A bill in Congress sponsored by congressmen and senators from several Western states seeks to increase payments to those affected by radiation from atomic blasts in Nevada during the 1950’s. It would also make it easier for victims to prove claims and expands the eligibility area to all of Utah.
The people affected by the radiation are known as Downwinders. What happened was appalling. There’s no other word for it. Nor is there any doubt about the historical facts. The Atomic Energy Commission set off repeated open air nuclear blasts in northern Nevada in the 50’s. The AEC assured everyone the tests were completely safe, even after sheep started dying or were born malformed. They promised the nuclear blasts were not harmful even three to five years later when people downwind from them started getting leukemia and other radiation-caused cancers. They ignored their own scientists who said the tests were dangerous. Tests were deliberately scheduled when the wind was blowing into Utah and away from Vegas and southern California and those residents were contemptibly described in a top secret memo as a “low-use segment of the population.”
By 1956, farmers in the affected areas started filing lawsuits. The US government lied, evaded, stonewalled, and distorted the facts. Finally, in 1979, a judge ruled that government lawyers and employees had engaged in “a species of fraud,” acted “intentionally false or deceptive“, and with “deliberate concealment of significant facts with references to the possible effects of radiation upon the plaintiffs’ sheep.” Yet the Tenth Court of Appeals overturned this in what was called a “grotesque episode of American jurisprudence” and the Supreme Court refused to hear the case.
Finally, in 1990, President Bush signed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act which provided a trust fund to compensate victims and Congress formally apologized to the downwinders.
How bad was it during the tests? Residents in Iron County UT recount windows being broken by the blasts and seeing bright flashes of light and feeling the shockwaves. Then the cancers started.
One of those sponsoring the bill is Rep. Jim Matheson (D-UT). His father was former governor of Utah Scott Matheson who lived in Parowan during the blasts and died in 1990 from multiple myeloma cancer. Jim Matheson believes his father died as a result of exposure to the radiation.