We are still living with the consequences of Oppenheimer’s bomb

Too many idyllic childhoods were transformed into slow, agonizing deaths for the Americans subjected to nuclear weapons testing
A black and white photograph, showing what looks like hundreds of people watching a giant mushroom cloud from a nuclear bomb in the background
The “Dog” atmospheric nuclear bomb test at the Nevada Test Site, conducted in 1951. Photo from the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection

Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds.

In the recently released film, Oppenheimer, Robert J. Oppenheimer presciently reads from the sacred Hindu text, Baghada Gita. I think about all the deaths that the atomic bomb he helped develop at a site near Los Alamos, N.M. have caused, including those in my own family, families in Nevada, across the West and beyond. I think of how we watched our friends and loved ones die agonizing, drawn out deaths and of how many illnesses we endured ourselves.

I think of my idyllic childhood growing up in Salt Lake City surrounded by towering mountains. I think of sleeping in the backyard under the stars as canyon breezes cooled us on hot summer nights, of lying in the grass to watch clouds morph into different forms and drift slowly overhead, of visiting the red rock deserts of Southern Utah. I think of splashing in puddles of rainwater with my siblings and our friends, of mixing snow with vanilla and sugar pretending it was ice cream. Of drinking milk from a local dairy delivered each morning like clockwork; of drinking warm milk straight from the cows when we visited my grandfather’s friend on his farm.  

Little did we know that a silent poison was working its way through our bodies, being absorbed by our organs and tissue.  Nor did we know that one day – maybe in a year, ten years or decades later – the damage to our cells would make some of us sick and kill others. Everything we knew about nuclear testing was encapsulated in the little ditty about Bert the Turtle we learned in grade school.

“There was a turtle by the name of Bert, and Bert the Turtle was very alert. When danger struck, he knew just what to do – Duck and Cover, Duck and Cover.”

In a filmstrip, we watched children jump off bikes and cover their heads with their hands or a newspaper, and we practiced crawling under our desks so we would be protected if Russians dropped a nuclear bomb on us.

There was an enemy lurking nearby. But it was not the Russians. It was fallout from our own bombs that would get us.

In the spring before my 30th birthday, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. The surgeon removed my thyroid and some lymph glands. A few days later a nurse wheeled me in a high-back lead wheelchair to a room with the radiation symbol on the door where I drank a “cocktail” of radioactive iodine that would destroy any lingering cancerous cells. On my hospital bracelet and door was the same radiation symbol.

I was the radioactive material. 

I recovered. Others weren’t as lucky, including my sister who died of an autoimmune disease when she was just 46, leaving a husband and three children behind. Her death rocked our family. I think about that often, and I think of all the loved ones that we and others have buried. Some lost children to leukemia and brain tumors. One friend lost all but one of her siblings to cancer before losing her battle with multiple cancers.

Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds.

For the last 30 years, I have worked with other survivors of nuclear weapons to bring attention to the plight of those whose lives have been destroyed. It saddens me that so few Americans learned about the shameful legacy of the Cold War arms race that followed the 1945 detonation of “Trinity,” the world’s first atomic bomb near Los Alamos. A few years after our government dropped atomic bombs on Japanese civilian populations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, it started conducting 100 atmospheric and underwater tests in the Pacific Ocean. One test, named “Bravo,” was 1,000 times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.

In 1951, the government moved testing to the deserts of Nevada, where it detonated 928 nuclear bombs over the next 41 years. 100 were designed to explode in the open air. The winds carried fallout from the blasts across the country, and beyond our borders. When it rained or snowed, the fallout made its way into the environment and our bodies. Although the government assured us there was no danger, it was unquestionably aware that its citizens were placed in harm’s way. Justifying national security in the name of protecting it owns citizens, they killed their own.

Nuclear testing in Nevada ended in 1992, yet the damage caused by those weapons continues. Ordinary citizens were repeatedly exposed to fallout, both from atmospheric tests then from underground tests that leaked – some sending mushroom clouds of radioactive debris high into the atmosphere. Clouds from underground tests named “Sedan,” “Baneberry,” and “Schooner” look every bit like above ground tests.

I learned from an oncologist that cumulative exposure to radiation puts you more at risk of cancer. But here’s what’s more troubling: because of the long half-lives of radioactive isotopes, some for thousands of years, the radiation from our government’s testing is still present in the ecosphere.

In 1984, attorneys for 24 plaintiffs presented a meticulously researched case in their filing of Allen v. United States on behalf of 1,200 downwinders, deceased or living, with radiation-caused illnesses. In a landmark decision, Judge Bruce Jenkins acknowledged our government’s negligence by awarding damages to some individuals. The government appealed and the Tenth Circuit Court reversed Jenkin’s ruling in 1987. In 1988, the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal. Undeterred, downwinders pursued legislative relief through Congress.

In 1990, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) was passed by Congress and signed into law by President George H.W. Bush. The legislation finally recognized the effects of radiation exposure, and offered compensation to some victims of nuclear weapons production and testing. Regrettably, the program was limited to counties in parts of southwest Nevada, the southern half of Utah and northern Arizona. Those living outside these arbitrary boundaries were excluded, as if an invisible shield had stopped fallout in our communities.

A 1997 National Cancer Institute study confirmed that many more Americans had been exposed when clouds of fallout poisoned the landscape we loved. The study concluded that every county in the continental U.S. received some level of fallout from the Nevada Test Site, exposing 160 million Americans. Not all of them would get sick, but too many of us would suffer health effects and bury our dead – without knowing the cause.

Finally, we are seeing the seeds we planted sprout as we seem to be in the perfect storm of events. Senators Ben Ray Lujan (D-New Mexico) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) re-introduced a bill in the Senate this summer that would expand RECA to include all of Utah, Nevada, and Arizona, as well as Montana, Idaho, New Mexico, Colorado, the territory of Guam, and for the first time, the downwinders of Trinity, as well as uranium miners working since 1971. It would expand the program another 19 years. A companion bill in the House spearheaded by Rep. Leger Fernandez (D-New Mexico) was introduced this summer as well.

Then came the film Oppenheimer. Although it didn’t reference the victims of the bomb or what came afterwards, the film was a catalyst for discussions nationwide, providing the perfect opportunity to tell the rest of the story. Shortly after the film opened, a Princeton study mapped fallout patterns from Trinity and found it reached 46 states. Additionally, the study found fallout from 93 atmospheric tests in Nevada extended across the nation. It also recommended RECA expansion and extension.

After years of working with Congress to expand RECA, including bills introduced in the House and Senate, an unexpected glimmer of hope came this summer with the Senate passage of a last-minute amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Extending RECA by 19 years, the bipartisan amendment by Sens. Josh Hawley (R-Missouri), Ben Ray Lujan (D-New Mexico) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) also expands the program to include the entire states of Utah, Arizona and Nevada, Idaho, New Mexico, Montana, Colorado, the territory of Guam, as well as additional uranium mining communities, many on tribal lands. It also includes communities exposed to fallout from Trinity, and residents of Missouri exposed to radioactive waste from the Manhattan Project.

The week after the Senate’s passage, President Biden publicly expressed his support, telling Sen. Lujan he was prepared to “help make sure those people are taken care of.” At a Salt Lake City event the following day, the president publicly expressed his support for those who have been impacted.

Legislative hurdles still remain, including negotiations with the House on the final version of the NDAA. But this is the closest we’ve come, and it may very well be our last chance. If RECA expires next summer, too many will be without a much-needed lifeline. And worse, more will die.

Nothing will bring back what we’ve lost, our health and our loved ones. Nor will it ease the burden of staggering medical bills and the emotional toll we and our families have suffered. It has been a Sisyphean task, but we downwinders feel an enormous responsibility to make sure justice is served and the people harmed receive both the help and recognition they deserve.


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