‘What do we have to do?’: Fresh awareness of historic nuclear radiation in Montana

Fallout from weapons tests elsewhere could have had devastating health consequences in the state. Political support for recognition and compensation grows.

By: - January 16, 2024 4:10 am

A fireball ascends from the first atomic artillery shell in history, tested at the Nevada Test Site in 1953. Radiation from the test site fell across the West, including in Montana. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Growing up in Cut Bank, Montana, Patti Jo Ruegamer would spend most summer days going to the farm with her mother and father in Meriwether, about 25 miles west.

This story is part of a national series looking at the legacy of nuclear weapons development and testing in the United States, and an expanding understanding of who was harmed. (Photo illustration by Tyler Gross)

While her parents worked, she would go to the neighbor’s place, where she and other children drank fresh milk from the cows there, and would spend the day riding horses, swimming in the river or roaming the area.

The clouds drifting above them, though, may have contained radioactive fallout from nuclear weapons experiments performed by the U.S. government hundreds of miles away in the 1950s and ’60s.

A landmark study by the National Cancer Institute in 1997 showed that out of the top 25 counties in the United States that received the most radioactive byproduct from weapons tests in Nevada, 15 were in Montana. 

In the hours and days after the testing, cows and goats that ate grass blanketed by radiation saw more of the iodine-131 collected in their milk, which was then passed on to humans that drank it. Iodine-131 is collected in humans’ thyroid glands.

Now 70 years old, Ruegamer wonders if it was the daily glasses of fresh milk, and perhaps eating farm-grown vegetables, that might have led both her and her daughter to develop thyroid cancer and for her to develop an ovarian cyst as a teenager that had to be removed.

“I don’t know how many women, and it could be reservation women in particular, or people that may be related to this radiation, have been walking around forever with their thyroids out of whack,” she said.

Modeling fallout and precipitation data, and collecting archived radiation exposure readings from old “gummed film” and milk consumption rates from the 1950s and 60s, the NCI study estimated the number of “rads” — doses of radiation absorbed by a person — that were absorbed in each county in the United States.

The report identified Montana’s Meagher County, home to White Sulphur Springs, as having received more radiation than any other county in the U.S.

Researchers found people in 15 Montana counties — Meagher, Broadwater, Beaverhead, Chouteau, Jefferson, Powell, Judith Basin, Madison, Fergus, Gallatin, Petroleum, Lewis and Clark, Blaine, Silver Bow and Deer Lodge — received estimated doses of iodine-131 to their thyroids between 9 and 16 rads.

But much of the rest of the state, including the Blackfeet Indian Reservation where Ruegamer lived, saw an estimated 6 to 9 rads, also among the highest in the United States.

Chief Mountain as seen from Meriwether, Montana. (Photo courtesy Souta Calling Last, Indigenous Vision / Containment Tracking Project) 

Ruegamer said she had spoken with elders on the reservation who also shared anecdotes of family members developing thyroid or other cancers who were around the same age as she was.

But there had been little discussion over the years on the Blackfeet Nation about the fallout from nuclear testing in Nevada, and fuel production in Washington, that made its way to Montana in the 1950s and ‘60s, and any possible ramifications.

She still has to this day the clipping of an article published in February 2005 by the Great Falls Tribune detailing the 1997 cancer researchers’ report and thyroid cancer in Montanans in counties that saw the most fallout, which she said opened her eyes.

Back in 1997, scientists said there was not an obvious link between the risk of thyroid cancer and areas of high iodine-131 exposure, though researchers told Congress they were still studying potential correlations.

By 2002, the NCI and National Institutes of Health had developed a pamphlet for Native communities discussing the connection between iodine-131 and thyroid cancer, saying definitively that people born between 1936 and 1963 who drank milk — especially unprocessed milk from cows and goats — were at the highest risk of seeing thyroid cancer from the radioactive byproduct.

Today, the government maintains that people who were under age 15 during the 1950s and early ‘60s living primarily in the Mountain West, but also through the Midwest and Northeast, who drank milk — especially fresh milk — are at the highest risk of developing cancer from radiation.

They’re sometimes called “downwinders” — those exposed to nuclear radiation blown to their homes from nuclear test sites in the United States. Twenty-six years after that NCI study came out, a decade-plus effort to include Montana downwinders in a program that provides money to people who developed certain illnesses again sits in limbo, as does the program itself.

Compensating unwitting victims


The Radiation Exposure and Compensation Act was created, in part, to compensate people living downwind of the Nevada test site who were sickened from the fallout. But Montana wasn’t covered.

In order to be eligible for the RECA program, people must have been present in a downwinder region for at least two years between January 1951 and November 1958, or from June 30, to July 31, 1962. They also must have a diagnosed primary cancer of certain organs, including the thyroid and ovary, or of certain other diseases.

Thyroid cancer affects women more than twice as often as men. The median age diagnosis is age 51, but about 34% of cases are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 44, according to cancer institute data. The death rate is 0.5 per 100,000 people.

Cancer prevalence and mortality is higher on the Blackfeet Reservation than among white Montanans statewide, but other health factors contribute, too, according to a Department of Public Health and Human Services report.

An expansion of RECA was proposed in Congress last year that would have included people in Montana, as well as others in Idaho, Colorado, Missouri, New Mexico and Guam, and the parts of Arizona, Utah and Nevada that were not previously covered.

The expansion was included in a version of an $866 billion national defense budget bill that passed the U.S. Senate in July, with bipartisan support, including from Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana. It would have also extended the RECA fund for 19 more years.

The program’s extension and expansion were cut, however, in early December by Republican leadership who have been unhappy with the estimated cost as they deride government spending and deficits.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office in October estimated enhancing the RECA program and benefits for downwinders, people who were on-site participants of nuclear weapons testing, and people involved in uranium mining and transportation, would cost $147.1 billion over the next 10 years.

Last month, the House passed a version of the Defense spending bill that did not contain the RECA expansion, and the Senate followed suit. As it stands, the radiation compensation program, and the window for new claims, expires in June.

The uncertainty has some in Montana and other states wondering if they will ever be able to seek compensation for maladies they believe the government caused through nuclear testing, the effects of which it kept quiet for years, leaving their families and communities suffering.

Regions covered by RECA as it stands without expansion. (Map from the U.S. Department of Justice)

Ruegamer said she believes Congress should keep working to pass the extension and expansion so that more can be learned about whether the contamination is increasing cancer and disease prevalence in now-older Montanans, and so they can receive much-needed compensation if that is the case.

She said going through her own thyroid disease around age 40, and now seeing her daughter  endure the same over the past year around the same age, has reminded her how much $50,000 could do to support families affected by the radiation.

“You’re just all — are we gonna make it through this? What do we have to do? What happens if we don’t?” she said. “…There’s the people — and there’s quite a few of them, probably a majority — that are just taking care of their basic needs. Some of them are not being met. So, you don’t have time to do advanced planning or wonder why this happens or that happens. You just have to make it through that day, make sure you get food on the table.”

Fallout in the statehouse

Supporting a national expansion of the radiation exposure program became a bipartisan effort at the Montana Legislature this year. 

During the committee hearing and on the Senate floor, senators from both parties shared anecdotes about growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s, and seeing friends and family members develop illnesses earlier in life than expected.

Sen. Andrea Olsen, a Missoula Democrat who sponsored Senate Resolution 69, told fellow lawmakers that sending a message to Congress to include Montana in the RECA program was “an opportunity to really fix a wrong that’s been going on way too long for the people of Montana.”

She explained the history of the testing and how the government sought to perform tests in Nevada when the jet stream was pushing more of the radiation into Idaho, Wyoming and Montana — less populated areas — and how the RECA program came about in 1990. She also detailed the 1997 report.

Sen. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka, said his mother had a “goiter” — an enlarged thyroid gland — removed from her neck in the mid-1950s and remembered a woman down the street who also had an infected thyroid. Sen. Wendy McKamey, R-Great Falls, said she had experienced similar issues with cancers in her family.

Several members of the public urged lawmakers to adopt the measure, also saying their family members were stricken with cancer they believe was caused by fallout radiation.

“We can actually make a difference for all these people in Montana, although many of them are gone now; may they rest in peace,” Olsen said. “And all this letter, this request from our Senate, is to say to them, ‘We’re aware of this problem and we ask you to help our people, help Montanans, fix this problem — as you determined was the right thing to do over 30 years ago.” 

By the time 42 of 50 Montana state senators voted to pass a resolution near the end of the 2023 session urging Congress to include Montanans in RECA protections, efforts to better understand the effects of the nuclear testing in Montana, and to include coverage for Montanans under RECA, had been ongoing at the Legislature and Congress for more than 20 years.

State Rep. Hal Harper, D-Helena, sponsored a bill during the 1999 session, based on the 1997 National Cancer Institute report, which sought to have the Department of Public Health and Human Services determine the extent Montanans were exposed to the iodine-131 fallout from testing in Nevada. The bill was tabled after its first committee hearing.

When the cattle turned white

The first person lawmakers heard from in April after Olsen finished her opening remarks was Gayla Bradberry, who drove to Helena from Yellowstone County to urge the Senate State Administration Committee to move the bill along to the full chamber.

She was born in 1947 and grew up in New Mexico, as her father, uncle and grandfather partnered in a cattle operation in Nogal Canyon about 45 miles east of the Trinity Test Site, where the U.S. detonated the first nuclear bomb on July 16, 1945.

Though she hadn’t been born when the test happened, she told lawmakers that her uncle had told her that he’d seen the explosion and later that day, the cattle’s hair had turned white. Her brother recalled their father selling the cattle for less than expected that year because of the “atomic hair.” That was one sign of what the secret bomb had done to the people, plants and animals living in the area, she said.

But as she grew up, her family members started getting sick and dying, she said in an interview in December.

Her mother, Virginia Zumwalt, died in 1963 at age 51 of a metastasized tumor after spending the prior three years driving to El Paso, Texas, for treatments. Five years later, Bradberry’s father, Ray Zumwalt, died of lymphoma after six months in the hospital.

Ray and Virginia Zumwalt, the parents of Gayla Bradberry. (Photo courtesy Gayla Bradberry)

She said that she and her brothers were forced to sell the family ranch to pay for those expenses, and she married in 1968 without a parent to walk her down the aisle.

She and her husband followed one of her brothers to Montana in 1972, settling 10 months later in Yellowstone County. But moving away did not leave the illness and death behind, she said.

By her count, more than a dozen aunts, uncles and cousins have been treated or died from cancers. She said she didn’t understand the link between radiation exposure and cancers until reading an article in the Billings Gazette in 2017.

“That alerted me to the connection between my family’s deep losses to cancer by so many of my family,” she said. “I had a hunch, but I didn’t have any data or any kind of scientific connection until then.”

She was born with a genetic marker from the radiation her parents received, she said, which she has now passed on to one of her sons. 

Bradberry, like many New Mexico downwinders and their children, believed last summer’s release of “Oppenheimer, ” which chronicles the Trinity program and weapons testing in New Mexico, would push an expansion and extension of RECA across the finish line to finally provide support for the thousands that suffered.

“I understand that secrecy was important. I mean, we won the war because of it. We couldn’t let Germany and Japan know at the time,” she said. “But when do you finally stand up and say, ‘Oops, now let’s protect the health and safety of our loyal citizens.’ Right?”

The fight in Congress

In 2005, former U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Montana, first introduced a bill to expand RECA to include Montana, then teamed up with Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, to introduce a bill to have RECA apply in both states.

When Tester took office in his newly won Senate seat in 2007, he jumped in to support the Montana-Idaho expansion along with then-Sen. Max Baucus, another Montana Democrat, and both Crapo and Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho.

“This bill is about doing right by Montanans and folks in other states who were left out of the original law that was based on geography rather than medical science,” Tester said at the time.

The New Mexico delegation also continued to press through the 2010s to have RECA expanded to include downwinders of the Trinity test. In June 2022, President Biden passed a two-year extension of the program but didn’t broaden the program to include more affected counties.

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, joined the fight last year to seek compensation from nuclear waste contamination in the St. Louis area. The expansion and extension amendment passed the Senate 61-37 and drew support from Biden.

“I’m prepared to help in terms of making sure that those folks are taken care of,” Biden said in August.

But the version of the NDAA the House passed in December stripped the amendment out, and the Senate agreed to pass that version with an end-of-year deadline looming.

Tester’s office said he would continue to explore other legislative vehicles to be sure the expansion passes before the program expires this summer. Sen. Ben Ray Luján, D-New Mexico, one of the sponsors of the extension and expansion effort, blamed Republican leadership for removing the amendment.

“I have been pushing for well over a decade to strengthen the RECA program for New Mexico uranium mine workers and Downwinders,” he said in a statement. “This is a bipartisan issue that has a bipartisan solution, and I remain committed to working with this bipartisan coalition to keep RECA moving forward. I will never stop fighting for justice.”

In a speech to the Senate, Crapo said he remained committed to the effort he started more than a decade ago.

“It is frustrating and discouraging that bipartisan support from both chambers of Congress still cannot get this legislation enacted into law,” he said. “… This fight is not over, and I look forward to the day where we can celebrate the necessary updates and commemorate those who did not live to see it.”

Bradberry said she is disappointed by Congress’ recent decision to remove the expansion from the defense spending bill, but she hopes the fight for both Montana and New Mexico continues, because she believes everyone who suffered from radiation exposure in any state should be compensated for the government’s actions.

Part of her personal therapy in experiencing so much grief and loss comes through writing poetry about the Trinity test and subsequent fallout — both literal and proverbial. One she wrote in 2017, “The Canyon of the Shadow of Death,” details the idyllic New Mexico valley and way of life before the bomb and the grim reality that followed for so many downwinders:

Tumors, chemo, strangers, funerals, foreclosures. The fallen and the falling. The family’s legacy of death continues.

The malignant anger and helplessness disturbs, aware of the betrayal by a government established “to preserve and protect.”

For what destroying the enemy, also destroyed peaceful native patriots.

Poisoned without warning, without apology, without honor.

The Radius series is a collaboration between MuckRock and States Newsroom outlets, including The Daily Montanan, Colorado Newsline, Source New Mexico, Arizona Mirror, The Missouri Independent, Idaho Capital Sun and Utah News Dispatch.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

Blair Miller, Daily Montanan
Blair Miller, Daily Montanan

Blair Miller is a reporter based in Helena who primarily covers government, climate and courts. He's been a journalist for more than 12 years, previously based in Denver, Albuquerque and mid-Missouri.

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