Nuclear testing was a global issue during the 1960s. With threats of nuclear war from the communist countries of the Russia, Cuba and China, the United States was anxious to protect itself with a nuclear arsenal of its own. After the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II, the United States did additional nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands, Nevada and New Mexico. General knowledge of nuclear radiation was minimal to the public at that time and the United States government could not warn their citizens about the dangerous effects of exposure to nuclear radiation. The diseases and disorders that arose as result of nuclear testing could have been prevented if the government of the United States had advised people about radiation and had implemented a mandatory evacuation around the test areas.
The technology of nuclear testing was relatively new and unexplored during the late 40’s and early 50’s. In October 1946, United States president Harry Truman assumed the responsibilities of the Atomic Energy Commission, or the AEC, and appointed five men to serve on the AEC on an interim basis (Ball 22). However, into Truman’s second term as president, Russia implied to the world that they were developing a nuclear arsenal. This led to two major American decisions which were unanimously backed by Truman: to construct a “super bomb” and to develop a major atomic weapons testing facility in the continental United States (Ball 24).
With the news of Russia successfully testing a nuclear device in 1949, Congress expanded the funding of the AEC to $1.5 billion dollars. The United States also discovered that the Russians had received information about the Manhattan Project from spies who had worked at the Los Alamos plant. By June 1950, the United States and Russia’s nuclear arms race escalated to a new high with the outbreak of the Korean War (Ball 24, 25, 27).
The AEC rushed in response to Russia’s nuclear device. Shot Harry, the name for the ninth nuclear test at the Nevada test site, was scheduled to be tested on May 2, 1953 but was postponed when a previous nuclear test, Shot Simon, had emitted more radiation then originally anticipated. On May 16th, the test was again delayed because of unfavorable weather conditions. The winds would not hold up on May 19th, when the 32 kiloton nuclear device was finally detonated. The general direction of radioactive fallout blew across the United States, reaching as far as New England and as far south as North Carolina. The officials at the Nevada test site, with very little knowledge about nuclear radiation, had no knowledge that they were in for bad news (Fradkin 1-4).
Radioactive chemicals can combine with one another or with stable chemicals to form molecules which may be solids, liquids or gases at ordinary temperature and pressure. The radioactive materials may be outside of the body and still give off destructive radiation. They may also be absorbed into the body with air, food and water or through an open wound. They become even more dangerous as they release their energy in close distance to living cells and body organs. They can be incorporated into the tissue or bone. They may remain in the body for minutes, hours or up to a lifetime (Bertell).
Being exposed to the nuclear radiation made the downwinders susceptible to disorders they would not have acquired if they had not been exposed. The Center for Disease Control reported a much higher observed cases of leukemia”several times the expected rate of leukemia.” in the Utah, Nevada and Arizona area in 1961. Many of these leukemia cases were children, who had been born to downwinders (Ball 110).
The nuclear radiation also contributed to birth defects among children born to downwinders. Some defects were abnormalities of body parts, for example, having four fingers instead of five or having a partially developed arm. Some pregnant women exposed to the downwind gave birth to severely retarded children (Bertell).
The downwind of the Shot Harry detonation rained on the pastures where cows were grazing. One of the first major, nongovernmental report published by the University of Utah found high occurrences of thyroid cancer. This was caused by the victims ingestion of milk from cows grazing on the irradiated pastures. The researchers had found the victims of thyroid cancer ingested iodine-131, which caused the gradual deterioration of the thyroid (Ball 111). The ingested radiation amount is small but “what the radiation lacks in strength is compensated by time. It works day and night without interruption (Divine 121).
An additional report written by Dr. Carl L. Johnson among Mormons residing in southwestern Utah turned up just how deadly the fallout had been. Johnson found these Mormons to be suffering from cancers in the stomach, colon, breast, brain, bone and lung. Some were found to have lymphoma and melanoma. He indicated in his report that these cancers were not a result of smoking or heredity but that the incidence of cancer is actually caused by the exposures to radioactive fallout (Ball 121, 122).
Radiation was not limited to just humans. Farmers reported horses with running sores on their eyes which was due to drinking irradiated water (Fuller 39). Sheep were also affected. Some sheep were born dead and in a stunted condition. Those that struggled to live gave up after about five or six days. Some were too weak to nurse or they had little or no milk (Fradkin 149). Deer, horse and cattle that grazed in the area near the Nevada nuclear test site were speckled with burn marks and there seemed to be fewer rabbits where the fallout was heaviest (Fradkin 5).
Scientifically, radiation is measured in rems. Minimal exposure is from 0-50 rems where the exposed are susceptible to radiation sickness and premature aging of the skin. Some don’t experience anything at all. Exposure to 50-250 rems has more harmful effects. Symptoms include from nausea, vomiting and skin burns. In those who are pregnant, spontaneous abortion and stillborn birth can occur. Exposure to 250-650 rems is very harmful. Symptoms include nosebleeds, stomach abnormalities, bone marrow abnormalities and loss of hair. In this level, the radiation has permanently weakened the body. Exposure to 650-1,000 rems is extremely harmful. People exposed to this amount of radiation usually die with in ten days because of massive tissue damage and the degeneration of epithelial cells in the body. Exposure to over 1,000 rems of radiation is termed as “the frying of the brain” or immediate death (Bertell).
This fallout was ultimately preventable. Problems after problems occurred prior to the Shot Harry detonation. Weather patterns hadn’t changed. There were difficulties in getting the device up on to the 300-foot aluminum tower on Yucca flat (Fradkin 1). In addition, there was radiation from a previous detonation, which had delayed the initial detonation of Shot Harry (Fradkin 3). With so many problems, the scientists commenced with the testing.
Warnings could have been issued prior to the test. There were messages issued to residents after the test to stay indoors until further notice. Miners were also told by the AEC personnel to evacuate the area after the test because of the possibility of fallout, but were assured that there was no danger. Many of the miners were notified to take cover too late (Fradkin 5). If messages had gone out before the test, downwinders could have avoided the fallout.
The monitoring of the instruments should have been more closely looked into. Fifty minutes before Shot Harry was detonated, William S. Johnson, who was in charge of offsite radiation safety, had advised the United States Public Health Service monitors that the “area of interest” was over a relatively unpopulated area southeast of ground zero. An hour and seventeen minutes after the detonation, Johnson activated monitors in other areas (Fradkin 5). Had all of them been functioning properly, word would probably have gotten out to more people.
The location of the Nevada Test Site itself was flawed. A large city, Las Vegas, was nearby. A truck driver passing by Las Vegas said about the Shot Henry detonation, “The flash blinded me for a second or two and gave me quite a scare. I have seen the Northern lights oftenbut this explosion made them look silly.” In Las Vegas, police headquarters was inundated with telephone calls from frightened citizens and “burglar alarms were set off all over town'” (Ball 63). A mandatory evacuation of Las Vegas should’ve been implemented. Choosing a secluded site, such as in New Mexico or Wyoming, where the population was smaller would have been a better alternative.
Many problems occur at the foundation. If the foundation of a building is not sturdy, it will fall. The selection of the test site was already doubtful, having it in close proximity to a major city. As the foundation was not strong, something tragic was bound to happen, and it did, in the form of downwind. The fallout would never have occurred if the United States wasn’t so eager to protect itself from Russia. Was it really worth it, the United States causing the needless deaths of the downwinders just to ensure national security? Some high ranking military officials would agree it was a good decision but to the downwinders who suffer to this day, passing the genes through their family and repeatedly seeing their loved ones die of radiation-related diseases, their answer would ultimately be no.
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Fradkin, Philip L. Fallout, An American Nuclear Tragedy. Tucson: The University of
Arizona Press, 1989.
Fuller, John G. The Day We Bombed Utah: America’s Most Lethal Secret. New York:
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