Living and Dying with Fallout


MARY DICKSON is an award-winning Salt Lake City writer who has written about nuclear testing-related topics and worked on issues of peace and justice for three de- cades. A former newspaper reporter who now works in public broadcasting, she has writ- ten newspaper and magazine articles, essays, and opinion pieces on a broad range of subjects. She wrote and coproduced the PBS documentary No Safe Place: Violence Against Women. Her monologue, Eager, was performed and published by the Salt Lake Acting Company and is used in several college English courses. This essay includes some excerpts from her “Downwinders All,” in Learning to Glow: A Nuclear Reader, edited by John Bradley (Phoenix: University of Arizona, 2002), 127–31. ©2000 The Ari- zona Board of Regents. Reprinted by permission of the University of Arizona.


 “There is no danger.” —Atomic Energy Commission[1]

“Going back to testing has nothing to do with a war on terror. It is terror itself.” —Darlene Phillips, downwinder [2]


LAST SUMMER, WHILE I WAS reading the Salt Lake Tribune, I stumbled across the obituary of a beautiful woman who looked uncannily like my older sis- ter, Ann. That’s why I read her obituary. Only when I saw the list of Lisa McPhie’s survivors did I realize she was Lisa Lundberg, who had grown up with me on a quiet tree-lined street inSaltLakeCity. Her older sisters were my best friends in junior high school. We were inseparable then. Thirty years later, Lisa, who watched our teenage escapades with a hint of boredom, was dead of a rare blood disorder that had defied diagnosis since she first became ill in 1985.

The same week she died, I learned that Terry Cantrell, another friend from our Canyon Rim neighborhood, had died of the brain tumor that plagued her since we were teenagers.

I added their names to the long list of my elementary school class- mates, neighbors, and friends who have died or become ill over the last forty years. The list begins with Mr. Howell, who left behind a wife and five children when he died of a brain tumor at age thirty-nine. Next was ten-year-old Tammy Packard, whose head had been shaved before a futile operation to save her from a brain tumor when I was eight. Her younger brother died within a few weeks at age four and a half of testicular cancer, a rare cancer for a child so young. Tammy’s devastated parents asked the pediatrician if it could be a coincidence that ten other people in the neighborhood also had cancers, including several brain cancers.[3]

The cancers took longer to grow in other kids my age. Quiet La Dawn Montague was twenty-nine and pregnant when she was diagnosed with a bone marrow-related childhood cancer rare in adults. She died in 1985, five days after her daughter was born. I remember it be- cause it was the same year I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Like me, perky Janine Bush around the corner was in her twenties when doctors found nine malignant  nodes on her thyroid. Joyce Rees, across the fence, has struggled for  fourteen years with a primary immune deficiency disorder that has meant a lifetime of repeated infections. Her sister bore three children with birth defects. Her aunt, who lived next door to them, died of brain and ovarian cancer. Michael Hill, who lived down the street from my family, died of non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Gordon Hillier, who lived a few doors down, died of leukemia. Marcie Boley, one street over, has suffered for more than a decade with a malignant brain tumor. The cancer has now spread to her spine. No wonder our friend Murray Howell said he felt lucky to turn forty.

My sister Ann and I counted almost twenty-six people we knew of from our old neighborhood who died or became sick from various cancers, autoimmune diseases, or rare blood disorders. Marilynn Rogers and Colleen Hill, who grew up with us, keep a list of their own. Colleen’s brother died of lymphoma; her sister has lupus, an autoimmune disease; and Colleen was diagnosed in her twenties with primary im- mune deficiency disease.

Colleen was twice a patient at the UCLA Medical enter, where she was seen by a doctor who went to Chernobylafter the meltdown. “I always thought it was odd that they thought it was brought on by radiation exposure,” she told me. “I told them I was never in Southern Utahduring testing, but they kept insisting that something happened, that I got the exposure some place. They thought perhaps I just didn’t remember being in Southern Utahon a childhood vacation. They kept saying the immune system doesn’t just shut down without a reason, and that radiation exposure was one of the biggest.” When she told her immunologist about all the cancers in her old neighborhood, he asked her where she grew up as “he wanted to make sure he didn’t buy a house in that area.”[4]

Colleen’s list includes forty-two people, many of them my old schoolmates and their family members, whom I hadn’t heard had died or were sick. They suffered from brain tumors, leukemia, lymphoma, thyroid  cancer, breast cancer, ovarian cancer, pancreatic cancer, lung cancer, liver  cancer, stomach cancer, neuroblastoma, lupus, multiple sclerosis, miscarriages, and birth defects. The list is still growing. Keeping it hasn’t been easy. Many of our old neighbors have married, left the state, or moved on, taking their illnesses and their medical histories with them. I regularly read the obituaries, looking for others. Often, I find strangers on those pages who share an important connection: “‘Kip’ Riches. BornMay 4, 1931. Died after a five-year battle with a bone marrow disease. He witnessed atomic bomb testing in Yucca Flat, NV.”

Two years ago, I wrote my sister Ann’s obituary. She was forty-six when she died after suffering for nine long years from lupus. Summing up her life in a few short paragraphs was the hardest assignment I ever had. After struggling for words to define her and the three children she left behind, I included one important line: “She was a downwinder.” A simple declarative sentence, just as “He witnessed atomic bomb testing” was a simple statement of fact that belied the years of suffering and the human toll of four decades of nuclear testing.

I can’t prove that our illnesses were caused by exposure to fallout from nuclear testing. Determining cause and effect is a problematic, in- credibly complex business, made more difficult by notoriously incomplete  record-keeping during the years of testing. But although direct cause is nearly impossible to prove, the data have led many researchers to conclude that there is a strong correlation between exposure to fallout and cancer. What I keep running up against in my search for answers is the dichotomy between the demand for conclusive scientific evidence and the undeniable evidence of human experience, and I’m led to ask why so many of my friends and neighbors got sick or died without expla- nation. There could be other causes for our illnesses,[5]   and I can’t say for certain that they are radiation related, but it is true that for many years all of us lived downwind. There is no denying our experience. This much I have learned: No one can prove that exposure to radiation didn’t make us sick.

How many others like us have there been? How many more will there be?



* * *

A war doesn’t have to be declared for it to claim victims. In the name of protecting us from the threat of Communism, our own government conducted what amounts to a secret nuclear war, dropping more than a hundred atomic bombs on the deserts of Nevadafrom 1951 to 1962 and regularly exploding hundreds more underground until 1992. Those bombs, a quarter of them more powerful than the one dropped on Hiroshima, were exploded only when the wind blew eastward. An exaggerated fear of Communism led the U.S.government to be the first to develop and use weapons of mass destruction. They used those weapons against the civilians of Hiroshimaand Nagasaki, killing an estimated 220,000 people instantly and in the immediate aftermath.[6]    Then, for four decades our own government used similar nuclear weapons against us as part of the program of nuclear testing. No foreign enemy has done as much harm to American civilians as has our own government. “They done to us what the Russians couldn’t do,” one downwinder said.[7]

* * *

I did not always realize these connections. Growing up inSalt Lake Cityin the 1960s, I don’t remember hearing about nuclear testing. We had bomb drills in grade school that sent Tammy Packard, La Dawn Montague, and the rest of us scurrying under our desks as part of the “duck and cover” defense which supposedly would keep us safe if the Russians dropped an atomic bomb. Or we shuffled off to the school’s dark basement, toting our Clorox jugs of water, laughing about what we’d eat and where we’d pee if we were really trapped in that dirty basement. We greeted these drills more as unannounced recesses than serious preparation for possible disaster.

We watched films in school assemblies about whatAmericawould look like if the Communists took over. We heard about the “Red menace” and godless Communists, but we didn’t hear about cancers or strange tumors or fallout. We drank our milk and ate our vegetables, assuming that, as the Mormon hymn told us, all was well. In the winter, we ate snow cones made from snow and sugar.

My father was a professor of meteorology at the University of Utah. He understood weather patterns and jet streams. Still, we didn’t hear about how the winds carried radioactive fallout across the heartland and as far as the eastern seaboard. Our neighbors who could afford it were busy in those years building fallout shelters. When the Reds dropped atomic bombs, they’d be ready. My family couldn’t afford to retrofit, so we settled instead for a well-stocked food storage room in our unfinished basement. Little did any of us know that the Department of Defense was bombing us regularly and that the fallout had already worked its way through our neighborhood and into our lives. Our concrete shelters and rows of canned beans were as useless as ducking under a desk or carrying a Clorox bottle of water to the basement.

In the spring before my thirtieth birthday in 1985, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. I had no symptoms other than the pea-sized nodule on my neck. The “Big C,” as my uncle called it, was growing inside me for no apparent reason. My world lost its predictability with two words: “It’s malignant.” Facing surgery and radiation treatments, I didn’t think it mattered how I got cancer. The only thing that mattered was to get rid of it. Friends and family gave me long, sad looks, as though they expected the worst. Unable to face me, my youngest sister left her favorite Madame Alexander doll on my desk with a note: “You have to be O.K. You’re the only radical sister I have.” Did she think I wasn’t coming back? The day before surgery, I overheard a friend at the office whisper, “She’s so brave,” as I pounded away at the keys of my typewriter, trying not to think about my surgery the next day.

The surgeon cut out my thyroid gland and the lymph nodes around it. A few days later nurses gave me radioactive iodine, euphemistically called a cocktail, to drink. It was supposed to destroy whatever thyroid tissue may have escaped the scalpel. After I swallowed it, a nurse wheeled me back  to my room in a high-backed wheelchair made of lead—to protect her from me. On the door of my room was a sign: “Caution! Radioactive Material.” Stamped on my hospital bracelet was the same symbol. I was the  radioactive  material. Every day a radiologist opened the door to my room and pointed his Geiger counter at me to see how “hot” I was. Knowing it wasn’t safe to enter the room, the nurses shoved trays of food under my door. I did nothing but drink water in a desperate attempt to flush out the radiation. I was isolated in my hospital room for four days until the reading on the Geiger counter was low enough that I could be around people again. When I left the hospital, they destroyed my clothes and everything I had touched.

After six weeks deprived of any thyroid hormone, I underwent a body scan. The doctor showed it to me. I saw the “hot” spots in my ovaries and on my bladder. They warned me not to get pregnant for at least a year. They cautioned that it was best for me not to be around babies or pregnant women for a few more days. Frightened by their warnings, my husband moved to the back room for several weeks. Like him, some people felt it best to avoid me, whether out of fear of the radiation or be- cause  I  was a reminder of the randomness with which misfortune strikes. If it could happen to me, it could happen to them. When I ran into an old acquaintance and told her why I’d been out of the office the last three months, she backed away from me as if my bad luck might be contagious.

She wasn’t the only one I made nervous. My husband scolded me when, months after my surgery, my hand instinctively went to my neck, feeling for more lumps. “Stop looking for more,” he cried, as if my vigilance would bring the disease back. “They said they got it all. Stop looking for more!” I’ll never stop feeling for more.

“Since I’ve had thyroid cancer, does that mean I had my bout with cancer and I won’t get any other kind?” I naively asked my doctor, desperate for reassurance. He smiled and said there are no guarantees of any- thing. What he did tell me was that I now had a “compromised immune system,” meaning that I would be especially vulnerable to certain types of infection for the rest of my life.

After I recovered, I went back to co-editing the Desert Sun, a newspaper that monitored the Nevada Test Site and carried stories about under- ground nuclear tests, leaks, and radiation. I knew about the 100 bombs exploded in Nevada during the twelve years of open-air testing.[8]  I knew about the mushroom clouds of deadly particles they spewed during the years I was growing up. I knew about the 804 underground tests con- ducted until 1992.[9]  I knew that the Department of Energy admitted that many of those tests leaked, or “vented,” radiation, some of them at levels comparable to Chernobyl.[10]

I interviewed Chuck Mays, a University of Utah radio-biologist, who told me thyroid cancer was common among those exposed to radiation as children. Children, particularly girls, were most susceptible to the effect of radioactive iodine, one of the primary byproducts of nuclear fission, which was easily absorbed by the thyroid gland. He told me that the dam- age caused by radiation is not from what falls on us but from what we ingest. Fallout that fell on the plants was eaten by cows grazing in the fields, and children drank the milk from those cows. While radioactive iodine has a half life of eight days, it is concentrated in the thyroid gland, where it can have a more intensely focused effect. It can take twenty or more years for the resulting thyroid abnormalities like nodules and malignant tumors to surface.

I grew up drinking fresh milk delivered to us every morning by trucks from a local dairy. Still, I didn’t think of my own cancer as anything but bad luck in a random universe. I grew up in Salt Lake City, 300 miles from the blasts of the Nevada Test Site. Like so many of us, I assumed radiation was something that only affected people in southern Utah, those who had the bad luck of living directly downwind of the blasts at the Nevada Test Site. They were the ones who got cancer and died. They were the ones the government finally had decided to compensate with the 1990 Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.

Then I met Carole Gallagher. She was aN ew York photographer who moved to Utah to document the effects of nuclear testing on people living downwind of the Nevada Test Site. She interviewed and photo- graphed hundreds of people, collecting one horror story after another. Ordinary  people from around the West recounted countless medical problems, unspeakable suffering, and always endless tales of death. They talked about playing in the fallout that landed like snow, of sand that melted like glass, of hair that fell out in clumps, of lambs born with hearts outside their bodies, of school children dying of leukemia, of entire families being stricken—all while the government assured them there was no danger.

The first time I interviewed Gallagher for an article I was writing, I mentioned my thyroid cancer. She latched onto the story of my disease and started grilling me about my life—when I was born, where I was raised, if I drank milk.

“Testing,” she said. “You got cancer from testing!” “But I grew up in Salt Lake,” I protested.

She shook her head. “You people are so naive. You think fallout stopped at Richfield. It went everywhere.”

She showed me a map of the fallout.Utah and Nevada were blotted out and the black ink spread as far north as Canada and as far east as New York. She explained how the jet streams spread silent poison that rained out on unsuspecting neighborhoods like mine. She told me how contaminated hay, milk, wool, wheat, and meat from Utah and Nevada had been shipped all over the country. Then Carole Gallagher asked to interview me.

When Gallagher’s book, American Ground Zero: The Secret Nuclear War, was released nationwide in 1993, I reluctantly opened my copy. I read two stories before bursting into tears. I saw my face among the photo- graphs of ranchers, teachers, and scientists, all of us downwinders. I had been lucky.   Doctors pronounced me recovered.  Other people in Gallagher’s book were not so fortunate. Many have died.

I waited a few days before opening her book again. I read the list of diseases possibly related to radioactive fallout: cancers, heart disease, neurological disorders, reproductive abnormalities, sterility, birth defects, and immune system-related illnesses.[11]  My sister’s lupus was an autoimmune disorder. The multiple sclerosis that plagued several friends was a disease of the nervous system. Could there be a connection?[12]



* * *


Since Gallagher interviewed me, I’ve had another major surgery. In 1994, doctors opened me up to remove my reproductive organs. I remembered the warning during my bout with thyroid cancer not to get pregnant for at least a year after I drank the radioactive “cocktail.” I never did get pregnant. After years of trying, I gave up. Tumors in my uterus and on my ovaries were to blame for that. What else might show up in years to come?

Meanwhile, more obituaries are being written, more cancers diagnosed—friends and neighbors, acquaintances, my Utah grandfather, a cousin,   co-workers, former colleagues, the University of Utah radiobiologist I interviewed, Carole Gallagher, and my coeditor at the Desert Sun. I get calls from strangers telling me about their cancers and the cancers that have claimed their relatives. They want advice, comfort, a sympathetic ear. An atomic veteran emailed me about his only child, born with birth defects, who died a few days later. A beautiful young mother who lived across the alley from me in Salt Lake City’s Avenues came to my door in tears a few years ago to tell me she had been diagnosed with aggressive leukemia. The first thing her doctor asked her: “Did you grow up in Utah?” A friend who recently underwent surgery for thyroid cancer recalled staring at a map of the United States as she lay on the table for her body scan. “All I could think of was that the place I loved had betrayed me.” More recently, a reporter friend who works at the public radio station in my building, a lifetime Utahn, was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, the same disease that claimed Utah’s former governor, Scott Matheson. My friend is undergoing chemotherapy and stem cell transplants that he hopes will give him a few more years with his family. He remembers finding a weather balloon as a child and bringing it home, where he played with it for days. He thinks the balloon may have been one released during tests at the test site to track fallout.

“There’s my cancer,” he told me in the parking lot one day. “My father-in-law who was with the FBI and worked atLos Alamos died of lung cancer. My wife’s first husband was exposed to Agent Orange. Do you think my family’s made enough sacrifices in the name of national security?” he asked.

A student of mine at the University of Utah looked at me the first day of class and said, “You have the smile.” At first, I thought it was his embarrassing attempt at flirting. Then he pointed to the scar on my neck.”

“I had thyroid cancer,” I told him.

“Yeah,” he said. “So did my sister and my girlfriend. We call that scar

‘the smile.’”

“Where did you grow up?” I asked.

“Ogden.” It is a city forty miles north of Salt Lake. “Where in Ogden?”

“Ogden Canyon.”

I asked him if he knew about fallout, if there had been other thyroid problems in his family. His sister was the first to get thyroid cancer, but both of their parents had had brain tumors. Had fallout slammed against the canyon walls the same way that air pollution gets trapped there during winter inversions? According to a former AEC researcher, radioactive fall- out can concentrate in “hot spots” such as canyons, which act as a natural reservoir.[13]

In 1954, John Wayne, Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead, Dick Powell, and the cast of The Conqueror were filming near St. George in Snow Canyon, Utah, 137 miles from the Nevada Test Site. Shot Harry and Shot Simon, two especially dirty tests detonated in 1953, had blanketed  the  canyon  with  fallout  that  remained  radioactive.  By 1980, ninety-one of the 220 cast and crew members had contracted radiation-related cancers. At least half of them, including Wayne, Moorehead, and Powell, later died of their cancers. Upon hearing the news, a Pentagon scientist from the Defense Nuclear Agency, said, “Please God, don’t let us have killed John Wayne.”[14] Children who accompanied their parents to the set, including John Wayne’s sons Michael and Patrick, also developed cancer later in life. It was lupus, not cancer,  that ultimately claimed Michael. In 1980, when the fate of The Conqueror cast was made public, the director of radiological health at the University of Utah said the “case could qualify as an epidemic.”[15]

I think of that cast, of my student, and of my neighbors on the canyon’s rim. Why did so many of us get sick? How many Americans could have been poisoned by the deadly winds of the Cold War? When the pink clouds of fallout drifted across the skies in all directions as I was growing up, no sirens rang out to signal the danger. We blithely went about our lives, assuming we were safe. We trusted our government to protect us.


* * *

I can’t prove that I got thyroid cancer from drinking the milk or eating the vegetables. No one can tell me for certain how I got it. All these years later, after spending hundreds of millions of dollars on studies, scientists are still arguing about radiation levels and health consequences, cause and effect relationships, dose reconstruction, and health implications.  Some studies say that cancer rates weren’t significantly higher in downwind populations as a result of testing, while other studies find excess cancers in residents downwind of the test site. Some say the epidemiological proof is solid, impugned only by those in government who have consistently lied to the public. Sorting through conflicting reports can be confusing, but the most compelling research shows a definite link. That link is addressed in many forums, including a synopsis in Richard L. Miller’s book, Under the Cloud: The Decades of Nuclear Testing.[16] Miller is an industrial health specialist with field experience in on site coordination of health and safety investigations. His major areas of focus have included efforts to determine population exposure to past radiological releases and clusters of disease that may have been caused by such exposures. He has researched the U.S. nuclear test pro- gram extensively.

Miller cites a 1984 article by Colorado physician and researcher Carl J. Johnson, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association en- titled “Cancer Incidence in an Area of Radioactive Fallout Downwind of the Nevada Test Site.” Johnson found a “startling increase” in cancer rates among residents living in an area of Utah downwind of the test site. Downwinders, he found, had significantly higher levels of leukemia, lymphoma, and melanoma, as well as cancers of the breast, thyroid, colon, stomach, and bone.[17] How likely is it that these increased rates of cancer have occurred by coincidence?

Sadly, the burden of proof rests with victims. But proof dissipates and disappears, becoming one of the first things to blow downwind. Science’s demand for hard evidence overshadows the truth of our lives. My evidence is my body. What is written on my body is more important than any numbers or calculations written in a report or in a book. I have “the smile.” This is what nuclear testing did to me. Like countless Americans affected by fallout, I have no recourse. Unless we lived within a narrow rural region around the Nevada Test Site, the government has decided that our cancers and illnesses aren’t related to nuclear testing. We can never be adequately compensated. “We never asked for this mess,” Colleen Hill told me. “And our government just won’t or doesn’t see the damage they did to us all.”

In her book, Carole Gallagher reports the circumstantial evidence linking nuclear fallout to disease. Her work and the work of many others show that the government knew the facts—about fallout, about contaminated milk, about the susceptibility of children—and that they lied to the American people. People like me, my sister, my friends, and neighbors. They continued to tell us we were safe even when they knew how far the fallout went and how high its levels of radiation were. Norris Bradbury, who ran the testing program and served as director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, knew the risks involved with fallout. While the government was trying to convince Americans that testing was safe, Bradbury warned his own family, who lived in southern Utah at the time, to leave the area. In a 1994 interview with ABC’s Peter Jennings, Bradbury’s former daughter-in-law says he told her, “This is a serious situation, and this is not a good place to be, and you ought to go somewhere else.”[18] Bradbury failed to provide a similar warning to other Americans.

The release of formerly classified documents reveals more disturbing facts. A 1997 article in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists told what happened at the Eastman Kodak Company in Rochester, New York. In 1951, two days after the Atomic Energy commission began testing nuclear weapons at the Nevada Test Site, Kodak’s Geiger counters detected high levels of radiation in the snow that blanketed the city. When Kodak complained that its film was fogging, the AEC agreed to provide Kodak and other photographic companies with advance warning of nuclear tests so they could protect the film.[19] The American people were never granted the same courtesy.

In conjunction with the Department of Defense, the Atomic Energy Commission sent planes to follow and track nuclear clouds as they crossed the continent. Colonel Langdon Harris of Albuquerque, New Mexico, flew some of those planes through fallout clouds to take samples with specialized equipment and track where fallout went.  Carole Gallagher quotes him in American Ground Zero as saying, “There’s not any- one who lived in the United States during the years of testing who is not a downwinder.”[20]

Plenty of evidence lends support to his claims. From 1951 to 1958 the Environmental Measurements Laboratory monitored fallout at one hundred sites across the country, using gummed-film collectors. Though incomplete, data from those collectors measured fallout more than 2,300 miles from the Nevada Test Site. A November 1990 EML report showed that Albany, New York, ranked third behind Salt Lake City and Grand Junction, Colorado, in total deposits of I-131 from all atomic bomb testing in Nevada.[21]  A 1996 Lawrence Radiation Laboratory report showed that, between 1952 and 1955, ten western states were “covered with relatively high doses of radiation from  open-air nuclear tests and that a densely populated section of the Northeast,  including Boston and Albany, received unexpectedly heavy doses of radiation” from some of the early atomic tests in Nevada.[22]

Albany journalist Bill Heller spent fifteen years researching the fallout that doused upstate New York in the aftermath of one nuclear test detonated in Nevada on April 25, 1953. In his disturbing 2003 book, A Good Day Has No Rain, Heller presents compelling independent data documenting how an extremely violent storm on April 26 rained out excessive levels of radioactive fallout on the Albany-Troy-Utica area of New York. Had Geiger counters at the Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy not registered the radiation that day, the people of New York may never have known that radiation from Shot Simon was raining down on them. Initially, scientists suspected that something was wrong with their equipment because their readings were so abnormally high. But when other researchers in the area showed the same results, they called the Atomic Energy Commission with their findings, suggesting they might be connected to Shot Simon. The AEC waited five days to send its own scientists to take measurements. The levels the AEC officially reported were more than twenty times lower than what independent scientists in Troy had found. In his research, Bill Heller uncovered documents from a secret meeting of the AEC, which recorded much higher levels of radiation. The AEC kept those levels secret from the residents of upstate New York for more than twenty years, lest they “alarm the public.”[23] Not surprisingly, Heller also writes about the incidence of leukemia, cancers, and other illnesses suffered by the people of upstate New York in the aftermath of Shot Simon.

Richard L. Miller also writes about Shot Simon in Under the Cloud: The Decades of Nuclear Testing, noting that “an area thousands of miles from the epicenter [Albany] was hotter than some areas of the Nevada Test Site.” A government meteorologist, he says, cautioned that other areas, especially the Midwest, may have experienced much higher levels. “As far as fallout exposure was concerned,” Miller writes, “distance from the test site was of small importance. Towns and cities across the entire continent were at risk.”[24]

We know the disturbing details of what Shot Simon did to New York because independent records were kept. What happened in other communities across America where such records were not kept?

I carry a credit card sized map in my wallet. It’s from Miller’s Under the Cloud, and it shows how far fallout from the twelve years of open-air testing was tracked. Miller, probably the country’s foremost researcher on charting fallout patterns from nuclear testing, compiled his map after collecting and analyzing data from the Atomic Energy Commission, the Defense Nuclear Agency, and the U.S. Weather Service. He put a black dot on any area of the country that was crossed three or more times by fallout clouds. His map, which he calls a “connect-the-dots” of fallout’s trajectory, is the powerful image that Carole Gallagher first showed me in 1989.[25] “Areas where fallout actually fell encompass a much larger area—the entire United States,” he says. I carry that map as a reminder, not so much to myself, but as a way of bearing witness and as a warning to remain vigilant. I don’t need any reminders of what fallout did to people living in those areas of black on Miller’s map, but a lot of other people, including those who govern us, need a primer.



“Areas of the Continental United States Crossed by Three or More Fall- out Clouds,” from Richard  L. Miller, Under the Cloud: The Decades of Nuclear Testing, 444. Reprinted by permission.

Whether people live in Idaho,Missouri, or New York, they need to know about this country’s nuclear history and its continuing consequences because some of those people, no doubt, are already suffering those consequences. I’ve shown Miller’s map to people around the country, who are al- ways shocked. Most of them had no idea that fallout may have drifted over their cities and towns or that rainouts were regular occurrences.

I have maintained correspondence with Richard Miller since I inter- viewed him in February 2003 for an article I was writing. He is generous in sharing his research in the hopes that it will help stimulate further research in the field. He has written that “millions of curies of radioactive isotopes were deposited across the country, making their way into the food chain and exposing several generations of Americans to radiation.”[26]

In July 2003, I asked Miller to send me a list of counties he identified—based on government data—that were especially hard hit by fallout. In addition to counties in Utah, Nevada, and “anywhere in upstate New York due to Shot Simon,” his list included Des Moines, Iowa, and southern Iowa, which were hammered by Shot Tumbler-Snapper 7. Adair and Knox County, Missouri, were also hit hard by Shot Tumbler-Snapper 7.New Orleans was hit hard by the Plumbbob series of tests in 1957. Tumbler-Snapper 8 was detonated in advance of a cold front that brought own exceptionally hot rains on Southern Idaho, particularly  Gem County. Also on Miller’s list are counties in Colorado, New Jersey, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Arkansas, Kansas, Maine, and Tennessee. “In addition,” he wrote me, “there’s a raft of scientific papers studying Nebraska and, I believe, South Dakota farmers trying to figure out why the multiple myeloma rate is high there. . . .Missouri has a significant number of cancer clusters—some of which have been studied by the Centers for Disease Control. Missouri also is, largely, one huge fallout hot spot.”[27]

Miller reminds us that fallout is memorialized only if it is recorded; and many times, detectors, particularly those east of the Mississippi River, were never turned on. In fact, record-keeping was woefully inadequate during the decades of nuclear testing. While the AEC knew that thunder- storms could rain out high levels of radioactive fallout, it made no effort to evaluate hot spots and rainouts downwind of the test site.[28] The agency did not conduct health assessments of those living downwind, nor did it evaluate potential links between fallout and radiation-related disease.

The only major study mandated by Congress was the fifteen-year investigation by the National Cancer Institute released in 1997: “Estimated Exposures and Thyroid Doses to the American People from Io- dine-131 in Fallout from Nevada Atmospheric Nuclear Bomb Tests.” As its rather long title says, it looked only at radioactive iodine and the link to thyroid cancer. But fallout contained more than 300 other radioactive isotopes,[29] many  of  them  far  more  lethal  and  with  much  longer half-lives than I-131.


* * *

Full article can be accessed here –

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[1] Voice-over narration, Atomic Energy Commission, Atomic Tests in Ne- vada, film, 1955; VHS tape of film in my possession.

[2] Darlene Phillips, “Radiation Is Radiation,” letter to t he editor, Salt Lake Tribune, Januar y 26, 2004, A-6.

[3] Cathy Packard, Tammy’s mot her, says she was later asked to release her children’s medical records to researchers. The request was made through t he hospital. Packard was never told who t he researchers were, what t hey were looking for, or what t hey found.

[4] Except where indicated, t he quotations in t his article are based on personal inter views I conducted bet ween February and December 2003.

[5] For decades, t he U.S. Army also tested germ agents, ner ve gas, and radio- logical weapons in Utah’s west desert. Lee Davidson, “Can Utah’s MS Rate Be Linked to Tests?” Deseret News, December 31, 1994, A-1, reported t hat 328 open-air germ warfare tests took place in Dugway, Utah; 1,174 open-air tests of chemical arms, mostly nerve gas; and 74 tests of weapons t hat spread radioactive particles in t he wind.

[6] Arjun Makhijani and Stephen I. Schwartz, “Victims of t he Bomb,” in Atomic Audit: The Cost and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons since 1940, edited by Stephen I. Schwartz (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institute Press, 1998),396.

[7] Elmer Pickett, quoted in Carole Gallagher, American Ground Zero: The Se- cret Nuclear War (Boston: MIT Press, 1993), 151.


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