Yes, you read the post title correctly. According to a 2017 study by researchers from the University of Arizona, between 340,000 and 690,000 Americans are estimated to have died from fallout and radiation-linked diseases generated by the 100 atmospheric atomic bomb tests that took place at the Nevada Test Site between 1951-1963. This is equivalent to the numbers who died in Japan from the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The estimated 690,000 deaths is also more deaths than the United States suffered throughout World War II (approximately 406,000) and even more than we suffered during the Civil War (approximately 618,000). This makes the “non-war,” Cold War the deadliest conflict of all and it was totally self-inflicted!
The data for these 100 tests are quite disturbing, especially when comparing them to what is often considered the worst nuclear disaster, Chernobyl:
“One estimate places the total atmospheric release of radioactive material from the NTS as over 12 Billion Curies between 1951 and 1963. In comparison, Chernobyl released an estimated 81 Million Curies of radioactive material (LeBaron, 1998). These nuclear tests exposed millions of Americans to harmful radioactive material and many people are still living with the consequences of this pollution today.”
SOURCE: Meyers, Keith:Some Unintended Fallout from Defense Policy: Measuring the Effect of Atmospheric Nuclear Testing on American Mortality Patterns, University of Arizona,
Current Version October 24, 2017
The shocking map below depicts how widely distributed just one (1) radioactive element (Iodine-131) spread across the country and clustered in certain locales from the nuclear tests conducted in a single year (1953):
“5/19/1953: The ‘Harry’ test is conducted. Due to an unexpected change in the wind, “Harry” caused the highest amount of radioactive fallout of any test in the United States, contaminating the city of St. George, Utah. The test was later called “Dirty Harry.”
Few, if any of these deaths were sudden, but instead they were gradual and debilitating due to exposure to radiation fallout/dust drifting generally east and north from the Nevada Test Site (NTS) or from radiation filtering into the food system, as Iodine-131 does in products like milk. The radiation produced various terminal cancers, leukemia, miscarriages, as well as non-lethal tragedies like birth defects. And it wasn’t just “Downwinders” (those living in places just downwind to the tests – see map below), who were impacted, but many American’s living well beyond those localized areas.
The following types of cancer are most often linked to radiation exposure from the tests (please note that those affected feel this list is too limited):
“The following are Primary cancers that are covered under the radiation exposure compensation program: Bile ducts, Bladder, Brain, Breast(male and female), Colon/Rectal, Esophagus, Gall Bladder, Kidney, Leukemia’s (other than CLL or chronic lymphocytic leukemia), Liver (except if there is evidence of cirrhosis or Hepatitis B), Lung, Multiple Myeloma, Nasal Pharynx, Lymphomas (other than Hodgkin’s disease), Ovary, Pancreas, Salivary Gland, Small Intestine, Stomach and Thyroid.”
As the following map clearly shows, it wasn’t just the downwinders of the Four Corners Region who were adversely impacted by radiation from atmospheric atomic testing, but much of the nation. One has to wonder how many more cases of suffering there are beyond these that did not result in death.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of these revelations is the United States Government, particularly the Atomic Energy Commission, were aware of many dangers associated with the atmospheric tests and did little, if anything, to stop them. The only symbolic limitation put on the tests, were that the wind could not be blowing west towards heavily populated California or south towards Las Vegas (where a lot of the NTS employees lived). The extreme paranoia that was pervasive in the country at the time (the Joseph McCarthy Era) would have likely labeled such reports as either unpatriotic and/or subversive.
Regardless, for our own government to essentially use their fellow Americans as expendable guinea pigs is inexcusable. It wasn’t until many years later (starting in 1990) that some limited compensation was provided to the nearby Downwinders and to those who worked in uranium mines or at atomic facilities. Sadly, many of the victims had already died leaving the relatives to pick up the pieces of this extended tragedy on their own. Nor do these reparations address those many tens-of-thousands of Americans living further afield who suffered the ill-effects of radiation from atmospheric nuclear tests.
Here in the United States, we like to think of our country as being altruistic and caring. During the Cold War and beyond, we considered ourselves to be the absolute antithesis of the the evil Soviet Union and its Iron Curtain allies. Just last year, the remarkable mini-series “Chernobyl” broadcast examples of the Soviet government’s callousness towards the safety of its own citizens during that disaster in 1986.
But as the complete history and full impact of the cavalier attitude towards atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons has become clearer, Americans should no longer claim the moral high ground. In fact, the United States’ treatment of its own citizens during the Cold War was no better than the former Soviet Union, and perhaps was even worse, given our government’s tendency to beat the drums of ethical, moral, and spiritual superiority.
All in all, it makes you want to shake your head and wonder why we let fear possess us to the point where we do more harm to ourselves as a nation than any perceived enemy has ever accomplished. If any lesson should be learned from the Cold War, perhaps not falling prey to fear so easily is the most important one.
- Fox, Sarah Alisabeth: Downwind: A People’s History of the Nuclear West, 2014.
- Meyers, Keith: Some Unintended Fallout from Defense Policy: Measuring the Effect of Atmospheric Nuclear Testing on American Mortality Patterns, University of Arizona,
Current Version October 24, 2017