Utah's Human Guinea Pigs
Utah -- Nuclear Radiation, Nerve Gas and Other Agents
(Deseret News article of December 22, 1994)
Unbelievable events and irresponsibility. The Interior Department estimates 1,400 square
miles of Utah are contaminated with unexploded munitions, and chemical and biological
arms.... an area larger than Rhode Island.
Throughout the cold war, one corner of Earth was bombarded with nerve gas, germ
warfare, nuclear fallout and other radioactive dust - spread to the winds by bombs,
airplanes, artillery, and even intentional nuclear reactor meltdowns.
It was in UTAH!
The bombardment came from the testing and development of exotic U.S. weapons never actually used against enemies. But it likely sickened or killed thousands of unsuspecting Utahns.
Only now - after the Cold War - is the extent of that testing emerging from documents dug out by the News reporters through the Freedom of Information Act and from somewhat greater government openness. How dangerous they were is still disputed or unknown.
A look at just one month - May 1952 - gives the flavor of the wide range of secret Cold War tests in Utah.
Old newspapers show most Utahns that month were absorbed with record snowmelt floods that turned the streets of Salt Lake City into rivers - making Derks Field an island and forcing the Salt Lake Bees baseball team on an unplanned month long road trip.
But threats less apparent than floods lurked - like three open-air nuclear bombs tests at the Nevada Test Site, near Las Vegas, on May 1, 7 and 25.
Such tests occurred only when the wind was blowing toward Utah, instead of Las Vegas, Los Angeles, or Phoenix. The government even told residents the radioactive fallout wasn't dangerous and they could continue outdoor life as normal.
Decades later, Congress would officially apologize and offer compensation to downwind victims of some types of cancer in some southern Utah counties. Ironically, studies show more radiation fell in Salt Lake County than some of those southern areas.
The nuclear bomb blasts weren't the only events spreading radiation to the wind in Utah that month. Dugway Proving Ground in Utah's western desert conducted 20 open-air tests of non-nuclear arms also designed to spread radioactive dust.
Sixteen of them occurred between May 21 and 27, when the Army dropped small spherical "dust generators" - sort of like radiation hand-grenades - from airplanes to explode and spread specks of radioactive tantalum metal. Seven worked properly, six were duds, and three others were never located.
They exploded at altitudes between 1,800 and 6,035 feet above ground, in winds of up to 28 miles per hour, and contaminated up to 303 square yards each on target grids.
Another four tests on May 20 exploded different shapes of radioactive munitions on 50 foot poles to see which could best spread contamination. They each released up to 388.5 curies of radiation (26 times as much as the infamous Three Mile Island nuclear reactor accident) and contaminated .33 square miles on test grids.
President Clinton this year ordered a commission to study such radiation tests and what dangers they may have posed, which so far are unknown. Just one week ago, that commission revealed that Cold War tests were often kept secret, not just because of national security concerns but because officials feared lawsuits, bad publicity or having tests halted.
Dugway spread more than just radiation to the wind during May 1952. On May 12, for example, it conducted an open-air germ warfare test with Brucellasuis germs, which can cause potentially deadly brucellosis or undulant fever.
Army documents say it is unsure if those tests were confined to just Army lands or spread beyond - and many specifics about those tests are publicly unavailable.
Also that month, the Army spread wheat rust spores - designed to infect and kill enemy wheat crops - at the Rhode Island-sized Dugway base.
Utah agricultural officials say the state's wheat crop that wet, flooding year of 1952 was lower than average but better than the previous year.
Dugway also may have been conducting chemical-arms tests that month. Army documents said Dugway conducted 38 unspecified tests of arms filled with nerve agents GA or GB during 1952 - but don't give specific dates. A tiny drop of GA or GB is sufficient to kill.
Such chemical, germ, radiological and nuclear tests were not unique to May 1952. Similar tests or related accidents occurred from 1949 to the late 1980s, with most tests concentrated in the '50s and '60s.
In fact, more than 1,700 similar tests or associated accidents occurred.
Freedom of Information Act requests by the Deseret News show at least 1,174 open-air tests or firings of munitions-filled nerve agents occurred at Dugway and nearby areas.
Army documents say that spread at at least 494,700 pounds of nerve agent to the winds. Death can be caused by a drop of nerve agent VX the size of a pinhead.
The strongest case that some nerve agent may have escaped from Dugway came on March 13, 1968 - after an F-4E Phantom streaked around the base dropping 2,730 pounds of nerve agent VX near Granite Mountain.
Documents said 27 to 56 percent of it may have traveled farther than the mile downwind that monitors tracked it. The next day, 6,000 sheep began dying 25 miles downwind in Skull Valley. The Army never acknowledged it caused that but paid $1 million in restitution to ranchers.
A Deseret News probe last yar also showed that event may have hurt some residents nearby - with some reporting nervous-system illlnesses for years after the incident.
It also showed that medical tests the Army used to claim humans in Skull Valley were not affected are now considered inconclusive.
Documents also show several other tests had high percentages of nerve agent float away from test grids. For example, a Sept. 13, 1962, test dropped 2,800 pounds of VX from an aircraft spray tank, and only 4 percent hit the ground in the grid.
Other tests involved artillery shells, land mines, bombs, rockets, missiles and gas
generators. Also, Dugway conducted weekly training demonstrations fro 1959 to 1969
shooting nerve agent into fortifications where TV cameras recorded the effects on caged
Germ Warfare Tests
Documents show 328 open-air germ warfare tests occurred at Dugway.
Some of the agents used cause such diseases as parrot fever, Q fever, the plague, tularemia, brucellosis, botulism and anthrax. Other tests used what were supposed to be safer "simulants," such as bacillus subtilis, which critics later said could cause disease too among the aged, young or those already sick.
Some of the tests also spread toxic cadmium sulfide to see where germs might float in the wind. Previous probes disclosed Dugway dropped cadmium sulfide throughout the eastern United States in a series of such tests.
One test revealed in earlier probes that involved humans occurred July 12, 1955. Thirty human volunteers - who were all Seventh-day Adventist soldiers who were conscientious objectors to combat - were lined up in the desert with 75 rhesus monkeys and 300 guinea pigs.
An invisible cloud of Q fever germs passed by them, then floated away toward the Cedar Mountains and U.S. 40. The soldiers were then flown to Fort Detrick, Md., where several developed the disease - which made the test a success. All were treated and recovered.
Some mysteries have arisen that critics claim could have been caused by germ tests. For
example, 50 wild horses died mysteriously at Dugway at Orr Springs in 1976, officially
from thirst even though water was nearby. Critics question if Venezuelan equine
encephalitis - which Dugway used in tests - might have caused their deaths instead.
Nuclear bomb tests
Documents voluntarily released by the Energy Department show the Nevada Test Site conducted 141 tests that likely spread radiation toward Utah - either open-air detonation of bombs or underground tests where officials acknowledged radiation accidentally escaped the test site.
That is just a portion of the total 930 nuclear bomb tests at the test site through December 1992. Until last December, 204 of those tests had been secret - but were ordered disclosed by Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary.
The bomb tests are the only class of Cold War weapons testing in Utah where the government has acknowledged it likely killed or sickened residents downwind.
Related to that, it also acknowledged and apologized to miners working in unventilated uranium mines to obtain material for those bombs. The old Atomic Energy Commission knew they would likely become sick but did not warn them.
However, 49 percent of people who have applied for downwinder or uranium miner compensation have been denied. Officials say they often have the wrong types of cancer, live just outside areas where compensation is available or lack residential or job proof needed.
While many think that nuclear bomb tests affected only southern Utah, scientists and Energy Department documents say radiation clouds hit northern and eastern Utah, too.
For example, an Energy Department history notes that a May 7, 1952 , bomb test may have hit 41,000 children in Ogden with an average dose of six rads of iodine-131 to their thyroids
The same history has a map of five "typical trajectories of fallout from Nevada Test Site detonations." Only one of them goes directly over St. George and southern Utah - with an arm of the cloud shown to later reach Salt Lake City.
Three trajectories show radiation clouds going in or near Salt Lake City. One even has clouds going over Vernal.
Energy Department records show problems with fallout as far away as Rochester, N.Y. - where Kodak officials reported they found radioactive snow falling not long after one early bomb test.
"Incidents of high(radioactive) activities in snow or rain at points distant from (the)
Nevada Test Site continued to multiply. These included Troy, N.Y., with an incidence of
rainout in a violent thunderstorm...; Chicago; Rochester (again); Salt Lake Cit (twice); and
many smaller communities," an Energy Department history says.
Radiological arms tests
At least 74 such tests have been found by the U.S. General Accounting office, probes by the Deseret News and requests for data by representative Karen Shepherd, D-Utah, and Sen Bob Bennett, R-Utah.
They were totally unknown until last year.
The exploded a variety of arms to spread radioactive dust. Funding appears to have dried up about 1953. But documents mention plans for a 1957 tests of radiation detectors by contaminating 150,000 square yards with cobalt 60 in wells
Another document talked of plans to conduct tests from 1960 to 1962 of methods to sheld arms and soldiers from radiation during a moratorium on nuclear bomb tests.
Documents show the total amount of radiation released by known tests from 1949 to 1953
was more than 153,000 curies - or 10,000 times more than the 15 curies released by Three
Nuclear reactor meltdowns
Between August and October, 1959, the Air Force conducted what amounted to eight intentional meltdowns of small nuclear reactors at Dugway Proving Ground.
It melted reactor fuel in high temperature furnaces and used forced air to ensure that the resulting radiation would spread to the wind. Sensors were set up over a 210-square-mile area to track the radiation clouds.
When last detected, they were headed toward the old U.S. 40 (now Interstate 80). The communities of Wendover and Knolls might have been in the path of those clouds.
The tests - revealed by the Deseret News earlier this year - released 215.57 curies of radiation, or about 14 times more than the infamous Three Mile Island nuclear reactor accident, a near meltdown. Scientists are divided over how dangerous it may have been.
The tests were part of efforts to develop a nuclear-powered airplane, which Air Force officials already knew would likely be too heavy to ever fly because of all the lead shielding needed to protect crews.
Even if it did fly, the plane would have emitted radioactive exhaust by forcing air through reactors to create thrust.
Between 1959 and 1964, public documents say the Atomic Energy Commission conducted rocket experiments in Nevada that sent hydrogen through a nuclear reactor that created superheated, radioactive exhaust and large thrust.
Such rockets were thought to possibly be move powerful than conventional rockets. The rockets tested were too heavy to fly and merely experimented with design and safety.
One such experiment occurred June 25, 1965. Three days later, government monitors found radioactive iodine 131 appearing at test stations in Nevada. They blamed it on Chinese tests a month earlier, although documents said the nearby rocket tests might have contributed.
Some test spewed radioactive exhaust for up to 30 minutes. One test on Jan 1, 1965,
intentionally exploded a rocket and its reactor to test safety measures.
Eight accidents occurred from 1983 to 1987 at a pilot plant developing methods to destroy chemical arms at Tooele Army Depot.
As previous probes disclosed, they released up to 73 times the legal hourly limit of nerve agent - but local civilian agencies were not immediately notified. The Army says releases were small, resulted in no injuries and posed no threat to people off the base.
Another accident of interest revealed in an earlier Deseret News story was a Strategic Air Command B-52 bomber crash near Monticello on Jan. 19, 1961. The Air Force has said no nuclear bomb was aboard, although a Senate report in recent years said that was possible.
Also, the Air Force kept all civilians out of the crash area for a day and a half, saying it was searching for a missing crew member. Once civilians were allowed in, they quickly found that crewman - who had just died - exactly where a map provided by another crewman said he would be.
Relatives of the dead crewman said they were told by relatives in the military that the Air
Force was more busy searching for a bomb than the man who lay dying on frozen
A recent Interior Department study estimates that more than 1,400 square miles of public lands in Utah may be contaminated with unexploded munitions - including some chemical and biological arms.
That is an area larger than Rhode Island.
And it doesn't count the contamination on Utah's military ranges and bases.
One of those areas is a 66-square-mile sector - larger than Washington, D.C. - that a past Deseret News probe revealed that the military figures may be heavily contaminated with chemical and conventional arms.
The Army has proposed annexing that area to Dugway Proving Ground, but the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has opposed that - wanting the military to clean up any contamination instead.
Other documents have shown that Dugway has 124 known hazardous waste sites on or near the base, and up to a third of the base could contain buried wastes in unknown locations.
Other documents revealed in previous years also say explosive compounds among wastes at Tooele Army Depot could have contaminated regional groundwater with nitrates.
Also, they said contamination in groundwater at Hill Air Force Base including fuel, solvents and toxic metals may be migrating off base. Similar contaminants also migrated off Ogden Defense Depot, but the military said the small amounts were not harmful.
Also, Navy tools and machine parts contaminated with explosives were buried at the Naval
Industrial Reserve Ordinance Plan near Magna - but the Navy says they present no risk as
long as they remain buried and relatively dry so they do not contaminate groundwater.
In 1961 or 1962, a group of inmates at the Utah State Prison were used in radiation experiments.
They say they were paid $10 and given good-behavior time for volunteering to spend a week at the old Salt Lake County Hospital. They say blood samples were removed, then it was "radiated" and injected back into veins.
Prison officials say a former medical administrator confirmed that such tests occurred. It is unclear which agency conducted it, but the administrator said University of Utah doctors were involved. Also what is unknown is what materials were used and how dangerous they were.
A few years later, the wives of three inmates all had babies born with severe defects who all died quickly. Those wives question wether the radiation tests may have been the cause.
Another inmate has a mysterious bone disease. Another complained that he has had severe headaches and nasal drainage ever since. Several agencies are searching for documents that may be related to the experiments.
Also, the U. said a year long search of documents for any radiation experiments it conducted revealed that one occurred in 1956 in conjunction with the old Veterans Administration.
It says nine men were injected with radioactive strontium. It has so far been unable to
identify the men involved and knows little else about the tests.