Tuffy Ruth, An Insider’s Story
Tuffy Ruth is one of Mesquite’s originals. His dad’s family has been here since the beginning. He has ancestors that fought in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. His mother was an original settler in St. George. She too was a downwinder who died of leukemia.
Tuffy worked at the Nevada Test Site from 1961 to 1993 as a miner. The men that prepared the tunnels for the underground tests and worked on Yucca Mountain tunnels are all miners.
He witnessed the last aboveground test from Frenchman’s Flat. “I guess that makes me a downwinder too,” he said.
When asked if he had any health issues related to this work he replied, “As far as I know, none, yet. But most of the guys I worked with are gone.”
Tuffy doesn’t feel the government lied to us. “They knew it was bad. They just didn’t know how bad,” he said. “They gave us beer at the end of a shift to flush out our bodies. It didn’t work. They just got a bunch of drunken miners.” They didn’t know it wouldn’t work.
That might be the case. A letter from James E. Reeves, test site manager from 1962 to 1968 reads:
“JOINT TEST ORGANIZATION CAMP MERCURY, NEVADA
A MESSAGE TO PEOPLE WHO LIVE NEAR NEVADA TEST SITE:
You are in a very real sense active participants in the Nation’s atomic test program. You have been close observers of tests which have contributed greatly to building the defenses of our own country and of the free world.
“Nevada tests have helped us come a long way in a few, short years and have been a vital factor in maintaining the peace of the world. They also provide important data for use in planning civil defense measures to protect our people in event of enemy attack.
“Some of you have been inconvenienced by our test operations. At times some of you have been exposed to potential risk from flash, blast, or fall-out. You have accepted the inconvenience or the risk without fuss, without alarm, and without panic. Your cooperation has helped achieve an unusual record of safety.
“In a world in which free people have no atomic monopoly, we must keep our atomic strength at peak level. Time is a key factor in this task and Nevada tests help us ‘buy’ precious time.
That is why we must hold new tests in Nevada.
“I want you to know that in the forthcoming series, as has been true in the past, each shot is justified by national and international security need and that none will be fired unless there is adequate assurance of public safety.
“We are grateful for your continued cooperation and your understanding.”
Following this is information on the tests which is highly suspect as to the actual knowledge, or inclination to tell the truth, of those writing it.
This letter is the foreword on an information pamphlet concerning the test site, radiation and its effects written by the United States Atomic Energy Commission in 1955 and titled, “Atomic Test Effects In the Nevada Test Site Region.” Its contents are highly suspect.
Tuffy’s stance on the issue is somewhat the same. He feels that everything they did worked toward a more secure nation. “They kept the good and threw out the bad,” he said. Much of what they learned was used at NORAD in Colorado Springs.
As they dug the tunnels they developed drilling techniques that would be used the world over and that are still in use today. It was a “tunnel training pond.” Sandia developed equipment there such as a rock saw that greatly reduced the time it took to dig a tunnel.
At one time the Nevada Test Site employed 6,000 people. Many of them were miners. Tuffy commuted back and forth from Mesquite and saw every part of the test site at one time or another.
Mining has its own risks. Twice Tuffy was gassed by ammonia and once by highly concentrated carbon monoxide. The nuclear blasts turn the concrete lining the holes to ammonia — and he inhaled it. “I should be dead,” he said.
They did lose some men. It’s part of the job, but they instigated as many safety precautions as possible.
Many of the men he worked with, he had worked with on other jobs. As mines closed, such as the Climax mine, men gravitated to the test site and then they worked in the tunnels for Yucca Mountain.
The Department of Energy began studying Yucca Mountain in 1978 as a possible site for nuclear waste storage. In 1991, the State of Nevada granted the DOE the permits necessary to proceed with certain site characterization activities. These activities included excavating test pits and trenches, drilling bore holes, and monitoring ground water.
In September 1994, the DOE began excavation of the exploratory studies facility using a tunnel boring machine. Tuffy helped build the first 250 feet of Yucca Mountain.
The rest is history in the making. Yucca Mountain may or may not be the final resting place of our nuclear waste.
Tuffy did express concern over the fallout still in the desert. As we dig up the dirt and push it around for housing we are releasing some of that radiation. Alpha radiation takes 25,000 years to degrade; it can’t pass through clothing, but could be inhaled with dust, as could beta radiation.
And he did experience exposure to extreme radiation. Twice he experienced what they call “burnout,” exposure to more than 2,800 millarems in less than an hour. They always washed down after being in the mines; safety was an issue.
Tuffy is an original. He is proud of his work at the test site and proud of his country. Mistakes were made. Perhaps we can learn from the mistakes.
Dr. Benjamin Spock stated in a paper published in the 1980s titled Killing Our Own: “More than three and a half decades have now passed since the first atomic test at Alamogordo, New Mexico — July 16, 1945 — and the subsequent detonations at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“Since then our own military has exploded more than 700 nuclear bombs on our own continental soil and in the Pacific. Many of the health effects are just now being felt.
“It seems no accident that we are currently suffering from a national cancer epidemic, in which one of every five Americans dies of that dread disease.
“It would be plausible and prudent to assume that the radioactive fallout we’ve introduced into the global atmosphere, literally tens of tons of debris from bomb tests alone, is a significant factor in addition to industrial pollution and cigarette smoking.
“As early as the 1950s the American Linus Pauling and the Russian Andrei Sakharov — both Nobel prize winners — warned that literally millions of people would die worldwide because of these bomb tests.
“Similar tragedies have struck American soldiers present at scores of bomb tests that followed. From 1945 through the early 1960s, some 300,000 men and women in U.S. uniform were exposed to radiation from atmospheric, underwater, and underground bomb tests.”
Include in these the stories of those who live near or work on nuclear reactors and those who cleaned up after Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
We have yet to understand the full impact of what nuclear reaction leaves behind. But we need to hear the stories of those affected so we can better understand our world and the way to peace.