3Bringing the Bombs Home
In 1951 few people openly objected to the U.S. Government's announcement that it would begin exploding atomic bombs over Nevada along with continuing atmospheric tests in the Pacific. The reasons were couched in national-security terminology. The Korean War was well under way. Nuclear tests in Nevada would mean a far shorter supply line from weapons laboratories and materiel depots. And continental testing meant diversified atomic war game scenarios for U.S. troops. These logistical and economic advantages all supported the government's decision to expand the nuclear test program by bringing it closer to home.
A test site on the mainland, stated the AEC's director of military application, would serve as "a location where its basic security and general accessibility cannot be jeopardized by enemy action." Rejecting alternative spots in New Mexico Utah, and North Carolina, the AEC's commissioners agreed upon the desert area northwest of Las Vegas.
The location in southern Nevada seemed almost ideal for the purpose at hand. The Nevada Test Site would be buffered from access by being placed within the Tonopah Bombing and Gunnery Range, which had already claimed over five thousand square miles. On the southern edge of the site the Air Force had already erected temporary buildings at Camp Mercury that could be handy in administering the nuclear tests.
Government nuclear planners held a series of meetings to pinpoint "radiological hazards" involved with exploding atom bombs in Nevada. A secret conference of more than a score of officials--including Enrico Fermi and Edward Teller--at Los Alamos on August 1, 1950, discussed anticipated off-site safety aspects. Concern was raised for keeping the most densely populated areas out of the heaviest fallout zones. Official minutes of the meeting acknowledged "the probability that people will receive perhaps a little more radiation than medical authorities say is absolutely safe."
America plunged ahead with an intensive atomic bomb test program. During the 1950s and early 1960s more than two hundred nuclear weapons sent huge mushroom clouds of radioactivity into the atmosphere from the Pacific and Nevada. Total explosive force of those bombs, according to official figures, surpassed ninety thousand kilotons--ninety megatons--equivalent to more than seven thousand atomic bombs the size of the one dropped on Hiroshima.
Some people were in the way, living in the wrong places at the wrong time.
1. For description of Los Alamos Laboratory discussion that led up to establishment of a continental test site, see McPhee, Curve of Binding Energy, pp. 59 60.
2. "Location of Proving Ground for Atomic Weapons," AEC Memo 141/7, December 13, 1950, p. 2.
3. Meeting on December 12, 1950, the AEC approved recommendations for proceeding with plans to use the Nevada site, although some staff memoranda conceded that assumptions of safety for downwind residents were speculative. "These questions may be answered satisfactorily as test knowledge increases . . . but they're not satisfactorily answered at present," said one memo. (Uhl and Ensign, GI Guinea Pigs, p. 55.) For details of test-site selection, see Howard L. Rosenberg, Atomic Soldiers (Boston: Beacon Press, 1980), pp. 26-31.
4. "Meeting: Discussion of Radiological Hazards Associated with a Continental Test Site for Atomic Bombs," AEC, Los Alamos, New Mexico, August 1, 1950, pp. 13, 23, 24. Conferees concluded that "a tower-burst bomb having a yield of 25 kilotons could be detonated without exceeding the allowed emergency tolerance dose of 6-12 r [roentgens] outside a 180-degree test area sector 100 miles in radius."
5. Announced US Nuclear Tests; "Joint Force Seven, Report WT-933: Cloud Photography," U.S. Government, January 27, 1958--cited in York, The Advisors, p. 86.
Routinely, large atomic clouds blew from the Nevada Test Site to rural communities like Enterprise--a small town, more than one hundred miles away in southwestern Utah, surrounded by productive farms and arid grazing country dotted with sagebrush and juniper trees.
The same year nuclear testing began, a boy named Preston Truman was born near Enterprise. His parents, ranchers and farmers, taught Preston to ride a horse at the same time he learned to walk. "I can remember," he would recall, "several times getting up with the rest of the family and driving out to my father's farm in the moments before dawn and watching the western sky light up with the flash from the bombs in Nevada approximately 112 miles away. I remember on occasion hearing the sound waves come over. I remember later in the mornings watching on a couple of occasions clouds come over. To a little child that didn't mean much. The atomic tests were very much a part of our lives."
When he was in high school, Preston Truman was diagnosed with a form of cancer called lymphoma. Chemotherapy and other medical treatment over the next thirteen years cost about $100,000. As was true for all other downwind residents, the government did not provide a penny. But Truman was relatively lucky. In 1980 he was in remission from the usually fatal lymphoma. Out of nine children who were his friends in the immediate area of Enterprise when he was a child, Truman was the only one who reached the age of twenty-eight. The rest died of leukemia or cancer.
The lethal potential of the nuclear tests was not immediately apparent to Truman and others. Especially in the first years of the A-tests there was confidence in the government's trustworthiness. "It was kind of almost a carnival atmosphere in the beginning with the radio telling us where the clouds were going, following the tests, and always assuring us there was no danger," Truman recalled. "But that wasn't the way it continued." The incubation periods, from initial radiation exposure to the development of consequent diseases, began to expire.
Always to remain vivid in Preston Truman's memory was a day when, five years old, he heard that all was not well for the young children of Enterprise. "I remember one morning going to the store with a friend of mine to cash in pop bottles, and listening to some people from the town talk about a boy our age who was dying of leukemia and listening to the details of the nose bleeds and the suffering he was going through. And this was a shock. I remember talking with my friend and wanting to know; we didn't know that little children could die, we had never seen that."
Forty miles east of Enterprise, in Cedar City, Blaine and Loa Johnson buried their twelve-year-old daughter in 1965. She died of leukemia. A total of seven leukemia cases occurred for people within a two-hundred-yard radius of their home, in the space of a dozen years.
In the next sizable town, twenty miles farther northeast along Interstate 15, residents in the devout Mormon community around Parowan were similarly hard hit. In 1978 Frankie Lou Bentley, whose mother and stepfather both died of cancer a year apart, listed more than 150 cancer victims in the Parowan-Paragonah-Summit area, which contained about fourteen hundred people during the nuclear tests in neighboring Nevada. The cancer was particularly startling because so few people smoked in the community. "It's amazing that there should be so many cancer cases in an area as small as this," she told a county newspaper. "It's to the point now where there's not a person in town who hasn't lost at least one relative or knows of several people who have died of cancer."
A coworker with Frankie Lou Bentley at the Bank of Iron County office in Parowan, Wilma Lamoreaux, watched her fifteen-year-old son Kenneth die of leukemia in 1960. During a two-year period, leukemia struck four youngsters in Parowan and Paragonah, an extremely high rate for towns with a combined population of about one thousand. Normally, not even one leukemia would have been expected by medical statisticians.
Eighteen years after her son's death from leukemia, Wilma Lamoreaux declared, "There's been wrong done. There's no relief in knowing your son died of negligence." She added: "I don't want to be a rabble-rouser or anything but I don't want another generation to go through this. Cancer is such a long, painful, drawn-out death.
In the nearby Escalante Valley cancer caused forty-eight of sixty-three "natural" deaths in official records since the atomic testing began--an extraordinarily high ratio.
And there were other worries. One fifth of the male high school graduates of the 1950s and early 1960s in Cedar City discovered they were sterile, a particularly grievous condition in a Mormon culture which places great stress on holy edicts to raise large families. For those who became parents, there were fears of genetic damage.
Elizabeth Catalan, who was a teenager while growing up in southwest Utah during the 1950s, lost her father to leukemia when he was forty-three, and a sister to complications from an enlarged thyroid. A surviving sister's daughter remained on her mind: "I watched my beautiful little niece, Kay's child, cope with the birth defect that left her with a ganglia that doubled the size of her tongue and wound around, like a weed, inside her neck and down into her shoulder." Elizabeth Catalan thought too about girls she grew up with, now women, coping with aftermaths of miscarriages and physical abnormalities in their children.
When Beth Catalan became pregnant, the fetus dissolved in utero. "One of the things I always wanted to be was a mother," she told a citizens' commission inquiry in Washington in 1980, adding that "you run a Geiger counter over my body and it'll click." She decided not to take the risk of trying again to give birth to a baby.
Nestled in a picturesque valley, Beth Catalan's hometown of St. George long enjoyed bounties of the land. Since the days that Brigham Young, elder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, wintered in St. George, the town seemed to epitomize reasons for Mormon references to the Utah region as "Zion." Benefiting from a warm winter climate, proudly sustaining a college, in the middle of the twentieth century St. George was a tranquil and in many ways idyllic place to live.
On a sunny day about three decades after nuclear weapons testing began upwind, a seventy-three-year-old woman named Irma Thomas opened the front door of a trim house on East Tabernacle Street in St. George. She had grown accustomed to welcoming out-of-state researchers carrying notepads and tape recorders and cameras.
Irma Thomas offered the visitors chairs in her living room, next to the shelves of ceramics she had made with her hands until disquiet with the gathering tragedies in the neighborhood had compelled her to put aside the potter's wheel. Few questions were necessary to prompt her to speak about painful realities: a town, and an entire region, devastated.
"We're not numbers, we're not statistics, we're human beings," she said, motioning to her living-room wall covered with family photos, an acute blend of pain and fury and vulnerability seeming to lace her words as she spoke. She did not mention the skin cancer across her back. Sometimes she laughed, an irrepressible zest for life surfacing through outrage and anguish. She talked about the suffering of her cancer-ridden husband, of her daughter, whose nervous system was in the process of falling apart, of her children's blood damage, stillbirths, hysterectomies, and miscarriages, of her brother, destined to die of bone cancer less than a year after the interview.
And she pointed through the living-room walls toward the homes of neighbors in the residential area. She had compiled a list of thirty-one cancer victims who lived in the houses within a block radius; smoking was rare in the heavily Mormon community.
"They couldn't pay anyone for the loss of a child. I hope they realize that," she said, hands folded in her lap. "And the people of my generation are just dropping by the wayside."
Punctuated by her special kind of laughter, and silences, eyes often brimming with tears, Irma Thomas shared her perceptions about living in a town A-bombed by its own government:We accepted all this. It was our government and we accepted it. . . . We didn't connect it to people's cancer at first. It takes a while. . . . I've been at work on this for two years. I was concerned about it many years before that. The people of St. George, after the 1953 blast, some of the people got a little nervous . . . People had to have cars washed down . . . The AEC guys came by to soothe all the ruffled feathers. . . . And yet so many people died from that. You'd have to be blind, deaf, and dumb not to see it. And it's pretty horrendous....By 1980 recent national publicity had often left the impression that St. George and nearby towns were the main recipients of radioactive clouds from Nevada bomb blasts. But test fallout was not limited to the southern part of Utah. More than two hundred miles northeast of St. George, between the cities of Provo and Salt Lake City, is the town of Pleasant Grove, populated by several thousand people. Affidavits filed in federal court in 1980 cited ten leukemia deaths among people living in Pleasant Grove during the 1960s; seven of those leukemia fatalities were children.
I work to raise my children. And later I find out this has happened, it just infuriates me so I can hardly stand it. I get so upset and frustrated, I can hardly stand it . . . The victims are outraged. . . . Our earth is getting so filled with radioactive waste. And it doesn't go away. . . .
One of my favorite sayings, "Oh too much talk, hit 'em on the head with a rock." . . . I'm going to keep pounding, here and there and everywhere, till somebody hears me. . . . All I can do is right here, in this house. All I can do is do what I can, the way I can. . . . Look how long we suffered, for thirty years. Nobody makes a peep. When the congressional hearings were happening last year, I told them it looks like a big show for the politicians. . . . At the hearings it came out, about the government trying to confuse us with "fission" and "fusion" [a secret directive from President Dwight Eisenhower]. That big old Army president we had. I'd like to dig him up and hit him in the head.
Still farther away from the Nevada Test Site, in the Uinta Mountains of northeast Utah some four hundred miles from where the atom bombs exploded aboveground, severe impacts have been reported as well. The Uinta mountain range tended to have a "sweeping effect," bringing down fallout on grasslands in the dairy country below the Uinta peaks. In the summer of 1980 a U.S. District Court suit charged that the government should be held liable for radioactive contamination of milk in the area and resulting cancer.
One of the plaintiffs, David L. Timothy, grew up on a dairy farm in the mountainous region of northeastern Utah. When he was nineteen cancer was discovered in his thyroid--where radioactive iodine 131 from fallout is known to lodge. In 1981, after undergoing thyroid surgery eight times, Timothy angrily demanded to know "why the hottest spot in the state has been ignored by not only the officials but the news media too."
Rose Mackelprang also wondered about lack of attention to the town of Fredonia in northern Arizona, about two hundred miles from the nuclear test site. National journalists visiting St. George across the Utah border had not bothered to report what happened to Fredonia's residents in the wake of atomic fallout that regularly passed over their town.
Soft-spoken, demure, devoted to the Mormon Church, Rose Mackelprang was willing to talk about what she could never forget. "My husband and I moved to Fredonia in 1948. It's just a little town, and we have a very happy atmosphere down there. We did rather, anyway. They raise their own gardens and most of 'em have their own cows, a lot of them do, and they have gardens and bottle their own food, put it up, store it, that's just the life of a small community." Rose Mackelprang's husband, Gayneld, became a teacher in the public schools of Fredonia, where the lumber industry was assuming economic importance alongside farming and livestock.
"At that time, when they started the testing in Nevada, it'd be at dawn when the tests would go off and we could see this big light and then the ground would shake, it'd billow up you could see the big mushroom cloud go way up and it was really quite exciting, it was different, we didn't really know that much about it. As far as we knew, why, it was really going to help us out, it was really something that our government was doing and it would be for our own good. We trusted the government, we figured that it was necessary because, after all, the government does look after us, and they're over the people and they will take care of anything that needs to be taken care of to see that it's healthy, or otherwise . . . So we didn't worry about it."
In 1960 the population of Fredonia was 643. By 1965 four had passed away from leukemia--a truck driver, who died at age forty-eight; a fourteen-year-old girl; a lumber crane operator, thirty-six; and Gayneld Mackelprang, by that time forty-three years old and superintendent of the Fredonia Public Schools. A secret memorandum by the U.S. Public Health Service's leukemia unit director, Dr. Clark W. Heath, Jr., noted, "This number of cases is approximately 20 times greater than expected." In the entire previous decade 1950 to 1960 no cases of leukemia had been reported among Fredonia residents. The memo, dated August 4, 1966, and sent to the head of the federal agency's Communicable Disease Center, was marked "FOR ADMINISTRATIVE USE ONLY, NOT FOR PUBLICATION."
Soon after learning it was leukemia, Gayneld Mackelprang was dead. His widow recalled, "The doctors said it was a lot farther advanced than they ever guessed. It was a shock, I can tell you. We hardly knew what to do, no plans, no nothing. I had six children home, and I was expecting my seventh in six weeks."
Cancer became commonplace in Fredonia. Rose Mackelprang ticked off the names of the next towns north along Highway 89--Kanab, Orderville, Glendale--where cancer and leukemia had appeared. "Some of them have died with leukemia, we have a lot of cancer, and it's not the end of it. It's still going on." Federal agencies continued to deny responsibility. "One thing that really upsets me," she added, "is that instead of telling us it was dangerous, they have denied it all the time, they've said they're not at fault."
6. Citizens' Hearings, pp. 8-9.
7. Preston Truman, interviews, February 1980, December 1980, June 1981.
8. Citizens' Hearings, pp. 8-9.
10. The Tribune (Salt Lake), Associated Press, November 21, 1978; Loa Johnson, interview, June 1981.
11. Color Country Spectrum (Utah), December 22, 1978.
13. The Tribune (Salt Lake), Associated Press, November 21, 1978.
14. Clark W. Heath, Jr., M.D., Chief, "Subject: Leukemia in Fredonia, Arizona," U.S. Public Health Service Memo, Leukemia Unit, Epidemiology Branch, August 4, 1966.
15. Color Country Spectrum, December 22, 1978.
16. Samuel H. Day, Jr., "Rebellion in the Rockies," Progressive, February 1981, p. 9.
18. Los Angeles Times, April 11, 1980.
19. Citizens' Hearings, p. 6.
20. Irma Thomas, interview, February 1980.
24. The Tribune (Salt Lake), May 17, 1980.
25. The Tribune (Salt Lake), August 13, 1980.
26. David Timothy, interview, January 1981.
27. Rose Mackelprang, speech to National Conference for a Comprehensive Test Ban, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, December 12, 1980.
29. Heath, "Subject: Leukemia," August 4, 1966.
31. Rose Mackelprang speech.
In the 1950s few Americans knew of the health risks associated with bomb fallout. The test program had been cast in a patriotic light by the official releases that the press circulated. For those who feared ill effects from radiation, government assurances were profuse. Year after year media conveyed U.S. Atomic Energy Commission announcements to downwind residents: "There is no danger."
But sheep, thousands of them, abruptly sickened and died. Country dwellers noticed that wildlife, from deer to birds, thinned from expansive rangelands regularly dusted with fallout from the Nevada Test Site upwind. And in one small community after another, people died from diseases rarely seen there before: leukemia, lymphoma, acute thyroid damage, many forms of cancer.
"My father and I were both morticians, and when these cancer cases started coming in I had to go into my books to study how to do the embalming, cancers were so rare," remembered Elmer Pickett, a lifelong resident of St. George, Utah. "In '56 and '57 all of a sudden they were coming in all the time. By 1960 it was a regular flood."
As latency periods came due, towns like St. George began to reap a grim harvest sown by the atomic whirlwinds. They were mostly populated by Mormons, devoutly obeying their Church's instructions not to smoke tobacco or drink alcohol. Cancer had never been a noticeable problem before. But, as the 1950s wore on, and for decades afterward, the ravaging effects came like a pestilence in serial form: the leukemias, usually quickest to result from radiation exposure, came first; numerous types of cancer, emerging in body organs or in bones, tended to arrive later.
Despite its claims that neither the detonations nor fallout were harmful, the Atomic Energy Commission routinely waited until the winds were blowing in the "right" direction. That meant away from big cities like Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Occasionally at the last minute shifting breezes dumped fallout on large metropolitan areas--Las Vegas was sprinkled with radioactivity in 1955, for example, and three years later fallout clouds dropped on Los Angeles. But for the most part America's continental nuclear tests went according to plan. The most deadly concentrations of fallout came down in rural areas of Nevada, Utah, and northern Arizona.
After southern Utah sheepherders lost massive numbers of their livestock, they unsuccessfully brought suit against the federal government in 1955. In court the government response was that "a combination of factors including malnutrition, poor management, and adverse weather conditions" led to the animals' deaths. (Two decades later complaints near the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania, the Rocky Flats weapons production facility in Colorado, and other atomic installations would meet similar explanations.) Internal memos to the contrary from AEC researchers were suppressed. Sworn statements by sheepherders, who testified such epidemics among their livestock had never happened until the mushroom clouds rose upwind, were discounted.
However, the sheep were a kind of early-warning system for what was to follow. Starting in the mid-1950s, leukemia became a household word in Utah towns like St. George and Enterprise and Parowan; the same held true for communities like Tonopah in Nevada, Fredonia in Arizona. Children were especially vulnerable.
As early as 1959 a study disclosed higher radioactive strontium 90 levels in young children living downwind of the atomic tests. In 1965 another suppressed study--this one by U.S. Public Health Service researcher Dr. Edward Weiss--correlated radioactive fallout with an inordinately high leukemia rate among downwind Utah residents. Weiss's report concluded: "An examination of leukemia death records in southwestern Utah" during the years of heavy fallout "shows an apparently excessive number of deaths."
A joint AEC-White House meeting about the Weiss report took place in early September 1965; AEC representatives criticized the study. A week later the AEC's assistant general manager told AEC commissioners that researching such topics as downwind leukemia rates would "pose potential problems to the commission: adverse public relations, lawsuits and jeopardizing the programs of the Nevada Test Site." Although atmospheric testing had been banned by then, underground tests were still releasing radioactivity into the air. And the AEC was gearing up for the civilian nuclear power program, predicated on the contention that low levels of officially permitted radiation were harmless.
The White House shelved the Weiss report in 1965, and blocked any follow-up research. In fact there were many nuclear-testing-related documents and AEC meeting minutes that remained secret until 1979, when they were made public by journalists or Senator Edward Kennedy. For the Weiss study that meant staying locked up in federal vaults for a full thirteen years.
In 1979, however, University of Utah epidemiology director Dr. Joseph L. Lyon independently confirmed the validity of the Weiss report. In an article published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Lyon and associates documented that children growing up in southern Utah during the aboveground atomic weapons tests suffered a leukemia rate two and a half times higher than for children before the testing began and after it ended.
In early 1981 results of the federal executive branch's Interagency Radiation Research Committee inquiry were made public--stating that a profusion of childhood cancer in southern Utah "remains unexplained on grounds other than possible fallout exposure."
Health risks of living downwind from the nuclear tests were shared by Indians--particularly Duckwater Shoshones north of the test site, and Southern Paiutes to the east. Poor medical record-keeping has handicapped efforts to assess fallout effects. But in 1981 Paiute Tribe of Utah vice-chair Elvis F. Wall blamed the radiation for adding to health woes among tribe members.
Through it all, during three decades that started with the first mushroom clouds over Nevada in 1951, the U.S. Government nuclear weapons testing spokespeople continued to proudly observe that federal authorities had never lost a lawsuit based on radioactive fallout. With about a thousand plaintiffs seeking damages in federal court as the 1970s ended, U.S. Justice Department attorneys were anxious to sustain their "perfect record" of eluding judicial pronouncements of atomic fallout culpability.
In 1979 plaintiffs accused the federal government of failing to inform area residents that fallout from the tests could cause cancer. Federal statements filed in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City denied the charges, stating that citizens were told "there was some risk associated with exposure to radioactive fallout" during the 1950s.
Those denials infuriated citizens, who produced numerous written proclamations distributed by the federal government throughout the 1950s, claiming the radioactive fallout posed no danger. One widely posted statement, dated January 1951 and signed by AEC project manager Ralph P. Johnson, read: "Health and safety authorities have determined that no danger from or as a result of AEC activities may be expected . . . All necessary precautions, including radiological surveys and patrolling of the surrounding territory, will be undertaken to insure that safety conditions are maintained."
In March 1957 the AEC distributed a booklet titled "Atomic Tests in Nevada" among downwind residents. "You people who live near Nevada Test Site are in a very real sense active participants in the Nation's atomic test program," the federal pamphlet said. "You have been close observers of tests which have contributed greatly to building the defenses of our country and of the free world. . . . Every test detonation in Nevada is carefully evaluated as to your safety before it is included in a schedule. Every phase of the operation is likewise studied from the safety viewpoint." Readers were assured that after six full years of open-air nuclear tests upwind, "all such findings have confirmed that Nevada test fallout has not caused illness or injured the health of anyone living near the test site."
And, in an effort to keep the local citizenry from looking too closely, the AEC included in its booklet a drawing of an unshorn, bowlegged cowboy raising his eyebrows at a clicking meter in his hand. "Many persons in Nevada, Utah Arizona, and nearby California have Geiger counters these days," the pamphlet counseled. "We can expect many reports that `Geiger counters were going crazy here today.' Reports like this may worry people unnecessarily. Don't let them bother you."
Few residents of Utah, or Nevada, or northern Arizona were surprised by the conclusions of a 1980 report issued by the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations: "The Government's program for monitoring the health effects of the tests was inadequate and, more disturbingly, all evidence suggesting that radiation was having harmful effects, be it on the sheep or the people, was not only disregarded but actually suppressed."
33. Jack Willis and Saul Landau, Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang (New York: New Time Films, 1979), transcript p. 1.
34. Life, June 1980, p. 36.
35. This policy was reflected in numerous AEC deliberations and decisions; for example, commissioners' meetings of March 1 and March 14, 1955.
36. Life, June 1980, p. 38.
37. Washington Post, April 14, 1979.
38. U.S. Congress, House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, and Senate, Labor and Human Resources Committee, Health and Scientific Research Subcommittee, and the Committee on the Judiciary, Health Effects of Low-Level Radiation, 96th Cong., 1st sess. Serial No. 96-42, April 19, 1979, Vol. 2, p. 2195 (hereafter cited as Health Effects of Low-Level Radiation).
39. Washington Post, April 14, 1979.
40. Deseret News, February 27, 1979; Washington Post, April 14, 1979.
41. See Health Effects of Low-Level Radiation, Vols. 1 and 2.
42. Washington Post, April 14, 1979.
43. Joseph L. Lyon, et al., "Childhood Leukemias Associated with Fallout from Nuclear Testing," New England Journal of Medicine, February 22, 1979, pp. 397-402. Lyons's study has been criticized by nuclear proponents because in spite of the increase in leukemia rate among children in Utah, the rate was still below the U.S. average. This attitude seems to assume that every area of the U.S. "deserves" to be as polluted as the East Coast, where synergistic effects of multiple carcinogens and wash-out of radioactive chemicals from contaminated clouds compound the health problems.
44. The Oregonian, Associated Press, January 1, 1981.
45. Elvis F. Wall, vice-chairperson, Interim Tribal Council, Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, Cedar City, Utah, printed statement, undated, distributed May 1981.
46. Deseret News, February 15, 1979.
47. The Tribune (Salt Lake), December 17, 1979.
48. "WARNING," sign dated January 1951, obtained from Citizens' Call organization in Utah.
49. AEC, Atomic Tests in Nevada, March 1957, pp. 2, 4, 15.
50. Ibid., p. 23.
51. U.S. Congress, House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, The Forgotten Guinea Pigs, 96th Cong., 2nd sess., Committee Print 96-1FC 53, August 1980, p. 37.
In early January 1951 President Truman approved the first series of Nevada atomic tests scheduled to begin later that month. When the nuclear testing started there, little information--let alone consultation--had been accorded residents in the surrounding region.
The first series of nuclear tests within North America was labeled "Operation Ranger." Over a period of ten days beginning January 27, 1951, five air-dropped A-bombs exploded over the Nevada Test Site, ranging from one to twenty-two kilotons. Sixty-five miles away, Las Vegas took the tests in stride; the only ostensible negative effects were a couple of broken windows resulting from an eight-kiloton blast code-named Baker-2.
As with the Pacific test program, no plans were incorporated to evaluate the impact of radiation on human beings. Rather, the Army chose to evaluate servicemen's psychological reactions to participating in atomic bomb tests. The plan got under way in the summer of 1951, financed by the Department of Defense and administered by George Washington University, under the heading of the "Human Resources Research Office." The Pentagon also entered into a similar arrangement with the Operations Research Office of Johns Hopkins University.
When soldiers arrived at Camp Desert Rock to participate in "Operation Buster-Jangle" in autumn 1951, they knew little about what they were in for.
Introduction to the bare facilities at the Nevada Test Site came partly from an "Information and Guide" booklet distributed to incoming GIs. "The officers and men of this operation share with you the hope that your visit to Camp Desert Rock will prove an informative and revealing experience which you will always remember," read a greeting signed by U.S. Army Major General W. B. Kean. Every page bore the inscription "RESTRICTED," and the booklet was replete with injunctions against talking too much.
"To assist in maintaining the security of Exercise Desert Rock it is desired that you maintain secrecy discipline regarding classified information observed here. Everyone will want to know what you have seen--officials, friends, and the enemy."
The Army booklet handed to the first nuclear soldiers at the Nevada Test Site did not discuss atomic bomb radiation hazards. It did discuss possible hazards from indigenous reptiles and poisonous insects.
Scenarios for tactical war games, assuming an enemy invasion sweeping inland from the West Coast, postulated that "the decision has been made to employ an atomic weapon to effect maximum destruction of the enemy." The maneuvers, while testing numerous facets of infantrymen's responses to atomic weaponry exploding in their midst, were depicted as realistic dry runs for future combat situations.
"Indoctrination in essential physical protective measures under simulated combat conditions, and observation of the psychological effects of an atomic explosion are reasons for this desired participation," said a preparatory memorandum from the Pentagon's Military Liaison Committee to the AEC chairman. Added the Defense Department panel: "The psychological implications of atomic weapons used close to our front lines in support of ground operations are unknown." The AEC ordered strict exclusion of the media during the forthcoming autumn nuclear tests in Nevada.
Like Army buddies with him in the engineers A Company and other servicemen who arrived at the Nevada Test Site that October of 1951, twenty-two-year-old private William Bires did not know that military authorities were placing major importance on gauging mental and emotional impacts of close-range atomic blasts on foot soldiers like himself.
Sleeping on the desert ground got very cold in October and November. ("We didn't even have decent sleeping bags. We froze our asses off.") Of far more lasting significance was the actual experience of seeing half-a-dozen nuclear bomb detonations, ranging up to a thirty-one-kiloton blast code-named Easy.
Bires participated in the series of atomic tests over a period of a few weeks, with the largest nuclear explosions coming from bombs dropped by aircraft. Several thousand men watched from about seven miles away as fierce atomic light slashed across the desert; some were marched to within half a mile of ground zero. After the indescribably vivid bright flash Bires took note of "bizarre effects of the bombs"--weird designs of permanent shadows left in the atomic wake, charred into test range buildings, vehicles, gun emplacements. Animals situated in calibrated proximities to the A-blasts were singed and sometimes pathetic. "I can still see this damn sheep with its rump burnt," Bires commented three decades later.
The Pentagon eagerly assessed behavior of GIs as they responded to orders soon after the half-dozen nuclear detonations, which totaled seventy-two kilotons. The more intimate, and more lasting, consequences apparently were not of great concern to the military brass.
"I was then, and I still am," William Bires said in 1981, "living with the firsthand knowledge that we do indeed have within our power the ability to destroy ourselves. Most people have heard this, but have not been able to observe firsthand the effects of those terrible weapons."
When he filed the first in a series of claim statements with the Veterans Administration in 1978, Bires cited the psychological jolts left by his hitch at the Nevada nuclear tests. Recurrent fits of depression, the tenacious imagery of atomic weapons exploding close by, and an acutely painful spinal affliction came to plague him.
Less than five months after the first troop maneuvers in the shadow of a mushroom cloud over Nevada, the U.S. military was pushing for more daring escapades for GIs. The distance of seven miles from nuclear blasts seemed too remote, and tame, to high-ranking occupants of Pentagon offices along the banks of the Potomac River. In the future, declared Air Force Brigadier General A. R. Luedecke, a less cautious policy would be appropriate. In a secret letter to the AEC in early 1952 he attributed "unfavorable psychological effects" among soldiers "to the tactically unrealistic distance of seven miles to which all participating troops were required to withdraw for the detonation."
The Pentagon now suggested that soldiers be stationed a little less than four miles from the exploding nuclear weapons in subsequent tests. The AEC's director of biology and medicine, Dr. Shields Warren, didn't like the sound of it. "The explosion is experimental in type, and its yield cannot be predicted with accuracy," he warned. "Deviations from established safety practices would result . . . in larger numbers and more serious casualties the closer the troops were to the point of detonation."
Despite such in-house warnings from its own staff experts the AEC capitulated to the Pentagon plan. Commission chairman Gordon Dean promised the Department of Defense that the AEC "would enter no objection to stationing the troops at not less than 7,000 yards from ground zero." All discussions leading to the decision that would affect thousands of soldiers were conducted in secrecy. The Pentagon had exercised its unwritten dominance over the AEC.
In Nevada nearly eight thousand Army, Navy, Marine, and Air Force personnel were in the early stages of "Operation Tumbler-Snapper"--involving eight nuclear weapons dropped from airplanes or perched on towers, with total explosive force of over one hundred kilotons. During the largest blast of the series--a thirty-one-kiloton bomb air-dropped on April 22, 1952--selected reporters and television crews were allowed for the first time to record an A-bomb shot in progress. At that test, and again the following month, soldiers were less than four miles from the explosions, often moving into the central blast area within two hours.
Back in Washington, according to classified AEC minutes, Commission chairman Gordon Dean "commented that a popular article on fall-out to reduce the possibility of public anxiety resulting from lack of information might be helpful."
The kind of publicity the AEC sought did not come from Army veterans like James W. Yeatts, whose description of Operation Tumbler-Snapper would calm no public fears--neither at the time, nor twenty-eight years later, when Yeatts issued the following statement from his home in Keeling, Virginia:At the test site we had no protective clothing or equipment, not even a gas mask. When the bomb was detonated, we had our backs to the blast, kneeling with our hands over our eyes and our eyes closed. The flash was so bright we could see the bones in our hands. Then we turned to see the fire ball form. The shock wave hit us and knocked me backward. The dust was so thick that we could not see anything. After the dust settled we marched toward Ground Zero until the radiation got too hot. We then turned back and had a Geiger counter check for radiation.Two months later Yeatts began having serious health problems--"rectal abscesses, headaches, nausea and severe back pains," which persisted into the 1960s. Ten years after his participation in the atomic testing Yeatts lost all his teeth. "They became so loose, I could pull them with no pain. About a year later I began having breathing problems." By the late 1970s Yeatts was unable to work. In 1980 his weight had declined to 103 pounds. "I can only walk a few steps. I am now losing control of my bowels and urine."
By the time we arrived back at Camp Desert Rock, most of us had severe headaches and were nauseated. We were told to lie down--that it would go away.
Two days later, back at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, I was told to turn the uniform that I wore in the tests in to the stock room. It was put in a rubber bag. Nothing was said about how much radiation we had received.
As far as the family was concerned, the aftermath of Operation Tumbler-Snapper did not end with James Yeatts. "My son was born in 1969, with many birth defects--the sutures in his head were grown together, a severe heart problem, an imperforate anus, he had only one kidney and an obstruction in the urinary tract. He had to have a colostomy at one day old. At three months old he had a `Pots procedure' operation on his heart. He had a ureterostomy at six months, which will be permanent. A pull through was done on his rectum at 2 years old. At the age of 5 he had open heart surgery. He cannot attend school and still suffers from these problems. . . ."
Ultimately Yeatts asked physicians at the M.C.V. Hospital in Richmond, Virginia, "if radiation exposure I had could cause my son's defects. The doctors asked me why I did not tell them about the radiation exposure when my son was born. They said my son would have to have close check-ups for other problems that could come up."
The Veterans Administration denied Yeatts any service-connected benefits. "It is not enough for the Government to use me for a guinea pig," he said, "but to cause something to children years later is more than I can take."
52. Rosenberg, Atomic Soldiers, p. 34.
53. For detailed account of role played by Human Resources Research Office in the U.S. nuclear testing program, see Rosenberg, Atomic Soldiers.
54. U.S. Army, "Exercise Desert Rock Information and Guide," 1951, p. 1.
55. Ibid., p. 8.
56. Ibid., p. 19.
57. Ibid., pp. 9-11.
58. Military Liaison Committee Memorandum MLC 31.4, July 16, 1951, pp. 1, 2.
59. AEC memo by General Manager M. W. Boyer, September 20, 1951.
60. William Bires, interview, March 1981.
65. USAF Brigadier General A. R. Luedecke to Director, AEC Division of Military Application, March 7, 1952.
66. Shields Warren, M.D., "Draft Staff Paper on Troop Participation in Operation Tumbler-Snapper," AEC memo, March 25, 1952.
67. Gordon Dean to Brigadier General H. B. Loper, April 2, 1952.
68. Rosenberg, Atomic Soldiers, p. 58.
69. AEC Commissioners Meeting Minutes, May 14, 1952.
70. Atomic Veterans' Newsletter, summer 1980, p. 12.
73. Ibid., pp. 12-13.
74. Ibid., p. 14.
As the U.S. Government prepared for "Operation Upshot-Knothole," slated for the spring and summer of 1953, civilian restraints over nuclear testing continued to erode. In a meeting between the AEC and the Department of Defense it was established that "in the forthcoming tests the usual limits of physical exposure to weapons effects would probably be exceeded." The AEC commissioners then acquiesced to a suggestion "that responsibility for the physical safety of the troops participating in the exercise be delegated to the DOD [Department of Defense] and that the DOD be informed of the possibility that exceeding the normal limits of exposure to radiation or pressure might endanger the participating personnel."
Servicemen at the atomic tests were thus left to the tender mercies of the Department of Defense. Official notes depicted AEC chairman Gordon Dean's view that "since the DOD apparently considered it necessary to conduct the exercises in this manner, the AEC was not in a position to recommend that the normal limits [of radiation exposure and blast pressure] be observed." For good measure, the AEC commissioners endorsed plans for a joint announcement that the Defense Department would be taking responsibility for the safety of troops during the forthcoming series of atom bomb tests in Nevada.
As the newly elected President, Dwight Eisenhower, prepared to unveil his "Atoms for Peace" program, promoting use of nuclear energy for electric power, the AEC and Pentagon put finishing touches on Operation Upshot-Knothole. During the spring and early summer of 1953 a total of eleven nuclear test shots sent mushroom clouds over the Nevada desert, concluding with a sixty-one-kiloton explosion code-named Climax. In less than three months the Nevada blasts had unleashed a cumulative force of over 250 kilotons--about twenty times the power of the atom bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.
About seventeen thousand military personnel participated in Upshot-Knothole. Routinely thousands were in trenches within two miles of ground zero as a nuclear bomb exploded; obeying orders, they moved toward the blast center inside of an hour after detonation in mock attack. The exercises even included, for the first time, direct charges immediately after detonation. The Pentagon had nearly doubled the AEC's prior theoretical limit for radiation exposure of the servicemen, raising it to six roentgens.
Meanwhile A-test overseers had been experimenting with nonhuman subjects as well--sheep, rabbits, and pigs confined at varying distances from the blast site. Scores of porkers were clothed with specially fitted "uniforms" made out of standard Army material, to test for protection of their skin. One of the more bizarre expenditures came when one set of pigs had to be refitted with new uniforms after they outgrew their originals while waiting for the weather to break.
Former Army sergeant Cecil G. Dunn, an Operation Upshot-Knothole veteran, recounted from his home in Pensacola, Florida, "After the blast, they marched us to ground zero. I will never forget the smell after that shot. I have no idea how much radiation was there. I know of no film badges. I don't remember seeing any of the men wearing any. I know I never had one." Recalling subsequent chronic headaches lasting years, followed by nosebleeds, a nervous breakdown, festering spots on his legs, and dizzy spells, Dunn said: "I feel like I am drunk all the time, but I don't drink. I tire very easily now. . . . All I have ever asked is to live like other people. But I cannot help blaming the Government for subjecting me to nuclear testing without warning me of the potential consequences and I will always wonder why it happened."
Outside the borders of the Nevada Test Site fallout clouds intensified as Operation Upshot-Knothole progressed. On April 25, 1953, four and half hours after a forty-three-kiloton blast named Simon, a spot outside the Nevada Test Site boundaries registered 460 milliroentgens per hour along Route 93--nineteen miles north of the Nevada town of Glendale. The potential dose was far in excess of the current standards set by governmental agencies. Caught off guard, the federal government hastily set up roadblocks. A report by the U.S. Public Health Service estimated about fourteen hundred people were living in the immediate fallout area. Starting nine hours after the Simon explosion, for 150 minutes, traffic was stopped on major roads; out of some 250 vehicles stopped and checked for radiation, 40 were judged to require decontamination. A Greyhound bus, bound for Las Vegas with 30 passengers, gave off readings of 250 milliroentgens outside, 160 milliroentgens inside.
Three hours after the blast the tiny town of Riverdale registered readings of sixteen milliroentgens an hour. An Armed Forces Special Weapons Project report, which was to remain secret for twenty-five years, commented: "The amount of fallout was expected to be much larger than usual. However, due to the fact that no populated communities were expected to be in its path, the decision was made to fire on schedule." But the Simon fallout cloud also passed over Utah, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania before it encountered a tumultuous thunderstorm over upstate New York, southern Vermont, and parts of western Massachusetts. It was one of the heaviest flash storms in memory, bringing down torrents of rain.
Two days after the Simon explosion a group of students at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York--twenty-three hundred miles from the blast--noticed Geiger counters at their school radiochemistry lab were registering high readings. They went outside to discover that the previous evening's rain had brought down large amounts of fallout. Radiochemistry Professor Herbert Clark called the AEC, where an official first thought Clark was joking.
But students systematically measured the area for radiation. Some samples from rain puddles showed 270,000 times more radioactivity than usually found in drinking water. Tests from city reservoir water showed levels 2,630 times higher than normal. Professor Clark and the Rensselaer students also discovered another problem. Radioactive fallout clung to the roof and walls despite hours of scrubbing; the surface radioactivity in Troy/Albany was comparable to measurements taken two hundred to five hundred miles from the point of the Simon detonation in Nevada. In the mid-sixties that contamination would lead to a bitter controversy over health damage in the wake of bomb testing.
75. AEC Commissioners Meeting Minutes, December 23, 1952.
78. Rosenberg, Atomic Soldiers, p. 57.
79. Ibid., pp. 61-63.
80. Atomic Veterans' Newsletter, spring 1980, p. 3.
81. In contrast to a continued official listing of forty-three kilotons, documents declassified in the late 1970s refer to the Simon test as a 51.5-kiloton blast. (The Tribune [Salt Lake], New York Times News Service, August 12, 1979.)
82. The Tribune (Salt Lake), New York Times News Service, August 12, 1979.
85. Ernest Sternglass, Secret Fallout (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981), pp. 1-5. See also articles by Herbert M. Clark in Science, May 7, 1954, pp. 619-622, and by Clark, et al., in Journal American Water Works Association, November 1954, pp. 1101-1111.
Some downwind residents became apprehensive after the Simon blast when they witnessed the official concern over fallout levels on the highways outside of the test site. But the worst was yet to come that spring when the U.S. Government detonated a thirty-two-kiloton atomic bomb from atop a tower at the Nevada Test Site. The code name was Harry; people downwind now remember it with bitterness as "Dirty Harry."
As sixty-eight-year-old St. George resident William Sleight recorded the event in his diary:May 19, 1953:Winds easily carried radioactive fallout the 135 miles to William Sleight's home in St. George. Atomic Energy Commission monitors picked up readings of six thousand milliroentgens in the town, where news bulletins broadcast the agency's sudden advice to stay indoors from 9:00 A.M. till noon. Monitoring crews stopped about one hundred cars heading north from St. George; many vehicles were washed down in an attempt at decontamination. The fallout was coming down so hard, AEC scientists later reported at a confidential government conference, that the commission's workers gave up on washing off the cars in St. George until the radioactive particles stopped falling. The AEC, meanwhile, told area media that "radiation had not reached a hazardous level."
Beautiful morning. We left St. George at 4 a.m. for Las Vegas, Nevada. We were watching for the A-Bomb explosion on the desert north of Las Vegas. At 5 a.m., just dawn, we saw the flash which lit up the skies, a beautiful red, visible for hundreds of miles away. It was a beautiful sight, a hundred miles or more away from it. I had my car radio on and at 5:01 a.m. the announcer on KFI, Los Angeles, Calif., said at 5 a.m. the bomb had been exploded and that it was visible at that station, and also in Idaho. I drove for ten minutes, then stopped the car on the roadside, got out and soon after we heard the report of the blast. It rumbled as thunder, not quite the same as other blasts we have heard. This is the 9th in a series of ten, another next week. It makes me shudder when I think of what misery we may face when men start dropping these terrific bombs on our cities. Some fanatics are now clamoring for their use in Korea.
After we came back on Highway 91, we were stopped and a young man examined our car with an instrument to see if we had picked up any radioactive dust while traveling on the Highway. Found none so we missed a free car wash (which would have been appreciated). . . . Returned to St. George in a high wind which seems to always follow these explosions.
In St. George the blanket of fallout left a bad taste in many people's mouths--in more ways than one. Lifetime residents of the town reported, for the first time, an oddly metallic sort of taste in the air. (This condition would surface again at Three Mile Island, twenty-six years later.)
Forty miles farther east, according to another secret AEC report, at least five residents developed symptoms matching signs of radiation sickness from high doses. The classified AEC report also said that in the town of La Verkin, twenty miles northeast of St. George, goats turned blue after clouds of fallout wafted through their grazing area.
The day after Dirty Harry, downwind residents barraged the AEC with complaints. "Reverberations from the atomic tests in Nevada Tuesday echoed in Washington Wednesday as Southern Utah residents protested to Representative Douglas R. Stringfellow (R-Utah) about radiation contamination in the area," narrated The (Salt Lake) Tribune. Congressman Stringfellow followed up by asking the AEC to stop the Nevada test program because of fallout. The AEC refused. (The next year Stringfellow lost his race for reelection.)
Two days after the Harry explosion, while AEC commissioners discussed the heavy fallout dumped on St. George and vicinity, an AEC worker tried to obtain names of milk producers in the area and failed. "It was just as well," he reported in an agency memo. "I was afraid it would create a disturbance." Rulan (Boots) Cox, operator of Cox Dairy in St. George for thirty years beginning in 1949, had radiation monitoring equipment at his dairy the entire time of atmospheric nuclear testing upwind. He sent samples to federal addresses on a regular basis, but was never informed of results.
New downwind samples of milk initially showed high levels of radioactivity. By the time the milk was boiled in Las Vegas and Los Alamos laboratories, AEC researchers found little radioactivity; the iodine 131 was being destroyed in the lab heating process.
After the Harry test the AEC was faced with a new problem. Commissioner Henry D. Smyth, according to agency minutes, "was concerned about the public relations aspects of the tests, especially in view of the St. George, Utah, incident and the large number of shots already fired." The other AEC commissioner in attendance, Eugene M. Zuckert, also perceived nascent difficulties. "A serious psychological problem has arisen, and the AEC must be prepared to study an alternate to holding future tests at the Nevada Test Site. In the present frame of mind of the public, it would take only a single illogical and unforeseeable incident to preclude holding any future tests in the United States."
The Pentagon, however, pushed hard for the AEC to stand firm. At a joint meeting in late May 1953, according to classified minutes, Defense Department representatives conveyed "the opinion that AEC is making a serious mistake in over-emphasizing the effects of fall-out resulting from recent tests." One general criticized official measures such as washing down cars and urging residents to stay indoors for a few hours after the Harry test; he complained that "the precautions taken by AEC were extreme and caused undue public concern."
Meanwhile, on the morning of May 27, AEC chairman Gordon Dean met with the Commander-in-Chief. President Eisenhower, Dean recorded in his diary, "expressed some concern, not too serious, but made the suggestion that we leave `thermonuclear' out of press releases and speeches. Also `fusion' and `hydrogen.'" In the wake of hydrogen explosions in the Marshall Islands during the past year, and with more sophisticated nuclear weapons tests scheduled, Eisenhower instructed the AEC's top executive to keep the public "confused as to `fission' and `fusion.'"
88. William Sleight, diary, made available to authors with permission of family through Citizens' Call organization.
89. Chicago Tribune, April 1-5, 1979, published as booklet "Radiation," p. 11.
90. Washington County News (Utah), May 21, 1953.
91. Preston Truman, interview, February 1981. As state director of Citizens' Call and a lifelong resident of Utah, Truman said he had heard many accounts by St. George residents recalling a metallic taste after the Harry test.
92. Deseret News, September 5, 1979.
93. The Tribune (Salt Lake), May 21, 1953.
94. Chicago Tribune, April 1-5, 1979, "Radiation," p. 9.
96. Deseret News, September 5, 1979.
97. AEC Commissioners Meeting Minutes, May 22, 1953.
98. AEC-MLC Joint Meeting Minutes, May 28, 1953. At the same meeting Military Liaison Committee chairman Robert LeBaron said that the government "must avoid arousing public fears to the point of large-scale public opposition to the continental tests."
99. Gordon Dean, diary, May 27, 1953.
Fallout on Livestock
Downwind of the Nevada Test Site the epidemics of leukemia and cancer among residents would come later. Animals, however, were immediately affected. The AEC quietly paid a few hundred dollars to owners of some horses that suffered beta radiation burns in 1953. But the concern about livestock burns was soon overshadowed as sheep began dropping dead--in unprecedented numbers and with unprecedented rapidity.
One hundred fifty miles from the test site, on Wheeler Mountain land owned by George Swallow in Nevada, about seventeen hundred sheep grazed on tender grass. It was lambing time in spring 1953. On the third Tuesday morning in May, George Swallow, his brother Dick, and a ranch hand named Lee Whitlock watched a pink fallout cloud (from the Harry detonation) drift overhead, toward the Utah line, Air Force jets following behind. Within a few weeks five hundred of the females in the flock of seventeen hundred sheep were dead. Sixty-five percent of new lambs were stillborn.
The Swallows owned eleven sheep herds of the same size; the herd that sustained the high ratio of deaths and dead births was the one on Wheeler Mountain when the Harry blast fallout passed through. George Swallow expressed his suspicions to the AEC. "We told Mr. Swallow that our experts have assured us that this sort of thing can't happen," AEC acting field manager Joe Sanders informed national headquarters.
But the AEC's own files were filled with classified descriptions of similar incidents throughout Nevada, Utah, and Arizona. One Utah sheepherder reported twenty-five hundred stillbirths. Cattle and horses developed lesions and severe sores in large numbers.
Dr. Stephen Brower was Iron County agricultural agent in southwestern Utah at the time. The Atomic Energy Commission stressed to Dr. Brower that the federal government had no intention of being held accountable for herd losses. Word first came from the chief of the AEC's Biology Branch of the Division of Biological Medicine, Dr. Paul B. Pearson.
Brower recalled that Pearson "told me . . . that the AEC could under no circumstances afford to have a claim established against them and have that precedent set. And he further indicated that the sheepmen could not expect under any circumstances to be reimbursed for that reason."
In Cedar City, Utah, a U.S. Public Health Service veterinarian, Dr. Arthur Wolff, studied area sheep in June 1953. "My main concern was whether there was radioactivity involved," he recalled. "We autopsied a couple of animals, and I took some specimens back with me and took some [radiation] measurements. I was able to determine, yes, there was a relatively high level of radiation in the Iodine-131 in the thyroid and some radiation on the wool of these sheep.
Cedar City sheepherder Kern Bulloch described what happened with his herd in 1953 this way:We were over at Coyote Pass right next to the bomb site just herding our sheep. One morning we were sitting in the saddle there, and some airplanes come up and one of them dropped a bomb. Jesus, it was bright! I put my hands up like that and you could doggone near see your bones. And then that cloud come right over top of us, it mushroomed right over our camp and our herd. And we were sitting there--'course we didn't know a thing about radiation or bombs or anything else. Pretty soon here comes some jeeps with Army personnel, and they said to us, "My golly, you fellas are in a hot spot." We didn't even know what they were talking about.Kern Bulloch remembered, nearly three decades later, "we just started to losing so many lambs that my father--[who] was alive at that time--just about went crazy. He had never seen anything like it before. Neither had I; neither had anybody else."
Then we started driving the sheep back to Cedar [City], and we just started losing them. We got them in the yard there to get their lambs out, and gosh, every time you'd go in there, there'd be 20 or 30 dead sheep. The lambs were born with little legs, kind of potbellied. Some of them didn't have any wool, kind of a skin instead of wool. We figure we lost between 1,200 and 1,500 head close to half our herd.
Later, the scientists come, we took them up to a pile of bones and I remember putting a Geiger counter down. Somebody said, "Are they hot?" And one of the scientists said, "Hot? I'll say! This needle just about hit the post."
Twenty-seven years passed before some semblance of the full story reached beyond the memories of downwind herders and officials privy to classified government files. In 1980 the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations provided the sort of overview kept from a national spotlight for decades.
The committee reported that, at the time of the two heaviest fallout tests in Nevada during the spring of 1953, there were 11,710 sheep grazing in a zone from 40 miles north to 160 miles east of the test site. "Of these sheep, 1,420 lambing ewes (12.1 percent) and 2,970 new lambs (25.4 percent) died during the spring and summer of 1953."
This sheep mortality rate was considerably above normal. But the government denied that there was anything amiss--refusing to admit radiation was involved. "It seemed like a policy decision had been made, and federal officials were there to implement it," Dr. Brower told us. "The government just wanted to cover up."
Although the AEC profusely insisted in its public statements throughout the 1950s and beyond that fallout had nothing to do with sheep ills, a different assessment later came from Dr. Harold Knapp, a scientist who served with the AEC Fallout Studies Branch in the early 1960s. "The simplest explanation of the primary cause of death in the lambing ewes is irradiation of the ewe's gastrointestinal tract by beta particles from all the fission products that were ingested by the sheep along with open range forage," Dr. Knapp concluded. Radiation doses to the sheep internal tracts "are calculated to be in the range of thousands of rads, even though the external gamma dose to the sheep was within the 3.9 r limit per test series established by the Atomic Energy Commission as acceptable for persons living in areas adjacent to the test site."
The 1980 House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee report disclosed that its researchers had uncovered "substantial documentation from the files of the Government veterinarians and scientists assigned the task of investigating the 1953 sheep deaths, which revealed the Government's concerted effort to disregard and to discount all evidence of a causal relationship between exposure of the sheep to radioactive fallout and their deaths."
Recently declassified minutes of a secret June 10, 1953, AEC meeting verify that the commissioners were aware that "sheep grazing in an area approximately 50 miles from the site were determined to have beta burns in their nostrils and on their backs and 500-1,000 out of a total of approximately 10,000 were reported to have died while being moved to grazing lands in Utah."
But the AEC commissioners proved more concerned with publicity than health problems of either sheep or humans. At a July 7 meeting Commissioner Henry Smyth observed that public concern could be allayed by comparing bomb fallout "to radiation incurred in the normal medical use of X-rays." It was a public-relations angle that proved to be a favorite for the AEC, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and utilities operating nuclear power plants across the nation in future decades.
But the analogy--comparing X rays with radioactivity from nuclear fission--is highly misleading. An atomic bomb, or a nuclear reactor, produces radioactive alpha and beta particles that can be deadly if inhaled or swallowed even in minute quantities; the alpha and beta "internal emitters" are not present in the penetrating X rays used for medical purposes. The comparison with X rays also falsely assumes that bomb fallout or emissions from nuclear plants are evenly distributed in the population. A number of factors--including weather conditions and radioactive contamination of the ecological food chain--can subject some animals or people to higher amounts of radioactivity.
Twenty-six years later the report by congressional investigators quoted from the AEC's conclusive press statement about the sheep, issued on January 6, 1954:On the basis of information now available, it is evident that radioactivity from atomic tests was not responsible for deaths and illness among sheep in areas adjacent to the Nevada Proving Grounds last Spring, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission reported today.But some of the AEC's own experts disagreed. Veterinarian Dr. Richard Thompsett, for example, reported that lesions on downwind sheep typified effects of beta radiation--and that the atomic tests had been a factor in the mass deaths of sheep. Dr. Thompsett's report was never published. Dr. Stephen Brower recounted that Thompsett's "report was picked up--even his own personal copy--and he was told to rewrite it and eliminate any reference to speculation about radiation damage or effects."
The AEC findings, reached as the result of extensive research studies, was concurred in by the U.S. Public Health Service and the Bureau of Animal Industry, U.S. Department of Agriculture. Prior to issuance by the AEC, the report was reviewed by the Department of Health, State of Utah. Special studies were conducted by veterinary and medical research scientists at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory and Hanford Works and the University of Tennessee to determine whether radioactivity contributed to the deaths.
Follow-up research by scientists at the Los Alamos lab--C. Lushbaugh, J. F. Spaulding, and D. B. Hale--concluded that among sheep downwind from the Nevada Test Site "the skin lesion was remarkably similar, histologically, to severe beta ray burns as demonstrated experimentally." The researchers added, "It would appear from these gross observations that this and similar lesions seen in the field . . . confirm well enough to a presumptive diagnosis of a radiation-produced lesion." Publicly the AEC stuck to its story--a story that would be repeated time and again to farmers and ranchers downwind from nuclear facilities.
In his role as county agricultural agent in southwest Utah, Dr. Brower accompanied sheep rancher Doug Clark to talk with federal administrators. "Doug raised some questions with the team of scientists, one of whom was a colonel," Dr. Brower remembered many years later. The colonel "seemed to be the leading spokesman to kind of press this issue that it couldn't have been radiation. Doug asked him some fairly technical questions about the effects of radiation on internal organs that he'd gotten from other veterinarians."
In response the colonel called Doug Clark a "dumb sheepman" and told him he was "stupid--he couldn't understand the answer if it was given to him, and for just 10 or 15 minutes, just kind of berated him rather than answer the question."
A week after the Atomic Energy Commission's unequivocal public denial that sheep had been harmed by atomic test fallout, AEC officials faced angry livestock owners in a conference room of the Cedar City firehouse. The January 13, 1954, meeting included a dozen or so federal officials and a roughly equal number of area livestock owners.
"We know that practically all the sheep that range in that area had these effects," said a local rancher. "We fed these sheep corn and tried to keep them up. I couldn't keep my sheep up where they were able to raise a lamb. I had never seen it before.
"We would like to have an answer for you," responded AEC biological medicine chief Dr. Paul Pearson. "We don't have any explanation for it. There have been instances of disease coming in that caused different effects, we don't know what happened."
"There is very little protein in corn and they could be low in protein," interjected Leo K. Bustad, a General Electric Company envoy from the AEC-controlled Hanford Nuclear Reservation, prime production center for weapons-grade plutonium. "How was their flesh?"
Refusing to be drawn into a discussion about his sheep's flesh with the GE representative, the rancher said that his sheep got all the protein they needed from grazing. "Range is white sage and black sage. . . . Sage is very high in protein."
And so it went. "The body dose radiation that these sheep got is around five roentgens," explained GE's Bustad midway through the meeting. "You can get more roentgens from a fluoroscope or an X-ray machine than these sheep got through body radiation." Bustad failed to note that the sheep ingested radioactive particles into their bodies, which does not occur during an X ray. Nor did he mention that five roentgens is a hazardous dose in either case.
A year later the Bulloch family filed suit in federal court, suing the U.S. Government for the loss of fifteen hundred sheep because of fallout. When the case came to trial in 1956, the federal government presented testimony that the sheep died of natural causes. During initial investigations the Bullochs had heard researchers attribute the sheep deaths to radiation. "A lot of those scientists that checked the sheep and admitted it, when they got to court they had a different story," commented McRae Bulloch.
The Bulloch family lost their court suit. Twenty-five years later no downwind rancher had been able to collect a penny from the federal government for a single dead sheep.
100. Deseret News, February 15, 1979.
101. Chicago Tribune, April 1-5, 1979, "Radiation," p. 10.
105. Forgotten Guinea Pigs, p. vii.
106. Deseret News, February 20, 1979.
107. Life, June 1980, p. 36.
108. Forgotten Guinea Pigs, p. vii.
109. Ibid., p. 3.
110. Dr. Stephen Brower, interview, March 1981. When we spoke with him, Dr. Brower was a professor at Brigham Young University.
112. Dr. Harold Knapp, "Sheep Deaths in Utah and Nevada Following the 1953 Nuclear Tests," quoted in Forgotten Guinea Pigs, p. 4.
113. Forgotten Guinea Pigs, p. 4.
114. AEC Commissioners Meeting Minutes, June 10, 1953.
115. On October 26, 1953, the AEC convened a secret meeting at Los Alamos to take up the question of sheep deaths. The scientific method was not of paramount concern as the AEC's chief of the Weapons Radiation Effects Branch presided. Dr. George Dunning stressed to the assembled scientists the need for getting together a self-exonerating report for AEC commissioner Eugene Zuckert. As recorded by federal veterinarian Dr. Arthur Wolff, the influential Dr. Dunning informed the meeting's participants that a firm statement--concluding there was no connection between the nuclear tests and the sheep woes--would be necessary "before Commissioner Zuckert [would] open the `purse strings' for future continental weapons tests." Scientists present tacitly agreed to go along with such a declaration, despite the opinions of some that a judgment would be premature, with the understanding it would be tagged "for internal use only" within the AEC. See Forgotten Guinea Pigs, p. 7.
116. AEC Commissioners Meeting Minutes, July 7, 1953.
117. See Washington Post, November 11, 1979, for Dick Brukenfeld's article "A New German Study Challenges the NRC Assurances," on food chain concentrations of radiation.
118. "AEC Report on Sheep Losses Adjacent to the Nevada Proving Grounds," January 6, 1954; quoted in Forgotten Guinea Pigs, p. 4.
119. Forgotten Guinea Pigs, p. 6.; Deseret News, February 15, 1979.
120. Forgotten Guinea Pigs, p. 6.
121. Deseret News, February 15, 1979.
122. Forgotten Guinea Pigs, p. viii.
123. Ibid. It was, as Dr. Brower put it, "a tough kind of experience for Doug. I remember he left there to go out to his ranch to meet with the loan company to account for what sheep he had left, and within a couple of hours, he was dead from a heart attack. I think that . . . part of the stress that he experienced at that time was that abuse that he had received from these officials."
124. Minutes of livestock owners' meeting with AEC officials, Firehouse, Conference Room, Cedar City, Utah, January 13, 1954.
129. Deseret News, February 20, 1979.
130. Life, June 1980, p. 36.
131. Bruce Findley of Salt Lake City (current attorney for downwind sheep ranchers), interview, March 1981; Deseret News, February 20, 1979.
Anxious to counter its increasing credibility problems, in 1954 the Atomic Energy Commission entered into an off-site radioactivity surveillance agreement with the U.S. Public Health Service.
Not until 1979 did the terms of the AEC-PHS arrangement become public knowledge. After award-winning journalist Gordon Eliot White, Washington correspondent for the Salt Lake City daily The Deseret News, dislodged more than fifteen thousand A-test documents he reported that "PHS furnished trained personnel who worked under AEC funding and under strict AEC control." Their mission was not to ensure public health, but rather "to protect the test site from controversy."
The 1954 pact prohibited the PHS from any public release of its radiation data or "dissemination of information connected with activities under this agreement, except as prescribed by the AEC . . ." At the end of the year AEC tossed in a stipulation that any unauthorized release of information to the public could subject "the Public Health Service, its agents, employees, or subcontractors, to criminal liability" under the Atomic Energy Act.
The AEC-PHS off-site monitoring agreement remained in effect not only during the last nine years (1954 to 1962) of atmospheric nuclear blasts at the Nevada Test Site, but also for the first eight years (1963 to 1970) of large underground nuclear bomb tests in Nevada. Those underground detonations also spewed large quantities of radioactivity downwind for hundreds of miles.
Despite the intense and pervasive downwind fallout from the Nevada Test Site in 1953 Washington remained enthusiastic for more continental nuclear weapons detonations. The prevailing sentiment at the federal level was aptly expressed in a letter to the acting chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, Thomas E. Murray, written by AEC Biology and Medicine Advisory Committee head Dr. Elvin C. Stakman on March 25, 1954:Paraphrasing General Forrest's famous saying, "Victory goes to the nation that gits there fastest with the mostest and bestest weapons." This is no less true in the atomic age.Perhaps some unlikely victims of the Nevada test program were the Hollywood cast and film crew of Howard Hughes's production The Conqueror. In 1954 John Wayne, Susan Hayward, and Agnes Moorehead, and producer-director Dick Powell filmed on the sandy dunes outside of St. George, Utah. They were there for three months.
It is therefore essential to continue the Nevada Proving Grounds in order to achieve maximum speed in the development of weapons. Speed is essential to national survival.
In emergencies such as this some risks, immediate and long term, must be accepted. These risks should be frankly and publicly acknowledged. However, the policy of minimizing these risks must be continued in both the local and national interest.
A quarter century later John Wayne, Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead, and Dick Powell had all died of cancer. Wayne, a heavy smoker, succumbed to cancer of his lungs, throat, and stomach in 1979; Hayward died of skin, breast and uterine cancer in 1975; Moorehead passed away from uterine cancer in 1974. Another star of the movie, Pedro Armendariz, developed kidney cancer in 1960 and was later struck with terminal cancer of the lymphatic system. Dick Powell died from lymph cancer when it spread to his lungs in 1963.
The coincidence of these cases was placed into a larger pattern when People magazine researched the subsequent health of the entire Hollywood entourage that had worked on location in St. George. They found that out of 220 people in the cast and crew, ninety-one had contracted cancer by late 1980, and half of the cancer victims had died of the disease. (This survey did not include the couple of hundred local American Indians who served as extras in the film.)
"With these numbers, this case could qualify as an epidemic," remarked University of Utah radiological health director Dr. Robert C. Pendleton. For two decades Pendleton had been warning that radioactive "hot spots" remained in numerous Utah locations, even after atmospheric testing had ceased. Added Dr. Ronald S. Oseas of the Harbor UCLA Medical Center: "It is known that radiation contributes to the risk of cancer. With these numbers, it is highly probable that the Conqueror group was affected by that additive effect."
Ellen Powell, Michael Wayne, and Susan Hayward's son Tim Barker had accompanied their parents to the set in 1954. Tim Barker told of his mother's protracted cancer: "She was in a fetal position, and she had lost her swallowing reflex, she had pneumonia and she had lost her hair." In 1968 he had a benign tumor removed from his mouth. Michael Wayne later suffered from skin cancer. Barker echoed the sentiments of many residents downwind from the test site when he asked, "If the Government knew there was a possibility of exposure, why didn't they just warn us?"
Federal nuclear authorities had long been aware of the deep resentment that had taken hold in numerous communities within a radius of several hundred miles of the Nevada Test Site. But the specter of culpability for the cancer deaths of such popular public figures caused concern at usually stolid government bureaus. At the Pentagon one official of the Defense Nuclear Agency responded to the news by murmuring, "Please, God, don't let us have killed John Wayne."
132. Forgotten Guinea Pigs, p. 18; see also pp. 19-22.
133. Deseret News, April 5, 1979.
134. Ibid. Summarizing the agreement, White's article added that PHS "was not permitted to set up a Nevada office until AEC approved the security arrangements, even though PHS was ordered only to measure readings outside the proving grounds. AEC retained the right of full access, at any time of day or night, to the PHS offices so commission officers could determine `security obligations (to the AEC) are being met.' The ultimate responsibility for the off-site monitoring was retained by AEC . . ."
135. In 1970 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency assumed operational authority for monitoring outside the Nevada Test Site. What agreements the EPA endorsed in secret covenants--with the AEC and its successor atomic military agency, the U.S. Department of Energy--remained a subject of speculation for anyone except those with high security clearances. Critics noted that EPA's radiation monitoring program remained heavily staffed by former AEC officials as the 1980s began.
136. Underground nuclear test leaks information and references are in Chapter Five.
137. Dr. Elvin C. Stakman to Thomas E. Murray, March 25, 1954.
138. People, November 10, 1980, pp. 42-47.
139. Ibid., p. 42.
141. The Conqueror health statistics were especially startling because no atom bombs were exploded in Nevada the year that the movie was filmed (1954); cast and crew were exposed to residual radioactivity left by Nevada atomic tests in previous years (1951-1953).
142. People, November 10, 1980, p. 44.
143. Ibid., p. 46.
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