In an attempt to increase public trust and confidence in the Department of Energy (DOE), Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary recently released files showing that the federal government conducted human radiation experiments between 1940 and 1973. Calls have flooded the DOE's hotline with reports of government scientists using humans as guinea pigs in radiation experiments.
The institutional radiation testing is different from the above ground nuclear bomb testing that occurred in Nevada in the 1950s and early 1960s, when atomic blasts erupted at the Nevada Test Site and two other off-site locations, and downwinders were exposed to radiation from fallout. But in one way, the effects of the tests were essentially the same: those who were being experimented upon were all unknowing victims.
In light of the DOE's new emphasis on openness, some members of the Nevada Commission on Nuclear Projects have called on Secretary O'Leary to fully account for all past nuclear tests in the state. They say the public has a right to know how much radiation was released into air and water during atomic blasts that occurred both on and off the Nevada Test Site.
Recent news stories about the atomic tests have stirred up some Eurekan's memories. Isadore Sara, 82, a retired rancher and county worker, remembers that a team of scientists equipped with radiation gages came to Eureka dressed in radiation suits sometime during the test period. "They had all this testing equipment. I knew they were here but I didn't know why. To tell you the truth, I didn't pay them any attention. But I guess maybe I should have; look what's come up lately in Utah and St. George with the downwinders there and cancer."
LeRoy Etchegaray, 65, a Diamond Valley rancher, remembers a few times that ranchers complained of burning skin on test days. "We were always listening to the radio to know when they did the test. I remember eight to ten people complaining about feeling something like a severe sunburn on their face and on any skin open to the air, but I don't know if anybody was severely damaged." Etchegaray said it seemed like the burning sensation occurred on windy days.
He remembers hearing rumors of the tests' effects in Diamond Valley, Kobeh Valley, and at the south end of Pine Valley. "It seemed like the men out riding were most affected," he said.
Joan Shangle, Eureka County Clerk and Treasurer, believes her father-in-law, Floyd "Dick" Pack, was affected by the fallout from the Atomic Energy Commission's above ground tests in the early 1950s. She remembers two times when he received severe burns while working outdoors at the Fish Creek Ranch where he was manager.
"At the time we thought it was just a terrible, terrible sunburn. I remember them (her husband, brother-in-law, and father-in-law) sitting at the kitchen counter with their arms up while we put potatoes on their arms to try and remove the heat. He suffered that type of burn two distinct times, maybe more." Pack died in 1960 of skin and lung cancer.