI’s maps, to be charitable, are not very good. They don’t give the same amount of information that the originals do,” says Mi ller. “They spent 15 years working on this thing. … You would think that they would have the very best computer technology available to enhance the quality of the images.”

When Miller recently asked the Missouri Department of Health whether it had correlated data on fallout with any other forms of cancer other than the type that attack the thyroid gland, the agency said it had not. Regarding thyroid cancer, the health department claimed that based on available data there appeared to be no increase in the Missouri counties, Miller says.

Miller doesn’t agree with either finding. In his opinion, the state like its federal counterpart is continuing to exclude data that indicates cancer rates are tied to fallout exposure. In this case, the state faile d to even consider scientific findings that have been on the books for more than a decade. “The third national cancer survey published in 1983 shows spikes of thyroid cancer in a number of hot counties (in Missouri),” says Miller. “It also shows spikes o f leukemia in a number of the hot counties, as well as, bone cancer.”

Missouri has the dubious distinction of having more than two dozen counties among the 200 nationwide that were the most heavily contaminated by nuclear fallout, according to the NCI s tudy. The majority of the effected counties are in the northeast quadrant of the state, where Miller was born and raised.

“In 1968, my father, who was a tax collector for Monroe Co. (Mo.), which is one of the hot zones, noticed there was a high level of cancer in one particular part of the county,” says Miller. After joining the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in the early 1970s, Miller himself had an opportunity to further investigate his father’s observations. He too foun d what appeared to be extraordinary numbers of cancer cases in Monroe County, and he subsequently informed epidemiologists at the University of Missouri. “This was 1975 and I haven’t heard from them since,” says Miller. A year later Miller’s father died of lung cancer.

Miller’s OSHA career next took him to Texas, where he began investigating a cluster of rare brain cancers at a Union Carbide chemical plant in Houston. When he attempted expand his investigation to a nearby Dow chemical facility, the Reagan administration called a halt to it and began shredding documents. The OSHA office where he worked was ultimately closed. It was during this period that a public health official suggested to him that the pocket of brain cancer cases in Houston may h ave been the result of nuclear fallout. When he looked into it, Miller did indeed discover a correlation between fallout patterns and brain cancer clusters in both Texas and Kentucky. His extensive research finally led him to write the book on the subje ct.

Currently, Miller operates a private environmental consulting firm in Houston that investigates toxic chemical contamination. He is also the author of a novel that is set in the nuclear fallout era.

The reasoning that led to mass radiation exposure is stranger than fiction, however. “They did it because they could,” says Miller of the government’s nuclear testing program. “I think they’re mistaken impression was that it was for the greater good. At the time, they thought that if we set off these bombs, if we caused hazards across the country, we may in some way be protecting the U.S. from possible attack by the Soviets. … (But) The Soviets didn’t even have an aircraft that could make it to the U.S. and back at that time,” says Miller.

“I be lieve the feds originally caused this problem, the AEC, specifically,” he adds. “It dosed Missouri with radioactive fallout. Now it’s up to the federal government to help Missouri out in terms of education programs and possibly compensation for medical c are for particular types of illnesses that are known to be associated with fallout. I believe the first order of business is to introduce a resolution that would ask for this additional funding. I would think that the representatives from the good state of Missouri would be the ones to do that.”

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