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DOWNWIND FROM THE BOMB By Howard Ball; Howard Ball is a prof
Sat Nov 25, 2017 22:47

By Howard Ball; Howard Ball is a professor of political science and dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Science at the University of Utah.

This article is adapted from his book ''Justice Downwind,'' to be published this month by Oxford University Press.
Published: February 9, 1986

ALTHOUGH AMERICA'S FIRST ATOMIC TESTS WERE conducted in secrecy in New Mexico, after World War II the United States shifted nuclear-weapons trials to the southern Pacific Ocean. The possibility of security breeches was offset, it was reasoned, by the lessened risk to public health and safety.

With the outbreak of hostilities in Korea in June 1950 and the start of the cold war, however, the Atomic Energy Commission argued that future tests of atomic bombs must be conducted within the borders of the United States, for reasons of national security. The A.E.C., which had nearly complete statutory authority over the development, use and control of atomic energy, conceded that no domestic site ''can be considered a completely safe alternative to overseas sites'' and that ''radiological hazards'' were the ''central problem'' in site selection.

Nevertheless, it formally recommended, at its Dec. 12, 1950, meeting in Washington, that the nation's atomic testing be returned to the American continent. The next week, with no public debate or fanfare, President Harry S. Truman issued the order establishing a continental nuclear testing site.

The President chose the Las Vegas-Tonopah Bombing and Gunnery Range, a Government-owned area north of Las Vegas, Nev., as the location for the nation's nuclear trials.

The Nevada Proving Ground (called the Nevada Test Site, or N.T.S., after 1954; map, following page) was selected because of its low population density, the ''virtually uninhabitable'' land downwind from the site, and favorable meteorological conditions, a reference to the prevailing winds that blew eastward away from the heavily populated Los Angeles and Las Vegas metropolitan areas.

A month later, on Jan. 27, 1951, the United States exploded its first nuclear device on American soil since the war. During the 1950's, nearly 100 atomic sunbursts would add their brilliant color to the early morning skies over the Southwestern desert.

More than a quarter of the atomic shots produced mushroom shaped, pinkish clouds filled with radioactive debris, which was carried by high-altitude currents over the downwind valleys, deserts and small towns in Nevada, Arizona and Utah.

While it is not not a heavily populated region, approximately 100,000 people lived in the three-state expanse north and east of the N.T.S. In later years, when the fallout that dusted their fields and streets had become a familiar sight, they would refer to themselves as ''the downwinders.'' NUCLEAR TESTING WAS UNDERTAKEN DURING THE 1950'S TO perfect strategic weapons systems ''in almost as complete a variety as conventional weapons,'' A.E.C. Chairman Gordon E. Dean said in 1951.

Military leaders also wanted the opportunity to station troops at test sites in order to observe the psychological effects of simulated nu-clear combat on soldiers.

But the principal objective of the atomic trials and the A.E.C.'s primary goal, particularly after the Soviet Union's first successful atomic test in 1949, was to maintain American nuclear superiority over the Russians.

The Soviet atomic threat left the United States ''no alternative but to maintain our scientific and technical progress and maintain our strength at peak levels,'' Lewis L. Strauss, Mr. Dean's successor as Chairman of the A.E.C., told the Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy in 1955.

By 1950, the A.E.C. was aware that radioactive fallout presented a serious health risk to those who came in contact with it. But as the decade progressed, the commissioners interpreted the tests, in part, as a choice between safety and nuclear superiority.

''If we continue to reduce the fraction [ of radiation ] we are willing to release, we eventually reach a cost of control which makes the operation prohibitive,'' testified Gordon M. Dunning, director of the commission's division of biology and medicine, in a 1957 Congressional hearing. A.E.C. Commissioner Willard

Frank Libby, also testifying in 1957, contrasted the ''very small and rigidly controlled risk'' posed by fallout with the greater ''risk of annihilation.''

THE DOWNWINDERS WERE DESCENDANTS OF THE Mormon pioneers who had arrived in the Southwest in the late 1840's. Although the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints no longer completely dominated community life, these towns and villages - among them St. George, Cedar City and Parowan, Utah, and Bunkerville, Nev. -remained islands of social and political conservatism.

Families were large (Utah's 1950 average family size of 8.83 people was the nation's highest) and close-knit. The downwinders were also rigid both in their anti-Communism and their support for Government policies. A Jan. 4, 1951, editorial in the weekly Iron County (Utah) Record, published in Cedar City, was representative of local sentiment. ''The people are not terrified of another war and the possibility of atom bombs being used against us,'' declared the newspaper. ''War is better than appeasing aggressors.''

The test series called Ranger, which began on Jan. 27, 1951, and continued through Feb. 6, was the first extended domestic nuclear trial since the July 1945 Trinity tests in Alamogordo, N.M. The first blast startled many people that early Saturday morning.

A mail-truck driver in Orderville, Utah, thought the Russians had dropped an A-bomb on Los Angeles; another truck driver south of Las Vegas reported that ''the flash blinded me for a second or two and gave me quite a scare. I have seen the northern lights often - but this explosion made them look silly.''

The local press applauded the tests. The day after the initial blast, The Deseret News, the daily newspaper published by the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City, ran an editorial entitled, ''Spectacular Atomic Explosions Mean Progress in Defense, No Cause For Panic.''

''It's a long way from Las Vegas to Moscow,'' Harry Ferguson, a syndicated columnist, wrote in The Deseret News two days later, but ''there isn't any doubt that the blast that rocked Nevada over the weekend was also felt in Russia.'' Another columnist, Clint Mosher, after observing the last of the Ranger shots, wrote, ''I never saw a prettier sight; it was like a letter from home or the firm handshake of someone you admire and trust.''

Ranger was followed by the Buster-Jangle test series in the fall of 1951 and by the Tumbler-Snapper trials in the spring of '52. These were low-yield tests that did not produce major off-site nuclear contamination. The press accorded the blasts little comment.

There was, however, one exception. During the Tumbler-Snapper series, Lyle Jepson, a Salt Lake City radio technician, won a $10 News Tip Contest prize from The Deseret News for informing the paper of dangerously high levels of radioactivity over the city. The paper notified the A.E.C. about the excessive radioactivity. A commission spokesman responded that the A.E.C. had charted the radioactive cloud but had not issued a warning because there was no danger to the residents.

The Deseret News criticized the commission's indifference. On May 9, 1952, two days after the blast, the paper wrote that A.E.C. precautions ''must be redoubled for ensuring the safety of the entire area.''

Despite their concern for safety, few downwinders questioned the validity of the testing. A March 1953 Deseret News editorial called the nuclear trials ''tragic and insane,'' but conceded, ''So long as we live in an atomic world, we must and will continue to learn more about this power and how to survive it.''

The 1953 Upshot-Knothole nuclear test series, which began on March 17 and lasted until June 4, included several ''dirty'' blasts that deposited radioactive debris on the downwind towns. Between May and July, thousands of sheep - approximately 25 percent of the herds in southern Utah and Nevada - died. Concerned about possible adverse public reaction, the A.E.C. issued a press release attributing the deaths to ''unprecedented cold weather.''

Several ranchers sued the commission in Federal District Court in Salt Lake City in 1956, claiming that fallout from Upshot-Knothole had killed their livestock. The Government successfully argued, in Bulloch v. United States, that other factors, including ''inadequate feeding, unfavorable winter range conditions, and infectious diseases,'' caused the deaths.

(In 1982, Judge A. Sherman Christensen, who had ruled against the plaintiffs in 1956, ordered a new trial based on information revealed under the Freedom of Information Act in 1979. Government agents in the earlier case had, ruled Judge Christensen, committed a ''species of fraud'' against the court.

But he was overruled on appeal, and last month, the Supreme Court refused to order the reopening of the case.) Although the deaths of the sheep generated little comment in the press at the time, beginning in the spring of 1953 fears about radiation became a staple of press coverage of the atomic tests.

In an editorial, The Deseret News complained that ''the public is never told just what levels of radiation are reached in this area.'' In May, The Iron County Record published a letter from a local reader who felt ''morally obligated'' to advise his neighbors of ''the possible irreparable damage that may have occurred or may in the future occur as a consequence of the continuing series of nuclear explosions in Nevada.

'' Radiation, he warned, ''may very well be injurious. Your health, your children's health, and the health of generations yet unborn, are at stake.''

Nevertheless, that same month The Record also reported the assurances of Dr. Dunning, head of the A.E.C.'s division of biology and medicine, that ''the levels of radiation produced outside the test control area were in no way harmful to humans, animals or crops.''

The public statements of A.E.C. personnel belied their private comments and actions. At the commission's July 7, 1953, meeting in Washington, Chairman Lewis Strauss admitted to his colleagues that there was ''no disposition on the part of the A.E.C. to think that the fallout problem was not a most serious one,'' according to minutes of the meeting that were declassified in 1978.

At the next A.E.C. meeting a week later, a commission scientist contended that the death of the sheep had probably resulted from the ingestion of toxic plants; but, he conceded, ''They apparently also suffered some radiation injury.''

Frank Butrico, a Public Health Service radiation safety monitor who worked in St. George, Utah, during the 1953 series, testified in a 1982 wrongful death suit filed by 24 cancer victims and their relatives that his ''instruments were off the scales'' after a particularly heavy dusting of St. George by fallout from a bomb nicknamed Dirty Harry.

Mr. Butrico told the court that he was instructed by the operating staff at the Nevada Test Site to report only that ''radiation levels were a little bit above normal but not in the range of being harmful.'' Later, Mr. Butrico testified during the trial of the lawsuit, he discovered that his radiation reports had been tampered with by A.E.C. officials at the N.T.S.

By the time the Teapot series of atomic tests began in February 1955, the growing public concern for radiation safety had led the Atomic Energy Commission to mount a campaign to assure downwinders that their health and safety were not in peril.

The A.E.C. medical staff visited downwind communities to inform residents that the radiation from the tests was ''about one-twentieth of that experienced in an X-ray,'' according to a report in The Washington County (Utah) News, a weekly published in St. George. A.E.C. personnel visited with civic organizations to discuss the testing program.

On April 14, 1955, The Washington County News even noted ''the premiere showing of the Atomic Energy Commission's 'fallout' picture, parts of which were filmed in St. George''; the movie was screened before the St. George Chamber of Commerce.

The A.E.C. also appealed to the downwinders' patriotism. ''You are in a very real sense active participants in the nation's atomic test program,'' James E. Reeves, the N.T.S. test manager, wrote in an A.E.C. report that was distributed in schools and to community groups in the downwind towns in January 1955.

''I want you to know that each shot is justified by national or international security and that none will be fired unless there is adequate assurance of public safety. We are grateful for your continued cooperation and your understanding.''

Despite the downwinders' worries, the A.E.C. remained adamantly opposed to changes in the test series, according to now-declassified commission records. ''I think this will set the weapons pro-gram back a lot, to go to the Pacific,'' said Commissioner Libby at the A.E.C.'s Feb. 23, 1955, meeting.

''People have got to learn to live with the facts of life,'' he continued, ''and part of the facts of life are fallout.'' At the same meeting, Commissioner Thomas E. Murray asserted, ''We must not let anything interfere with this series of tests - nothing.''

The next day, Feb. 24, another pinkish cloud appeared over Cedar City, Utah, and remained there for several hours. The sky was hazy, and fallout dusted the ground. Local children, recounted a resident, ''ate it, walked in it, breathed it . . . . You know how little kids love snow. They went out and would eat the 'snow'.''

A young mother from St. George, Jeannie Snow, also recalled ''the pink dust in the air.'' Fearful of the radiation, ''I huddled with all my little ones around me. But what can you do when you can't see it, you can't feel, you can't taste, you can't hear it?''

THE PLUMBBOB atomic test series began in April 1957. By this time, because of the Bulloch litigation over the sheep deaths three years earlier, Dr. Albert Schweitzer's well-publicized call for an end to atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, and the appearance of antinuclear demonstrators at the N.T.S., Congress had decided to take up the issue of radiation safety.

In May, the Joint Atomic Energy Committee heard testimony from expert witnesses who, for the first time in a formal public setting, indicated that increased radiation hazards were an ''inseparable'' result of extensive atomic weapons testing at the Nevada Test Site.

The downwinders themselves were becoming more independent in their determination of the problem. Many of them began to use their geiger counters (purchased, ironically, in the 1940's for uranium prospecting) to measure the radiation released by an atomic explosion. The local press began to fill with reports of counters ''going off the scale'' after a test shot.

To combat stories about high radiation readings, the commission issued disclaimers. ''We can expect many reports that 'geiger counters were going crazy here today','' one official told The Iron County Record in May 1957. ''Reports like this may worry people unnecessarily.

Don't let them bother you.'' In spite of the A.E.C.'s efforts, downwinders began to vent their fears openly. The tests ''are not worth sacrificing our children and our children's children for,'' wrote a mother of six in a letter to The Deseret News in 1957. ''Let's stop them now.''

The end of the tests was, in fact, near. By 1958, the intelligence community was committed fully to the development and testing of hydrogen weapons.

And, on Aug. 22, President Dwight D. Eisenhower announced that the United States and Britain were ready ''to withhold testing of atomic and hydrogen warheads for one year to fa-cilitate a broad system of international controls.'' Nevertheless, the seventh and final series of atomic tests at the N.T.S. in the 1950's, Hardtack II, remained scheduled for the early fall of 1958.

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