The woman holding a sign inscribed ``Mother's Arms, not Nuclear Arms'' waited silently in a mass of demonstrators for her moment of civil disobedience to come. Behind a rope boundary a woman whose sign read ``I Love Nuclear Testing'' (with the word ``love'' a red heart) shouted at the demonstrators in unison with hundreds of other hecklers, ``Go Home! Go back to where you came from!''
The Mother's Day event, which brought 2,500 demonstrators to the Nevada Test Site, as well as 350 ``pro-testers'' who stood in defense of nuclear arms experiments a couple of weeks ago, may exemplify a Nevada anomoly in the Nuclear Age: The closer people live to the test site, the more they love the bomb.
The test site covers 1,351 square miles, an area about the size of Rhode Island. Mercury, gateway to ground zero, lies off Highway 95 about 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas, a city of 500,000 residents and just as many tourists most weekends.
Residents there rarely feel the shocks of the nearly 800 bombs exploded worldwide since 1945. These bombs have been exploded above ground and an eighth of a mile into the earth at the nation's nuclear proving grounds, the largest employer in the state. The 19,300 residents living in rural communities closest to the site often feel the blasts' rumble, but they don't seem to mind.
``We used to sit on our shed and watch the mushrooms,'' says Peggy Konold of Overton, one of the organizers of the ``pro-test'' counter demonstration. ``They use that downwind stuff and blow it out of proportion. Don't they know that practice makes perfect?''
From 1951 to 1962, the Atomic Energy Commission conducted some 79 atmospheric tests. In 1984, 1,192 plaintiffs went to federal court claiming that the fallout from those bombs caused sickness and death among residents and livestock in settlements downwind of the site. The Tenth Circuit Court awarded 10 of those cases $2.6 million in damages to be paid by the US government. On April 22, a federal appeals court overturned the 1984 decision.
``I used to go out 'bout 5 in the morning and slop the hogs, and I remember seeing these bright flashes sometimes. They lit up the sky,'' says Digger Andersen, a resident of Pahrump, a town of about 6,000 mostly retired folk and alfalfa growers 36 miles west of the test site. ``I knew what they were. Heard about 'em on the radio. Didn't bother me much.''
Jay Truman, who lives in southern Utah, remembers the road shows the government would put on during the 1950s and early '60s. Army officers would pull into town and tell people how safe nuclear testing was and how the Russians would be at their doors if they didn't detonate these weapons, he says.
``I still have one of those brochures they gave us showing a bow-legged cowboy holding a Geiger counter with the needle way over the half mark,'' says Mr. Truman, who does research for the Downwinders, an organization with a mailing list of 10,000 residents who live in the wind path of test site fallout. ``The brochure told those cowboys who had those monitors, and a lot of them did, not to let that needle bother them, that the radiation was safe.''
Susan Sasso tends bar at the Coach House Saloon. The bar sits next to the Shamrock Brothel in Lathrop Wells, doorstep to Death Valley. (Prostitution is legal in some parts of Nevada.) She says the town of 19 wouldn't be around and the other towns around Highway 95 would be ghost towns if it weren't for the test site. She moved to the Amargosa Valley from Oklahoma this year because her father is undersheriff in the valley and because ``there was a job.'' She hopes to meet a man to marry and raise children in Lathrop Wells. She doesn't mind that she would be raising her children in the shadows of nuclear bombs exploding 20 miles away.
``If the Lord wants us to go this way, we'll go,'' Ms. Sasso says. ``It would bother me to a point if there were a problem, but we couldn't do anything about it. I feel comfortable with the way it is here, but I want to know more. People need the jobs out here, but we need to know what the heck's going on.''
The test site employs about 8,000 people in varying shifts under contracts with the Department of Energy (DOE) and several private contractors. Employees undergo full body counts for radiation semiannually, and strict regulations are enforced to prevent contaminated material from leaving the site. Workers at the site insist that they get more radiation sitting out in the Nevada noon sun then they do from touching hot materials on the job.
``I don't think there's anything to fear from radiation,'' says DOE spokesman Jim Boyer. ``If I did, I wouldn't be here. Those bombs are so routine, they pass right by us.''
Bobbie Adrian, who sells souvenirs at the Pot Shop in Beatty, says she believes the whole town has an opinion about the test site and it isn't one that is popular with peace groups.
``There's no fear here. Our people are 110 percent pro-testing. I've never heard people threaten to move because of it like I heard when a bunch of gay men tried to buy Rhyolite, the ghost town nearby. We heard those stories about southern Utah. Didn't scare us a bit,'' she says.
Currently Beatty, a town of about 1,000 people who manage an economy through jobs at the test site or in surrounding talc and gold mines, is poised to experience another boom, if residents get their way. The town of six motels, five bars, a post office, three grocery stores, and one flower shop is lobbying to have a federally controlled nuclear waste dump dug in its backyard.
``There aren't a whole lot of places to use for nuclear testing and dumping,'' Ms. Adrian says.
A University of Utah study in 1977 linked fallout to 71 percent of the childhood deaths from leukemia in five southern Utah counties from 1951 through 1958, an incidence increase of 340 percent in those areas.
``Leakage from those tests is considerably less now than it was during atmospheric testing,'' says researcher Truman, ``but things are getting worse, not safer.''
Since 1984, out of seven tests conducted at Rainier Mesa, there were three accidents that resulted in venting and even death, Truman says. There was a leak in 1980 from tests at Yucca Flats and it took the Environmental Protection Agency more than 12 hours to activate monitoring. By then, the cloud had passed. In 1985, they had to vent a tunnel, but word didn't get out for six days. Last year, they exploded Mighty Oak, and it took them over three weeks to admit an offsite leakage, Truman adds. ``The more downwind you get, the more anger their is.''
The Department of Energy contends these allegations are ``absolutely false.''
``During a ventilation ... we pump in fresh air and pump out filtered old air,'' explains Jim Boyer of DOE. ``Very minute readings showed xenon gas, which caused no harm to anyone on or off the site. This ventilation is routine procedure.''
Downwind usually blows from the southwest to the northeast, thereby avoiding Las Vegas and the heavily populated county of Los Angeles. Tests are often halted when there is a wind shift, or they may be conducted without warning during a favorable wind change. Blasts range in force from 15 to 150 kilotons, equivalent to the explosion of from 1,500 to 15,000 tons of TNT.
``The nearness to the site doesn't bother me at all, as long as the prevailing winds blow away from us,'' says Tim Hafen, a former Nevada state assemblyman living in Pahrump. ``It seems the people closest to the site have the least to fear.''