1950s Nuclear Testing and the Downwinders

During the 1950s, the U.S. government tested atomic bombs on in southern Nevada. They chose this area because the population of the area was not large, and only thousands of people, not millions, would be affected by radiation.

In Short

The fallout from the bomb tests drifted over southern Utah. Livestock died, and over time people became sick, some fatally, from their exposure to radiation.

More of the story

After World War II, the U.S. military continued its interest in developing new weapons. In particular, it wanted to improve the atomic bomb. The government looked for a place to test these weapons. The ideal area would be flat, not very populated, and with good weather conditions–meaning that the wind would blow the debris, or fallout, away from big concentrations of people. 

The “Dog” atmospheric nuclear bomb test at the Nevada Test Site, conducted in 1951. Photo from the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection.

The government found that area in the southern Nevada desert, not too far away from where crews trained for the Enola Gay bombing missions.

U.S. citizens as guinea pigs

The first test bomb exploded over the Nevada desert on January 27, 1951.  The fallout drifted east, into southwest Utah.  The commission that oversaw testing, the Atomic Energy Commission, promised residents of southern Nevada and Utah that the testing was safe, and residents believed them.  Even when livestock began dying, many of the residents didn’t question what the government was telling them. 

Unfortunately, the Atomic Energy Commission lied, and they did it knowingly.  Their own scientists knew that radioactive fallout could kill or harm both animals and people,  but the Commission did nothing to warn residents or stop testing.

Dead and deformed sheep

By 1953, sheep in Iron County showed clear symptoms of radiation poisoning.  Animals had burns on their face from eating radioactive grass. Birth rates dropped as animals miscarried at an increasing rate. Many of the young were born so deformed or sick that they did not live long past birth.

The Commission investigated the livestock deaths and deformities, but it falsified the reports so that no one knew that Iron County was slowly being poisoned by radioactive fallout.  It was not until a Congressional investigation uncovered the massive fraud of the Commission in 1979 that the real picture began to come to light.  By then it was too late for many families in the area.

Many believe that there are too many cases of leukemia, infertility, and birth defects in these communities to be a coincidence.  Those affected by the testing fallout call themselves “Downwinders,” because the wind blew radiation from the test site over their communities.

Seeking justice

Many people filed lawsuits against the government, and though the courts have been reluctant to state for sure that the testing caused cancer and other problems, Congress passed a compensation bill in 1990 that apologized and provided money to help survivors deal with their diseases and other problems that may have been caused by the Nevada testing.

Keep Exploring!

Return to the Events page here
Return to the I love Utah History Home Page here.