Radius: The legacy of America’s nuclear weapons testing program

States Newsroom and MuckRock explore the human fallout from America’s nuclear development and testing, and how the consequences are still felt today

By: and - January 17, 2024 3:03 am

(Photo illustration by Tyler Gross)

The Trinity explosion, 16 milliseconds after detonation. The viewed hemisphere’s highest point in this image is about 660 ft. (Berlyn Brixner / Los Alamos National Laboratory / Public Domain)

Americans are typically told the story of the scientists who built the atomic bomb as an intellectual race for the world’s most powerful weapon during wartime. 

More than 100 atmospheric weapons tests were conducted in the U.S. and its territories between 1945 and 1962. It resulted in widespread radioactive fallout across much of the U.S., largely spread by prevailing winds and rain. In addition, contaminated waste was shipped and haphazardly stored across the country, creating new toxic Superfund sites stretching from Colorado to New York.

The narrative skips radioactive fallout all over the United States — in towns near the first blast, neighborhoods downwind of testing sites, villages next to uranium mines or suburbs by nuclear waste dumps. U.S. residents have lived in these places and died young from cancers and other illnesses, or given birth to babies with uranium in their bodies

The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act is set to expire this summer. Since the radiation program first was created in the 1990s, more than 54,000 claims have been processed for those affected. But not everyone has been eligible.

Unless the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act is extended, claims have to be postmarked by June 10, 2024, according to the Department of Justice.

Thousands more could have been recognized and compensated with legislation proposed in Congress last year. The measure cleared the Senate with bipartisan support but was struck from the final version of a massive defense spending bill as lawmakers haggled over details in the House. 

On the afternoon of July 16, 1945, the U.S. government conducted its first-ever nuclear weapons test, detonating a plutonium bomb called “Trinity.” Decades later, the extent of the fallout is only now being understood, thanks to new modeled data by researchers.

 

New Mexico

‘They scrapped us’: The Trinity downwinders and New Mexico mine workers who remain unrecognized

The world’s first downwinders keep up the fight, as more communities in the state punctured by uranium mines step forward.

By Danielle Prokop and Marisa Demarco, Source New Mexico

Those living nearest to the first nuclear blast in history have suffered for generations.

In New Mexico, Trinity Test site neighbors weren’t warned or evacuated before the U.S. government detonated the atomic bomb in 1945. The light was so bright it could be seen hundreds of miles away. Nearly half a million people resided within a 150-mile radius of the blast. Witnesses said ash rained down for days.

Cancers, diseases, early deaths, infant mortality and more have plagued people in New Mexico ever since the United States government set off the bomb in the Jornada del Muerto. But despite organizing and advocacy for well over a decade, they were neither recognized nor compensated.

Declassified documents show that in the days immediately following the blast, Manhattan Project planners realized the fallout radius was much larger and more dangerous than they’d expected.

The impacts of the Atomic Age are broad in New Mexico, in Indigenous lands and throughout the region. Not only were many exposed to radiation during the Trinity Test in 1945, subsequent uranium mining for the purpose of developing nuclear weapons sickened and killed workers and their families.

Though the mines were mostly privately owned, the U.S. government was the customer paying for that uranium ore for decades after World War II. Hundreds of dormant and unaddressed mines remain like open wounds in the land, continuing harm to their neighbors.

Lawrence and Arlene Juanico never knew the land without uranium mines. Now, they are fighting for recognition of their impact on Laguna Pueblo. The Juanicos and other volunteers have worked to track diagnoses, and help people apply for benefits for family members. 

“No one was taking notes here,” Arlene Juanico said. “My partner and I are working to get an accurate amount of who was all affected by that.”

 

Arizona

‘We’re running out of time’: Program for Arizonans exposed to radiation set to expire in June

Survivors, politicians and Navajo Nation officials react after legislation to compensate more downwinders and miners fails in Congress.

By Shondiin Silversmith, Arizona Mirror

Marti Gerdes remembers living in Prescott as a kid and, every winter, she and her family would make snow ice cream, mixing milk and sugar with snow.

It was a treat she recalls having any time it snowed — except for one year when her mother told them they couldn’t have snow ice cream because “there’s something bad in the air.”

“I had no clue what she was talking about,” Gerdes said. 

Gerdes and her family lived in the northern Arizona city in the 1960s, at least 300 miles from the Nevada Test Site, where the U.S. government tested nuclear weapons north of Las Vegas. 

Those tests sent radioactive fallout into the atmosphere, dispersed by clouds and precipitation in several states, including Arizona, government modeling and data have since shown, putting people at risk of serious illnesses for decades.

Over the years, several Arizona political leaders have advocated for broadening RECA-covered areas in Arizona. 

In July, U.S. Rep. Greg Stanton, D-Ariz., introduced the Downwinders Parity Act, which proposed updates to the RECA to include all the affected areas of Mohave County in Arizona and Clark County in Nevada. The bill would have also instructed the attorney general to outline for Congress what efforts will be made to educate and conduct outreach to those made newly eligible. The bill was co-sponsored by Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz. 

When the amendments failed to be included in the defense spending bill, Stanton said he would keep working to expand and extend the RECA.

 

Utah

‘How much money are our lives worth?’: Utah downwinders call RECA expansion’s failure a betrayal

More people across the state could have been included in the U.S. program for those who may have been exposed to radiation during Cold War-era weapons testing

By Kyle Dunphey, Utah News Dispatch

People like Mary Dickson aren’t legally considered downwinders, the term used to describe those exposed to radiation during Cold War-era nuclear weapons testing in Nevada and New Mexico.


“Every time I say I’m a downwinder, I get ‘Oh, you grew up in St. George?’” said Dickson, of Salt Lake City, who was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 1985. “It’s been really frustrating because for 30 years, I’ve been trying to raise awareness that no, it wasn’t just southern Utah, it went everywhere.

In Utah, the government’s radiation compensation program covered residents who lived in one of 10 counties —– Beaver, Garfield, Iron, Kane, Millard, Piute, San Juan, Sevier, Washington and Wayne —– for two consecutive years from 1951 to 1958, or during the summer of 1962. People who worked in uranium mines, mills or transporting ore in Utah from 1942 to 1971 were also eligible. 

With the proposed expansion, anyone in Utah diagnosed with certain cancers caused by nuclear testing would have been eligible for compensation. The measure also would have extended RECA, which is set to expire this June. The limited eligibility under the current bill has been a source of major frustration for health care providers like Becky Barlow, director of the Radiation Exposure Screening and Education Program in St. George, which screens people exposed to radiation and helps them apply for compensation.

“Obviously radiation doesn’t stop at the county line,” said Barlow, whose program covers the lower half of Utah, and parts of Nevada and Arizona. Still, Barlow gets calls from all over the Mountain West from those who suspect they got sick from radiation, but who aren’t eligible under the federal program. 

 

Idaho

‘The fight isn’t over’: Idaho downwinders persist after Congress cuts compensation for them

Residents work to understand the ongoing impacts of nuclear test fallout and radiated clouds over Idaho decades ago.

By Mia Maldonado, Idaho Capital Sun

In her home, Tona Henderson has a wall dedicated to images and the names of people who were diagnosed with cancer and living in Idaho at the time of nuclear testing from 1951 to 1962. (Courtesy of Tona Henderson)

For nearly two decades, Tona Henderson collected newspaper articles, letters and photographs documenting who in the small town of Emmett was diagnosed with cancer, including her own family. The result is a wall in her home covered in pictures and pages displaying the names of community members who may have been exposed to lethal radiation during the country’s Cold War-era nuclear weapons testing program.

Henderson is the director of the Idaho Downwinders, a nonprofit representing people who lived in Idaho between 1951 to 1962 when the United States tested nuclear weapons aboveground in Nevada. She has been a leading advocate for the federal government to provide financial compensation to Idahoans impacted by that nuclear testing, which sent radiated clouds beyond Nevada’s boundaries to other neighboring states, including Idaho.

Gem County, along with Idaho’s Custer, Blaine and Lemhi counties, are among the top five in the U.S. that were most affected by fallout from Nevada nuclear tests in the mid-20th century, according to research by the National Cancer Institute.

American children at the time faced a high risk of developing thyroid cancer if they consumed milk from pastures where cows and goats grazed that were contaminated with iodine-131 — a radioactive element that is released into the environment during nuclear weapons testing.

Children, with smaller and still-developing thyroids, consumed more milk than adults, placing them at greater risk for cancer because of the concentration of iodine-131 in the thyroid gland.

Emmett is a tight-knit community, Henderson said. The population stands at about 8,000 people today, according to the latest census numbers. She used to run a doughnut shop in town, and customers, knowing her role in tracing diagnoses, would tell her about locals facing cancer. From 2004 to 2019, she said she recorded hundreds of instances of cancer diagnoses among Emmett residents who were present during the testing period. 

“That’s a lot of people for such a small town,” she said. “The fight isn’t over.”

 

Montana

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

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

By Blair Miller, Daily Montanan

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.

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. 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. 

 

Colorado

‘It lives in geologic time’: Nuclear contamination and health risks remain throughout Colorado

How the proposed expansion of a compensation program could impact the state, and the ongoing fight to make it happen.

By Chase Woodruff, Colorado Newsline

Buildings at the site of the former Cotter uranium mill, which were later demolished, are pictured in this 2007 photo, with Cañon City seen in the background (Photo courtesy of Jeri Fry)

When Jane Thompson moved away from Uravan in western Colorado decades ago, it was still a quiet company town of about 1,000 residents, all of whom had some connection to the uranium mill owned by Union Carbide.

“It was a great place to grow up,” said Thompson, who helps keep the town’s legacy alive as president of the Rimrocker Historical Society. Her grandfather was a miner until retirement. Her father was, too, after her parents married.  “They were the second-to-last to leave Uravan when they sent everybody out.”

Uravan and the surviving mining towns nearby, including Nucla and Naturita, are just a few of the many places in Colorado where residents were caught up in — and in many cases bore the risks of — the Manhattan Project’s sprint for the bomb and the nuclear arms race of the Cold War.

 

Missouri

‘We got mad’: Years of pain after a childhood near radioactive Coldwater Creek in Missouri

RECA expansion could have helped with care for people suffering after living near contaminated waterways and sites in the state. A U.S. senator vows to keep fighting for it.

By Allison Kite, Missouri Independent

Billy Winters’ childhood in Florissant in the 1960s sounds enviable. 

His parents bought a new house as thousands of other families flocked to the growing St. Louis suburbs. Winters’ neighborhood was full of other kids to play with. He spent almost every day splashing in a creek that ran near his home.

But Winters didn’t know at the time that the creek waters could be dangerous. The creek he was playing in was a small tributary to Coldwater Creek, which unbeknownst to him had been contaminated with radioactive waste left over from World War II. When Coldwater Creek flooded, its waters would back up in the creek near Winters’ family home.

The St. Louis region was pivotal to the development of the first nuclear bomb in the 1940s. Uranium for the Manhattan Project — the name given to the effort to develop the bomb — was refined in downtown St. Louis. The leftover radioactive waste has plagued the metro area ever since.

Private companies and government agencies with oversight of the radioactive material documented the possible dangers of the radioactive waste repeatedly but made little effort to keep it from spreading as suburbs sprung up around the airport and Coldwater Creek throughout the 1950s and 1960s. An investigation last summer by The Missouri Independent, MuckRock and The Associated Press laid bare the way they dismissed the spreading contamination as “slight,” “minimal” or “low-level.”

The reaction from federal and Missouri state lawmakers to “Atomic Fallout” was swift. Within days, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, and Rep. Cori Bush, D-Missouri, pledged action, calling the investigation “devastating” and decrying the federal government’s “negligence.” “This report confirms what we in the community have known for decades: that for the past 75 years, the federal government actively and knowingly treated St. Louis as a dumping ground for harmful and toxic radioactive waste,” Bush said. 

In response, Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey announced his office would “do everything in our power to hold the federal government accountable.” His office assigned several attorneys to the case and are still investigating. A state representative for the affected area convened a townhall, telling residents:

“Because of the journalists dropping these documents and finding out for us that our federal government knew this and never told the public for 50 years, it was huge. We were desensitized to the insanity.”

The U.S. Senate, with bipartisan support, narrowly voted in late July to expand a program that compensates Americans who become ill because of exposure to radiation from the country’s development and testing of nuclear weapons and the buildup to the Cold War. President Joe Biden has signaled his support for the proposal and Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm visited one of the contaminated sites during a visit to St. Louis. Senators attached the legislation to the annual defense bill; despite our reporting being described as a “bombshell,” it was ultimately stripped out of the final version of the legislation after the Congressional Budget Office estimated it would cost $147 billion over a decade. 

Still, legislators and affected families in seven Western states are vowing to reintroduce legislation to extend and expand the federal radiation compensation program in 2024 and a flurry of pre-filed bills in Missouri would increase state funding for a victims’ compensation fund, citing our reporting.

And, in perhaps the clearest sign that the federal government is taking ownership of the contamination at Coldwater Creek, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced in January that it would install signs along the waterway warning people of the risks — more than 70 years after workers first realized barrels of radioactive waste were left nearby.

The Radius series is a collaboration between MuckRock and States Newsroom outlets, including Source New MexicoColorado NewslineUtah News DispatchArizona MirrorThe Missouri IndependentIdaho Capital Sun and The Daily Montanan.

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.

Marisa Demarco
Marisa Demarco

Marisa Demarco is an Albuquerque-based journalist and lifelong New Mexican whose work has won national and regional awards. She's spent almost two decades as a reporter, producer and newsroom leader, co-founding the New Mexico Compass, and editing and writing for the Weekly Alibi, the Albuquerque Tribune and UNM's Daily Lobo. She began a career in radio full-time at KUNM News in late 2013 and covered public health and criminal legal reform for much of the last seven years. During the pandemic, she was also the executive producer for “Your NM Gov” and “No More Normal,” shows focused on the varied impacts of COVID-19 and community response, as well as racial and social justice.

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Derek Kravitz, MuckRock
Derek Kravitz, MuckRock

Derek Kravitz is the investigations and data editor of MuckRock, a nonprofit, collaborative news site that focuses on public records and accountability journalism. He is also working on grant-funded initiatives through Columbia and Stanford's Brown Institute for Media Innovation, including the Documenting COVID-19 project. Previously, he was the research director at ProPublica and a reporter and editor at The Wall Street Journal, The Associated Press and The Washington Post. Kravitz has been apart of three teams that have been finalists for the Pulitzer Prize.

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