Day of Remembrance for Downwinders: the 65th Anniversary of the Inception of Nuclear Testing in Nevada

January 27, 2016 marks the 65th anniversary of the inception of nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Site.  The test, a 1 kiloton bomb code named Able, went off at Frenchman Flat at 5:45 am local time. 

Frenchman's Flat, Nevada Test Site

Frenchman's Flat, Nevada Test Site

 

Within eight days it was followed by four additional nuclear tests. In the forty years that followed, those first five tests, known as the Ranger series, were followed by another 923 nuclear detonations in Nevada. Massive amounts of toxic radiological pollution entered the downwind environment, contaminating the air, food, and water that local citizens relied on, and creating a legacy of health problems that will continue to ripple forward for generations. At 1 kt, Able was a comparatively small test, (if you consider 1000 tons of TNT small).  Subsequent tests in Nevada were frequently upwards of 50 kt, sometimes even surpassing 100 kt. Atomic Energy Commission policy dictated that tests go forward only when the wind blew east, over the communities of southern Nevada, southern Utah, northern Arizona, and often northern Nevada, northern Utah and southern Idaho. Testing from 1951 to 1962 took place atmospherically, or in the open air, dumping massive amounts of radiological pollution into the winds to be carried across the country.

Areas of the United States crossed by two or more clouds from atmospheric nuclear tests, 1951-1962. Underground testing from 1962-1992 also created airborne contamination. Map assembled by Richard Miller.

Areas of the United States crossed by two or more clouds from atmospheric nuclear tests, 1951-1962. Underground testing from 1962-1992 also created airborne contamination. Map assembled by Richard Miller.

 

Testing in Nevada was only part of the problem.  Massive amounts of uranium were mined, milled, transported, and processed to fuel the bombs (225 million tons between 1950 and 1989, some of that destined for the nuclear power industry), a process that left its own legacy of catastrophic pollution and health problems across the American West.

In memory of those who have been lost to radiation-related illness, downwinders in Salt Lake City and Emmett, Idaho are holding memorial gatherings today.  The 5th annual SLC "Day of Remembrance for Downwinders," will take place from 7-8 pm at South Valley Unitarian Church in Cottonwood Heights.

The Emmett, Idaho downwinders group will be holding their event at 4:00 pm at the Frontier Cinema, where the official release of the documentary Downwinders will take place.  To view a clip of the documentary, click here.

A contribution to HEAL Utah is a great way to help keep nuclear testing in Nevada a thing of the past, and a wonderful way to honor the memory of those who have been lost to radiation-related illness.

In memory of those who are too many to name.

Bringing Downwind to Idaho: October Book Tour midpoint

During the early years of my research into the impact of nuclear testing in Nevada, I operated under a common misconception: that Southern Utah had borne the brunt of the contamination from the Nevada tests.  During the atmospheric testing era in Nevada (1951-1962) the Atomic Energy Commission tested only when the wind blew east, away from densely populated Las Vegas and California, and over the more sparsely populated regions of the American West.  While this meant that Southern Utah did receive more than its fair share of fallout, as it was sited directly east of the Nevada Test Site, the wind didn't always follow the same course.  Contamination was frequently carried south, into Arizona and beyond, and north, into northern Utah, southern Idaho, and the states that lay beyond to the east. In 1997 the National Cancer Institute released a study on fallout-related thyroid cancer,

providing a sobering look at all the far flung places the wind travelled to.

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The NCI study concerned itself with only one of many radioactive isotope produced by the nuclear tests: Iodine 131.  I-131 has a relatively short half-life of only eight days, but it remains very dangerous during that time. It began to make its way into the food chain as it drifted down on grazing lands and alfalfa crops which were subsequently consumed by cattle.  The contamination bioaccumulated, which means it increased in concentration as it moved up the food chain.  When humans consumed that I-131 contaminated cows milk, they received doses of radiation to their thyroids, particuarly dangerous in the developing bodies of children.

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The NCI study revealed the extent to which contamination had reached areas beyond southern Utah, and Idahoans struggling to make sense of alarming cancer clusters in their communities found the data particularly enlightening. They've been fighting for years to expand the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act to cover those counties in Idaho that we know were severely affected by radiological contamination from atmopsheric testing in Nevada.  During a gap in my Utah book tour events, I was able to dash up to Idaho to visit two community libraries to speak about these topics. 

 

I spoke to a lovely audience at the library in Malad City, Idaho. A copy of Downwind has been donated to the Oneida County Library.

I spoke to a lovely audience at the library in Malad City, Idaho. A copy of Downwind has been donated to the Oneida County Library.

Sunrise behind a wind farm. Early morning drive across Idaho from Malad City to Emmett.

Sunrise behind a wind farm. Early morning drive across Idaho from Malad City to Emmett.

In Emmett I had the honor of sitting down with four different residents who grew up in Gem County and interviewing them as a group about their memories of farm childhoods, early mentions of nuclear testing, and patterns of health problems in their community.   

The stack of cards in this photograph represent one year of medical appointments for Emmett downwinder Billy Reynolds.  He has mylofibrosis, which his doctor believes could only have been caused by radiation exposure.  He lived in Emmett on a farm from 1951-1961, during the bulk of atmospheric nuclear testing to the south.  Emmett is located in Gem County, which ranks in the top five counties in the United States for fallout from atmospheric nuclear testing. "It seems like death is just a part of life here in Emmett.  My mother lived to be the oldest of her five siblings.  She died at 47.  Three of her siblings had brain cancer."   Billy's father and brother have also died of cancer. I first met Billy two years ago.  At the time he was receiving regular blood transfusions to stay alive. Today he's on a new experimental medication that's improved his quality of life a great deal. It was dear to see him in Emmett.  A copy of Downwind has been donated to the Emmett library. 

The stack of cards in this photograph represent one year of medical appointments for Emmett downwinder Billy Reynolds.  He has mylofibrosis, which his doctor believes could only have been caused by radiation exposure.  He lived in Emmett on a farm from 1951-1961, during the bulk of atmospheric nuclear testing to the south.  Emmett is located in Gem County, which ranks in the top five counties in the United States for fallout from atmospheric nuclear testing. "It seems like death is just a part of life here in Emmett.  My mother lived to be the oldest of her five siblings.  She died at 47.  Three of her siblings had brain cancer."   Billy's father and brother have also died of cancer. I first met Billy two years ago.  At the time he was receiving regular blood transfusions to stay alive. Today he's on a new experimental medication that's improved his quality of life a great deal. It was dear to see him in Emmett.  A copy of Downwind has been donated to the Emmett library. 

Emmett downwinder organizer Tona Henderson has copies of Downwind for sale at her bakery, the Rumor Mill.  

Emmett downwinder organizer Tona Henderson has copies of Downwind for sale at her bakery, the Rumor Mill.  

Snapshot of the tour midpoint. 

Snapshot of the tour midpoint. 

Bringing DOWNWIND to the City of Salt

Sunset from the roof of the Salt Lake City Public Library, Tuesday October 20

Sunset from the roof of the Salt Lake City Public Library, Tuesday October 20

In the past three days I've been able to present Downwind: A People's History in three different and really special Salt Lake City venues.  Tuesday night I visited the beautiful downtown library in SL and had a conversation with downwinder activist, playwright, KUED Director of Services, and all around force of nature, Mary Dickson.  It was a great format. Attendees sat in a semicircle of chairs and we sat in the center, sharing stories and fielding some fantastic questions.

Mary and myself speaking to a lovely audience at the SL Library. Thanks to Christina McWhinnie for this and all other photos from this event.

Mary and myself speaking to a lovely audience at the SL Library. Thanks to Christina McWhinnie for this and all other photos from this event.

 I met Mary over ten years ago, when I was first begining my research on these issues.  I'd gone to hear writer and downwinder Terry Tempest Williams speak at USU in November of 2004. After her talk I waited in line to meet her and I told her that I was thinking about writing my master's thesis on the downwinders. She clasped my hands, gave me her best wishes, and told me I'd better call Mary, whose number she scribbled down on the margin of a program.  Mary immediately agreed to let me interview her, but she quickly became more than an informant for my project. She took me out to eat, she took me to the movies, she shared everything she knew. We spent one long night sitting up eating Girl Scout cookies and making postcards to send to elected officials in protest of the planned Divine Strake test.  Several years later Mary wrote a remarkable play, Exposed, about her journey to awareness as a downwinder, which was performed in SL and around the state to critical aclaim.  It was an honor and a pleasure to be reunited at this event to talk about our respective journeys and our work. This event (and in fact, most of my Utah tour) wouldn't have been possible without the help of several key folks. Rob DeBirk (who happens to be Mary's nephew) who worked for many years with HEAL, connected me to Michael McLane of Utah Humanities. Michael set up this and most of my other Utah tour events, lending his passion for the subject and his extensive connections around the state.

Michael McLane, the organizer of the Utah Book Festival and most of the Downwind Utah tour. Michael is an exceptionally talented writer and a particularly kind human being, to boot.  

Michael McLane, the organizer of the Utah Book Festival and most of the Downwind Utah tour. Michael is an exceptionally talented writer and a particularly kind human being, to boot.  

  The SLC Public library audience was full of really lovely people. I so appreciated each of their questions, comments, and stories, and their willingness to come out and participate in this event. Also, big thanks to SLC's Weller Book Works, who sold books at this and my Utah Archives Event. They have signed copies available in their store. 

 

The SLC Public library audience was full of really lovely people. I so appreciated each of their questions, comments, and stories, and their willingness to come out and participate in this event. Also, big thanks to SLC's Weller Book Works, who sold books at this and my Utah Archives Event. They have signed copies available in their store. 

On Wednesday I visited the Utah State Archives as a guest of Archives Month, where I spoke to a great crowd of archivists and community members about some of the archival documents that informed Downwind. (A link to a video of my talk can be found in the caption of the slide image below). Prior to my talk, Justin Sorenson and Heidi Brett of the University of Utah Downwinders Archive offered a short presentation about the remarkable work they are doing to preserve and share Downwinder oral histories, documents, and data. 

Click here to access a video of my presentation at the Archives. 

Click here to access a video of my presentation at the Archives. 

After my talk, archivist Jim Kichas gave me a fantastic tour of the facilities. People, there are SO MANY BOOKS in this room waiting to be written.  Get yourself to an archive and ask a brilliant archivist like Jim what's good. Its pretty magical when they set down that box on the table and you get to pull out those folders and see the literal pieces of history tucked inside.  

Behind the scenes at the Utah State Archives.  

Behind the scenes at the Utah State Archives.  

Thursday I joined staff and several very special supporters of HEAL Utah for a luncheon to discuss Downwind and the work of building awareness and action around these stories.  Whenever I feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the work to be done on this issue, I take great comfort from clicking over to HEAL's website to be reminded of the incredible work they are are doing every day to advocate for the environment and the people of Utah. It was amazing to meet them in person, and to hand over my small, heartfelt donation from the first year of Downwind's royalties. Keep up the good work, you amazing people. 

with the fantastic staff of HEAL Utah: Laura, Ashley, Matt, and Sophia. (Their official titles with HEAL are in caption below).

with the fantastic staff of HEAL Utah: Laura, Ashley, Matt, and Sophia. (Their official titles with HEAL are in caption below).

HEAL staff and some of the remarkable people who support HEAL's work through their own extraordinary activism, scholarship, civic engagement, and political work.  Back row: Professor Danielle Endres of U of U, Matt Pacenza, Executive Dir of HEAL, downwinder activist Eve Mary Verde, former Utah State Representative Jennifer Seeling. Middle row: Ashley Soltysiak, HEAL Senior Policy Associate, Jean Welch-Hill of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. Front row, Laura Schmidt, HEAL Outreach Coordinator, Mary Dickson, downwinder activist and KUED Dir of Services, and me. Not pictured because she was taking the picture: HEAL Associate Director Sophia Nicholas.

HEAL staff and some of the remarkable people who support HEAL's work through their own extraordinary activism, scholarship, civic engagement, and political work.  Back row: Professor Danielle Endres of U of U, Matt Pacenza, Executive Dir of HEAL, downwinder activist Eve Mary Verde, former Utah State Representative Jennifer Seeling. Middle row: Ashley Soltysiak, HEAL Senior Policy Associate, Jean Welch-Hill of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. Front row, Laura Schmidt, HEAL Outreach Coordinator, Mary Dickson, downwinder activist and KUED Dir of Services, and me. Not pictured because she was taking the picture: HEAL Associate Director Sophia Nicholas.

I've had the great pleasure of staying with dear friends in SLC... thanks Christina and Sadiki! Now its on to events in Malad, Idaho and Emmett, Idaho this weekend.

Historical Treasures and an Unexpected Interview

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Tuesday morning I had the unexpected pleasure of sitting down with Bruce Brower and Jan Arnell, children of Stephen Brower, who readers of Downwind will remember from Chapter 3 "Home on the Range," which discusses the Cedar City sheep die off of 1953. Jan graciously allowed me to look through her father's papers about the incident, which span several decades and have been assiduously preserved and organized, thanks to Jan. 

They document the career and efforts of a principled and earnest individual who spent years advocating for the ranchers of Iron County.   

I was thrilled to look through his papers, which included ample correspondence between Brower and AEC officials, public health officials, elected officials, private contractors brought in by the AEC to help assess the afflicted livestock, and later, Governor Scott Matheson of Utah, who also advocated strongly for the people of his state who had been affected by radiation. Brower saved his copies of meeting minutes with the livestockmen and the AEC, reports on the sheep deaths, and newspaper clippings documenting years worth of controversy around the sheep case. He even corresponded with former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall about Udall's efforts to organize Downwinder plaintiffs and "embarass the government into acting."

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Press clippings from around the nation Brower saved in his files.  

Press clippings from around the nation Brower saved in his files.  

It was an unexpected pleasure to get to interview Jan and Bruce about their father.  Here's hoping some day I get a chance to do another edition of Downwind  that includes some of the fascinating data from his personal papers. 

 

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Return to Logan

Returning to Logan

Returning to Logan

It felt fitting to kick off the Utah tour for Downwind  in Logan, the town where my journey with these stories began.  I first arrived in Logan to attend grad school in history at USU in 2004.  Yesterday I had the honor of speaking about my research in the same building where I defended my master 's thesis all those years ago, and the pleasure of chatting with Utah Public Radio's Tom Williams on the Access Utah ProgramI've had the chance to catch up with dear friends (thank you Jess and Ryan for your incredible hospitality), see old grad school buddies (what a great suprise, Sarah!), and reconnect with some amazing faculty mentors.  And of course, I got to swing by my old apartment, revisit Logan Canyon, and stop by the offices of the WHQ, where I served as an editorial fellow during grad school. From here its on to Salt Lake, where I will speak with Mary Dickson at the SLC Public Library on Tuesday, the State Archives on Wednesday, and staff and supporters of HEAL Utah on Thursday.

Visiting UPR to discuss Downwind with Access Utah's Tom Williams. 

Visiting UPR to discuss Downwind with Access Utah's Tom Williams. 

The Utah theater in downtown Logan

The Utah theater in downtown Logan

Beautiful Logan Canyon

Beautiful Logan Canyon

Surprise guests at my talk: Jan, Karen, and Bruce Brower, children of Stephen Brower, one of the heroes of Downwind: A People's History. 

Surprise guests at my talk: Jan, Karen, and Bruce Brower, children of Stephen Brower, one of the heroes of Downwind: A People's History. 

It was an honor to be introduced by Dr. David Rich Lewis, my longtime mentor. 

It was an honor to be introduced by Dr. David Rich Lewis, my longtime mentor. 

Downwind in the Cascadia Weekly today (and Bham's Village Books tomorrow!)

Today the Cascadia Weekly features a story on the writing of Downwind.  Check it out here! Tomorrow author Sarah Fox will be speaking about Downwind at Bellingham's own Village Books, at 7pm.  This week marks Village Book's 35th year in business... a remarkable achievement in a day and age when brick and mortar bookstores are disappearing from our neighborhoods.  Please come out to celebrate a remarkable independent bookstore, and pick up your copy of Downwind!

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Ten days till Downwind debuts in Bellingham!

Bellingham friends! In ten days I'll be heading north to one of my favorite places...  Village Books. I grew up choosing titles there as a kid and a young adult, and I haunted the aisles when I lived in Bellingham in 2003, just before I headed off to grad school in Utah.  I'm especially thrilled to be speaking there during Village Book's 35th Birthday week.  (They're only 53 weeks older than me.) I can think of few independent bookstores I've loved or respected more. I look forward to seeing lots of familiar and beloved faces on Thursday, June 11, 7 pm!.

This week: Support the West Seattle Historical Society by purchasing Downwind and other titles!

This Friday, June 5, Downwind will be featured in the Words, Writers & West Seattle series at the Barnes & Noble in Westwood Village.  From 5-7 pm, I'll be speaking about the journey of writing the book, answering questions, and signing copies. It's my neighborhood so I'm particularly thrilled to be a part of this series, and I'm looking forward to seeing fellow WS faces. The best part though?

"Any purchases made by those attending the talk that afternoon and for the next five days will result in a contribution of 10 percent of proceeds to the Southwest Seattle Historical Society under the Barnes & Noble Bookfair program."

Please come on down and support Downwind: A People's History and the wonderful SW Historical Society!

DOWNWIND featured on Newberry Honor-winning author Kirby Larson's blog today!

I had the pleasure of reading with Kirby Larson while we were both serving as guest faculty for the Whidbey Writers MFA program this past January.  She's an accomplished author, recipient of numerous awards for childrens' literature, and a really lovely human being besides. She invited me to share a bit about how Downwind came to be in a guest post on her blog's Friday Friends feature, which has hosted some splendid writers in the past. Check it out here.

Is Your State on this Map?

Areas of the United States crossed by two or more clouds from atmospheric nuclear tests in Nevada between 1951 and 1962.  Map created by researcher Richard Miller based on AEC records on radiation dispersal from weapons testing.  Widely distributed by downwinder activists to demonstrate how  the fallout from US tests blanketed most of the country during this era.

Areas of the United States crossed by two or more clouds from atmospheric nuclear tests in Nevada between 1951 and 1962.  Map created by researcher Richard Miller based on AEC records on radiation dispersal from weapons testing.  Widely distributed by downwinder activists.

Areas of the United States crossed by two or more clouds from atmospheric nuclear tests in Nevada between 1951 and 1962.  Map created by researcher Richard Miller based on AEC records on radiation dispersal from weapons testing.  Widely distributed by downwinder activists.