Throughout the 1950s, the Atomic Energy Commission tested nuclear weapons in a remote area of the Nevada desert. At the time, communities situated downwind were told this project was safe, and would have no impact on public health. Now over 60 years later, Utahans are coming forward to document their stories in the fallout of nuclear testing.
Imagine it’s 1951. You’re eight years old, living in the then-sleepy town of St. George Utah. You’re in school, and your teacher has just walked you and your entire class to the playground. Because something is happening outside. Something big, and the whole school has gathered to see it.
BONNIE DEEM: And we seen the flicker. We did see a type of a mushroom go up. And after that was over, we went out and played - that was our time to go out and have recess. I had the feeling that that, that it wasn't good. I didn't know just being a child. I thought, ‘why would they do that? Why would they send things up in the air?’ And that was just my thoughts as a child.
Bonnie Deem. This is her memory, living through the era of nuclear testing. From January 1951 through October 1958 the United States performed 119 nuclear tests at what was known as the Nevada Test Site, situated 135 miles west of St. George. During these detonations, large amounts of debris were drawn up into the atmosphere which contained radioactive substances. That radiation would then be carried many, many miles away by wind, returning to the ground as fallout.
In the months, years, and yes - decades after nuclear testing, evidence of fallout contamination grew, appearing in the environment, in animals, and humans living downwind. They’re known as downwinders.
BONNIE DEEM: I have lost many of my school buddies, even the younger ones that were there, and it was due to cancer. My sister passed away with cancer of the liver at 34. My brother, just a little bit older than her, passed away with stomach cancer. My mother had cancer, I have had cancer. It just seems like that area, that group of us, have all of us contracted cancer. The doctors have all said it is from radiation - over amount of radiation. And so if you know where it came from, the government did a bad job for all of us.
Bonnie’s first-hand experience with nuclear fallout and its effects is one of now over forty stories collected in an ongoing project at the J. Willard Marriot Library through the University of Utah.
JUSTIN SORENSON: So my name is Justin Sorenson. I am the GIS specialist for the J. Willard Marriot Library at the University of Utah. I actually am the creator of this archive.
Sorenson and his colleagues visited southeastern Utah this spring, to collect more oral histories from local downwinders. Although only residents living in certain Utah counties are eligible for government compensation, the term ‘downwinders’ applies to anyone who lived downwind from nuclear weapons testing. Richard Miller’s famous map depicting areas crossed by radioactive clouds in the nuclear era, shows fallout in every single state, but Utah is almost entirely covered.
JUSTIN SORENSON: You know, like I said, at first, it just started as mapping to see this data and where different areas of Utah were impacted. But I started learning more about these people – the downwinder people. And it just, I don't know. It’s just something that was really interesting to me. It's something I hadn't learned in school. And I just wanted to continue expanding upon that. With this archive, we're just hoping that we can preserve these stories, let future generations know what happened, but also keep the voice of these people alive.
PRESTON ‘JAY’ TRUMAN: This is this is a little booklet I had, which I actually brought back home from my first day of kindergarten in 1957. The government did give us a gift to everybody in town. And it's called ‘Atomic Tests in Nevada.’
Preston Truman, who goes by ‘Jay’ one of the downwinders in the archive. During the nuclear testing era, the Atomic Energy Commission denied that these tests were harmful to public health, even as outside scientists and researchers - beginning in the late 1950s - started proving that they were. But secrecy and denial prevailed for years, because the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 allowed the commission to act as both developer and safety regulator of nuclear weapons.
In his oral history interview, Jay reads from his official government issued booklet.
PRESTON ‘JAY’ TRUMAN: ‘Nevada tests have helped us make great progress in a few years, and have been a vital factor in maintaining the peace of the world. Some of you have been inconvenienced by our test operations. Nevertheless, you have accepted them without fuss and without alarm. Your cooperation has helped to achieve an unusual record of safety. To our knowledge, no one outside the test site has been hurt in six years of testing.’ That is really, you know…stinks. And really says it all especially when right now they have paid $1.4 billion dollars in compensation already to downwinders in that area. And there's many, many more out there.
The downwinders of Utah archive contains oral histories, presentations, as well as an extensive interactive timeline on the nuclear era. You can visit the archive at lib.utah.edu.
Reporting from Southeastern Utah, I’m Molly Marcello.