By Greg O'Brien, Codfish Press
Lost in recent newspaper headlines touting the 60th anniversary of the dropping of nuclear bombs over two Japanese cities that brought World War II literally to a screeching halt are the “downwinders” of this country—the forgotten victims of our atomic testing program in the 1950s and 60s, the road kill of this American Hiroshima, the scores who have died from radiation exposure and their families who were left to cope with this numbing loss.
The government had told the downwinders it needed to test these fireballs to stay ahead of the Soviets, who had detonated their first atomic device on Aug. 29, 1949; in the years to follow, the Soviets ignited 266 surface and air nuclear bombs in the Kazakhstan region of Semi Palatinsk. And so no one in the remote downwind corridor of southern Utah and northwest Arizona blinked when over the course of two decades more than 100 nuclear weapons were exploded above and below the ground at the Nevada Test Site, 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Residents—many of them patriotic Mormons who seldom questioned the government’s authority—were not dissuaded in the early days from viewing the explosions at a distance. (On right; The prettiest radioactive wasteland in Nevada.)
The warnings at first were casual. Families were told there would be a test, and hours later the ash would fall—at first light, then heavy—as pink clouds of fallout, carried by downwind air currents, drifted over Arizona and Utah. The ash tingled the skin, almost stung. Children brushed it off. The debris covered playgrounds, homes and fields where milk cows ate the grass coated with radioactive ash.
It wasn’t long before children and their parents began getting sick. Many died, and soon the downwiders began to feel that they had been deemed “expendable” by their government in its quest for nuclear superiority. Government officials privately specified that “if it turns out that we have killed children, as we were clearly doing in the 1950s, lie about it,” Stewart Udall, Interior Secretary in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, and a lawyer for some of the downwinders, said several years ago in an interview for a documentary, “Downwind of Morality,” produced by Bill Turpie. I served as associate field producer on the project and co-wrote the script.
The government lies would hide a multitude of sins: at the Nevada Test Site and the Los Alamos (New Mexico) Lab where the bombs were designed; at Hanford reservation in southwest Washington where the government processed plutonium during World War II and the Cold War, and secretly released radioactive iodine up the stack of a plutonium processor in 1949; and at government laboratories throughout the country, like Oak Ridge Laboratory in Tennessee where a number of terminal patients were injected without consent many years ago with plutonium (the critical isotope needed in a nuclear chain reaction) to determine how much exposure humans could endure. Not only is radiation that is injected or burns the skin deadly, but equally lethal is the absorption into the body of plants and animals that have been contaminated.
“We have killed off or maimed millions of people without any war at all,” Rudi Nussbaum, an expert on the nuclear issue who then taught at Portland State University in Oregon, noted in Downwind of Morality.
“In our fear, we sacrificed whole parts of this country by the creation of these weapons,” William Lanouette, biographer of Leo Szilard, the Hungarian scientist who first contemplated a nuclear chain reaction, said in the documentary. “We sacrificed a generation of people—through the radiation affects of producing these weapons.”
The litany of suffering and death in the wake of atomic test explosions in the Nevada desert is stunning. It defies any coincidence suggested by defenders of the testing program, or statements by nuclear energy officials, that evidence of radiation poisoning is anecdotal. One woman interviewed for the documentary said she had a brother whose entire class, with the exception of one, ultimately died from cancer. A retired Air Force worker said that after Nevada test blasts Geiger counters were often placed on cars in the area, and “they buzzed like rattlesnakes!” And in nearby Utah, a hardware store owner lost 14 members of his family to cancer. “The government lied to us,” said a downwinder in Northern Arizona. “That’s the greatest travesty. They told us we were safe, and they knew that we were not.”
More than 50 years later, the tragedies continue. Entire family trees have been seared, and the toll, passed down through heredity, sadly keeps rising.