The last thing we need is more nuclear testing

ROGER SIMON

May 19, 1993|By ROGER SIMON

Bill Clinton was elected to provide America with certain thing over the long term: Better health care. An improved economy. More jobs.

But here is what Bill Clinton intends to give America in the short term: A resumption of nuclear weapons testing.

Between July 1 of this year and Sept. 30, 1996, when nuclear testing must end by act of Congress, Bill Clinton wants to explode 15 nuclear bombs underground in order to test their "safety."

A number of members of Congress are against this. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, says: "It is time for the world to stop all nuclear weapons tests."

And he is right. The legacy of nuclear weapons testing has been one of enormous tragedy.

If you are a baby boomer or older, you have heard of strontium 90. It was created in the 1940s as a by-product of nuclear fission. Not in millions of years of evolution, therefore, had the human body ever experienced strontium 90.

As a result of above-ground nuclear explosions, strontium 90 was kicked up high into the atmosphere and came back down to the earth in rain. The rain penetrated the soil and entered growing grass. The grass was eaten by cows and the strontium 90 entered their milk.

The milk was drunk by humans, whose bodies absorbed the radioactive isotope in place of calcium. And, by the 1960s, strontium 90 was showing up in the teeth of children everywhere.

This was enough to shock the superpowers into a partial ban on nuclear testing and in 1963 testing went underground.

This was not soon enough, however. Strontium 90 can cripple the production of red blood cells. And last year the British Medical Journal printed an article stating that tens of thousands of American and British babies may have died in their first year of life in the 1950s and 1960s as a result of nuclear explosions in the atmosphere.

Bill Clinton is not contemplating a return to above-ground testing. He merely wants to test small nuclear bombs underground, reports say, in order to test the reliability of our current nuclear stockpile. And that's safe, right?

Well, some say yes and some say no.

There have been 1,900 underground blasts worldwide and 714 in Nevada alone over the last 40 years. The U.S. Department of Energy says those blasts have been perfectly safe because the underground rock contains all the radioactivity.

The International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, a group of doctors and scientists who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985, disagrees. It thinks the underground rock may have been "drastically fractured" by past explosions and that radiation may creep into the ground water and contaminate it.

And we do know what happens when the government guesses wrong about nuclear contamination.

In 1991, the Hanford nuclear reservation near Richland, Washington, was discovered to be far more contaminated than first thought.

The engineers who built bombs at Hanford in the 1950s dumped 127 million gallons of radioactive waste into "trenches and an underground drainage system designed to use soil as a filter," according to the Waste Information Digest.

Such waste was dumped at other sites also, so not only does strontium 90 continue to flow into the Columbia River to this day, but the soil also contains the radioactive and cancer-causing isotopes technetium 99 and iodine 129.

Technetium 99 has a half-life of 212,000 years (that's how long it will take half the atoms to disintegrate) and iodine 129 has a half-life of 16 million years.

So this could be considered a long-term problem.

Opponents of underground nuclear testing say the potential hazards far outweigh the benefits. And 23 senators have sent a letter to Clinton saying there are no benefits to exploding 15 more bombs underground anyway.

They say that such testing will not make our nuclear stockpile any safer since "no new safety features verified by testing will be incorporated into our nation's nuclear arsenal."

The Pentagon wants the new underground tests, however, and our president may figure he already has enough problems with the military to buck them on this.

But that would be a mistake.

We elected Bill Clinton to do many things. Testing nuclear bombs was not one of them.

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