LAS VEGAS - When Michelle Thomas was growing up in the
1950s and '60s, her mother tacked up a hand-drawn map
of their St. George neighborhood. She would mark an "X"
for every house where someone had cancer.
That diagram - filled with dozens of X's - isn't on display
at the newly opened Atomic Testing Museum on Las Vegas'
storied Flamingo Road. But that isn't what angers Thomas. "It's like we didn't even exist," says the lifelong
St. George resident. "As a downwinder, that's deeply
Aided by a wheelchair last week, Thomas toured the new
8,000-square-foot facility that highlights the development
of nuclear weapons at the Nevada Test Site, 65 miles northwest
of Las Vegas.
She sees the museum as a monument to the bomb with little
attention to its price in human lives. "In a word,"
she says, "propaganda."
Thomas can walk with a cane, but her polymyositis - the
degenerative autoimmune disorder she has endured for the
past 30 years - makes it difficult. Born in 1952, just
after the onset of above-ground nuclear testing, she also
has suffered from ovarian cysts, breast cancer and a benign
salivary gland tumor.
The $4.5 million museum - built with public and private
funds, including handsome donations from defense contractors
Bechtel and Lockheed Martin - harks to the final days
of World War II and the dawn of the Cold War. The Defense
Department, called War Department during World War II,
and the Atomic Energy Commission were racing to develop
the atomic bomb to defeat the Japanese and, later, the
hydrogen bomb to stave off the Soviets.
The museum is replete with technological and cultural
timelines that encompass both the forward march of nuclear
arms capability as well as pop icons like Marilyn Monroe
and Elvis Presley. It features mock civilian bomb shelters
as well as other signs of the times, like women sporting
Thomas groans upon spying a life-size cutout of a nude
Miss Atomic Bomb, a beauty pageant winner whose private
parts are covered by a mushroom cloud.
"That's ironic," she smirks. "We've all
had cancer of the ovaries and breasts." But while
the museum and its gift shop boast kitschy trinkets, the
bulk of the exhibition is serious and sobering. "The
purpose of the museum is to capture the history of the
Nevada Test Site and nuclear testing in general,"
explains curator Bill Johnson. Exhibits emphasize the
huge national undertaking that was the arms race. "If
there is a message," Johnson says, "it is that
the Cold War really was a war."
But people in southwestern Utah's Washington County and
thousands of other downwinders were unwilling participants,
"guinea pigs" who were lied to about the effects
of radioactive fallout, Thomas says. "We are veterans of the Cold War. But we didn't sign
up," she says. "We were always told the government
was very interested in our health. We thought, 'Oh, aren't
we lucky.' "
Federal officials tested St. George schoolchildren's thyroids
twice a year, Thomas recalls, and sometimes recommended
the gland be removed. During bomb tests, residents were
advised to stay indoors. "It was like, 'Go inside
and watch "I Love Lucy" for a couple of hours
and everything will be fine.' "
At the Las Vegas museum, visitors get a glimpse of the
violence in an above-ground nuclear test in a small auditorium.
After a countdown, benches vibrate as the screen shows
a roiling nuclear explosion. Blasts from air cannons mimic
the shock wave.
Al O'Donnell, an 82-year-old museum docent who worked
at the test site for all 100 above-ground explosions between
1951 and 1968, says the blasts were vital to America's
"What I did, I did to protect the liberty of the
United States," he says during a 10-minute video.
"I'd do it all over again."
As the auditorium lights go up, Thomas struggles to hold
back tears and tells O'Donnell, who is standing nearby,
that she paid a price for the testing. "I've been
walking with a cane all my life and my friends are dead.
I don't have the freedom you talked about."
In an emotional exchange, O'Donnell tells Thomas he is
sorry for the pain and suffering that came out of the
tests. He also concedes that many of his colleagues died
from the radiation. "I'm afraid to go up to St. George,"
he says. "I'm afraid they'd stone me to death."
Dina Titus, a professor of political science at University
of Nevada-Las Vegas, also makes an appearance on the bomb-test
video, noting that downwinders indeed were misled by the
government. Her two-minute monologue is among the examples
that curator Johnson and others point to as attempts to
include downwinders in the museum.
In an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, Titus, who
criticizes the weapons program in her 1986 book Bombs
in Our Backyard, explains that at the onset of the testing,
southern Utah residents backed the program, portrayed
to them as vital to the nation's security.
"Not only were they harmed, but they were lied to
by the people who said they would protect them,"
Titus says. "It was like a double whammy." A
downwinders exhibit should be added, Titus says. The price
they paid was too high. "It wasn't worth it, to put
people at risk like that." The museum's most important
function, Titus adds, is that it houses all the records
from the 928 tests at the Nevada site (828 below ground)
between 1951 and 1992. Among those documents is government
evidence dating to the late '40s and early '50s that fallout
Despite such knowledge, the downwinders' battle for recognition
and compensation took almost 40 years. After meeting 27-year-old Connie Selzer, of Washington,
D.C., during the tour, Thomas worries that many museum
patrons will walk away with little or no knowledge of
"It's a whole side of the story I didn't know about,"
Selzer says after chatting with Thomas. "It's like
not knowing about the Holocaust."
Near the tour's end, Thomas looks quizzically at an exhibit
that includes a chunk of 9-11 World Trade Center wreckage.
The Cold War and the creation of the nuclear weapons were
fueled by fear and hate, she says. "This is a reminder
to be afraid." Talk of resuming nuclear testing -
including from Utah Congressman Chris Cannon - baffles
Thomas. "It's like going back 50 years when they
came to town and said, 'Don't be afraid,' " she says.
"For them to say that now is serious crazy-making."
* Location: 755 E. Flamingo Road, Las Vegas.
* Hours & Admission Prices
* (Posted for educational and research purposes only,
with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107) *