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Atmospheric tests conducted at the Nevada Test Site were usually held when the wind was blowing east or northeast. Tests were timed with these weather conditions in order to avoid fallout over more densely populated areas to the south and west, like Las Vegas and southern California. The east and northeast wind pattern placed Iron County at the center of the fallout zone.

When nuclear testing began in Nevada most residents of Iron County were not concerned. The Atomic Energy Commission's press release promised that the atomic tests would be conducted "with adequate assurances of safety." Declassified transcripts released from 1978 to 1980 show that scientists knew as early as 1947 that fission products released by atomic bombs could pose a threat to humans and animals exposed during and after the tests. Although these warnings came from AEC's own scientists and outside medical researchers, they decided to continue with the testing.

Living Next to the Tests

During the first two years of testing, the residents of Iron County paid little attention to the detonations happening a few hundred miles away. The local paper, the Iron County Record, spent more time describing civil defense preparedness than covering the tests. Residents were more concerned about a nuclear attack from Russia than from the fallout of the testing happening a few hundred miles away. Just like elsewhere in the nation, children practiced bomb drills at school and residents began building bomb shelters and storing food so it wouldn't be contaminated.

The people of the area were strongly opposed to Communism and supportive of government policies. The Iron County Record ran an editorial on Januray 4, 1951 that read ''The people are not terrified of another war and the possibility of atom bombs being used against us. War is better than appeasing aggressors.'

The Ranger tests series, which lasted from Janurary 27 to Feburary 6, 1951 were the first domestic nuclear tests since the Trinity Tests in 1945. The first blast startled many of the area's residents. A mail truck driver thought the Soviets had bombed Los Angeles. Another truck driver who was south of Las Vegas said 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 day after the test, The Deseret News, a daily paper published by the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City, ran an editorial with the headline "Spectacular Atomic Explosions Mean Progress in Defense, No Cause For Panic."

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

As the tests continued, the Buster-Jangle series in the fall of 1951 and the Tumbler-Snapper series in spring of 1952, the press made little comment. However, during the Tumbler-Snapper series, Lyle Jepson, a radio technician living in Salt Lake City, alerted the paper of dangerously high levels of radioactivity over the city. When the paper then notified the AEC about the radioactivity, a spokesman responded that they had charted the radioactive cloud but had not issued a warning because there was no danger to the residents. The Deseret News was critical of the commission's indifference and wrote that AEC precautions "must be redoubled for ensuring the safety of the entire area."

Even with their concern for safety, not many of the residents wanted the tests to be discontinued. In 1953, the Desert News published an editorial calling the nuclear tests "tragic and insane" but went on to say, "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."

In March of 1953, the AEC invited 600 observers to view a test shot and its effect on mannequins, typical homes, and automobiles. Klien Rollo was a reporter for the Iron County Record and covered the event. The observers watched the detonation from several miles away. When the debris and dust settled they were taken into the test area for a closer examination. Although Rollo had thought it was "his good fortune" to be one of the invited, his paper soon began questioning the safety of nuclear fallout. The newspaper printed an article by Ralph J. Hafen who was a resident of St. George and a student of the University of Utah. He wrote that he felt "morally obligated to warn people of the irreparable damage that may have occurred or may in the future occur" from exposure to radiation. He wanted the AEC to explain why cars traveling in the area were washed after detonations. Hafen predicted future problems and cautioned that "damage done to an individual by radiation often does not make itself known for five to ten years or a generation or more." He went on to write that radiation "may very well be injurious. Your health, your children's health, and the health of generations yet unborn, are at stake." Around the same time, in The Desert News, an editorial complained that "the public is never told just what levels of radiation are reached in this area." Later that same month, The Iron County Record reported the assurances of Dr. Dunning, from AEC, 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 the AEC contradicted what was said in private. According to declassified minutes of a July 1953 meeting in Washington, AEC 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."

Bulloch v. United States

During the Upshot-Knothole series of tests in March and June of 1953, there were several blasts that deposited radioactive debris on the downwind towns. During this time approximately 18,000 to 20,000 sheep had been transported by train across Nevada from winter range to the lambing yards at Cedar City in Iron County. These sheep were exposed to large quantities of radioactive fallout from the Upshot-Knothole series. The animals had been eating radioactive grass which caused there to be burns on their faces and lips. Soon ewes began miscarrying in large numbers. When adult sheep were having clumps of wool sloughed off at the lambing yard it exposed blisters. Those lambs that did come to term were stillborn with grotesque deformities or born so weak they were unable to nurse. Ranchers lost approximately a third of their herd. The AEC was aware of the loss of sheep and in an attempt to prevent adverse public reaction, issued a press release attributing the deaths to "unprecedented cold weather."

The ranchers and their veterinary investigator believed that radiation poisoning was the cause. Steven Brower, an Iron County agricultural agent had been given a Geiger counter by the AEC. When he visited the sheep pens, he reported the "needle on my meter went off scale. We picked up high counts on the thyroid and on the top of the head, and there were lesions and scabs on the mouths and noses of the sheep." The AEC sent out teams of radiation experts to Cedar City to examine the animals, but the dead carcasses had already been destroyed. The AEC had its scientists rewrite their filed reports eliminating any references to any speculation about radiation damage or effects. Ranchers lost a quarter of a million dollars because of the dead sheep. Brower was told "that AEC could under no circumstances allow the precedent to be set in court or otherwise that AEC was liable or responsible for payment for radiation damage to either animals or humans."

The ranchers of Iron County brought five lawsuits against the government in 1955-1956. They alleged that atmospheric testing of nuclear devices in the spring of 1953 caused damage to their herds. The ranchers were represented by Dan Bushnell, a young lawyer who believed that the truth would win in the end.

The first case, Bulloch v. United States, came before the court of Judge Sherman Christensen in September 1956. Bulloch served as a representative for the other ranchers. Unfortunately for the plaintiffs, the technical data from government studies and testimony from government veterinarians regarding radiation damage gathered by the AEC was not presented. The government provided expert witness testimony that radiation damage could not have been the cause or a contributing cause to the sheep death. The government lawyers argued that other factors, including "inadequate feeding, unfavorable winter range conditions, and infectious diseases" caused the deaths. Bushnell tried to convince Judge Christensen that the government was covering up any unfavorable information in order to protect itself and the testing program. In the end the judge ruled that the government was negligent in monitoring the tests, but he also ruled in favor of the government on the issue of whether damage occurred as a result of the atomic testing.

In 1979, Judge Christensen reopened the suit when congressional oversight hearings uncovered weighty evidence of deception on the part of the AEC. In his fifty-six-page decision, Judge Christensen concluded that the new information demonstrated that "a species of fraud" had been committed upon the court by government lawyers and federal employees who acted "intentionally false or deceptive." He also noted that there was improper pressure put on witnesses not to testify, vital reports had been intentionally withheld and "deliberate concealment of significant facts with references to the possible effects of radiation upon the plaintiffs' sheep." He set aside his prior judgment and granted motion for a new trial.

Attorney Dan Bushnell had been waiting for more than twenty years for AEC files to become public record. He had assumed that with a new trial justice would finally be served. However, the U.S. Tenth Court of Appeals rejected Judge Christensen's findings and maintained that the material from the congressional hearings was not admissible under the rules of federal procedure. The appeals court wrote an opinion which stated that "nothing new" had been presented and it could see no reason to overturn the judgment of a twenty-five year old case. In 1986 the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of the circuit court decision. At this time, the original ranchers were dead or dying. Only two of the original families were still sheep ranching. Any hope of recovering the financial losses suffered by the ranchers ended with the Supreme Court decision.

The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act

Although fallout cannot be directly linked to a particular person who died or was given cancer specifically, the people of Iron County are convinced that the nuclear tests conducted in Nevada are the cause of the cancer epidemic that hit the area. There is a statistical link between radiation exposure and tumors. The people of the area also blame infertility, miscarriages, and birth defects on living downwind of the nuclear tests. There is also a concern for how future generations of the area will be affected.

In 1979, Congressional subcommittee hearings found that the government was negligent and that fallout likely caused adverse health effects to both downwind residents and the sheep lost in 1953. It also issued a report titled Health Effects of Low-Level Radiation, which stated that a cause-and-effect link cannot be made between low-level radiation exposure and any health effects, including cancer.

This did not stop groups of people from bringing lawsuits against the government. Suits were brought by Navajo uranium miners, people who worked at the test sites, the military servicemen who were forced who watch the tests, and people who lived downwind of the tests that were suffering from cancer. None of the suits were successful.

One of the cases was Irene Allen v. United States of America. Irene Allen's name appeared on the document because she was alphabetically first among the plaintiffs. She was a resident of Hurricane, Utah, a small community northeast of St. George. She was the mother of five children and lost two husbands, one to leukemia in 1956 and one to pancreatic cancer in 1978. Shortly before the suit was filed, she told a town meeting conducted by Senator Orrin Hatch that "I have really had quite a hard life, I feel, but I am not exactly blaming the government, I want you to know Senator Hatch. But I thought if my testimony could help in any way so this wouldn't happen again to any of the generations coming up after us, I am really happy to be here this day to bear testimony to this."

In Irene Allen v. United States, there were twenty four plaintiffs representing 1,200 individuals who were deceased or living victims of leukemia, cancer, or other radiation-caused illnesses. Eleven of the twenty four plaintiffs lived in Iron County during the time of the atmospheric testing. Two were children who had died of leukemia, eight had died of cancer, and only one of the eleven was still alive in 1984. Judge Bruce Jenkins issued a landmark decision that awarded damages to some of the victims. The government appealed, and Jenkins's judgment was reversed by the Tenth Circuit Court in 1986. In 1988 the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal. However, in 1990, President Bush signed into law the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. This Act created a $100 million trust fund to compensate citizens who lived downwind from above-ground atomic tests and later were stricken with radiation-related illness before warnings of potential danger were issued. Later the act was amended to remove the $100 million dollar limit and allow compensation for uranium miners and test site workers. The legislation states that "The United States should recognize and assume responsibility for the harm done to these individuals." It goes on to refer to downwinders as "involuntary subjects" whose lives and health were put at risk "to serve the national security interests of the United States."

Some members of Iron County, or their surviving family were compensated by the fund. Many who feel their cancer was fallout related have been prohibited from applying because of restrictions written into legislation. The situation has resulted in people of southern Utah having a more cynical attitude towards their government. They have become skeptical of government promises and government studies.

Scott M. Matheson

Scott M. Matheson lived in Iron County during the time of the tests, before eventually becoming governor of Utah from 1977 to 1984. He recalled that time period as "People in southern Utah were mainly concerned with making a living, and I don't recall anyone being too upset about the brilliant flashes and thunder-like blasts that were part of the 1953 atomic testing. The Upshot-Knothole series, conducted from March to June 1953, included the "Dirty Harry' exposure that carried an enormous amount of debris downwind, over southern Utah. People were concerned about the sheep deaths that occurred in May 1953, but when the AEC said there was nothing to worry about, we all just shrugged our shoulders. No one really accepted the malnutrition rationale, but we were used to accepting whatever the government said, especially during that very nationalistic period."

While Matheson was governor of Utah, he brought public awareness to the problems the people of Utah were suffering from because of nuclear testing. In 1979, he presented Congress with over 1,100 pages of testimony concerning how the AEC covered up its own findings and other research. He did this before he himself developed terminal cancer. In 1986 he said that he was still angry about how the issue was handled by the federal government. He saw it as an example of why governors needed to be vigilant about the short term and long term impacts of decisions made by the federal government. He said that "if citizens in a state are to be sacrificed for the 'national interest' then, at the very least, those citizens need to be fully informed and protected as much as possible."


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

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