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.


| December 2014



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.

Photo by Fotolia/anibal

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.”