nevada nuclear test spotlight

Photo: courtesy Nevada Division of Environmental Protection

A nuclear bomb being tested in Nevada in 1957.

Story by Laurel Morales

FLAGSTAFF — Friday (1/27/2012) is the first National Downwinders Day. They are the folks in Western states who were affected by radiation exposure from nuclear test sites in Nevada. Last year, the U.S. Senate voted unanimously to honor downwinders with a special day of recognition.

This 1954 news report shows the magnitude of one nuclear test.

About 140 bombs later, the testing went underground.

Still, in 1997 the National Cancer Institute found that much of the nation was blanketed with fallout from the atmospheric tests performed in Nevada from 1951 to 1962. Most of it was concentrated in Nevada, Utah and Arizona, within 300 miles of the proving ground.

Researchers have testified to the link between radiation exposure and cancer.

"It depends tremendously on the dose you got because dose is very strongly related to risk," said Ethel Gilbert, a scientist with the National Cancer Institute.

And your dose depends on where you lived and whether you were immediately downwind from the mushroom cloud.

Also, children who drank lots of milk in the 1950s are more at risk. The fallout landed on grass, which was eaten by cows, collected in milk and deposited in human thyroid glands. Because children have a higher metabolism and typically drink more milk, they are most affected.

Mary Dickson believes she was one of those children. She is a thyroid-cancer survivor who lived near Salt Lake City during the time of the tests.

"My sister and I counted at least 45 people in a five-block area who had gotten various types of cancers," Dickson said.

In 1990 Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. Since then, about 16,000 people have made proven claims for compensation. All told, the federal government has paid out almost $800 million over the last two decades.

And that doesn’t include other payments to the thousands of workers involved in the nuclear tests and in uranium mining.

Dickson has not been compensated since her family lived outside the immediate vicinity of the southern Nevada tests. The government has denied about 4,000 people compensation. The act only recognized people in rural counties in Nevada, Utah and northwestern Arizona.

"While we appreciate the resolutions and the proclamations being made, it’s really important to remember that resolutions and proclamations will not bring people back," Dickson said.

She and others are pushing for more compensation and a comprehensive test ban treaty.

A bipartisan bill calling for the expansion of the compensation act to downwinders in seven Western states is stalled in the Senate.

To find out if you are a downwinder, the National Cancer Institute has created an online calculator. After entering Mary Dickson’s birthday, county she lived in and other information, it determined she has an estimated thyroid dose of 13 Rad or radiation.

The Food and Drug Administration pulls milk from the market when it’s 15 Rad.

History of the Nevada Test Site and Nuclear Testing Background

About Laurel Morales

laurel morales focus large

Photo: Fronteras

Reporter Laurel Morales

Senior Field Correspondent Laurel Morales (Flagstaff) has been a public radio reporter for 10 years; eight of them in Arizona. She has won several awards for her work, including national recognition from Public Radio News Director Inc. (PRNDI) for the only commentary she’s ever written. She prefers to highlight compelling voices other than her own and has covered blizzards, wildfires, floods and tornadoes. Morales came to northern Arizona from rural Minnesota where she worked as a reporter after receiving her master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.