Nuclear Testing: Southern Utah’s Battle for Air

by ARYAN FARAHANI

During the years of World War II and throughout the years of the Cold War, we saw many horrific acts of violence that changed many components of our society. Within these acts of violence, the rise of destructive weapons, known as nuclear weapons, were more prominently showcased throughout the world.

Not only were these nuclear weapons used for “safety,” but they were also manufactured to showcase a nation’s superiority. In 1945, toward the end of WW II, the United States was the first nation to use nuclear weapons, on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After these horrendous events, and as the quest for world dominance continued, many more nations began developing nuclear weapons. With that in mind, the competition to create the world’s best nuclear weapon was in the works. And with the United States taking on the role of global hegemon, it was clear that in order to create the perfect weapon, many tests had to be conducted throughout the US.

Nevada, with its desert-like geography and immense amounts of open space, was an ideal site for one of the nuclear testing centers operated by the United States Department of Energy. Nye County, in south-central Nevada, also was close to two cities in southern Utah: St. George and Cedar City. With the initial test-taking place in January 1951, many Southern Utahns were unaware of what exactly the nuclear tests would entail. But in the coming years, the disastrous effects of the “purple cloud” became more evident. (“Atom Explosions”) As Seegmiller writes, “Relatively few Iron County residents were aware of or concerned about nuclear testing when the first mushroom-shaped cloud rose into the western skies … but the cloud figuratively remains over southern Utah and Nevada to this day.”

The Salt Lake Telegram reported on January 27, 1951, that “residents of Southern Utah, miles to the cast of here, said they saw the sky light up and heard the distant rumbling.” This initial blast was the beginning of many tests. And although that was the case, many were not aware of the harmful toxins that nuclear tests would release on the residents, as well as on the surrounding residents of Southern Utah.

Through the initial steps of the first nuclear test, further progress needed to be achieved. Therefore, another nuclear test was conducted in April 1952. The Salt Lake Telegram reported on April 14, 1952, that “indications pointed to the testing of another atomic device rather than a full-blown atomic bomb,” which would essentially “be developed into future atomic weapons.” Many of the repercussions were still not evident to the residents, but it became clear that more nuclear tests were to be conducted in the near future.

Moreover, another nuclear test was conducted in March 1953. The Iron County Record reported on March 5, 1953, that “ranchers, miners, migrants, private fliers, and others concerned are warned that the atomic energy commission’s Nevada proving grounds will be used for nuclear experiments.” Although this was the case, many were still not warned of the harms, but instead had to find out about them the hard way.

In consideration of the above tests that were conducted throughout the years of 1951-1953, some individuals who were educated on the matter of nuclear weapons concluded that they were obliged to talk about it. It wasn’t until 1953 when some of the nuclear tests’ tragedies began to become evident. More specifically, and as reported in the May 7, 1953, issue of the Irony County Record, University of Utah research student Ralph L. Hafen noted that he was “morally obligated to warn people of the irreparable damage that may have occurred or may in the future occur” from the nuclear tests. Hafen stated in the Irony County Record that the plutonium and radiation that the tests released could affect many components of southern Utah residents’ lives, which can be summarized to include cancer, blindness, mutations, death, and climate change.

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The Iron County Record reported on March 3, 1955, that ranchers were convinced atomic testing had killed their sheep.

Many individuals in southern Utah began noticing that some changes in their everyday lives could be related to the nuclear tests that had been conducted in the border state of Nevada. And although they noticed, it was clear that the tests would continue to be conducted. That being said, the March 31955, issue of the Iron County Record reported that “the third atomic blast [of 1955] was seen from Cedar [City],” which shows its severity, because Cedar City is more distant to the Nevada border. The article also stated that that southern Utah farmers were “convinced that the atomic fallout from the experiments at Yucca Flats in Nevada two years ago was the direct cause of heavy loss to sheep herds grazing in adjacent areas.” Therefore, they filed a lawsuit against the Atomic Energy Commission for its actions and incompetent behavior. Also in 1955, many citizens, including southern Utah residents, were briefly told about the harms that the nuclear tests could have on their lives. The Iron County Record reported on February 3, 1955, that “the Atomic Energy Commission, Department of Defense, has announced that it will not be responsible for patrons who might wander into the area, without proper authority.” It was also reported in the same issue that it was dangerous to be around the tests, identifying that “caution has also been advised for individuals in the general area.”

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The view of an atomic explosion at the Nevada Test Site, located 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas in Nye County, Nevada. Lloyd Franklin Manis Collection, Special Collections, University of Nevada-Las Vegas. Used with permission.

The book Fallout: An American Nuclear Tragedy by Philip Fradkin discusses the government’s historical role with nuclear testing. Fradkin highlights how the Atomic Energy Commission was at fault through “the mistakes and subsequent cover-ups” that they used with these nuclear tests. (2) It is clear that the government officials involved with these tests were aware of their harms, but did not feel a need to tell residents the details. Instead, these officials withheld information, and gave them a brief warning four years after the first nuclear test took place.

Southern Utah residents were deeply affected by these events and by the actions of the Atomic Energy Commission. In the book Justice Downward: America’s Atomic Testing Program in the 1950s, a former University of Utah professor, Howard Ball, discusses the careless behavior of the government. Ball examines the events of the blasts, and quotes Frank Butrico, a Public Health Service radiation safety monitor who worked in St. George during the 1953 series of tests. Butrico testified in a 1982 wrongful death suit filed by 24 cancer victims and their relatives. He said, “The radioactive cloud hung over St. George for over two hours, fallout radiation levels peaked at a little less than 6 rads, well over even AEC standards.” (Ball, 43)

In addition to that, southern Utah residents were not truthfully told about this information. Instead, they were told, “Radiation levels were a little above normal but not in the range of being harmful.” (Ball, 43-44) Not only was valuable information withheld from residents, but they also were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation that indefinitely caused many issues to their health and surrounding environment. With a matter as severe as this, it is saddening to learn about the truths after they had initially taken place. Although there isn’t a reliable statistic proving the amount of illnesses and cancer-related deaths the exposure of the radiation levels caused, Seegmiller reports that “as of September 1994, 1,003 claims had been approved, 829 claims had been denied, and 125 were pending.” These figures illustrate just how severe the effects were on southern Utah residents.

All in all, it is clear that the nuclear tests that were conducted in Nevada are an incredibly important part of Utah’s history as a whole. Although this research focuses on the years of 1951-1955, these nuclear tests ultimately changed many people’s lives, and to this day in 2017, the effects that these nuclear tests had on southern Utah residents are extremely palpable. It is important to take into account these events, because although these nuclear tests caused many tragedies, they are an essential part of our history, and are important components in learning more about how nuclear activity had an effect on Utahns.

That being said, today, the government has set up funds to compensate families for the illnesses and deaths these blasts may have caused. Although it does not make up for the damages the nuclear tests have done, it does show some initiative and responsibility on the government’s part. Looking through the United States Department of Justice webpage, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act “established an administrative program for claims relating to atmospheric nuclear testing and claims relating to uranium industry employment.” (RECA) And if these nuclear tests are proven to be the cause of any harm, then families would receive compensation to make up for the indescribable damage.

Aryan Farahni graduated in May 2017 from The University of Utah. He attained a Bachelor of Science degree in political science, with minors in media studies and international studies. 

Sources

“Atom Explosion Set off in Nevada,” Salt Lake Telegram, January 27, 1951, 1.

“Spews Purple Cloud,” Salt Lake Telegram, October 30, 1951, 1.

“Scientists Arrive at Vegas for Second A-Blast,” Salt Lake Telegram, April 14, 1952, 2.

“Atomic Proving Ground Set for Nuclear Test,” Iron County Record, March 5, 1953, 3.

Ralph L. Hafen, “Effects of Atom Blasts on Southern Utah Discussed by U. of U. Student, Iron County Record, May 7, 1953, 9.

“Citizens Are Warned of Dangers at Nevada Test Site,” Iron County Record, February 2, 1955, 2.

“Local Sheep Raisers File Suit with Govt. for Loss,” Iron County Record, March 3, 1955, 1.

“Third Atomic Blast Seen From Cedar,” Iron County Record, March 3, 1955, 8.

Ball, Howard. Justice Downwind: America’s Atomic Testing Program in the 1950s. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Fradkin, Philip L. Fallout: An American Nuclear Tragedy. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1989.

The United States Department of Justice. “Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.” https://www.justice.gov/civil/common/reca

Seegmiller, Janet Burton. “Nuclear Testing and the Downwinders.” Utah History to Go, http://bit.ly/1nSvCYD

 

 

 

 

 

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