Bringing an end to an acrimonious chapter in U.S. nuclear history, a federal judge has ruled against six men who claimed that they contracted cancer from exposure to radiation at the Nevada Test Site, an infamous stretch of restricted desert north of Las Vegas.
U.S. District Judge Phillip Pro ruled that the government was immune to lawsuits in such matters and therefore he had no jurisdiction to rule in the case. He then went on to say that there was not enough evidence to show that the cancers--ranging from a brain tumor to multiple myeloma--were caused by government negligence or that they stemmed from exposure to radiation.
The case, decided Wednesday in a Las Vegas federal courtroom, was the last of the major lawsuits against the government stemming from nuclear weapons testing. The majority of the cases--along with annual demonstrations by anti-nuclear activists--focused on the arid expanse the size of Rhode Island where atomic weapons were tested above ground in the 1950s and early 1960s.
Of the five such major cases, the U.S. government has won four--including the so-called Prescott case decided this week. The fifth is still being appealed. Stewart Udall, a former secretary of the Interior who brought many of the cases against the government, including Prescott, said the decision "slams the door shut" on future suits against the government.
In the past eight months, as U.S. Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary began to open secret government files concerning nuclear experimentation, "there has been a very clear indication that the old Atomic Energy Commission was reckless and lied consistently and abused the rights of people," Udall said. "Yet this decision comes as kind of a clunker from the past. . . . There is no remedy for the people who were harmed."
Udall said no decision has been made regarding whether to appeal. "We're exhausted financially," he said in an interview Thursday. "We will decide that later."
John Thorndal, an attorney involved in the government's defense, said that the decision confirms what those involved in nuclear testing have said all along: "That these people had very low levels of exposure to radiation and that their cancers were simply not caused by that exposure."
The Prescott case was originally filed in 1980 on behalf of 216 former test site workers; of those, six cases were selected to go to trial. Keith Prescott, now 67, is the only surviving plaintiff.
Prescott began working at the Nevada Test Site in 1961, digging tunnels for underground nuclear weapons blasts and helping recover instruments from those tunnels after the tests. He testified in the three-month trial that began in December that the government never warned him of radiation dangers at the site, although he often felt nauseous and was afraid to breathe the air there.
In 1969, Prescott was diagnosed with multiple myeloma and continues treatment for that condition. "Even if multiple myeloma were determined to be a disease which can be induced by radiation . . . this court finds that Mr. Prescott's exposure to radiation when employed at the NTS did not cause or substantially contribute to his multiple myeloma," Pro said in his 52-page opinion.
"The decision speaks for itself," said Chris West, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Energy in Las Vegas. "The Department of Energy feels it has an extremely safe operation at the Nevada Test Site."