Fallout at Home Base: Nuclear Testing within the United States
This month is the 30th anniversary of the last nuclear test, September 1992.
by John Whitehead
The United States conducted the world’s first test of a nuclear weapon in New Mexico on July 16, 1945. The test was followed in August by the use of nuclear weapons against Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Although the wartime use of nuclear weapons has mercifully never been repeated since 1945, nuclear testing was repeated. From the 1940s to the 1990s, the United States would ultimately conduct 1,030 test detonations of nuclear weapons. These tests took place above ground, underground, and underwater in a variety of locations around the world, including Pacific islands. The vast majority of tests took place within the United States, though, and left a predictably harmful legacy.
The Nevada Test Site
Most nuclear testing within the United States was in Nevada. In 1950, the Truman administration designated a test site about 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The test site originally encompassed 680 square miles of land; it would expand over the decades. The inaugural test at the Nevada Test Site, of a 1-kiloton nuclear bomb, took place in January 1951.
Over the next few years, about 100 above-ground nuclear tests were conducted at the Nevada site. The average bomb yield of these tests was 8.6 kilotons, somewhat less than that of the bombs dropped on Japan. Nuclear testing was also conducted underground, with all testing eventually moving underground following the 1963 Limited Test-Ban Treaty that prohibited above-ground testing. Nuclear testing in Nevada served variously to determine the power and effects of weapons, to study fallout’s effects, and even to investigate possible peaceful uses of nuclear weapons, such as for mining.
The nuclear tests inevitably resulted in serious health threats from radioactive fallout. Winds carried the fallout of above-ground tests for thousands of miles. Even underground tests sometimes vented significant amounts of radiation. The underground “Storax Sedan” test of July 1962 produced the largest radioactive fallout contamination of any nuclear test within the United States: radiation was subsequently detected in Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota.
A particularly dangerous element of the testing fallout was the radioactive form of iodine, I-131. A series of tests in 1957 released especially large amounts of this element into the atmosphere. I-131 can contaminate the grazing grounds of livestock and be transferred to human beings through milk. If nursing mothers are exposed to I-131, they can pass the radioactive element to their children through breast milk.
To say that many people did not initially appreciate the threat from testing would be an understatement. Detonations from above-ground nuclear tests were visible from up to 100 miles away and subsequently became tourist attractions in nearby Las Vegas. Hotels and casinos would promote the opportunity for patrons to view the nuclear explosions.
The spectators extended beyond Las Vegas. Danielle Stephens of Kingman, Arizona, about 150 miles from the test site, watched nuclear tests when she was young. She recalls once traveling, along with her father, brother, and uncle, to watch a test from a mountain. “Back then, no one thought the tests were dangerous,” she commented.
One infamous incident was the above-ground “Harry” nuclear bomb test of May 1953. The bomb produced a far greater explosive yield than US authorities were expecting. Winds carried the fallout to St. George, Utah, and surrounding areas. Authorities were sluggish in issuing warnings to people in the affected communities, though, and did not advise people to refrain temporarily from consuming local crops or milk that might have been contaminated.
Health Effects of Testing
Health problems emerged over time among western American communities close to the Nevada Test Site. A 1984 study of Utah residents near the site found higher cancer rates than expected, including leukemia rates five times above expectations. Cancer rates in St. George specifically rose between 1950 and 1980.
In Arizona, Danielle Stephens witnessed over 30 members of her family develop various cancers. Most of them died as a result. Stephens was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer in 2020.
Along with civilian residents of nearby areas, military personnel were exposed to the tests’ fallout. Military personnel were involved in observing tests and cleaning up their aftermath. Sometimes they took part in war games, meant to simulate conditions in a possible nuclear war, that involved entering a fallout zone after a test. A 1999 study by National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine subsequently found higher death rates from leukemia and other cancers among service personnel exposed to the Nevada tests than personnel serving at the time who were not involved in the tests.
The harmful effects of nuclear testing received legal recognition in 1984, when a US District Court judge ruled that testing in the 1950s had led to the deaths of 10 people and that government authorities had been negligent in their conduct of the tests. This negligence included failure to warn people in Nevada and nearby states about the tests’ danger.
In 1990, the US Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), which required government compensation to people who had developed diseases such as leukemia and thyroid cancer because of testing fallout. By 2018, over $2 billion in compensation had been approved for tens of thousands of people harmed by nuclear testing, as well as to people involved in other aspects of nuclear weapons’ production, such as uranium mining.
As welcome as such compensation is, RECA has limitations. The compensation does not extend to people harmed by the original Trinity nuclear test in New Mexico. RECA compensation is also limited to residents of only certain parts of Nevada, Utah, and Arizona. Stephens and other Kingman residents, for example, are not covered by RECA.
Further, the compensation is currently intended for the original generation of people affected by the Nevada tests. It does not cover the testing victims’ children or grandchildren, many of whom feel they have experienced disabilities or other health challenges because of the testing.
A bill (H.R.5338/S.2798) introduced in 2021 would address at least some of these limitations. The proposed legislation would expand RECA coverage to more areas in Nevada, Utah, and Arizona as well as other test-affected regions. The legislation would also increase compensation amounts and provide medical benefits while also expanding compensation coverage for those involved in uranium mining. Please consider contacting your representatives in the House and Senate to urge them to support this bill.
Beyond finally providing adequate compensation to those affected by nuclear weapons testing, the United States should definitively end such tests. The last US nuclear weapons test took place 30 years ago this month, in September 1992. The United States has signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty but never ratified it. The Senate should finally ratify the treaty and thus legally prohibit further nuclear testing.
History shows that nuclear weapons don’t need to be used in wartime to be harmful. Testing such weapons also has a terrible cost. Let’s work to ensure no one else suffers from nuclear tests.
For similar posts on nuclear weapons, see:
The Persisting Threat of Nuclear Weapons: A Brief Primer
Nukes and the Pro-Life Christian: A Conservative Takes a Second Look at the Morality of Nuclear Weapons
Nuclear Disarmament as a Social Justice Issue