VIDEO VAULT | 'Baneberry Disaster' exposed Nevada Test Site workers to deadly radiation
There is a short list of proper names which instantly conjure up the idea of a nuclear catastrophe. Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukishima, for example.
Another which perhaps belongs on that list stems from an event which took place right here in Southern Nevada. But details of what happened in 1970 just 65 miles north of Las Vegas took years--even decades to emerge. It is not very well-known even today.
The history of the “Baneberry” disaster starts back in 1951, when mushroom clouds had first started appearing on the horizon northwest of the Las Vegas Valley.
“...To increase our knowledge about nuclear weapons,” explained a 1954 Department of Defense newsreel. “For here at the Nevada Test Site, we are engaged in the grim business of survival.”
“10 Minutes to H-Hour” explained how atomic tests were conducted for the 11 years before a treaty with the Soviet Union changed things.
“Many were tower shots, to obtain microsecond timing,” continued the narration over film of detonations. “Some were air drops from operational aircraft.”
“After that, everything was supposed to be underground,” observes attorney Alan Johns from the west valley offices he shares with his brother.
Alan and Larry Johns have co-authored the book “The Baneberry Disaster: A Generation of Atomic Fallout” about the 1970 test which went wrong. It’s based upon their own experiences litigating on behalf of a pair of test site workers and subsequently their widows.
The book is now available on Amazon.
Throughout the 1960s there had been scores of underground tests, to the point where they had become almost routine. As the test code-named Baneberry approached in late 1970, a hole was excavated to contain the blast.
“There been problems with tunnel preparations,” says Alan. “It kept caving in and they had to fill it with cement and drill through the cement and all sorts of things.”
The situation was certainly not perfect, but the holidays were approaching.
“They were reaching the end of the year and decided—I guess—that they had to go ahead and take a chance,” ventures Alan.
On December 18, what should have been a routine underground test resulted in the type of cloud not seen since almost a decade earlier.
“It was a big deal,” picks up Larry. “And all of the equipment was destroyed because of the radiation.”
The Johns brother ended up representing Harley Roberts and Bill Nunnamaker, who were at the Test Site at the time the Baneberry detonation, but never should have faced danger according to the government’s newsreel.
“All operations are in charge of the Test Manager,” explains the film. “And he has final responsibility for ‘Go’ or ‘No Go’ decisions.”
And the Test Manager theoretically had plenty of support before, during and after a test.
“The adviser staff is composed of specialists in blast, meteorology, radiation and public health,” continued the narration.
“There were supposed to be teams of radiation safety monitors available in the event that anything went wrong,” says Larry today. “They weren't there. There was one radiation safety monitor just outside the camp.”
Instead, the safety of some workers came from the spontaneous actions of people like Harley Roberts.
“And he was the security guard that got the highest dose,” says Larry. “We knew that, because he was in the cloud in the camp for about an hour, banging on trailers and getting the workers out.”
In the process, he absorbed what the Johns brothers say was a lethal dose of radiation.
“The case really began when Harley Roberts became ill,” Remembers Larry. “And that was 18 months after he was exposed.”
A decade later, News-3 was reporting on lawsuits brought by the Johns brothers as well as soldiers who had been exposed and civilians who had been in the path of drifting clouds containing radiation.
“Some atomic veterans go to court,” said reporter Russ Reinberg in 1983. “Others publish newsletters full of such words as leukemia, polycythemia vera, multiple myeloma, lympho sarcoma, all meaning one thing: Cancer.”
While some tried to fight their cases in the court of public opinion, the Johns brothers continued to litigate--by then representing the widows of Roberts and Nunnamaker.
“We went up to the 9th circuit about three times.” muses Larry. “And it came back down and then we went back up. The problem was that the federal tort claims act is very restrictive. The chapter that deals with it is called ‘The king can do no wrong.’.”
The eventual ruling from Judge Roger D Foley contained two key points.
“The judge found in our favor, but he didn't find in our favor in the cause of the leukemias.”
While the Johns brothers were not able to get compensation for their clients, they maintain their case was instrumental in helping to shape the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act of 1990, which to date has paid out more than $2 billion to some 21,000 successful claimants.
“But for the Baneberry case, I think we can comfortably say that the test site workers would not have been included. And 3,500 test site workers or their widows have been compensated for radiation related injuries, deaths, cancers.”