Utah’s Role in Nuclear Testing During the Early 1950s

by ZACH CARLSON

The early 1950s were a tumultuous time for the United States of America. The Red Scare was well into effect, the Korean War was raging on, and Soviet Russia’s nuclear capabilities were looming on the horizon. These issues carried into 1951, marking the beginning of the new year with nuclear testing in what is now known as the Nevada Proving Grounds. The Proving Grounds are 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas. On January 27, 1951, the United States began dropping nuclear bombs to test the effect of them.

NTS_-_Warning_handbill

The U. S. Atomic Energy Commission distributed handbills such as this one before the first series of tests was conducted. The public is advised that there is “no danger” to individuals living outside the testing area. The Downwinders of Utah Archive, J. Willard Marriott Library, The University of Utah.

On January 4, 1951, the Iron County Record published an article stating, “We must pull out of Korea completely and stop useless sacrifice…. The A-bomb should be used if it will help our forces in Korea.” These lines tell us how local community members felt about the political situation then. Later in the article it is stated that “not a single letter expressed actual terror at the thought of another war and the possibility of A-bombs being used against us. War … is better than attempted appeasement of aggressors.” The local citizens would rather be exposed to the effects of nuclear radiation than roll over to the enemy. Little did they know, they got what they wished for.

In late January 1951, nearly a dozen nuclear bomb tests took place. The Salt Lake Telegram published an article on January 29, 1951, discussing how the 10th and 11th atomic blasts had affected locals. The bombs rattled casinos over 60 miles away in Las Vegas. The newspaper also reported on the wide number of complaints from citizens: “Citizens generally were not pleased. The police department got four calls per minute for a half hour.” Beyond this general grumble and discontent from Las Vegas and Utah residents, public fervor died down for a while.

A conference was held at the University of Utah in May 1951 on the subject of nuclear testing and specifically how Americans had been kept sheltered from just what nuclear bombs and energy could do when compared to other countries. An article published in the Salt Lake Telegram on May 19 discussed how the United States had recently declassified and made public a large amount of nuclear information. The author rightfully draws a connection between this now-public knowledge and citizens, especially Utahns and Nevadans, having such an up-close experience with nuclear bombs.

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This image was published in a February 1955 information booklet produced by the AEC for people who lived near the Nevada test site.

Later in 1951, multiple nuclear tests were delayed because “light winds” could spell death and disease for local residents of Utah. The Salt Lake Telegram reported in November that “the postponement was the third in as many days.” This tells us just how common and deadly these light winds could be.

In April 1952, the United States began testing the effects of nuclear fallout on troops. The Salt Lake Telegram discussed how from 10 miles away the heat from the blast singed the hair off of people’s faces. The heat was described as a “blast furnace.” The soldiers had dug fox holes only 4 miles away from ground zero, subjecting themselves to extremely unhealthy doses of radiation.

For over a year, the continued nuclear testing didn’t receive much attention, as it just became a part of day-to-day life except for when it caused a much greater inconvenience. In May 1953 residents of Cedar City and southern Utah, specifically St. George, were asked to stay in their homes and not leave or drive anywhere. The problem lasted longer than one would expect; the radiation lingered in the air days after the nuclear test. The levels of radiation were deemed safe by the Atomic Energy Commission. The Iron County Record reported on May 21, 1953, that “the levels of radiation produced outside the test control area were in no way harmful to humans, animals or crops.”

Poisoning from radiation takes time to rear its ugly head in the form of cancer, birth defects, and other unfortunate symptoms. Janet Burton Seegmiller writes in The History of Iron County that:

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.

These people had been promised by their own government that they would be safe throughout the nuclear testing. They had been lied to. Seegmiller discusses that declassified documents show even back in the late 1940s it was painfully aware to scientists that this was hazardous to human and livestock.

The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) proceeded to continue with the tests, anyway. Sheep began to have burns on their faces and miscarry fetuses that had deformities. Those that survived to birth would often die due to other deformities. Everyone still believed the government when it reassured the citizens that everything was fine. In 1984, the United States District Court ruled in Allen v. United States that “fallout caused human deaths and the federal government was negligent in failing to warn residents.” But the government won a reversal on appeal on the grounds of national security. On May 11, 1984, the New York Times reported that a federal district judge ruled that ”the Government was negligent in failing to warn residents who lived in the path of fallout plumes about the danger of radioactive contaminations.” The government again appealed the decision. In Utah, The Right Place, Thomas G. Alexander writes, “Although they knew or suspected the danger from the fallout, they did not tell the people… that they stood in risk of cancer or leukemia. Rather, AEC officials publicly lied about the danger.”

In 1990, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act was passed. The government apologized to its very own citizens, now known as the Downwinders, and established a compensation program to help individuals who contracted certain cancers and other serious diseases. On March 2, 2015, the Department of Justice reported that it had awarded more than $2 billion in “compassionate compensation to eligible claimants” under the act.

Zach Carlson is a student at The University of Utah. He is pursuing a degree in communication with an emphasis in journalism. Zach is an avid consumer of movies, video games, and books, and loves dogs.

Sources

“Let’s Hear from the People,” Iron County Record, January 4, 1951, 2.

“Nevada Area Braces for More A-Blasts,” Salt Lake Telegram, January 29, 1951 3.

“The Big Question,” Salt Lake Telegram, May 19, 1951, 4.

“Storm Delays Atomic Tests,” Salt Lake Telegram, October 26, 1951, 7.

“Wrong-Way Wind Postpones Nevada A-Test” Salt Lake Telegram, November 17, 1951, 2.

“Mighty A-Bomb Slams Troops,” Salt Lake Telegram, April 22, 1952.

“Plan ‘Most Daring’ A-Bomb, Troop Maneuvers,” Salt Lake Telegram, May 26, 1952, 3.

“Atomic Winds – Fall-out,” Iron County Record, May 21, 1953, 2.

Alexander, Thomas G. Utah, The Right Place: The Official Centennial History. Salt Lake City, Utah: Gibbs Smith Publishers, 2003.

Peterson, Iver. “U.S. Ruled Negligent in A-Tests Followed by Nine Cancer Deaths.New York Times, May 11, 1984. http://lib.utah.edu/services/geospatial/downwinders/

Seegmiller, Janet Burton. A History of Iron County: Community Above Self. Salt Lake City: Utah State Historical Society, 1998.

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