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A former environmental radiation monitoring official believes a nuclear thermal propulsion program could create serious health risks for down-winders.

At issue is the nuclear-powered rocket program, sponsored by the U.S. Air Force, that calls for ground-based testing of rocket engines at the Nevada Test Site.Government officials believe the nuclear thermal-powered rockets will allow further exploration into space.

The first of four public hearings on the program's Draft Environmental Impact Statement was held Tuesday in Las Vegas. Another hearing is scheduled for Thursday in St. George, followed by two meetings next week in Salt Lake City and Idaho Falls, Idaho.

Seth Stinson of St. George monitored the effects of nuclear, chemical and biological warfare on the environment during a three-year stint in Alaska with the Army.

"I was `fortunate' enough to be downwind of the Russians blowing up nuclear bombs on the Siberian Desert," he said, "So, I became very acquainted with radiation products and fallout and measured those for almost two years."

Stinson said the nuclear process converts liquid hydrogen into hydrogen gas. But he said that during the reactor process, traces of uranium and radioisotope products could be released with the hydrogen cloud.

Those products could fall on southern Utah if conditions are unfavorable and the Nevada Test Site is used, he said.

He also said that if one of the products is iodine 131, it could be absorbed into the body and cause cancer.

But Capt. Scott Hartford, the Air Force Center for Environmental Excellence at Brooks Air Force Base in Texas, said there will be a treatment system designed to remove spouting fission products.

"There are risks, but the program proponents feel they can be mitigated," Hartford said. "They will be going through further safety analysis as planning progresses."