Downwinders: Life Near Nuclear Explosions

As nuclear weapons were tested and uranium was extracted in the American West during the Cold War, the inhabitants of the Great Basin region — now commonly referred to as downwinders — were exposed to radiation.

Nuclear Explosion

Nuclear explosions during the Cold War era were only tested when the wind was blowing east, away from the densely populated cities of the West.

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The atomic West is a piece of American history that has yet to be fully uncovered. In Downwind (University of Nebraska Press, 2014), author Sarah Alisabeth Fox tells the story of downwinders — the Native American and non-Native residents of the Great Basin region that were affected by nuclear contamination in the environment during the mid-1900s. This excerpt, which explains how nuclear testing came to be and how it was justified after World War II, is from Chapter 1, “Living Under the Cloud.”

Downwinders: Life Near Nuclear Explosions

I was outside with my brother and I saw this big red ball come over up over the horizon and I thought it was a flying saucer so I ran to the house to tell my mother.
-Claudia Peterson, St. George, Utah

Living Under the Cloud of a Nuclear Explosion

By the time five-year-old Claudia returned to her swing set, a strangely colored cloud was all that remained of her flying saucer. Years later, she learned the apparition she had seen in the sky was not a UFO but the mushroom cloud of a nuclear explosion. Her childhood home in southern Utah was about a hundred miles east of the Nevada Test Site (known today as the Nevada National Security Site), one of the most heavily utilized nuclear weapons testing areas in the world. From 1951 to 1992, regular nuclear explosions rattled the region, scattering untold quantities of radioactive isotopes into the air, soil, and water, permeating the food chain downwind of the test site. Many families in the region either kept livestock and gardens or bought meat, milk, and produce from their neighbors, unwittingly gathering radiological contamination in their backyards and placing it on their dinner tables. By the age of thirty-five, Claudia Peterson had survived cancer and had buried her six-year-old daughter, her sister, her father, and numerous neighbors and friends, all of whom had succumbed to diseases potentially caused by radiation exposure.

There are thousands of stories like Claudia’s. For many, there was no flash on the horizon; instead, one year a uranium mine or mill opened near their homes, offering good wages to workers who had few options for earning an income. The vast majority of the nation’s domestic uranium reserves, a crucial component in the development of nuclear weapons, existed southeast of the test site in the rural desert land of the Four Corners region. A significant portion of those reserves lay beneath the soil and rocks of Indian reservations, predominantly those of the Navajo and Pueblo peoples. While some indigenous residents of the region expressed serious qualms about the spiritual and ecological risks of dynamiting and tunneling into the earth, the prospect of wage labor close to home lured many into the industry. “We were blessed, we thought,” Navajo miner George Tutt recalled. “Railroad jobs were available only far off like Denver . . . but for mining, one can just walk to it in the canyon. We thought we were very fortunate, but we were not told, ‘later on, this will affect you in this way.’ . . . We called it ‘good work.’”

Milled and refined, the rock the Navajo called leetso — “yellow brown” or “yellow dirt” — became the volatile material at the heart of the bombs detonated in the desert a few hundred miles to the west. As the years passed, the men who had made their living in the mines and mills began to succumb to lingering illnesses, and many did so at relatively young ages. Stories cohered in small communities about entire generations of men who began coughing up blood, struggled to draw breath, and died young. Many left behind widows bound by hardship, living in poverty and caring for multiple children and family livestock holdings. Women such as Betty Jo Yazzie, Grace Tuni, and Rose Benally noticed how other women who had worked with their husbands in the mines and mills died in the same way their husbands did. They wove stories around their losses, tying together the maladies of the laborers with the sicknesses of animals and families who lived downstream from the mines and downwind from the uranium tailings piles. Like thousands of their neighbors, Claudia Peterson and Betty Jo Yazzie came to understand their losses were more than local or personal tragedies. In their search for answers they learned they had grown up and raised families on the toxic staging grounds of the Cold War.

On 16 July 1945, six years before the atomic bombs began raining down on the Nevada desert, the first atomic bomb in history was detonated in White Sands, New Mexico. A few weeks later the second and third atomic bombs in history followed, detonated over the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. While hundreds of thousands of Japanese citizens succumbed to injuries and radiation sickness, the U.S. government falsely described the targeted cities as military bases and the bombs as nothing special, just larger, more efficient conventional weapons. Newspapers and magazines across the country faithfully repeated these descriptions and opinions as fact. “The Japanese began the war from the air at Pearl Harbor,” read President Harry Truman’s 6 August statement announcing the bombing. “They have been repaid many fold.” Military leaders such as Maj. Gen. Leslie Groves adamantly denied reports of radiation sickness in Japan and insisted the bombs had hastened the end of a long and bloody war. The voices of dissenting journalists, scientists, clergymen, and citizens were censored and drowned out. A Gallup poll taken in August 1945 concluded 85 percent of Americans approved of the atomic bombings of Japan. When the dangers of radiation exposure could not be denied any longer, General Groves told a Senate special committee that doctors had described radiation sickness as “a very pleasant way to die.”

Cracks did emerge in the state-sponsored narrative, particularly after journalist John Hersey published “Hiroshima” in the August 1946 issue of the New Yorker. Based on first-person interviews and research conducted after the city was bombed, Hersey’s story was the only content of the magazine that month, and it was subsequently read aloud on ABC radio and reprinted in newspapers nationwide. Americans gained their first glimpse into an atomic bombing from the perspective of the bombed. The vivid descriptions of radiation sickness, poison dust and rain, and the relatable characters — for example, a mother, a priest, a young woman — humanized the Japanese, who for so long had been only a vilified stereotype, and firmly established the gruesome and long-lasting damage of the new superweapon.

While it fundamentally altered many Americans’ opinion of atomic weaponry, Hersey’s story could not change the circumstances in which the nation’s leaders found themselves. Having built and used an atomic weapon in war, the United States could not expect to hold a monopoly on the weapon for long. Russia was actively pursuing the atomic bomb, and with tensions simmering between the two nations, American military leaders concluded that establishing a larger, more sophisticated nuclear arsenal was their only recourse. An aggressive, heavily propagandized program of weapons development emerged. With Russia’s first successful nuclear test in August 1949, competition between the two nations ignited a global arms race that would last for the next four decades.

Testing Nuclear Weapons After World War II

A central component of this race was the testing and refinement of newly designed weapons. Military leaders and scientists wanted to know how large the explosions would be; how the bombs would react to being dropped from planes and fired from cannons; how troops, buildings, ships, weather patterns, and military uniforms would be affected by the explosions; and how significant the ensuing radiological contamination would be. Some tests were designed to illustrate civil defense tactics for surviving a nuclear blast, while others were conducted to convince the public that nuclear weapons could be used for practical tasks such as excavating canals, reservoirs, and harbors. Gwendolyn Nisson, who raised her children close enough to the test site that it rattled her windows, later compared the men running the tests to “a bunch of little boys with firecrackers.”

In the immediate wake of World War II, amid celebrations of the supposed return to peacetime, selling the war-weary public on a costly and dangerous weapons development program took some marketing. The public needed to be afraid enough of enemy weapons that they would throw their support behind the development of American nuclear technology but not so afraid that they would protest weapons testing or support a ban on nuclear weapons altogether. To convince the public of the need for the testing program, “U.S. military officials began to spin visions of future conflicts before World War II was even over,” writes historian Patrick Sharp. “Their stories focused on what technologies and strategies the United States needed to develop to win the next major war.” Sharp calls these stories strategic fictions. Based on the presumption that massive military strength could deter an enemy attack, strategic fictions garnered their legitimacy from their authors, military men such as head of U.S. Army Air Forces Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold.

On 19 November 1945, an article titled “The 36-Hour War” appeared in Life magazine that detailed General Arnold’s vision of a future nuclear attack on the United States. While the article claimed the United States triumphed in the imaginary conflict, wiping out the enemy with a nuclear attack, victory exacted a high cost: “Some 40,000,000 people have been killed and all cities of more than 50,000 population have been leveled.” “The 36-Hour War” came across as more prophetic than theoretical, with Arnold’s military credentials helping to blur the lines between fact and fiction. Uncritically advancing Arnold’s claim that the nation’s security rested on an ability to “take immediate offensive action with overwhelming force,” the Life piece impressed readers across the nation — including those living near what would soon become the Nevada Test Site — with the dire need to develop new weapons technology.

We are accustomed to calling the ensuing era the Cold War, but it was as hot as they come. Writer Rebecca Solnit describes nuclear weapons testing as “a way of making war by display and displacement, as some cultures and species do — demonstrating their ability to attack rather than actually doing so.” The explosions Claudia Peterson witnessed from her childhood home were every bit as real as the ones that had occurred over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and most of them were many times more powerful. Americans were told that having a large nuclear arsenal would protect national security, that it was their patriotic duty to build bomb shelters in their homes to protect them from the Russians, and that the tests in Nevada were controlled experiments.

In actuality, few aspects of the tests could really be controlled. No one knew precisely how large the explosion of any given bomb would be or if it would explode at all. Tests only went forward when the wind was blowing east — away from densely populated California and over Utah, Idaho, Arizona, and the states that lay beyond; directly over Claudia Peterson’s backyard; and frequently over the homes of the families of the very men who had unearthed the uranium to build the bombs.

In a fundamental conflict of interest, the officials overseeing the uranium industry and the construction and detonation of the largest bombs in history represented the very agency that was also responsible for monitoring contamination and protecting citizen health. Created by the 1946 Atomic Energy Act, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) ostensibly put control of nuclear technology in civilian hands. In actuality, the agency worked intimately with the military on weapons development and answered to almost no one, having been given carte blanche to act with complete secrecy in the pursuit of all matters nuclear. Well into the 1970s, the AEC conducted nuclear experiments at the risk of the health of their own citizens, all the while quietly monitoring the results with impunity.

AEC representatives told those citizens who lived immediately downwind and who participated in the uranium industry that their cooperation, support, and labor were important contributions to national security and that the test site and the uranium industry posed no danger to them or their families. More subtly, citizens in this region were made to understand that asking too many questions about safety was unpatriotic. The national media regularly communicated and underscored this message with propagandistic themes, affirming that threats to Americans’ liberty and safety were many and imminent and that every government action — censorship, weapons testing, or suppression of dissenting opinions — was taken to protect the nation. For the first few years, most in the downwind and uranium-producing region wholeheartedly supported the AEC’s endeavors.

Citizens who lived in proximity to the Nevada Test Site and the adjacent uranium industry during this era shared several fundamental characteristics. Many were actively involved in farming or ranching or came from families that had produced their own food in the past. Fishing, hunting, and gathering were popular as both recreational activities and sources of sustenance. Strong work ethics and cooperation were prized in these communities, where success and comfort depended on great effort and collaboration at key times in the agricultural cycle. Some communities had been continuously occupied by Native residents for hundreds of years, while others dated only to the nineteenth century, when they were settled by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (also referred to as the LDS or Mormon Church). Despite a long-standing tradition of antipathy toward the federal government among LDS members in particular, and across the American West in general, most in the downwind and uranium-producing region were self-identified patriots who prized national security and enthusiastically supported the U.S. government’s efforts in the Cold War. These citizens tended to live in accordance with social norms, and they trusted that doing so would protect their families and their way of life.

When they learned their government had actively concealed the risks of radiological exposure from nuclear weapons development and uranium extraction, had knowingly exposed them to dangerous pollutants, and had contaminated their food supply, many of these citizens experienced a profound sense of betrayal. Not only had many lost their health and their loved ones, but also they felt deceived and abandoned by the government to which they had given their unquestioning loyalty. Farmers and ranchers who had labored with pride to raise milk, meat, and crops realized they had been exposed to radiation while doing so and had most likely exposed the consumers of their products to that same radiation. Some experienced significant economic losses when their livestock succumbed to radiation poisoning, and as family farming began to wane in the United States in subsequent decades, many in downwind regions blamed nuclear testing or the uranium industry. They saw their losses — of their family members, of their health, of their economic solvency, of their trust in their leaders — as connected, and many felt their way of life had been destroyed. Many began to identify themselves as “downwinders” or “uranium-affected people” or both and to question what they had taken for granted: the safety of food, the word of trusted leaders, and the meaning of “national security.”

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Downwind: A People's History of the Nuclear West, by Sarah Alisabeth Fox and published by University of Nebraska Press, 2014.