Salt Lake City

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 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.