Troops of the U.S. Army 11th Airborne Division watch a plume of radioactive smoke rise Nov. 1, 1951, after a blast at Yucca Flats, Nevada. (Photo by National Archive/Newsmakers)

Claudia Peterson’s childhood in Hamilton Fort, Utah, was replete with many of the trappings typical of a small farm community. She and her siblings grew up with a large garden and cared for chickens, pigs, and a cow. Her neighbors herded sheep, and she always looked forward to playing with their baby lambs. But all around there were also small hints that not everything was as normal or idyllic as it appeared.  

There were the piles of dead, deformed lambs she came across one year. Potassium iodine pills were distributed to her sister’s class after—not before—a nearby nuclear test was administered, and she and her classmates were given routine Geiger counter tests. 

​​”There were two or three of us in the class that lit it up and we were kind of excited,” recalled Peterson. “We [asked] what that meant and they [told] us it was for dental X-rays.” 

Then people around her started getting sick and dying. As a child, Peterson lost classmates to cancer. When she was a young adult, her father died of a stroke three months after he had surgery to remove a brain tumor. And then Peterson’s young daughter Bethany was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer while Peterson’s sister discovered she had melanoma. 

“We did [my sister’s] funeral and then we were back in Salt Lake and a month later Bethany died,” said Peterson. “So it was just a hellacious time for me.” 

Peterson is one among many whose lives and bodies were harmed by the Cold War uranium production boom and by the U.S. government’s efforts to conceal the human cost of its obsession with winning the nuclear arms race. For over half a century, Americans have been suffering from the consequences of nuclear testing and uranium mining to their health and to the land. Now they’re fighting to prevent the expiration of the only major piece of legislation that attempts to redress the damage caused by government sanctioned radiation. 

Peterson and others like her are known as downwinders, people who lived in areas exposed to radioactive material or fallout produced by nuclear testing at sites in Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico throughout the 1950’s and early ’60s. Uranium extraction throughout the Southwest similarly impacted the health of miners, mill workers, and their families, as well as large swaths of Indigenous communities—particularly those in the Navajo Nation, as thousands of Navajo people took jobs in the uranium mines. Some from these communities have found relief through the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA). Established in 1990 and amended in 2000, RECA offers monetary compensation to certain communities affected by nuclear testing and uranium mining on the continental U.S. 

It provides a one-time payment between $50,000 and $100,000 for downwinders who lived in certain counties in Arizona, Nevada, and Utah; uranium miners and millers who worked in the uranium industry between 1942 and 1971; and on site “participants” of atmospheric nuclear weapons tests. The legislation also provides funding for local health centers and nonprofits to conduct cancer screenings and help people file RECA claims. 

However, directly impacted advocates of RECA say the bill falls short in important ways, such as excluding certain employees who worked in the uranium industry and downwinders who live in some counties impacted by fallout from nuclear testing. RECA’s current iteration also doesn’t recognize certain cancers and health complications as compensable. Still, advocates hope that along with its extension, RECA can also be expanded to include more communities impacted by the uranium boom and serve as redress for decades of government neglect and disregard as it raced to increase America’s stockpile of nuclear weapons.

The costs of the uranium boom

From World War II to 1971, the now-defunct United States Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), a federal agency tasked with managing the development and use of atomic energy for military endeavors, was the primary purchaser of uranium ore produced on U.S. soil by private milling companies. Valleys throughout the Southwest contained high amounts of uranium and were prime locations for domestic mining. In underground mining, uranium ore is drilled and then blasted to create debris, which is then transported to the surface and sent to a mill. At the mills, the ore is separated from other minerals, yielding a dry-product known as “yellowcake.” At the height of the uranium boom, there were roughly 750 mines in operation.

Uranium mining and milling can be incredibly dangerous because of how easily it spreads radioactive material. For one, the milling process requires large amounts of water that become highly irradiated—water that mill workers often consumed onsite because they were unaware of the danger. Inadequate personal protective equipment also left workers exposed to radioactive dust and debris. People didn’t even have to work at the mines to be at risk from contamination. Workers would return home to their families with yellowcake dust on their clothes, and fallout from nuclear testing traveled easily downwind to affect unaware communities.

The health impact of radiation is as vast, causing kidney failure, fibrosis, bone deterioration, skin rashes, cancer, infertility, and other reproductive issues. Studies have found that uranium miners are almost six times as likely to develop lung cancer as those in the general population. While the full extent of how radiation fallout and uranium mining have contaminated the environment is unclear, many communities that were once developed as a result of the uranium boom are now ghost towns with former miners and their families in poor and continually deteriorating health. There are a little over 500 abandoned uranium mines on Navajo land that continue to pollute and pose danger to surrounding communities through contaminated waterways, airborne dust, and mud and rocks collected from radioactive mines that were used to build homes. Plant and animal life in close proximity to these former mining sites also continue to be deeply impacted, which further disrupts Indigenous practices or rituals that rely on maintaining a close relationship to the land. 

Farmers and ranchers haven’t escaped the effects of those abandoned mines either. As told in a 2010 article by the Scientific American, Larry Gordy, a rancher based in Cameron, Arizona, reached out to the EPA with concerns about whether a nearby mine was impacting the land that his cattle drink and graze upon. When EPA contractors assessed the mines’ radiation, the radioactivity level was higher than their Geiger counters could even measure. While much time, energy, and funding has gone toward identifying the presence of abandoned mines, cleanup projects are far more costly and slow to start—efforts are underway currently but only at 219 of the over 500 identified sites.   

The true number of people who have been impacted by radiation poisoning remains unclear because the government only began to track the number of resulting cancer cases and deaths long after initial tests were administered. However, recent research from 2017 conducted by economist Keith Myers suggests that between 1951 and 1973, radioactive fallout was responsible for 340,000 to 690,000 American deaths.

Picnics and propaganda

The presence of domestic nuclear testing was not a secret to all downwind communities, but in some ways, the government’s withholding of knowledge about potential health risks from exposure to radioactive material increased the vulnerability of those surrounding communities, especially given attempts to capitalize on the public’s fascination with nuclear technology at the time. 

For instance, Las Vegas’ tourism industry tried to profit from their proximity to the Nevada Test Site, dubbing Las Vegas as the “Atomic City” and disseminating postcards, toys, and other souvenirs adorned with the now iconic mushroom cloud of an atomic explosion. Local hotels and restaurants hosted bomb detonations watch parties and the city’s chamber of commerce even released schedules for tourists with detonation times and suggestions for viewing spots. During the 12 years the test site was active, it wasn’t uncommon for residents and tourists to pack “atomic box lunches” and picnic as close to ground zero as possible to view detonations.

Even Peterson, who lived roughly 300 miles away, was aware of the testing, although for reasons different from major cities like Las Vegas. During class, her teachers played films about the Nevada test site and claimed those tests were a necessary precaution against the Russians. They were warned that in the case of a Soviet attack they would have to hide out in the school basement—possibly for weeks. Notably those history lessons omitted anything in-depth about the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the hundreds of thousands of Japanese lives taken in the initial explosions, and the thousands more lost to radiation poisoning in the years after.   

“I remember being scared of not being at home if something happened,” Peterson said. “[I wondered] where my family would be or just the normal things that kids worry about … I guess it wasn’t normal.”

A Soviet bombing attack was Peterson’s biggest fear as a child thanks to the shelter-seeking and the selective history lessons filled with what she now describes as “propaganda.” With decades of hindsight, new insight, and so much loss, Peterson now says that it was the U.S. government itself that posed the greatest threat to her and her family. 

Keeping miners in the dark

RECA’s passage in 1990 represented the first public government acknowledgement of the impact of uranium mining, but it came after decades of backdoor conversations and private research studies. Researchers, scientists, and government officials had long been well aware of the health consequences of mining since the heyday of the uranium boom. Often under the direction of AEC however, that information was purposefully hidden from the miners and general public for decades under the guise of protecting “national security.” 

Based on health conditions observed amongst uranium miners in Europe during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) was concerned that there was a correlation between radon in mines and the prevalence of lung cancer. In 1950, the PHS began a research study measuring radon levels in mines alongside the health profiles of over 3,000 miners who were not informed of those health risks. That non-disclosure flew in the face of ethical study requirements and kept miners and their families in the dark about the harm being done to their bodies. This study began 18 years after the Tuskegee-Syphilis experiment, the infamous study also administered by the PHS that was laden with similar ethical travesties. 

Throughout the 1950s, the PHS requested that the AEC create federal regulations to improve mining conditions, primarily through increased ventilation, which the AEC continually thwarted, denying that such recommendations were necessary. According to a 1990 analysis of PHS documents by The New York Times, attempts to improve conditions and create federal regulations for mines failed because of “the willingness of the Public Health Service to abide by the Atomic Energy Commission’s demands for secrecy” and because AEC amassed a body of experts to discount the damning evidence compiled by PHS. 

AEC’s motivations for rejecting PHS recommendations were, in part, fears that installing equipment would disrupt mine operations and negatively impact the production of nuclear materials for weapons to win the arms race. Further, AEC decried ventilation recommendations as being too expensive, although calculations made by PHS officials in 1954 found that mine operators could afford to install ventilation equipment if AEC just paid an additional 5-6 cents for every pound of ore they purchased during that time.

Officials within both PHS as well as AEC who sought to make this information public were censured, fired, or even barred from traveling to mining communities. That general fear of government backlash still continues to shape advocacy efforts amongst impacted communities today, says Peterson. Early on in her advocacy, she was hesitant to call herself an activist, aware of the negative connotation that term held in her community. She says many considered those who spoke out against nuclear testing to be hysterical. Some even expected that Peterson’s passion around the issue would wane overtime. That overarching anxiety has stifled even those who have filed their own RECA claims from speaking out against the very thing they are seeking redress for. Peterson says that whenever someone requests her assistance for filing a RECA claim, she accepts it under the condition that they will help oppose any future plans to reopen nuclear test sites. Typically, she says, they oblige—at first.  

“I help them with their compensation and we get that all squared away and then they decide to start testing again at the test site and we’re calling them up [to see if they’ll oppose it] and they won’t do it,” said Peterson. “I think they’re a little bit afraid. They don’t want to be against their own government.”

What victims of nuclear testing are owed

The RECA Amendments Act, which is currently awaiting passage, would extend and expand the legislation, allowing more communities to become eligible for compensation, including miners who worked in the uranium industry after 1971 and downwinders living in additional counties throughout New Mexico, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, and Guam.

Currently there is no legislation to ensure some redress for all of the damage done by government nuclear testing in U.S. territories in the Pacific Islands. Nuclear testing in the 1940s and ’50s in the Marshall Islands had payloads up to 1,000 times greater than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Radioactive fallout from these tests left four of the islands’ northern atolls uninhabitable, destroyed three more, and left many Marshallese with cancer from radiation exposure. 

The RECA Amendment Acts’ clear focus on the impact of Cold War-era mining and testing also shouldn’t obscure present-day mining efforts, many of which continue to compromise residents, as well as plant and animal life, in the Southwest. A report released this year by the Fraser Institute’s Centre for Natural Resource Studies named Nevada and Arizona as the most attractive jurisdictions in the world for mining investment. The Institute’s annual rankings are determined by both the presence of minerals and materials in a given area as well as government policies that encourage mining exploration in the region. Development proposals for copper and lithium mines—the latter of which has become particularly attractive due to the rise in lithium-powered electric vehicles—have raised concern amongst Indigenous communities and spurred sustained protest against them.  

As organizing against current mining efforts continues, the government’s failure to address historic damage from past uranium mining and testing becomes increasingly egregious. While the full cost to human life and the environment from nuclear fallout is difficult to quantify, the financial costs are not. As of July 2021, RECA has paid over $2.4 billion to over 38,000 claimants. Alternatively, according to calculations from the Brookings Institution, the U.S. nuclear weapons budget was $35 billion in 1998, alone.  
Without intervention, RECA and any hope for future monetary aid to those affected by uranium mining and nuclear testing in the American Southwest will expire in July 2022. For those living with the impacts of radiation to their health, the potential consequences of removing that financial support amidst the risks of the COVID-19 pandemic are especially stark. The fight to renew and remedy glaring exclusions in the RECA Amendments Act is just one part of a long exercise in illuminating the consequences of the government’s rush into the nuclear arms race and holding it accountable to people it’s harmed.

Tamar Sarai

Tamar Sarai is a features staff reporter at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @bytamarsarai.