Priscilla, a 37-kiloton atom bomb, was detonated June 24, 1957, at the Nevada Test Site. It was one of a hundred atomic bombs detonated at the site, exposing communities across the United States to radioactive fallout.
Compensating Life Downwind of Nevada
By Miki Meek
Claudia Peterson has a vivid memory from her 1950s childhood in southern Utah. She remembers watching a glowing orange ball move off the western horizon while she rocked back and forth in her swing set the summer she was four, and walking past piles of dead lambs during lambing season. Some had two heads, and others had no legs.
Peterson remembers men in tidy, black suits visiting her classroom at East Elementary School in Cedar City with Geiger counters—and feeling a sense of pride that she lit up the counter when they waved it in front of her face. They told her it was from dental x-rays, but she knew she had never had one. She recalls sixth grade when one of her schoolmates died of leukemia, and eighth grade when bone cancer took first her friend's leg and then his life.
But there's one thing that doesn't come to mind—the government ever warning communities like hers in Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and much of the United States that they would be heavily exposed to radioactive fallout from atomic bombs detonated at the Nevada Test Site. Between 1951 and July 1962, a hundred atomic bombs were detonated above ground there, 23 of them were larger than the one dropped on Hiroshima.
And nobody told Peterson that the government would one day compensate her family for her father's death from brain cancer, but wouldn't extend that same apology to her sister and her own six-year-old daughter. They didn't get the "right" cancer. Neither melanoma nor neuroblastoma, a rare nervous-system cancer, made the government's list.
After years of failed lawsuits and legislation, the government finally offered compensation to downwinders—radiation victims downwind of the test site—with the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA). However, since Congress passed the act, in 1990, it has been hotly criticized by those living in states surrounding the site for limiting compensation to certain illnesses, years, and counties. For claimants to pick up their $50,000 compensation check, which barely covers medical bills for some, they must have been physically present in areas around the test site for at least two years between 1951 and 1958, or during 1962. They must also have one of 20 eligible diseases, which are mostly cancers of primary organs.
"It's a slap in the face to think that money will bring back a loved one or a breast after being treated like a guinea pig. But it's a bigger slap in the face to the brother, cousin, or neighbor across the street whose illness didn't qualify," Peterson says.
Dennis Nelson, director of Support and Education for Radiation Victims, has helped downwinders file their RECA claims with the Department of Justice for the past ten years and has seen it become a point of frustration for many families, including his own. Born and raised in St. George, Utah, Nelson was seven when atomic bombs with names like "Charlie" and "Baker" began exploding less than 120 miles from his home. But with safe assurances from the Atomic Energy Commission, his family thought they were unaffected.
They continued to eat vegetables from a garden irrigated with water polluted from fallout dust and drink fresh milk from the farmer up the street. They were unaware that scientists would eventually show that radioactive iodine 131 often entered the food chain through milk from cows that ate contaminated grass or feed, and increased the risk of thyroid cancer.
The Nelsons' health eventually began to unravel. In a family of seven, seven different kinds of cancers were diagnosed, including colon cancer, which claimed his sister Margaret two years after RECA was passed. But it wasn't on the list of compensable diseases at the time. And when Congress did amend the list, adding six other diseases to RECA in 2000, the Department of Justice still had nothing to offer Nelson but a rejection letter. He is ineligible because the law permits only parents, spouses, children, grandparents, grandchildren, and survivors to file. Nelsons' mother died of a brain tumor and his father of lung cancer before his sister, who never married or had children.
"RECA is too little, too late," Nelson says. "They can call it compensation, but people are dying before they can even get it."
Salt Lake City resident Mary Dickson did not die after she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, but she still won't get compensated. Although it's an eligible cancer, Salt Lake County isn't among 21 qualifying counties in Utah, Arizona, and Nevada, even though fallout hit it harder than some counties within RECA's boundaries, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
"I'm glad that some type of legislation passed, but RECA was still a huge compromise," Dickson says. "The fallout didn't just hit a confined geographic area around southern Utah and stop. You can't put a fence around it."
The first federal reports mapping fallout paths over Salt Lake did not emerge until seven years after RECA passed. However, when the number of eligible counties was increased slightly by the amendments in 2000, Salt Lake County was not added.
Fred Allingham, executive director of the National Association for Radiation Survivors, believes it's because these reports also showed that fallout drifted all over the United States, making room for congressional arguments that expanding the program further would be too costly. The year after the amendments were enacted, 3,828 claims flooded in, compared with 854 in 2000. These new claims quickly exhausted funds, and the Department of Justice issued IOU letters for several months until Congress appropriated more money.
Anyone who has lived in the contiguous United States since 1951 has been exposed to radiation, according to a CDC report. Fallout from the Nevada Test Site, combined with nuclear tests conducted overseas by the U.S. and other countries, could ultimately be responsible for an additional 17,000 cancer deaths. The National Cancer Institute also estimates that the Nevada Test Site alone may be responsible for up to 212,000 cases of thyroid cancer.
The Cold War-era nuclear bombs were only detonated at the test site when the wind was blowing north-northeast, away from major cities in California and toward sparsely populated regions in states like Utah, Montana, and Wyoming.
But fallout wasn't the Cold War's only hazard. Many Americans were left sick and dying of lung cancer and other diseases after working in poorly ventilated uranium mines, contaminated with high levels of radon gas and toxic dust. These miners are eligible for $100,000 under RECA if they have one of six lung diseases linked to radiation exposure and worked between 1942 and 1971 in one of 11 qualifying states.
However, some miners, particularly Navajo, are having difficulty supplying necessary documents, even though declassified reports show that the Atomic Energy Commission knowingly sent them into hazardous conditions. Since the beginning of 2002, Melton Martinez, director of Navajo RECA Reform Working Group, has helped 200 uranium miners file for compensation, but only nine have received it so far.
He says the act "culturally discriminates" against Navajo because it requires claimants to provide detailed medical and work history records that many just don't have. From the 1950s through the ‘70s, many did not utilize Western medicine nor did they receive pay stubs, because employers paid them under the table.
"The government never told us about radiation and now they are making us jump over these hurdles," Martinez says. "But that's hard for these miners to do when they're carrying an oxygen bottle, confined to a wheelchair, or taking 15 different pills a day to keep themselves going."
He also feels that the law is flawed because it doesn't compensate other populations that were exposed to uranium dust. Martinez's own family has been plagued with health problems from living near a uranium mine in Haystack, New Mexico, that remained open for 30 years.
The National Research Council, a branch of the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Engineering, is studying whether there is scientific evidence to support expanding illnesses, populations, and geographic regions in RECA, and the report is due on June 30, 2003. However, Claudia Peterson is skeptical that the government will take responsibility for her sister's and daughter's death anytime soon.
It took 39 years after "Able"—the first bomb to go off at the Nevada Test Site, in 1951— for the government to acknowledge some fault. And it took ten years after RECA passed to add amendments that included a few more counties, populations, and diseases. Peterson says she doesn't know how much longer some of her elementary school classmates, family, and friends will be around to wait.
"We've watched how quickly the government has put together compensation for 9/11 victims, and that has been a tough one to swallow," Peterson says. "What happened that day was horrible, but they are so quick to recognize what someone else did and shove under the rug what they've done to their own people. We were considered a low-use segment of the population then, and we still are now."
RELATED LINKSRadiation Exposure Compensation Program
Go to this site to learn about RECA and download claim forms.
National Cancer Institute: About Radiation Fallout
This website lists the full 1997 report on exposure to iodine 131 from atomic bombs detonated above ground at the Nevada Test Site, along with fact sheets, a dose calculator, and state and county exposures.
A Feasibility Study of the Health Consequences to the American Population From Nuclear Weapons Tests Conducted by the United States and Other Nations
Download the report issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from this site.
National Association of Radiation Survivors
This website offers a summary of issues and legislative history regarding radiation victims.
Nevada Test Site
Visit this site to read detailed, historical reports on nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Site.
BIBLIOGRAPHYGallagher, Carole. American Ground Zero. MIT Press. 1993
Miller, Richard L. Under the Cloud: The Decades of Nuclear Testing. Two-Sixty Press. 1999.
Miller, Richard L. The U.S. Atlas of Nuclear Fallout From 1951-1962 Vol. I: Total Fallout. LEGIS Books, 2002.
Ward, Chip. Canaries on the Rim: Living Downwind in the West. Verso Books. 2001