Las Vegas Sun

September 15, 2019

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Baneberry suit helped expose radiation dangers

Baneberry -- a poisonous desert fruit and the code name assigned to a 1970 nuclear weapons test that may have caused the deaths of two men -- became a 25-year nightmare for two widows.

The years of court hearings and appeals finally ended April 9 in San Francisco for the families of Harley Roberts and William Nunamaker, Nevada Test Site security guards who developed leukemia four years after they were caught in a radioactive fallout cloud.

The legal proceedings ended with a three-judge panel for the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denying a new trial for the Roberts and Nunamaker families. The panel said the families did not have enough proof that the men were harmed by the radiation exposure.

Widows Dorothy Roberts and Louise Nunamaker have died. Roberts died in 1993 and was buried with her husband in their Indiana hometown. Nunamaker followed last year in Washington state.

The two couples came to Nevada in the 1950s for the chance to work with a government contractor, Wackenhut Inc., at the Test Site, 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

"They were led by blind faith in the whole project," said Las Vegas attorney Larry Johns, who battled the federal government in court all those years.

The case was actually filed too early because radiation standards have been increased considerably since then, he said. But the lawsuit set a precedent for those claiming nuclear damages today.

As Nevada battles the federal government to keep a high-level nuclear waste dump out of Yucca Mountain, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Johns said legal cases such as Baneberry have added to the public's knowledge.

"We're a lot wiser today than we were. We're not sheep anymore," Johns said. "The stakes are too high for the future."

For Las Vegas attorney John Thorndal, who defended the government in the case, it is the end of an era. "It looks like this 25-year saga is finally over," he said.

The saga began about 40 minutes after the sun rose over Yucca Flat on Dec. 18, 1970, when the Atomic Energy Commission and the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory exploded a nuclear device buried more than 900 feet below the desert's surface.

The nuclear force of the blast registered at less than 20,000 tons of TNT, little more than the punch of the atomic bomb that leveled Hiroshima.

Baneberry's nuclear energy was supposed to be kept underground, the rule for all nuclear tests since 1963 under a joint U.S.-U.S.S.R. test ban.

But things went wrong. A pocket of water next to the bomb helped turn the radioactive fury into an explosion and the Earth cracked open for 350 feet, releasing an atomic cloud that soared 8,000 feet into the air.

At the time, 900 Test Site employees were in the area, including Roberts and Nunamaker. The two -- unlike others who were evacuated -- remained at their posts until the day ended. Four years later, they died.

Their widows filed suit in U.S. District Court in 1979 before Judge Roger Foley, whose ruling that the government had been negligent touched off the battle that raged through the court system for years to come.

In April 1992, Foley donated the Baneberry papers to the UNLV library. The judge died Jan. 7 of this year.