Scientists first saw radioactive fallout in New Mexico on July 16, 1945, after the explosion of the test shot, code-named Trinity, of the first atomic bomb.
Trinity was set off in a rainstorm, and some radioactivity was found 120 miles downwind. Measurements were made "in order to have adequate data with which to protect the government's interest in case of future claims," as Lt. Gen. Leslie Groves, director of the Manhattan Project, explained later.The "interest of the government" in protecting itself against claims and, later, in protecting the bomb program against public criticism, was a recurring theme in the documents which subsequently came to light in the Deseret News' coverage of the history of the Nevada tests.
While project officials considered possible health hazards to the public, strangely, they almost always cast even safety aspects in light of protecting the United States against lawsuits.
Reports nixed downwind danger
The bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki also caused fallout; the path downwind from Nagasaki was 40 miles wide 100 miles downwind. However, the assessments of the fallout in those early days were always that it posed no actual hazard, though Groves admitted that "I was none too comfortable about the situation" after Trinity.
When World War II ended, the United States was preoccupied by demobilization, but top officials inside the government pressed on with the nuclear program on a research basis. Bombs were dropped on a flotilla of naval vessels at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific in 1946 to test their effects, but work on a truly deliverable bomb lagged. When the North Koreans invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950, the U.S. was not prepared with a nuclear arsenal.
American scientists, prodded by the Defense Department, prepared to speed up their work on modern bombs, but it was not until nearly Thanksgiving, after the Chinese Communists came into the Korean War, that atomic defense became a priority.
Order ignores potential problems
President Harry S. Truman was alerted by the CIA that the Soviets were apparently mobilizing troops in Europe, and on Dec. 18, 1950, Truman signed the order creating the Nevada Test Site. The first explosion came a month later on Jan. 21, 1951, without benefit of environmental impact studies or even of a Corps of Engineers survey.
The Atomic Energy Commission, successor to the Manhattan Project, carried out a rapid series of explosions in or on the surface, preparing the United States for nuclear war, if necessary.
At first, the monitoring of the area around the test sites at Frenchman's Flat and Yucca Flat was minimal simply because there was not time to get adequate monitoring in place, although the AEC put out press releases stating "radiation surveys and patrolling of the surrounding territory" would be carried out.
Harry Schulte, who headed a fallout advisory group at the time, told the Deseret News in 1979 that no one even knew how to monitor air-dropped bombs in 1951.
"The Ranger series (in 1951) was scheduled so quickly that we didn't have time to establish any network of fixed stations, and we had, I think, four men to cover an immense amount of territory," Schulte added.
Crude fallout monitoring attempted
"We set up a crude lab near the Nevada site and went out to see what we could get. We had one portable sampling station on a truck and one on a trailer pulled by a Jeep. We would get predictions from the weather people about where the cloud might go, and then we would run out and try to catch something."
"We were always told that the readings we found were `within standards,' but we never knew what the standards were," Schulte added.
Though the area to be monitored extended 200 miles from the test site, the monitors never got past Glendale Junction, Nev., about 85 miles downwind.
A second series of tests, named Buster-Jangle, began in October 1951. Schulte said the monitoring was better but still far from adequate. "We had about 100 scientists and technicians from government labs, universities and contractors such as GE. We sent them out in a pattern based on where we thought the fallout might go," he said. They put pieces of sticky paper on fence posts and carried air samplers made of Electrolux vacuum cleaners, and tried to measure the radiation captured in the cleaners' filters. Unfortunately, the fallout clouds often did not go where predicted.
Government officials alarmed
After the first few series of tests, the AEC became concerned about potential health effects and took measures to reduce fallout. It put shots on taller towers and balloons to cut the amount of material that would be picked up in the fireball. But at least one scientist later calculated that a May 1953 test shot, dubbed "Harry," was responsible for about 80 percent of the fallout that drifted northeast through Utah during the years the tests were performed.
But the tests went on. One of the 1953 tests dropped fallout on flocks of sheep in eastern Nevada and southwestern Utah, killing more than 4,300 of them. Government investigators found the sheep were indeed radioactive, but their superiors attributed the deaths to poisonous weeds, and succeeded in winning a subsequent court case.
The commission's sensitivity to fallout was heightened even more after a 1954 hydrogen bomb test in the Pacific - most H-bombs were considered too large to be tested in Nevada - dropped coral dust on a Japanese fishing boat and gave the crew serious radiation burns.
Troops "tested" near ground zero
Another test in 1957, code-named "Smoky," involved more than 2,000 troops, stationed as close to ground zero as officials thought safe, in order to test their reactions to nuclear fire.
Around the world, sentiment was rising for a ban on atomic testing. Finally, in 1958, President Dwight Eisenhower decided to halt U.S. atmospheric testing and challenged the Soviets to do the same. The AEC, facing a Nov. 1 cutoff, rushed to complete as many tests as possible in September and October. Some 37 shots were fired in those two months, none of them low-level, and a few underground.
The flurry of tests ended Oct. 31 with a shot that put some fallout over Los Angeles when contrary winds reversed their usual direction. The commission denied there was any hazard, though secret commission minutes later showed there was great apprehension among members.
The test ban held until 1961, when the Soviets broke it. The United States immediately prepared to resume open air tests, which it held in July 1962. Then President John Kennedy negotiated a test ban treaty with Nikita Khrushchev, permanently halting atmospheric explosions.
Kennedy suppresses fallout stats
A scare from one of the 1962 tests led Kennedy to suppress Public Health Service reports showing relatively large amounts of fallout had gotten into Utah milk. PHS did undertake a study of reported thyroid nodules in St. George children, but a 1965 report was inconclusive.
The only significant escape of radiation after 1962 came in 1970, when two underground tests broke through to the surface and spewed radiation over two states.
With the testing underground, and venting halted, complaints about the health effects all but died until 1977, when Sgt. Paul Cooper, then living in Boise, developed leukemia. Moved to the Salt Lake City VA Hospital, Cooper told a reporter that his disease had resulted from his exposure to radiation in the Smoky test. Rep. Tim Lee Carter, a congressman in Cooper's home state of Kentucky, launched an investigation.
Carter's efforts stirred the Centers for Disease Control, a Public Health Service agency, to look at the Smoky participants. Data on the shot was released but was inconclusive. Later CDC findings showed that eight of 447 "Smoky" soldiers had developed leukemia, slightly more than would be expected among a similar number of individuals of the same age.
White finds high leukemia rates
As a reporter examining the circumstances surrounding the "Smoky" test, I turned up National Institute of Health leukemia figures and Department of Defense data that showed an excess of civilian leukemia cases in the counties downwind from the Nevada Test Site.
After gathering scientific opinion on the significance of the findings, the Deseret News printed the story on Aug. 12, 1977. It had far-reaching consequences.
University of Utah epidemiologist, Dr. Joseph L. Lyon, read the story and decided to try to refute the newspaper's theory. In Phoenix, former Interior Secretary Stewart L. Udall saw the story and remembered the number of uranium miners he knew had died of lung cancer. Udall began his own investigations.
Early in 1978, the Deseret News reported that participants in Smoky were marched through the dust at ground zero of the explosion, minutes after the blast.
In House hearings on the tests, witnesses said that as many as 900 civilians and participants in nuclear tests between 1945 and 1962 might have been exposed to excessive radiation, according to existing records.
In February 1978, as the hearings continued, Cooper died. On Nov. 13, 1978, the Deseret News reported that the Public Health Service had reported unexplained clusters of leukemia in the Utah towns of Parowan, Paragonah and Monticello. Utah health officials had been given the reports, but they had never been published.
Matheson requests investigation
On Nov. 21 that year, Utah Gov. Scott Matheson took his own request for a federal investigation to President Jimmy Carter in the White House. Subsequently, Nevada Gov. Mike O'Callaghan made his own protest to Carter.
Udall, by then, had been in contact with scores of downwind civilians who suffered possibly radiogenic illnesses, and found that several hundred uranium miners were dead or ill from lung cancer. Udall had also found a classified copy of the 1950 executive order with which Truman had created the test site. He arranged to have those papers leaked to the Deseret News.
The Truman order showed just how little caution the government exercised when the tests were initiated, and the Deseret News story renewed interest in the downwind effects of testing.
In December 1978, Dr. Lyon visited Washington to brief scientists on his findings, which confirmed the Deseret News story on southern Utah leukemia he had sought to refute. As a Deseret News reporter, I slipped into the meeting and recorded Lyon's findings.
Later that month, Udall filed suits totaling $1 billion against the United States for civilians he said were hurt by the tests.
The News printed my story on Lyon's findings just days before his research was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in February 1979. The information set off House and Senate investigations, including hearings in both Salt Lake City and Las Vegas. Afterward, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., said he was "morally convinced" that the tests had killed innocent civilians.
Evidence continues to mount
The Deseret News continued to print story after story, detailing mounting evidence of monitoring gone awry, tests spoiled and people drenched with radioactive fallout. Still, it remained difficult to assess the harm. Though people clearly had been dusted with fallout, the hazard was unclear, since good data did not exist.
In Washington, Kennedy joined Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Rep. Gunn McKay, D-Utah, in sponsoring bills to compensate the victims. President Carter appointed a task force to investigate the case, but his Justice Department opposed compensation, noting that many people die of natural cancers and arguing that even if fallout caused a few deaths it would be impossible to tell which should be attributed to radiation.
Intense publicity on the issue continued until the nuclear reactor accident at Three Mile Island, Pa., on March 28, 1979. Although it was later proven that Three Mile Island released only a few microcuries of gaseous radiation that disappeared into the stratosphere, the magnitude of the story in the national media vastly overshadowed eight years of nuclear testing in which more than 100 explosions spread millions of curies of radiation across three states.
Three Mile Island not only overshadowed the Nevada tests, it worried government officials, who realized then that to admit fault in Nevada and Utah might be a precedent for public panic and government liability.
Task force: 'fallout caused deaths'
Carter's task force became extremely secretive, though it admitted in 1980 that fallout had "undoubtedly" caused deaths, but was unable to determine how many.
Udall and several other attorneys - including Wayne Owens, now a Utah congressman - went to court seeking damages for downwinders and uranium miners. The cases were all consolidated in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City under Judge Bruce Jenkins. In 1984, Jenkins ruled that 10 of 24 test plaintiffs were due compensation.
That victory, however, was overturned by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in 1987 on the grounds that the United States is immune to suits of that kind, even though the judges felt the plaintiffs deserved compensation. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed.
Then, as later, however, it was apparent that there was no way to know just who had been harmed. Cancer caused by radiation could also be caused by many other things, including smoking, drinking and even unknown agents, even by heredity. Though most of the downwind residents were non-smoking, non-drinking Mormons, there was legitimate uncertainty. That uncertainty made claims all but impossible to prove in a court of law.
For ten years, lawyers, judges, members of Congress and administrative officials debated over the fallout period, who was harmed and to what degree. Those debates finally ended earlier this month, when President Bush signed the Hatch-Owens bill - an admission that the U.S. government had hurt people working in uranium mines or living downwind from the test site.
Congress has yet to appropriate the $100 million in damages for the victims, though guidelines establishing who is eligible for compensation are now being discussed.
120 explosions in the open air
Above-ground atomic detonations started at the Nevada Test Site on Jan. 27, 1951. When the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty halted atmospheric testing in 1963, about 120 explosions had been set off in the open air. The largest was a 43-kiloton blast in 1955 - more than three times the size of the bomb that leveled Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 6, 1945. Uranium prospectors downwind subsequently filed to stake their claims on several roads, thinking they had discovered potential mine sites. In reality, what they were claiming was only fallout. Little did southern Utah residents realize that they were downwind from something three times more powerful than the holocaust that devastated Hiroshima.
40 years of indifference and denial
- July 15. Aug. 6 and 9, 1945: First three atomic blasts - the Trinity test in New Mexico and the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. "Hot spots" of as much as 50 roentgens of radiation detected 30 miles from the Trinity test.
- July 1946: Bikini atomic test series held in the Pacific
- August 1950: A symposium of the nation's leading nuclear scientists concludes that a safe individual radiation dose 100 miles downwind from an atomic test would be 25 roentgens, a level then not believed likely to cause immediate illness. No possibility of long-range effect was discussed.
- Nov. 18, 1950: President Harry S. Truman orders immediate testing of new generation of atomic weapons after Chinese Communists invade Korea and Soviet dictator Josef Stalin threatens world peace. Utah's Dugway Proving Grounds and portions of a gunnery range in Nevada are considered as test sites.
- Jan. 27, 1951: First open-air atomic explosion fired at Frenchman's Flat at the Atomic Energy Commission's test site in Nevada.
- 1953: "Dirtiest" series of open-air tests in Nevada; 4,300 sheep die in western Utah and eastern Nevada under path of fallout clouds. A total of 390 civilian vehicles in Alamo, Nev., and St. George are washed to remove radioactivity, but AEC officials insist there is no danger. On May 19, test shot "Harry" is fired; milk samples in Utah tested, but inaccurate methods do not detect radiation.
- 1954: U.S. hydrogen bomb tests in the Pacific drop fallout on Japanese fishing boat and island natives, causing immediate negative health effects.
- 1955: Cedar City ranchers sue over sheep deaths. The government contends other factors killed the sheep.
- 1956: U.S. District Judge A. Sherman Christensen in Salt Lake City rules against the ranchers.
- 1957: Nuclear test "Smoky" involving 2,232 soldiers and civilians fired in Nevada.
- 1958: Outcry over atomic tests in the atmosphere leads to last of above-ground tests Nov. 1, with final, intensive 37-shot series in Nevada during September and October.
- 1962: After the Soviet Union resumes testing, the U.S. follows suit. "Venting" of radioactivity from underground test drops fallout on Utah as heavy as that from some above-ground tests.
- Early 1965: U.S. Public Health Service study of thyroid nodules in St. George children is inconclusive.
- September 1965: President Johnson's White House blocks release of study of apparent excess leukemia cases in southwestern Utah between 1950 and 1964 by Dr. Edward Weiss of the Public Health Service.
- September 1975: Dr. John Gofman, a professor of medical physics at the University of California, releases a study showing a link between fallout and lung cancer.
- June 1977: Sgt. Paul Cooper, who participated in "Smoky" test, falls ill in Idaho with leukemia and blames it on test 20 years earlier; Deseret News assigns Washington Correspondent Gordon Eliot White to dig into story.
- July 1977: White unearths statistical study of cancer mortality in the U.S. that shows approximately three times the expected leukemia deaths in Utah's Washington, Iron, Garfield, San Juan and Kane counties.
- Aug. 12, 1977: Deseret News publishes article linking excess leukemia deaths with atomic test fallout.
- September 1977: Dr. Joseph L. Lyon of the University of Utah begins study to rebut the Deseret News' claims. In Arizona, former Interior Secretary Stewart L. Udall believes lung cancer deaths of uranium miners may be due to possible radiation damage and begins research.
- Oct. 4, 1978: Deseret News publishes article detailing the possibility that fallout killed the Utah sheep in 1953.
- November 1978: Udall leaks to White the 1950 Truman order setting up the Nevada Test Site on 30 days' notice.
- December 1978: In secret meeting of U.S. researchers in Washington, Lyon reads summary of his findings that there were excessive leukemia deaths in the fallout-stricken area after the tests. White secretly records the meeting.
- January 1979: Deseret News, Lyon and the Washington Post maneuver over fallout study, which is scheduled for publication in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine in February. New England Journal editors threaten to kill the story if it is published elsewhere earlier.
- Feb. 14, 1979: Deseret News publishes report that Lyon's research corroborates its Aug. 12, 1977, story - two days before the New England Journal of Medicine article is published. Journal article gains worldwide notice and calls for congressional, other investigations.
- Feb. 20, 1979: Deseret News publishes documentary evidence that government gave misleading answers to questions posed by the ranchers in the 1955 sheep death suit.
- Feb. 28, 1979: Deseret News publishes results of its investigation showing that "strong evidence has surfaced that atomic fallout was at least a contributing factor in the deaths of 4,200 Utah sheep in 1953."
- April 16, 1979: Department of Health, Education and Welfare releases 40,000 pages of fallout data under Freedom of Information Act request by the Deseret News.
- April 19, 1979: Senate Health Subcommittee holds hearings in Salt Lake City and Las Vegas on fallout and health effects. National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Donald Frederickson says, "We never would have known about this if that reporter (from the Deseret News) had not come up with the evidence."
- Aug. 1, 1979: Researcher Harold A. Knapp files a report with two congressional committees that makes a "convincing case" that fallout contributed to the 1953 southern Utah sheep deaths.
- Aug. 30, 1979: Downwind residents file a suit in U.S. District Court, Salt Lake City, alleging that fallout caused cancer. Eventually, more than 1,100 join the suit.
- Oct. 9, 1979: Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., introduce legislation to compensate victims of atomic test fallout.
- 1979: Deseret News publishes a succession of accounts of poor monitoring, concealment of radiation levels, incidents of high levels of radiation found during the test period.
- 1980: Udall and other lawyers file suits on behalf of alleged fallout victims and uranium miners exposed to excessive levels of radiation in Western mines.
- March 1980: Carter Administration Task Force finds that the United States did harm downwind civilians by dropping radioactive fallout on them.
- February 1981: Stockmen who lost their fallout suit in the 1950s file a petition to reopen the case, charging the court was misled by the government.
- August 1982: After hearings, Judge Christensen, who presided over the sheep damages trial more than 25 years earlier, rules the federal government covered up information relating to the sheep case and finds that the government committed fraud on the court.
- July 1983: U.S. District Chief Judge Bruce S. Jenkins begins hearing three months of testimony in the fallout-cancer suit.
- November 1983: The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Denver, reverses Christensen's decision. A three-member panel of appeals court judges rules Christensen was wrong in saying he had been misled in the 1950s.
- May 10, 1984: Jenkins rules the government was negligent in its open-air atomic testing and grants damages to 10 of 24 plaintiffs in the human cancer suit.
- 1985: Organized Downwinders' group opposes as inadequate the compensation bill offered by Sen. Orrin Hatch. The bill dies on a 52-47 vote.
- 1986: Senate adds Hatch bill setting up a cancer center in St. George to drug bill.
- 1987: 10th Circuit Court of Appeals reverses Jenkins' decision in human cancer case on grounds the U.S. cannot be sued for "discretionary" actions. Supreme Court later declines to hear the appeal.
- 1989: Hatch and Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, offer more modest compensation bill to compensate fallout victims and uranium miners. Hearings are held and acceptance appears possible.
- June 5, 1990: Senate passes bill. House approves Senate version on Sept. 27.
- Oct. 14, 1990: President Bush signs bill. Under law, Justice Department is to have drafted payment rules and begin payments by April 1991.