Rapt attention

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Folding Paper Cranes

I am reading an interesting book by the writer and poet Leonard Bird. Folding Paper Cranes is a memoir of a man exposed to radiation during aboveground detonations in Nevada during the 1950's. It chronicles his resultant bout with cancer. The title comes from the experiences of Sadako Sasaki, a Hiroshima survivor at the age of two, who dealt with her own leukemia by attempting to fold one thousand origami paper cranes. She reached 654 before she died.

Yucca flat is a barren part of the desert officially designated Area 9a of the Nevada Test Site. Between 1951 and 1962, the United States Government triggered 101 detonations at the NTS. This provided a real time laboratory for gauging the effects of radiation on our own soldiers. The principal question was "will they panic"? Unfortunately, the question of the effects on our troops' long term health was largely overlooked.

Operation Plumbbob was the sixth series of tests at Area 9a, and took place in the summer of 1957. It produced 20 nuclear tests and one very unfortunate misfire, a release of 58,300 kilocuries of radioactive iodine I-131, more than twice the amount produced in any other blast series. According to the book, I -131 is far from the most dangerous chemical released and makes up less than 2% of isotopes in fallout. However it is the only isotope that has been studied by the National Cancer Institute, and apparently only as it relates to thyroid cancer.

The National Cancer Institute estimates that the radioactive Iodine released from Operation Plumbbob will contribute at least 35,000 cases of thyroid cancer in America and 2700 additional deaths. This isotope has a half life of about 8 minutes. Strontium 90, a cause of blood and bone cancer, has a half life of 8000 years. The government has been unwilling to estimate the effects of the remaining 98% of the fallout.

Our current president has refused to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

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