Like many of my generation, I was indoctrinated about surviving a nuclear war.
There were regular drills in school where we had to scramble under our desks and shield our eyes from the blinding flash. Most importantly, we had to be sheltered from radioactive fallout.
I recall preparing for school in May 1953 and watching Dave Garroway, the easy-going host of NBC’s Today Show, huddled in a trench at the Nevada Atomic Proving Grounds, making light about a nuclear explosion a few miles from ground zero — later known as “Dirty Harry” for its intense and widespread radioactive fallout.
Those memories returned at the first major event I organized in May 1976, while I was working for the Environmental Policy Center (EPC). Building on my experience while working for Senator James Abourezk (D-SD), I convinced several members of the U.S. Congress to co-sponsor a seminar on low-level ionizing radiation. The proceedings were published later that year by the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee.
While my original intent was to stimulate a scientific debate over nuclear power plants, the discussion focused largely on the impacts of nuclear weapons. The seminar demonstrated that this debate over the legacy of radioactive fallout was far from over.
A month later in San Francisco, I met with the activist and journalist Paul Jacobs, a close friend and colleague of Saul Landau at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS). In 1957, after visiting rural areas close to the Atomic Energy Commission’s (ACE) Nevada Proving Ground, Paul was among the first reporters to document the disregard for the health and safety of residents nearby the nuclear test site from radioactive nuclear weapons testing fallout. His lengthy article “Clouds from Nevada” provided a detailed investigative roadmap that Congress would follow 20 years later. Only Congress can find these answers, Paul advised, which reaffirmed my conviction.
Paul told of how people living nearby the bomb tests who spent most of their time outside as ranchers, miners, and farmers were contracting cancer, suffering from burns, and losing their hair. In 1953, about 5,000 sheep died shortly following a test series — which turned out to be the one I saw on TV before school — that released the most radioactive fallout of any tests at Nevada.
Despite the AEC’s reassurances of safety, Jacobs discovered from AEC documents that the 4,245 residents of the town of St. George, Utah were exposed during a 24-hour period to radiation levels more than 1,000 times recommended for nuclear weapons workers.
The U.S. government spared no expense to fight lawsuits filed by people living close to the tests. Without exception, the courts ruled in favor of the AEC. Since the U.S. nuclear weapons program controlled all federal research of radiation health effects and kept radiation fallout data behind a curtain of secrecy, the deck was stacked against nearby bomb test “down-winders,” who had few resources and no security clearances.
It became clear that secrecy, isolation, and privilege had corrupted science and violated the public trust — all in order to amass the world’s largest arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.
Official recognition of harm to Americans from nuclear weapons testing was viewed as a dagger aimed at the heart of the nation’s national security. In a 1981 letter to the U.S. Congress, William H. Taft IV, General Counsel to the Department of Defense, asserted that a Senate bill to help the atomic veterans “has the potential to be seriously damaging to the very aspect of the Department of Defense’s nuclear weapons and nuclear propulsion programs.”
Twenty years later, Paul, a non-smoker, contracted lung cancer, which his doctors told him was likely due to radiation exposure during his visit to freshly contaminated areas near the Nevada Proving Grounds. He died in 1978, but not before was he returned years later to find out what happened to test site down winders and military veterans who took part of the bomb tests.
It was for a documentary called Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang, made by Saul Landau and Jack Willis. Although Paul died before the film was completed, it won several awards, including an Emmy in 1980.
In April 1980, we organized a National Citizen’s Hearings for Radiation Victims out of the EPC office. It was a collaborative effort involving Norman Solomon, a journalist advocating for U.S. troops who entered the city of Nagasaki right after the atomic bombing; Pam Solo with the American Friends Service Committee Rocky Flats Action Group; Mile Jendreczyk with the Fellowship of Reconciliation; and Eleanor Walters from EPC.
We brought together atomic veterans, test site downwinders from as far away as the Marshall Islands, Navajo uranium miners, and nuclear workers to share their experiences. This was the first time many of the participants, who had been struggling alone, got to connect with others sharing the same plight.
Kee Begay, a Navajo, worked in the mines for 29 years and was dying of lung cancer. “The mines were poor and not fit for human beings,” he testified at the hearing. Begay also lost a son to cancer. “He was one of many children that used to play on the uranium piles during those years. We had a lot of uranium piles near our homes — just about 50 or 100 feet away or so. Can you imagine? Kids go out and play on those piles.”
Our efforts to put a human face on the legacy of the nuclear arms race while creating a movement-building event exceeded our expectations. The Citizen Hearings gave rise to the organization of groups of test site downwinders, atomic military veterans, and nuclear workers that descended on Washington to push for justice.
By 1990, 12 years after Paul’s death, the U.S. Congress enacted the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) for test site downwinders, tribal uranium miners, and atomic military veterans. What made this law unique was that in addition to providing funds, it contains an explicit formal apology by the U.S. government for sending Americans into harms’ way. No other nuclear weapons state has done this. As of January 2021, 8,885 uranium mining workers had received a total of $889 million in compensation. And 23,916 downwinders received nearly $2 billion in compensation.
As the primary buyer of uranium until 1971, the U.S. government was responsible to ensure the safety of the miners and their communities. This is why RECA is funded entirely by the federal government. Diseases associated with exposure in the mines were “totally avoidable,” declared Merrill Eisenbud, a former Chief AEC health scientist in 1979. “The Atomic Energy Commission… is uniquely responsible for the death of many men who developed lung cancer as a result of the failure of the mine operators, who must also bear the blame, because they too had the information, and the government should not have had to club them into ventilating their mines.”
Even though there was a significant body of evidence spanning decades of deliberate negligence by the U.S. government, federal courts denied claims by the miners and others exposed to radioactive fallout from Nevada nuclear weapons testing on the grounds of sovereign immunity. “All the actions of various governmental agencies complained of by plaintiffs were the result of conscious policy decisions made at high government levels based on considerations of political and national security feasibility factors,” they asserted.
Private companies were let off the hook by the AEC’s negligence. Robert S. Kerr and founder of the Kerr McGee energy company held sway over atomic energy matters as a U.S. Senator from Oklahoma from the late 1940s until his death in 1963. By 1948, the year Kerr was elected, Kerr McGee became the first oil company to take advantage of the uranium boom opening mines on the Navajo reservation created by the U.S. government’s lucrative price guarantees. By 1954, the company dominated the U.S. uranium market.
RECA was set to expire in July 2022. But much more needs to be done for scores of victims of U.S. nuclear arms development who are still denied justice. Besides areas close to the nuclear test site in Utah, Arizona, and Nevada, there were other parts of the country — such as New Mexico, Idaho, Iowa, and the upper Midwest — where large deposits of measurable fallout occurred.
Perhaps, the most egregious example are the downwind counties of New Mexico where heavy fallout came down on unwitting people, not only from the Nevada tests but also following the first nuclear weapons explosion on July 16, 1945. In terms of uranium miners, there are other diseases of the lung and kidneys that need to be included. And miners who dug and processed uranium ore after 1971 deserve compensation, too.
Congress should not close the book on the human legacy of America’s race to build nuclear arms and subsidize commercial nuclear power.