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Complicated legacy of nuclear testing in Nevada lives on in bodies, politics

Since the site starting nuclear testing in 1951, the Nevada National Security Site has raised environmental and ethical questions.
Carly Sauvageau
Carly Sauvageau

As Oppenheimer took over the silver screen this summer, the people dealing with the fallout of the nuclear testing that began with the bomb the film depicted got a reminder — they only had a year left to apply for compensation for health ailments they believe could be linked to the bombs.

For many, a $50,000 check from the federal government is small comfort in light of the specific cancers — most commonly thyroid and lung cancer — they suffer from. But research has been inconclusive on whether the hundreds of tests conducted in the Nevada desert are definitively to blame.  

Following the more than 900 nuclear tests conducted at the Nevada Test Site in the 1950s and ’60s, people who were exposed to radiation without their knowledge began suing the federal government. 

As a response to this increase in litigation, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (or RECA) was first introduced in 1989 to Congress as a bill sponsored by Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy “to make partial restitution to these individuals, or their eligible surviving beneficiaries, for their hardships associated with the radiation exposure,” according to the United States Government Office of Accountability. It was later signed into law by Pres. George H.W. Bush. in 1990.

A copy of Tom Bird’s father’s Nevada Proving Ground nuclear test observer identification badge, photo and a newspaper at his home in Fernley on Aug. 2, 2023. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

There is a bipartisan movement among senators nationwide in Washington, D.C. to expand that restitution with proposed amendments to expand RECA. Beyond the health effects, Nevada’s role in the creation of weapons of mass destruction raises complex ethical questions, ranging from whether it violates treaties with tribes to the propriety of certain scientific practices.

Though the history of testing nuclear bombs has regained the attention of the general American public during this year’s blockbuster summer, in the Battle Born state, the Nevada National Security Site has been a part of the public’s life since the 1950s and will likely continue to be for the foreseeable future.

The development of the Nevada Test Site

The Nevada Test Site, now the Nevada National Security Site, was established in 1951 — the middle of the Cold War, an era brought about by the development of the nuclear bomb — as a place to test the bombs developed in the Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. Though more than 1,000 nuclear tests were conducted in Nevada, most underground, none of the bombs were developed in the Silver State.

The area spreading from just southwest of Tonopah to north of Las Vegas was chosen because it was easy to hide from a security standpoint — the previous testing in the Pacific Ocean drew interest from international militaries. 

Darwin Morgan, former director of the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Public Affairs, during an interview at the Atomic Museum in Las Vegas on Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2023. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

It was also remote. 

When the test site was developed in 1951, about 47,000 people were living in Clark County. Nye, White Pine, Eureka, Lander and Lincoln counties were home to a little more than 9,600 people at that time.

Currently, Clark County is home to nearly 2.3 million people. The combined population of the five rural counties is nearly 76,000 people.

“Where the radioactive clouds went, the population was less than a person per square mile,” said Darwin Morgan with the National Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas.

For the 56,600 people in the vicinity, the Nevada Test Site had a profound impact, Morgan said. That included the pop culture frenzy Las Vegas casinos spurred by marketing “atomic cocktails” and having blast viewing parties atop hotels, to people losing relatives who suffered from one of the 20 cancers the federal government categorizes for "Downwinders" to be eligible for compensation.

Who are the Downwinders?

In Nevada, a Downwinder is anyone who lived in Nye, White Pine, Eureka, Lander and Lincoln counties or the northeast areas of Clark County between 1951 and 1963, the year atmospheric testing ended in the state. There are also Downwinders in Arizona and Utah. 

President George H.W. Bush signed RECA on Oct. 15, 1990, in response to the multiple lawsuits the federal government had faced since atmospheric testing had concluded. The statute was created with the intent of offering an efficient, low-cost alternative to litigation for those who were downwind of the tests. It was later expanded to include those working in the uranium industry. 

Originally, Downwinders had until July 11, 2022, to claim compensation, but President Joe Biden signed the RECA Extension Act on June 7, 2022, delaying the deadline to June 10, 2024. 

“The community saw these big clouds coming up and then a couple of years later people they knew started getting cancer,” said Beverly Parker, the program manager for the Desert Research Institute’s, or DRI’s, Community Environmental Monitoring Program, or CEMP. “But the government didn't necessarily share that knowledge, because they hadn't made their conclusions yet to really have guidelines at that point … The absence of some communication is what sparked the fear.”

Those downwind of the Nevada Test Site, however, were exposed to significantly smaller amounts of Iodine-131 than in cases related to Chernobyl, a town in Ukraine that experienced a nuclear reactor explosion in 1986 and saw the disregard of safety precautions that led to people being exposed to large amounts of the radioisotope of iodine. According to the National Cancer Institution (NCI), people exposed to I-131 have an increased risk of developing thyroid cancer. 

In Nevada, according to the National Library of Medicine, individual-level exposure to radioactive materials is highly uncertain and any data correlating thyroid cancer risk and proximity to the test site is unreliable at best. 

Tom Bird poses for a portrait at his home in Fernley on Aug. 2, 2023. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

“Fallout typically affects those who are breathing during the fallout,” Parker said. “That type of radiation that would get inside your lungs is alpha radiation and that alpha radiation would typically be carried to your thyroid. So [researchers] would expect to see thyroid cancers, increased rates with the fallout situations and that's not necessarily what they saw.”

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), significant radiation dangers from fallout typically happen 20 miles downwind from ground zero. Though surrounding towns would have been farther than 20 miles, those working on the test site were within this range. There is also concerns from the EPA that iodine exposure could still affect members of surrounding communities.

Though the correlation between cancer is uncertain, those exposed to the most I-131 were children drinking cow’s milk or especially goat’s milk during the ’50s and ’60s. Although iodine is present in the milk of most industrialized countries, the concentration of iodine is determined by how much the animal producing the milk consumed. Though iodine may be present in the meat of the animal, the transfer is not as significant as in dairy, possibly because iodine in breastmilk among mammals is important for infant growth and neurological development. The living children who drank this milk are now in their 60s or 70s. 

That includes Tom Bird, the son of the late former Nye County Commissioner Wallace Bird, who said his father was one of the VIPs invited to watch a blast go off from Mercury, a town that is now the gateway to the test site. Guests were given protective goggles to shield their eyes from the bright light emitted from the blasts.

“Walter Cronkite [and] Dad were sitting on this picnic table,” recalled Bird, who is in his early 70s. “And he said that thing went off and just without the goggles, he can only imagine what that would do to your eyesight, but he said within maybe a second or two, then you could feel that intense heat from it. And just shortly thereafter, you could feel the blast.”

Bird himself has a growth on his lung. He told The Nevada Independent on July 28, 2023  he had never had it biopsied, but that he has never smoked. He did, however, explore the high desert outside of Nevada when there were atmospheric tests going on.

“I think back on it, you know, we never really were tipped off about the dangers of going out there. We later learned those things,” Bird said.

Tom Bird with his father's Nevada Proving Ground nuclear test observer identification badge at his home in Fernley on Aug. 2, 2023. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Growing up with ground zero

David Spicer is a resident of Beatty who lived near the Nevada Test Site at the time of atmospheric testing. His father also worked at the test site when Spicer was born and into his childhood. 

“You'd hear the radio’s countdown. About 27 seconds later you could watch the waves literally wash the ground,” Spicer said. 

His dad’s job was the catalyst for Spicer becoming one of the participants of the EPA’s radiation whole body counting — or tests conducted to detect and quantify the effects of previous exposure to possible radioactive materials. Those tests began when he was 6 years old, and he would see photos of kids from other rural communities — people he used to play basketball against — on the wall of the lab.

When he was 21, Spicer rethought his participation when he found himself performing jumping jacks in front of a scientist naked as part of a skeletal stress test. 

“He's sitting in his chair staring at me and I stopped and I said, ‘You know what, what are we doing? This is not science.’ And I was offended,” Spicer said. “They tried to convince me how important I was because it was a long-term human genome study. I was the longest of people that stayed. Most everybody else [left] when they got 18 years old, out of high school.”

Spicer never went back to participate in the testing. Even though he and his father were exposed to radiation, he said he hasn’t noticed any significant differences the exposure could have caused.

He said the EPA advised his family to stop selling milk from their ranch to residents in town until it had been tested for radiation. Now, Spicer thinks the government should take into consideration the people those in power affect, even if it is just a few.

“Nobody thought about what would happen — all that shake — what would happen to the springs that were in the desert. What would happen to the wildlife, what would happen to the future of this area,” Spicer said. 

Now, Spicer is developing his family ranch in Beatty into a biking and outdoor recreation area.

“It's motivated me to look at trying to create a future for the land that we still yet have,” Spicer said.

Though stories like his are still fairly common around the state, they are also fading away as Downwinders age.

David Spicer stands near the former EPA buildings at UNLV on Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023. The agency conducted medical tests at the location on Spicer during the atomic bomb testing at the Nevada Test Site. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

As Spicer revisited the spot on the UNLV campus where he was brought regularly for genetic testing by the EPA, a person working in the building said they had heard of the giant steel elevator Spicer took to the basement, but it seemed like an urban myth to them.

Spicer said the experience struck him as a bit humorous, and made him think of what history that building — which still has the EPA symbol on the outside even though it is now a Disability Resource Center — has seen, and what it will represent in the future.

Where the testing on Spicer was conducted is now partially filled with water, completely out of use and just a mound of dirt on the UNLV campus, Morgan said in a follow-up email to The Nevada Independent.

“I thought, wow, it just shows a span of years. I'm 40 years older than that kid sitting at that table,” Spicer said. 

On Native land

Shoshone people have occupied the land the Nevada National Security Site was built on for hundreds of years. 

“The United States [and] other Americans have decided to sacrifice our land and people for their benefit. And we don't currently have equal protection under the law. What we have is trespassers continuing to do their dirty work in secret,” said Ian Zabarte, principal man for the Western Bands of the Shoshone Nation, during a phone interview with The Nevada Independent.

Similar to the outlying rural areas, indigenous people began to become concerned with radiation exposure within their community in the mid-1950s. However, because the data on whether these cancer rates are a result of nuclear testing is inconclusive, people don’t always receive compensation they apply for.

The land in and around the test site features several unique and ancient species including the endangered Tiehm's buckwheat in Esmeralda County and the Pando aspen in Utah, a single organism that appears as countless aspen trees. 

Zabarte said the development of the Nevada Test Site was a violation of the 1863 Treaty of Peace and Friendship signed by the Western Shoshone and the federal government in the Ruby Valley that agreed both parties could use the Shoshone ancestral lands, but is now only readily accessible to the federal government because of the high-security nature of the test site.

The late Corbin Harney, an elder and spiritual leader for the Western Shoshone, had a similar view.

The Western Shoshone were told, “‘We’re going to take care of your land for you. We’re going to hold it under trust for your people,’” Harney said during a 2005 interview with UNLV for an oral history project on the test site. “But we began to see, it didn’t happen that way.”

Zabarte said scientists and the government were so caught up in the swell of science they were willing to burn up the world. 

“What's going on out there is bent on destroying our planet in the name of protecting it. And that's wrong,” Zabarte said.

Atomic politics

Although a moratorium on nuclear testing for the United States was signed by then-President George H.W. Bush in 1992, the atomic age still persists in politics to this day, often in the form of compensation for those exposed to fallout from the Nevada National Security Site.

Rep. Dina Titus (D-NV), a former professor at UNLV and atomic historian, introduced legislation in July 2023 to ensure veterans who had been exposed to radiation from the test site receive compensation. While the Nevada Test Site was a place for testing bombs, the federal government also tested how military personnel would react in a nuclear war.

During the Desert Rock Exercises that took place from 1951 to 1957, more than 1,000 soldiers participated in simulated battlefield exercises that included observation of a nuclear blast, psychological testing, advancement to tactical objectives, inspection of equipment display areas and airborne exercises.

According to a statement sent by Titus’ office, veterans historically have had a difficult time receiving compensation for radiation exposure because radiation dose estimates are unreliable. 

Rep. Dina Titus (D-NV) stands outside U.S. Integrity, a sports betting monitoring company in Henderson, on Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2023. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Titus’ Providing Radiation Exposed Servicemembers Undisputed Medical Eligibility, or PRESUME Act, would prohibit the Department of Veterans Affairs from requiring evidence of a certain dose of radiation to determine if a veteran is eligible for “presumptive benefits.”

“The United States has sponsored more than a thousand nuclear weapons tests, from war games in the Nevada desert to island cleanup in the South Pacific. The atomic veterans who were involved put themselves in harm’s way to win the peace,” Titus wrote in a statement sent to The Nevada Independent, adding that the PRESUME Act aims to “eliminate these unfair hurdles and ensure every veteran gets the benefits they earned and deserve.”   

Additionally, Titus is one of the several politicians supporting the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act Amendments of 2023, a bill that seeks to amend the current RECA extension from two years — as it was with the RECA Extension Act of 2022 — to 19 years. If this bill passes, the RECA compensation deadline will be in 2041 instead of the current deadline of 2024.

Nevada’s Aaron Ford was one of the 13 attorneys general who signed a letter urging the federal government to expand who is eligible for radiation sickness compensation, which Biden has indicated he supports, according to the Associated Press.

Downwinders who are eligible can apply for the Radiation Exposure Compensation Program before June 10, 2024, and possibly receive up to $50,000 in compensation from the federal government. The National Radiation Exposure Screening and Education Program provides grants to health clinics in Nevada and other states to provide medical screening to determine if a person is eligible for compensation at no cost to the individual. 

According to the federal government, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Program has granted nearly $300 million to those affected by nuclear testing and radiation exposure.

Desert Rock Nuclear Tests 1951-1957 U.S. Army Soldiers Observe Atomic Bomb Blasts. (Public domain film from the U.S. Army via the Prelinger Archive)

Nevada National Security Site today

There are no longer any nuclear weapons tested on the Nevada National Security Site. However, the 1,355-square-mile site is anything but stagnant. 

Employing around 2,400 Nevadans today, research is still being conducted on the site. Some notable projects Parker mentioned include the study of underground bacteria that live a thousand feet beneath the ground in complete darkness, feeding on radiation near the testing holes left by the underground nuclear testing, and training for NASA missions. 

The undeveloped land has also provided a place to study plant life and petroglyphs, Parker said.
The Nevada National Security Site also provides historic tours to the public monthly, picking up guests at the Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas and driving an hour to Mercury, a small military town. On the tour, guests can see homes that withstood nuclear testing blasts and the large Sedan Crater created by an underground test.

Sedan Crater. (Photo by Danny Bradury, accessed via Flickr.)

The operation raises big questions.

“We can go back and say should we have dropped that nuclear bomb? Should we have ever engaged in that whole program? Could it have been solved another way?” Spicer said. “There's always another way. Just what are the costs too? We'd already lost a huge piece of our population [in WWII].”

When thinking about the history he was a part of and weapons of mass destruction in general, Spicer said his feelings are mixed.

“It makes me feel like we've come a long way as a species. But we're still making horrific mistakes that will damage our future. The future of our potential to the good life we have. I think that's what we've got to think about here.”

Jeff Scheid contributed to this story.


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