Tonight in Las Vegas–a town best known for slots, boxing, andspectacle–the Democratic presidential hopefuls gather for one ofthe final pre-primary debates.

The Democratic Party moved the Nevada caucus up on the 2008 electioncalendar–third after Iowa and New Hampshire–to allow for a greaterrange of regional diversity in early voting than in the past. (SouthCarolina was also awarded an early primary spot). One issue that won’tbe debated in Iowa or New Hampshire but will loom large in the SilverState is Yucca Mountain.

Watch for each candidate to oppose Yucca Mountain and thedisastrous plan to ship our nation’s nuclear waste thousands of miles byroad and rail to be buried in an area with a record of earthquakeactivity.

Lurking behind those two words is an important living nuclearhistoryin the state which deserves attention. Between 1951 and 1992, 928above-ground and below-ground nuclear tests were conducted at the NevadaTestSite, just miles from where the candidates will be debating in LasVegas. Initially, the public was assured “there is no danger” and urgedto “participate in a moment of history”by watching the tests.

But, in fact, people downwind of the tests–downwinders–continue to sufferand die from the lethal fallout they were exposedto. Exposed,a new play by downwinder Mary Dickson, examines the Utah playwright’sown struggle with thyroid cancer and her sister’s death from lupus atthe age of 46. It uses transcripts of hearings to explore similarexperiences of other victims who became sick, and lost friends and lovedones. The government denied any link to radiation. The play spansfifty years, and downwinders keep “cancer charts” chronicling theafflictions of their neighbors. It also addresses the BushAdministration’s proposed Divine Strakein 2007–a subnuclear test blast–and the downwinders’ organizingefforts that helped to defeat it. The play ends with the reading of thenames of downwinders who have died, and new names are added after eachshow.

We cannot forget this living history. As Dickson told me,”Understanding the full extent of that reckless human experiment shouldinform any decision on both the development of new nuclear weapons andthe illusory promise of nuclear power. Without that understanding,politicians will be too easily swayed to consider mini nukes and bunkerbusters as strategically viable weapons in the ‘war on terror’–just asthey will too readily embrace nuclear power as a solution to globalwarming. The development of any new nuclear weapons inevitably opens thedoor to resumed testing in Nevada and leads to the destabilizingproliferation of nukes–both of which are a disastrous course that onlyput us more at risk. Nuclear power is an illusory solution to climatechange–one propagated by the nuclear industry, which still cannotanswer the vexing question of what to do with the dangerous waste itgenerates. Until the waste can be addressed, nuclear power is neither aviable nor a responsible option.”

This living history is nowhere to be found at the Las Vegas’taxpayer-funded Atomic Testing Museum. The exhibits excise the storiesof nuclear testing victims–instead celebrating nuclear weapons as “safe, patriotic and just plain fun.” As the New York Times wrote, “the history of testing, as told [in the museum], is largely the history of its justification.”

That living history, as told by Dickson, should inform votersin this election as the Bush Administration and its allies (and too manyDemocrats) look to create a new generation of usable nuclear weapons.It should inform us as Big Nuclear ignores the “serious issuesof nuclear plant safety, security against sabotage and terrorist attackand waste disposal” in promoting new plants. And it should inspireparticipation in renewed anti-nuclear activism as the nuclear industry lobbies for new subsidies for itsself-proclaimed “nuclear renaissance.”