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Chapter 4: The Fallout

In many ways, the creation of the Nevada Test Site was good for the region; the population of Las Vegas grew by over 160%, visitation to the city saw a massive increase thanks to atmospheric testing, thousands of jobs were created in the area and more than $176 Million in federal funds were brought to the region - two thirds of which went directly back into the Las Vegas economy.

But what was the true cost of these tests?

From the outset of the selection & development of the test site, concerns had been raised surrounding the dangers of testing nuclear weapons within such a close proximity to a large center such as Las Vegas.

However, when testing began, the US Government was confident that their meteorologists could predict weather & wind patterns well enough to prevent the spread of radiation.  In 1955, the AEC issued brochures to residents of the area claiming they were in no danger and that the radiation levels residents would experience were "only slightly more than normal radiation" they'd experience during their regular daily lives.

Message from inside brochure issued to Nevada residents living near the test site, February 1955

Photo Credit: US Government Printing Office/Public Domain

But recently declassified documents have revealed that the fallout from the tests drifted across several parts of the United States.  One of the hardest hit areas was the town of St. George, Utah located downwind from the test site.

The years following the May 1953 "Harry Shot" (which would later be dubbed "Dirty Harry" due to the large amount of nuclear fallout generated) saw the small town see reportedly higher cancer rates among its citizens and a large loss of farmers' livestock due to radiation poisoning.

Detonation of the "Harry Shot", May 1953.  Due to a miscalculation & change in wind direction, the test generated more nuclear fallout than any other continental US test, eventually leading to the nickname "Dirty Harry".

Photo Credit: CTBTO Preparatory Commission

The most famous "downwinder" case involved the production of the film, "The Conqueror" which was shot in the desert just outside St. George in 1956.  Several notable actors were part of the movie including John Wayne, Agnes Moorehead and Susan Hayward.  But overshadowing the star-studded cast was the later revelation that many of those involved in the production developed cancer in the years following.

By 1980, 91 of the 220 cast & crew had developed some of cancer and of those, 46 had died.  Most notably, John Wayne passed away in 1979 from stomach cancer at the age of 72 and 15 years prior to that, he'd had a bout with lung cancer (which he'd beaten).  During his time filming "The Conqueror", Wayne had been visited by multiple friends & family, several of whom had also developed cancer or tumors.

Government denials about cancer-causing fallout began to unravel in the late 1970's & early 1980's when lawsuits filed against the government uncovered internal AEC reports from the time of the tests which showed that scientists & bureaucrats downplayed and distorted evidence.  Several reports were unearthed showing massive increases in Leukemia rates among children, direct links between the deaths of thousands of sheep & nuclear tests and the argument that postponing tests due to health concerns would slow down arms development.

On October 5, 1990, following almost 20 years of attempting to enact legislation, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) was passed by US Congress and signed into law by President George H. W. Bush.  RECA provided $50,000 in compensation for individuals who were residing or working downwind from the Nevada Test Site.

Map outlining US States where residents are eligible for RECA compensation.  The blue & green areas indicate areas affected by downwind fallout from atmospheric tests at the Nevada Test Site

Photo Credit: RECA (Radiation Exposure Compensation Act)

In addition to the issues faced by the so-called "downwinders", the testing had a massive environmental impact on the site itself.  Following the implementation of the Limited Test Ban Treaty and the move to underground testing only, each of the below ground explosions (some as deep as 5000 feet) vaporized a large chamber, leaving a massive cavity filled with radioactive rubble.

 

When the underground testing ended in 1992, the Department of Energy declared the site to be "one of the most radioactively contaminated locations in the United States".  In some of the most seriously affected zones, the concentration of radioactivity in ground water was 50,000 times higher than accepted standards.  And although radioactivity levels in water do decline over time, danger could exist for workers and future settlers for tens of thousands of years. 

Anti-nuclear protesters gathered at the entrance to the Nevada Test Site

Photo Credit: Plymouth Institute For Peace Research

The Nevada Test Site was also a very contentious spot for anti-nuclear protesters.  From 1986 to 1994, 536 demonstrations were held on the site involving over 37,000 protesters with over 15,000 arrested.  In February 1987, more than 400 people were arrested when they tried to enter the site following a rally involving nearly 2000 protesters.  Among those arrested were astronomer Carl Sagan and actors Kris Kristofferson, Martin Sheen and Robert Blake.  And in March 1988, the American Peace Test held a 10-day long event at the site attended by more than 8,000 people.  Over the course of the 10 days, nearly 3000 people were arrested with more than 1200 in a single day, setting a record for the most civil disobedience arrests in a single protest.

In September 1992, US Congress passed the Hatfield-Exon amendment, putting a nine month moratorium on nuclear testing.  As such, the final nuclear tests to occur at the Nevada Test Site happened on Septmeber 18 & 22, 1992.  On October 2, 1992 the moratorium was signed into law from President George H.W. Bush.

Four years later, on September 24, 1996, US President Bill Clinton signed the comprehensive test ban treaty, officially prohibiting nuclear weapons and test detonations.  Although the US Congress has never ratified the treaty, the United States has maintained its moratorium on nuclear testing.

As of today, in spite of the lack of nuclear detonations, the Nevada Testing Site is anything but deserted.  In 2010, the site was renamed the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS) and it's currently used for national nuclear security defense programs, industry research & development, open-air experiments by both federal agencies & private industries as well as Department of Homeland Security nuclear & radiological emergency response testing and training.

The NNSS also offers monthly tours of the testing site including stops at the town of Mercury, Frenchman Flat, the Sedan Crater and the Apple-2 houses.  Space on the tours is extremely limited and is usually fully booked upwards of 12 months in advance.

Group photo of tourists on the edge of the Sedan Crater, Nevada National Security Site

Photo Credit: Nevada National Security Site on Twitter

For many in the United States, the Nevada Test Site is viewed as a place as incredibly important historical significance, especially when it comes to national security.  After all, this was the battleground on which the Cold War was fought and won.

The devices tested at the Nevada site forever changed humanity & civilization and the legacy of the site will always remain controversial.