Tonight's ABC News "Turning Point" may be the best thing ever to happen to Utah's down-winders in terms of media coverage.
This hourlong broadcast is extremely sympathetic to those who suffered because of the U.S. government's above-ground nuclear testing in the 1950s and '60s - and is an indictment of what that government did to its own people.While the hour does include several disclaimers about the lack of scientific proof for some of the victims' claims, the sheer weight of anecdotal evidence is overwhelming. And heartbreaking.
A good portion of the hour is devoted to southern Utah. Peter Jennings' narration describes St. George as being "like all the towns in southern Utah, a predominantly Mormon community where people do not smoke or drink. And few of them got cancer until the 1950s.
"It took a while for us guinea pigs in here to realize what was happening to us," said Washington merchant Quentin Nisson, who was mayor of the small Washington County town in the 1950s. "We thought it was patriotic to stand by the government and what it was doing. We didn't think too much about the effects of the bombs because we didn't understand it that well."
At least 124 nuclear bombs were exploded between 1950 and 1963, and "Turning Point" takes the issue of the downwinders and personalizes it with tragic stories, including:
- Martha Laird, who owned a Nevada ranch just 80 miles north of the test site. Her 6-year-old son died of leukemia. Another baby was stillborn. One daughter has thyroid problems, and another has had numerous operations for skin cancer.
- St. George resident Elmer Pickett, who lost 14 family members, including his wife, a sister, a niece, grandmother, mother-in-law, sister-in-law and several uncles and cousins.
- Claudia Peterson, who grew up near St. George and who lost her brother, father and 6-year-old daughter to cancer. Peterson recounts sitting on the swings with her brother and seeing the nuclear blasts in the distance, as well as being checked with a geiger counter at school and being told that what the device registered was the result of a dental X-ray.
She is convinced that the exposure she and her husband suffered caused her daughter's leukemia.
"I can't even describe the heartache a parent feels when they are losing a child," Peterson says.
Throughout the testing, the government assured residents there was no danger. There's even a headline from a March 1953 copy of the Deseret News reporting those assurances.
But "Turning Point" recounts one blast in 1953, Shot Harry, which recently released records show was 32 kilotons - almost three times bigger than what the Atomic Energy Commission's own chief medical officer recommended. In the aftermath, the AEC produced a film - shot in St. George with local residents - to calm fears among those locals.
The film was a sham and a travesty. It goes so far as to show a young mother smiling when a warning is issued on the radio assuring her that "Parents need not be alarmed about children at school."
According to Frank Butrico, who monitored the fallout in St. George for the AEC, his instruments showed dangerously high levels of radiation. When he alerted those at the test site, it was a full hour before any kind of warning was issued.
"And most distressing, when we passed a grade school we noticed that the children were still on their morning recess, the teacher having not received the information to take cover," he says.
Butrico was instructed to discard his clothing and "be sure to keep showering until I reduced the amount of radiation on my body." But when he asked if a similar warning should be issued to residents, ". . . of course the answer was a resounding no because this would create a panic situation."
As for that AEC film, "Ironically, a good share of the people who were used in that film have died from cancer since that time," Butrico said.
The hour includes chilling comments from Norris Bradbury, the onetime director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory who is now 84.
"Radiation is not a good thing, but I don't know of any death that's been caused by it," Bradbury says. "Now I can't prove nor can anybody else that somebody who died at 80 would have lived to 82 if he hadn't been exposed to a little radiation."
He later refuses to discuss the fallout and becomes even more uncomfortable when his former daughter-in-law recounts what Bradbury told her to move from her home in Zion National Park in the 1950s because of the danger from testing.
"I don't remember anything about that," Bradbury said. "I don't remember doing it and I don't think I did, but maybe I did."
Other residents, of course, received no such warning.
"Turning Point," which is slated to become a weekly series this spring on ABC, also goes through the battle for compensation, not only for downwinders but for soldiers exposed to radiation during bomb tests and workers exposed while setting up those tests.
"Turning Point" succeeds in personalizing this issue. In putting names and faces to a tragedy the government is still trying to deny ever existed.
This isn't always an easy program to watch. But it is an important one.