Utah's Nuclear Past

And how it also affected the entire nation


Nuclear fallout from Nevada nuclear tests across the United States


Utah's Nuclear Past

By Mary Dickson

Utahns know about radiation. For more than 12 years beginning in 1951, the U.S. government conducted open-air testing of nuclear weapons in the desert of Nevada. Tests were conducted only when the prevailing winds blew toward Utah. One hundred and twenty-six bombs were exploded during those years of atmospheric testing, releasing huge mushroom clouds of deadly particles that the winds spread across the American West and eastward. The radioactive fallout blanketed Utah and six states downwind from the site - an area referred to as "virtually uninhabited territory" by the Atomic Energy Commission. In one document, Utah was referred to as a "low use segment" of the population.

Utahns know first-hand the human toll of atomic testing. The ranchers, housewives, teachers, doctors - all ordinary people who suffered countless medical problems caused by radiation exposure. The strange tumors, cancers, miscarriages, birth defects, immune system disorders and, always, the endless stories of death. Survivors talk about playing in fallout that landed like snow, of sand that melted like glass, of hair that fell out in handfuls, of lambs born with hearts outside their bodies, of school children dying of leukemia, of entire families being stricken -- while a government told them not to worry.

Fallout from the testing was not - as most people mistakenly believe - confined to Southern Utah. Its silent, unseen poison has touched the lives of thousands of people nationwide, spreading as far as the East Coast and Canada. A 1997 report released by the National Cancer Institute found that much of the nation was blanketed with fallout from the atmospheric tests performed at the Nevada Test Site from 1951 to 1962. Records of the Public Health Service and Atomic Energy Commission show that fallout from Nevada poisoned milk in New England, wheat in South Dakota, soil in Virginia and fish in the Great Lakes. In addition, contaminated milk was shipped to Nevada. Hay was shipped to California. Sheep were sheared and their wool sold out of state. One air force colonel theorized that there isn't anyone in the U.S. who isn't a downwinder.

John Gofman, who worked for the Atomic Energy Commission and has written definitive books on the effects of radiation, says the government underestimated by 20 times the rates of cancer radiation caused during the years of atomic testing. The accumulated fallout exposure from the Nevada Test Site was three times as much as that from Chernobyl, according to 1998 congressional testimony from Owen Hoffman, former chief scientist for the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Testing moved underground in 1963, with nuclear tests conducted twice a month at the Nevada Test Site until testing was banned in 1993. During those 30 years of underground testing, however, 15 percent of the 760 announced tests leaked radiation into downwind areas.

For four decades, the U.S. government covered up the human and environmental devastation of fallout from atomic testing. During the years of testing, the government continually reassured citizens that atomic testing was safe and even encouraged families to "participate in a moment of history" by watching the blasts. Some Utahns still have copies of the pamphlets issued by the government featuring pictures of tranquil cowboys and bylines assuring: "Fallout does not constitute a serious hazard to any living thing outside the test site." Officials claimed that radiation in bombs was no more harmful than sunshine.

New York Times correspondent Keith Schneider called atomic testing "the most prodigiously reckless programs of scientific experimentation in U.S. history." Documents declassified after the Cold War ended show that the government had evidence as early as 1953 that cows eating fallout-contaminated foliage could deliver radioactive iodine-131 to milk drinkers, which could cause thyroid cancer in downwind areas such as Utah. The government took few protective steps. In fact, when the government found three times the acceptable level of radiation in milk from Utah, they raised the acceptable levels three times. Declassified documents cited in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists highlighted yet another incident showing that the government was aware of the far-reaching effects of fallout. In the 1950s, film manufacturers at Eastman Kodak in Rochester, New York wondered why their film was fogging as though it had been exposed to radiation. Scientists linked the fogged film to nuclear tests in Nevada. The government warned Kodak about expected areas of heavy fallout so they could protect unexposed film. People living downwind never received the same courtesy.

In 1982, government scientists admitted to keeping the dangers of testing a secret, but it wasn't until 1990 that the Radiation Compensation Act was signed. That compensation is limited, however, to 13 cancers and to a limited geographic area. The burden of proof rests with victims.

The Cold War and nuclear testing may have ended, but for many Utahns the Cold War is more than mere history. We are ordinary people still living with our nuclear legacy: the health problems caused by the nuclear age and the vexing questions of what to do with its weapons and waste. Since I wrote "Downwinders All ," I've watched too many people get sick or die, including my own sister. The majority of us can't prove that's how we got sick, but no one can prove to us it's not how we got sick.

In terms of dollars, the nuclear arms race cost America $5.5 trillion, according to figures in "Atomic Audit." But in terms of human health and suffering, nuclear testing was catastrophic. Given the half-life of deadly fission byproducts like iodine-131, plutonium-283, strontium-90 and radioactive cesium-137, we have yet to see the end of the suffering caused by atomic testing.

I wrote my story hoping to help people understand how the nuclear age continues to shape our lives. I am not an expert, but I am a downwinder.

Suggested reading:

American Ground Zero: The Secret Nuclear War, by Carole Gallager, MIT Press, 1993. Atomic Audit: The Cost and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Since 1940, Stephen I. Schwartz, editor; Brookings Institutional Press, 1998.

Learning to Glow: A Nuclear Reader, John Bradley, editor, University of Arizona Press, 2000.

Under the Cloud: The Decades of Nuclear Testing, by Richard L. Miller, The Free Press, 1986.

Justice Downwind, by Howard Ball, Oxford University Press, 1986.

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Page Modified: November 28, 2008