‘The government lied to everyone in Southern Utah’: New documentary on downwinders to air on PBS Utah

Documentary image courtesy of PBS Utah, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Nuclear testing in the 1950s started a decades-long controversy that endures today, and a new documentary is being aired Wednesday at 7 p.m. on PBS Utah in recognition of the National Day of Remembrance for Downwinders in the United States.

This photo shows an aerial view after the first atomic explosion at Trinity Test Site, New Mexico, July 16, 1945 | Associated Press file Photo, St. George News

Narrated by actor Peter Coyote, “Downwinders and the Radioactive West” tells the unsettling stories of those affected by environmental contamination due to nuclear testing in Nevada.

In November 2011, the U.S. Senate unanimously approved a resolution designating the National Day of Remembrance for Downwinders to acknowledge the harm caused to Americans by the fallout from nuclear testing in Nevada.

“There’s no question the government lied to everyone in Southern Utah about the potential risk of nuclear weapons testing from exposure to fallout. No question at all,” Jim Matheson, former Utah Congressman, said in a press release from PBS Utah.

Nuclear testing by the U.S. government started in New Mexico with Trinity in July 1945. The Crossroads Series of three tests followed in the Pacific in 1946. The bulk of the nation’s testing occurred at the Nevada Test Site in the 1950s, about 144 miles west of St. George.

At the time, St. George was the epitome of small-town America, a nice place to raise a family, with mom and pop businesses lining Main Street. Residents of small-town Utah were fiercely patriotic and welcomed any opportunity to do their part for America’s national security.

”They would actually let us out of school, take us out on the lawn so we could watch the mushroom cloud come across us,” said Mel Clark, a sheep rancher from Cedar City.

The United States took part in nuclear testing as part of the escalating Cold War arms race, and nuclear weapons proliferated. With each nuclear test, radioactive fallout spread globally.

The first signs of trouble came from the sheep. Local ranchers observed sheep with severe defects that consequently died. Utah ranchers were convinced radiation from nuclear testing was the cause. The Atomic Energy Commission denied all accusations. In 1956, the ranchers took the federal government to court, alleging the loss of more than 4,000 animals. They lost.

Within years, communities in Southern Utah began to notice a troubling phenomenon. Friends, neighbors and relatives were being diagnosed with various cancers and immune disorders. Cancer clusters emerged in different communities, and relatively rare cancers such as thyroid cancer and leukemia showed up even among children.

Public domain image from Operation Buster-Jangle – Dog test, Nevada, Nov. 1, 1951 | St. George News

In 1990, after years of lawsuits, Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act – or RECA. The act provided a means for downwinders who resided or worked near the test site, test site workers and uranium miners to file claims to receive compensatory damages.

The era of nuclear testing changed the world forever; it’s a part of America’s history and downwinders are part of nuclear testing’s legacy that continues to affect Utahns and their communities to this day.

Award-winning Producer John Howe’s documentary, “Downwinders and the Radioactive West” presents a compelling narrative about the fallout of nuclear testing that resulted in a decades-long debate over cancer rates, the steep cost of patriotism and the responsibility of a nation to protect its citizens.

For more information please visit pbsutah.org/downwinders.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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