Cancer deaths from nuclear weapons testing

  U.S. Downwinders of Nuclear Testing

 Last updated: April 15, 2014


After the conclusion of World War II through 1992, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and its successor agencies, including the U.S. Energy Department, conducted over 1,100 nuclear tests at locations spanning the Western Hemisphere. These tests, or 'shots,' were conducted underground, above-ground, under-sea, and in high altitudes (including outer-space). Most of the U.S.'s nuclear shots were held underground and predominantly occurred at the Nevada Test Site, a Rhode Island-sized piece of land north of Las Vegas that was withdrawn from public use specifically for weapons testing. Nevada tests were categorized by 'series' and each shot had its own moniker (i.e., Shot Smoky of the Plumbob series).

As is factually-true, but not well-known by the public, U.S. nuclear testing in Nevada sent radioactive clouds in unpredictable trajectories that spared no American town or city from radiation (see the Miller map). The fallout increased on many occasions - and in most states downwind (including even California) - background radiation levels in air or soil by a thousand-fold or sometimes a million-fold. (Scroll down for declassified maps of fallout from the 1953 Nevada A-bomb test series 'Upshot-Knothole.')

Although the fallout deposition on the ground was inadequately tracked in the 1950s, a U.S. federal health study completed in 1997 stated that every county in the continental U.S. received fallout from Nevada and a follow-up study in 2002 added that any person living in those counties since 1951 has been exposed to radioactive fallout and their organs and tissues have received some radiation exposure.

With confidence, we can say that every American alive since 1951 is a downwinder, a victim of radioactive fallout from Nevada nuclear tests. This fallout still remains across the U.S., and beyond; it contains radioactive chemicals that have long half-lives and are either or both soluble and respirable and therefore continues to poison the U.S. food supply and poses inhalable health risks. The greatest threat from this lingering fallout is a random assortment of plutonium hotspots in central Nevada created by late 1950s and early 1960s plutonium dispersal experiments at the 'NTS' (Nevada Test Site); these hotspots are a source of environmental plutonium. As the plutonium flies off the hotspots during windstorms, it reaches residents across the U.S. and Canada, raising lung cancer risks.

Southwest Downwinders

In the U.S., the term 'downwinder' usually refers to persons in the Southwest who received fallout exposures from open-air testing at the Nevada Test Site from 1951 to 1958, and 1962. (read more) The downwinder term is also used by a small population in rural eastern Washington State affected by fallout from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and also by residents near the Pilgrim nuclear plant in Massachusetts.

A fraction of U.S. Southwest downwinders qualify for the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (42 U.S.C. 2210), or RECA. Passed in 1990, this federal law provides payments to individuals who contracted certain cancers and other serious diseases as a result of their exposure to radiation released during above-ground nuclear weapons tests or as a result of their exposure to radiation during employment at atomic testing sites or in underground uranium mines.

The Nevada Test Site was recently renamed to the Nevada National Security Site, or NNSS. The NNSS remains open for underground nuclear testing and is used for conventional explosives testing, minor radiological dispersal experiments, subcritical nuclear tests, and, soon, depleted uranium experiments.

Amending RECA

Downwinders and downwinder groups have long been hoping that additional compensation would be coming their way. They contend that evidence - including a 2005 NAS review study - suggests that fallout exposures outside the boundaries of RECA were just as high as some local exposures within the boundaries. (RECA presently covers only downwinders in a few dozen counties in Utah, Arizona and Nevada.) Furthermore, downwinders allege that non-Nevada nuclear tests, such as the Trinity test conducted in 1945 in New Mexico - and also over 40 open-air tests in the central Pacific Ocean in the 1950s and 1960s, also harmed people yet the suffering victims in those areas remain neglected by Congress and RECA.

Hoping to address their united concerns - for all victims of U.S. nuclear testing - downwinders have been trying since 2010 to boost support for a bill that would expand RECA. That bill, titled 'Radiation Exposure Compensation Act Amendments,' was first introduced in the U.S. Congress in 2010 and although the bill failed to pass in the two Houses initially, its sponsoring legislators have continued to reintroduce the bill in subsequent Congresses (it still has not passed).

For downwinders, the key provisions in the RECA Amendments bill, which would amend the 1990 RECA law, are: expanding eligibility (to be a 'downwinder') to the full geography of seven Western states, including Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, and Utah, and also Guam, and tripling the compensation amount to $150,000 ($100,000 would be allocated to each past successful downwinder claimant). The bill also proposes to: widen qualifications for uranium workers and help indigenous peoples by allowing affidavits (to help victims prove residence/employment during specified periods of time); allow resubmission of previously denied RECA claims up to three times; provide to all successful claimants medical benefits; and extend the RECA Trust Fund's termination date from its current 'sunset' in 2022 to roughly 2029.

Downwinder Day - Hurt or Help?

Southwest downwinders have had a very hard time trying to gain recognition and compensation since the late 1970s, when the first lawsuits against the government were filed over health damages related to fallout exposures. Their battle for justice is now in its fourth decade and the latest push to amend RECA occurs at a time when the youngest individuals exposed to the Nevada fallout are reaching 50 years old, and the rest of the exposed cohort are elderly or deceased. Naturally, some of the Southwest's veteran downwinder advocates, including some who began fighting in the 1950s or 1960s against the testing and government lying, have become wary of government promises and gestures to bring the amends that downwinders are seeking. One example of this is Downwinder Day.

In 2012, January 27th was officially named 'Downwinder Day' pursuant to a resolution being passed in Congress that was spearheaded by several U.S. Senators. While some downwinders and downwinder groups and affiliates hailed the federal commemoration of January 27th as Downwinder Day in 2012, others weren't so happy. Southern Utah's The Spectrum newspaper noted in their article 'Downwinders hope Day of Remembrance spurs change' that

'Some local downwinders saw the Day of Remembrance as difficult to embrace. Michelle Thomas, a St. George resident who was officially declared a downwinder when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1993, called the declaration an insult. "It's an empty occasion, devoid of any long-term positive benefit," she said, arguing that proclamations ring hollow when they are unlikely to come with any action. She said she is doubtful that a weapons ban or additional compensation is coming any time soon. "The only thing that would make me feel better is if they initiated that we would implement in the school system a program to teach about downwinders," she said..."It's education that's necessary, not a proclamation," she said.'

Half-baked RECA Bills, Educational Goals, and My Upcoming Book (author's note)

I looked at the original RECA Amendments bill when it was introduced, and first noticed it was without a price tag. I calculated the downwinder portion alone would cost $57 billion and that doesn't include medical benefits (my analysis on this is forthcoming). Taking into account also the uranium and test site worker's benefits, the bill might cost U.S. taxpayers one or two hundred billion dollars! Here are some other problems with the bill:

The bill is half-baked (it seems more of a political stunt by Senators than a real attempt to bring justice); it most likely would be deemed too expensive by Congress to fund considering the low level of general public interest in the downwinder issue. So, Michelle Thomas is right. It is doubtful that additional compensation is coming any time soon.

This is not meant to dissuade downwinders not covered by RECA from pursuing compensation. But, perhaps, educating the world about downwinders is the means towards the ends (of justice and compensation). And if this is our goal, we have a LOT of work to do! Although I have no survey or study to back up this claim, global citizens nowadays are learning significantly more about the downwinders of the Semipalatinsk test site in Kazakhstan (former Soviet republic) through exhibits, documentaries and text than U.S. downwinders. This is my belief, based on my observations. While, if true, that is great for the downwinders of 'Semi.' It's not so great for U.S. Southwest downwinders. But you don't really need a survey or study to verify this claim: if you go into a U.S. bookstore, library or even the best documentary movie collection, there's virtually nothing there about U.S. downwinders. Survey your friends and colleagues...probably over 90% of the U.S. population has never learned about the U.S. downwinder plight!

Since working with downwinders in Utah in 2006 to stop Divine Strake, I have learned quite a bit about the topic and have written critical analyses about downwinders in the first and third chapters of my free online book titled 'Deception, Cover-up and Murder in the Nuclear Age' here. The bulk of my work to date, however, is now compiled into a draft nonfiction book about downwinders' legal battles of the 1970s and 1980s and the useful things we can glean from that era in our fight today. Although I am planning to self-publish it in 2014 as an e-book, I am hoping to find a publisher. I am also trying to secure the assistance of an expert on the U.S. nuclear testing era of the 1950s to review the manuscript. Please contact me if you can help or know someone who can.

Below are articles written by me, as well as relevant links to other articles and documents, and maps. Note: currently, all the links I have for the websites to U.S. downwinder groups are not working. If you are a downwinder group and have a website up and running, let me know.

Time restrictions under Radiation Exposure Compensation Act Amendments of 2010:

Claimants in Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, and Utah need to prove they lived there 2 years between January 21, 1951, and ending on October 31, 1958 or in July 1962 [but what a 31 days it was!: chart].  Claimants in New Mexico need to prove they lived there 2 years between January 21, 1951, and ending on October 31, 1958, or in July 1962, or for the period beginning on June 30, 1945, and ending on July 31, 1945.   Claimants in Guam need to prove they lived there for a period of at least 2 years between June 30, 1946, and ending on August 19, 1958 (August 18, 1958 was the last Pacific nuclear test ('Fig') conducted on Enewetak or Bikini Atoll since testing there begin in June 1946) or for the period beginning on April 25, 1962, and ending on November 5, 1962. (The 1962 timeframes corresponds with aboveground nuclear testing on Christmas and Johnston Islands that (after a hiatus from two nuclear 1958 tests) re-commenced on April 25, 1962 and ended on November 4, 1962).  (Note that the Argus series over the South Atlantic Ocean was carried out on August 27 and 30 and September 6, 1958).

We have uploaded here to the RECA House bill (note that the eligibility requirements for leukemia are different from the requirements of all the other RECA compensable 'specified' diseases) and at the end of that document we show the marked changes to the 1990 RECA law.  


Levels of radiation on the ground linked to fallout from the March 17, 1953 atomic test dubbed 'Annie' - radioactive clouds met with rains across the country

Some atomic tests released radiation into air measuring over 10 million CPM (counts per minute)

Fallout traveled to California and Texas after this atom bomb test in 1953 - entire Southwest was 'hot'

Tumbler-Snapper radioactive debris map and data: Part 1 Part 2 

Buster-Jangle Radioactive debris maps and data

Upshot-Knothole Radioactive debris data  radioactive debris maps

You can learn more about downwinders by reading these two recent opeds - one is about the undeniable evidence out there that downwinders were harmed by the fallout, and the other is a call for a government-funded study into the possibility that downwinders also suffered genetic damage. Another must-read is a Downwinder's reaction to a tour of the Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas shortly after it opened. See maps compiled - though presently available by a web archive service - by the U.S. National Cancer Institute about the fallout from these tests. Also, read 'The Black and White World of RECA.'

Baby-Boomer Downwinder Cancer Occurrences Gives New Urgency for Amending Radiation Compensaton Legislation

April 24, 2013

On April 18th, a team of Western States U.S. Senators re-introduced a bill to help some key groups of radiation victims affected by the U.S. nuclear testing machine in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Stakeholders who have been following this legislative attempt to expand compensation for downwinders for years and years aren't holding their breath, though.

The bill introduced last week in Congress actually has been introduced in identical versions over many recent years, and never once did the bill 'leave committee,' meaning the legislation year-after-year keeps getting stuck in House and Senate committees that decide what bills go to the next stage or not, and then this bill 'dies' when the Congressional session is over. New session, new bill... bill endless cycle. Interesting to note, estimates that the reintroduced bill has a '15% chance of getting past committee' and '3% chance of being enacted.' I think that's optimistic thinking.

What's the bill? Formerly titled the 'Radiation Exposure Compensation Act Amendments,' the re-introduced bill (S.773) would amend a 1990 law that offers compensation to Nevada test site workers, uranium miners and millers, and downwinders of the Nevada Test Site. For downwinders, the bill aims to expand eligibility - to be a successful 'downwinder' claimant - to include victims of both the Trinity test and aboveground nuclear testing in Nevada and also great expands the geography of coverage to include seven Western states, including Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, and Utah, and also Guam, and triple the compensation amount to $150,000. The bill also proposes to widen qualifications for uranium workers and help indigenous peoples by allowing affidavits (to help victims prove residence/employment during specified periods of time).

I've written on about this bill and I have several problems with it. One, there is no price tag - there's no estimation of the cost of what the changes to RECA will bring. It is really, really enormous, according to my calculations. That leads me to think the bill is more political than anything. But that's another story for another day. Two, I have something to say about the law firm that *wrote* the bill. I am not saying anything bad about lawyers but I find it curious that the firm, which was hired by a group of Americans that has been negatively affected by historical uranium mining, doesn't allocate monies for a downwinder study when it does allocate monies for a uranium workers epidemiological study. I find it also curious that the firm, which has a side-business in processing 'RECA' claims, wrote in an extra 8% kickback for law firms who help claimants. Maybe that's not a bit of a scandal. Maybe so.

What I do find interesting is that the bill is now being called 'A bill to amend the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act to improve compensation for workers involved in uranium mining, and for other purposes.' Are U.S. downwinders - who have been through such very hard times in seeking remedy for their radiation injuries - deserving of being lumped as 'other purposes' in this bill? Why are uranium workers in the title of the bill, and not downwinders? Does that send a message?

There's been some talk here and there on the web lately about the downwinders and that a peaking of cancers related to the latency period for exposures to the young in the 1950s and 1960s is being experienced right now...and this needs attention. For instance, the claims process for the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act is administered by the Justice Department, which remarked in its 'Radiation Exposure Compensation Act Trust Fund - FY 2014 President's Budget,' issued this month, that "Looking forward to the next ten years, the Program may see an increase in the number of downwinder and on-site participant claims filed. Several of the cancers covered under RECA, such as primary cancers of the lung, colon and breast, have a rising incidence rate in populations 50 years of age and older...The youngest individuals exposed to radiation from fallout of atmospheric nuclear weapons testing turned 50 years old in 2012. Moreover, individuals exposed to ionizing radiation at younger ages have shown a greater risk of contracting these cancers. As cancers express themselves in the affected population, increases in both claimant categories are reasonable assumptions.'

I want to see remedy for all radiation victims of the nuclear testing machine, and I don't want to see this bill die, but I'm afraid it will.

I'm afraid it will die every year it is introduced.

This whole business of RECA bills, in my opinion, has a way of distracting the American public from the issues and controversies of radiation exposures in the past. It is a distant conversation from the ones about negligent wrongs, duty of care, government accountability and justice that began when the downwinders started their fight for remedy in the 1970s. We're now just seeing a bill live and die, get resurrected, then live and die, year in and year out. Meanwhile, downwinders in places not covered by the current form of RECA, and others who wouldn't even be helped by S. 773 are dying, without help, compensation or medical assistance.

There is an urgency with the increasing onslaught of cancers among radiation victims affected by the U.S. nuclear testing machine, and I don't see the legislators, the Justice Department and the health agencies, and numerous other parties that should be caring and helping, matching that urgency with their actions.

Letter from a Downwinder

This article originally appeared on the listserv, which that we ran from January 2008 through August 2010. This is one of many draft posts where links and other material below the main story were inadvertently left out. This version - though incomplete - is very powerful...

Last week Utah Congressman Jim Matheson, joined by two other House members, presented a letter to the ranking member and head of the House Judiciary Committee asking to hold hearings on expanding RECA, or the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. Matheson last pushed for hearings in May 2007 with no success.

The need for expanding RECA to help downwinders and their families grows with each passing day. My own words cannot convey the seriousness of their collective need so I must rely on the impact of others' words. Printed below is a letter from a woman who in 2000 sent it to a downwinder and radiation educational organization. I have withheld the name but if you have any questions, you can contact me; her mention of resumed testing in 1997 refers to subcritical tests, which continue to this day at the Nevada Test Site.

Following the letter is KSL's news story about Matheson's letter. - A. Kishner

Letter from a downwinder:

I was 38, and rented a cottage at the beach in Maine with my children. Putting on sun screen everyday I noticed a lump on my jaw. I thought it was swollen glands from a cold and when I returned to Massachusetts, I went to the doctor for antibiotics. It turned out to be a rare salivary gland cancer and I spent the next year in cancer treatment. Ironically, my sister had been diagnosed with the same cancer when she turned 38 in Washington.

My surgeon was the first to tell me I had been exposed to radiation. On my initial visit he asked if I knew of any exposure--had I worked or lived near a nuclear power plant? I didn't know what he was talking about. Each doctor visit (and there are many, many visits when you have cancer) the subject of radiation exposure would come up again. The doctors were astonished that my sister and I had identical cancers--extremely rare, found in Hiroshima atom bomb victims or survivors of childhood cancers. Even the National Cancer Institute said the cancer was caused from ionizing radiation. I would walk into a doctor's office and the doctor would say, "Oh, you're the one! I've heard about you!" I knew they meant radiation exposure.

My doctor suggested that as an "act of consciousness" I needed to look into my exposure so others in my area could be taken care of adequately. Initial inquiries around my childhood town in Idaho were met with silence but then older residents remembered things--"there was a time our milk was thought to have radiation from Chinese bombs," "one year all the deer were deformed and couldn't be used for meat," "there were lots of two headed calves one year."

I still didn't know about any actual exposure and I asked my surgeon, "Really, what do you think?" He said, "I think you grew up in a really bad place."

My oncologist suggested I would have been exposed around age 14. So I decided to look for something that happened in 1970. I sent email to the Department of Defense and received an answer of where to look. It only took 5 minutes using the Department of Energy's 'opennet,' I got thousands of hits and was able to find thousands of documents about fallout in my area. These documents are in the process of being declassified and are only available on the internet. In the D.O.E. documents scientists suggest their own families stay indoors and drink powdered milk. We should have had that option. They knew we were being exposed. The documents call my area "unpopulated." The bomb tests that affected me were to see if nuclear weapons could be used in widening the Panama Canal. There were bomb tests nearly every day. They knew the tests were exposing off-site populations and continued "testing." The United States refused to sign treaties taking responsibility for any off-site exposures. Now they refuse to acknowledge the damage caused by hiding behind "discretionary function."

I found that the radiation compensation act only covers those who grew up in Southern Utah and Nevada, not my area. I have written to my senators who express support for more testing and support for plans of radiation disposal which may expose more of the population. I have found other classmates with cancers--brain tumors, thyroid problems, and other health problems related to radiation exposure. I'm worried about chromosome damage I may have unknowingly passed on to my children. I live with after-effects of cancer treatment--nerve damage, pain, balance problems, etc. I am still in physical therapy. My jaw locks when I try to speak. I've lost much of my hearing, my sense of taste if altered, my teeth are dying. And every day I worry if it will come back.

I don't fail to see the irony--I was a very health conscious person--I've never smoked. I spent most my time outdoors. I skiied, rode horses, backpacked. My childhood years we grew and bottled our own food. Our meat was venison we had hunted or chickens we raised. We drank unprocessed milk from local dairies. Now I know that was the worse thing we could have done. Our food chain was completely contaminated.

I am grateful I have doctors who have been supportive and who have opened my eyes to reality.

I never thought I'd be exposed to radiation. Now I know it can happen to ANYONE. There are no safe levels. The government does not watch out for the citizens. They haven't learned any lessons. The testing in Nevada began again in June, 1997. They claim these tests are "safe" just as they did all the tests before. I hope whoever reads this will take the time to voice their opinions to their government officials, as an act of consciousness.

The 'letter from a downwinder' - near its end - refers to subcritical nuclear testing, which began in 1997.

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