Nuclear Testing and the Downwinders

Janet Burton Seegmiller
The History of Iron County

War in Asia caused the United States to reconsider testing nuclear weapons in the Pacific Ocean and to look for a continental test site. Conflict in Korea justified a less-expensive continental testing site in order to maintain U.S. nuclear weapons superiority. A Nevada site north of Las Vegas was chosen because of its safety features, which included low population density, favorable meteorological conditions (a prevailing easterly wind blowing away from the populous west coast), and good geographical features—that is, hundreds of miles of flat, government-controlled land. On 27 January 1951, a one-kiloton bomb dropped from an airplane and detonated over Frenchman Flat marked the beginning of atmospheric nuclear testing in Nevada.

Relatively few Iron County residents were aware of or concerned about nuclear testing when the first mushroom-shaped cloud rose into the western skies and drifted to the northeast in 1951, but the cloud figuratively remains over southern Utah and Nevada to this day. Residents live with every day what the cloud left behind that the eye could not see. There are no southwestern Utah neighborhoods or communities that have not been touched by the tragedy of cancer or birth defects or lingering bitterness over human and financial losses.

Atomic Energy Commission press releases promised that atomic tests would be conducted “with adequate assurances of safety.” Residents of southern Nevada and southern Utah who lived downwind of the tests initially believed what they were told; as one historian wrote, “Their faith and trust in their government would not allow them to even consider the possibility that the government would ever endanger their health.” However, their experiences during and since the 1950s have convinced them of just the opposite—there was no safety for either people or livestock from atmospheric nuclear testing and the AEC knew it. Declassified transcripts released from 1978 to 1980 show that scientists knew as early as 1947 that fission products released by atomic bomb tests could be deadly to humans and animals exposed during and after the tests. The AEC chose to ignore warnings from its own scientists and outside medical researchers and continued with a “nothing-must-stop-the-tests” rationale.

Atomic testing during its first two years actually received very little attention in Iron County, if the pages of the Iron County Record are an accurate measure. Residents could read about detonations in statewide daily newspapers, but the local paper was more likely to describe civil defense preparedness. Residents were more concerned about the threat of nuclear attack from Russia. As elsewhere, children practiced bomb drills at school and residents began building bomb shelters and storing food so it would not become contaminated.

Scott M. Matheson, governor of Utah from 1977 to 1984 and a former Parowan and Cedar City resident, recalled life in Iron County during the early 1950s: “People in southern Utah were mainly concerned with making a living, and I don’t recall anyone being too upset about the brilliant flashes and thunder-like blasts that were part of the 1953 atomic testing. The Upshot-Knothole series, conducted from March to June 1953, included the “Dirty Harry’ exposure that carried an enormous amount of debris downwind, over southern Utah. People were concerned about the sheep deaths that occurred in May 1953, but when the AEC said there was nothing to worry about, we all just shrugged our shoulders. No one really accepted the malnutrition rationale, but we were used to accepting whatever the government said, especially during that very nationalistic period.”

As part of a test site public-relations program in March 1953, some 600 observers were invited to view a test shot and its effect on manikins, typical homes, and automobiles in an effort to get Americans more interested in civil defense. Klien Rollo represented the Iron County Record at the media event. Observers watched the detonation seven miles from ground zero and later were taken into the test area, after debris and dust had settled. Rollo at first thought it was “his good fortune” to be invited to the test site, but not many weeks later the newspaper began questioning the safety of nuclear fall-out. It printed a long article by University of Utah student Ralph J. Hafen of St. George in which he wrote that he felt “morally obligated to warn people of the irreparable damage that may have occurred or may in the future occur” from exposure to radiation. He also called upon the AEC to explain why cars entering St. George were washed after the shot. Predicting later problems, he cautioned that “damage done to an individual by radiation often does not make itself known for five to ten years or a generation or more.”

The sheep and their owners were Iron County’s first victims of radioactivity. While being trailed across Nevada from winter range to the lambing yards at Cedar City, some 18,000-20,000 sheep were exposed to large quantities of radioactive fallout from tests in March and April 1953. Kern and McRae Bulloch first noticed burns on their animals’ faces and lips where they had been eating radioactive grass. Then ewes began miscarrying in large numbers and at the lambing yards wool sloughed off in clumps revealing blisters on adult sheep. New lambs were stillborn with grotesque deformities or born so weak they were unable to nurse. Ranchers lost as much as a third of their herds.

Ranchers and preliminary veterinary investigators suspected radiation poisoning. The AEC had given Iron County agricultural agent Steven Brower a Geiger counter, a small radiation meter, to carry with him. At the sheep pens, he reported the “needle on my meter went clear off scale. We picked up high counts on the thyroid and on the top of the head, and there were lesions and scabs on the mouths and noses of the sheep.” In early June the AEC sent teams of radiation experts to Cedar City to examine ailing animals. The dead carcasses had already been destroyed. The AEC reportedly forced its scientists to rewrite their field reports and eliminate any references to speculation about radiation damage or effects. The number of dead sheep represented a loss of a quarter of a million dollars to the ranchers, but Brower was told “that AEC could under no circumstance allow the precedent to be set in court or otherwise that AEC was liable or responsible for payment for radiation damage to either animals or humans.”

In 1955–56, five lawsuits were brought by Iron County ranchers against the government alleging that atmospheric testing of nuclear devices in the spring of 1953 had damaged their herds. The ranchers and their young lawyer, Dan Bushnell, firmly believed that truth would win out and fair play would prevail. The first case, Bulloch v. United States, was processed and tried as representative of the others. It came before the court of Judge Sherman Christensen in September 1956. To the plaintiffs’ dismay, technical data from government studies and testimony from government veterinarians regarding radiation damage gathered by the AEC was not presented. Instead, government expert witnesses testified that radiation damage could not have been a cause or a contributing cause to the sheep deaths. Attorney Bushnell tried without success to convince the judge that the government was covering up unfavorable material to protect itself and its program; however, although Judge Christensen ruled the government was negligent in monitoring the tests, he ruled for the government on the crucial issue of whether damage occurred as a result of atomic testing.

In 1979, congressional oversight hearings uncovered weighty evidence of AEC deception in 1956 and Judge Christensen reopened the suit. His fifty-six-page decision concluded that new information demonstrated that “a species of fraud” had been committed upon the court by government lawyers and federal employees acting “intentionally false or deceptive.” He also noted improper attempts to pressure witnesses not to testify, a vital report intentionally withheld, and “deliberate concealment of significant facts with references to the possible effects of radiation upon the plaintiffs’ sheep.” He set aside his prior judgment and granted the sheepmen’s motion for a new trial.

Dan Bushnell, who had waited more than twenty years hoping that the AEC files would become public record, assumed justice would finally be done. However, the U.S. Tenth Court of Appeals, in what has been called a “grotesque episode of American jurisprudence,” rejected Judge Christensen’s findings, maintaining that the material from the congressional hearings was not admissible under the rules of federal procedure. In the opinion of the appeals court, “nothing new” had been presented and it could see no reason to overturn the judgment of the court twenty-five years before. In 1986 the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of the circuit court decision. By that time, the older-generation ranchers were dead or dying. Only two of the original families were still sheep ranching; all had suffered financial losses. Hope of ever recovering damages ended with the disappointing Supreme Court decision in 1986.

Within three to five years after atmospheric testing, leukemia and other radiation-caused cancers appeared in residents of Utah, Arizona, and Nevada living in areas where nuclear fallout had occurred. Communities in which childhood leukemia was rare or unknown had clusters of cases in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In the 1990s, people in Iron County believed that those who lived there in the 1950s were guinea pigs and victims, like the sheep. They have adopted the appellation “downwinders,” signifying they lived “downwind” of atomic tests. Tests were usually conducted when the wind was blowing east or northeast in order to avoid fallout over more densely populated areas to the south and west, including Las Vegas and southern California. Iron County is centered in the fallout arc. Even though it is impossible to prove that any particular person died or was afflicted by cancer caused by radioactive fallout, the perception of people living in Iron County is that atmospheric nuclear testing brought an epidemic of cancer to the area. The link between radioactive exposure and tumors can, however, be drawn statistically. There is also a local perception that infertility, miscarriages, and birth defects are part of the legacy of living downwind of nuclear tests. Long-time residents of southwestern Utah are quite comfortable blaming a multitude of medical problems on nuclear testing and wonder how many future generations will be affected.

Even though House subcommittee hearings in 1979 found that the government was negligent, that fallout was a likely cause of both adverse health effects to downwind residents and the 1953 sheep losses, its report Health Effects of Low-level Radiation stated that a cause-and-effect link cannot be forged between low-level radiation exposure and cancer or other health effects. Since these might not appear for years or decades, the Federal Tort Claims Act is impossible to apply and compensation had to come through legislation.

Suits were nonetheless brought against the government by Navajo uranium miners, test-site workers, military servicemen forced to watch the tests, and downwind victims of radiation-caused cancers; all were unsuccessful. Twenty-four plaintiffs in one test case, Irene Allen v. United States, represented 1,200 individuals who were deceased or living victims of leukemia, cancer, or other radiation-caused illnesses. Eleven of the twenty-four lived in Iron County during the period of atmospheric testing. Two were children who died of leukemia; eight others died of various other cancers; only one of the eleven was alive in 1984.

Judge Bruce Jenkins issued a landmark decision that awarded damages to some victims. The government appealed, and, in 1986, the Tenth Circuit Court reversed Jenkins’s judgment. In January 1988 the Supreme Court again refused to hear an appeal. In 1990, however, Congress passed and President George Bush signed into law the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which created a $100 million trust fund to compensate citizens who lived downwind from aboveground atomic tests and later were stricken with radiation-related illnesses before warnings of potential danger were issued. The act was later amended to remove the $100-million ceiling and to allow uranium miners and test-site workers to participate in the compensation. The legislation states in part: “The United States should recognize and assume responsibility for the harm done to these individuals. And Congress recognizes that the lives and health of uranium miners and of innocent individuals who lived downwind from the Nevada tests were involuntarily subjected to increased risk of injury and disease to serve the national security interests of the United States. The Congress apologizes on behalf of the Nation to the individuals…and their families for the hardship they have endured.”

Some residents of Iron County, or their surviving family members, have been compensated by the fund. As of September 1994, 1,003 claims had been approved, 829 claims had been denied, and 125 were pending. Many who believe their cancer is fallout-related are prohibited from applying because of restrictions written into the legislation.

The end result is a more cynical attitude toward government. In recent years, many people in southern Utah have been skeptical of government promises and government studies. This was evident when the government was considering building the huge MX missile track in the Escalante Valley in 1980 and 1981; it carries over to wilderness issues and endangered-species battles of the 1990s.

During his term as Utah governor, Scott Matheson brought to the forefront of public awareness the problems faced by Utahns as a result of the nuclear testing. At the 1979 hearings he presented some 1,100 pages of testimony concerning the AEC cover-up and other research. All this was done before Matheson himself developed terminal cancer. His personal conclusion in 1986 was: “I am still angry about the way this issue was handled by the federal government. It points to a continuing need for governors to be vigilant concerning both short-term and long-term impacts of federal decisions on their residents. If citizens in a state are to be sacrificed for the ‘national interest,’ then, at the very least, those citizens need to be fully informed and protected as much as possible.”