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‘Downwind’: How Did America Create Its Own Nuclear Disaster?


new documentary called Downwind shines a spotlight on the legacy of nuclear testing in the Nevada desert in the 50s and 60s and shares the stories of those whose lives were the most severely impacted.

Between 1951 and 1962, nuclear weapons were tested above ground at the Nevada Test Site, based in the Nevada desert, 65 miles north of Las Vegas. Underground testing continued until the 1990s and, in total, over 900 nuclear weapons tests were carried out at the site, according to the documentary.

Ken Smith, professor of family studies and population science at the University of Utah and executive director of the Wasatch Front Research Data Center, told Newsweek that the people who were most affected by these detonations, known as “downwinders,” were mostly based in Utah, southern Nevada and northern Arizona. “The number of people in that area at the time—[in] the mid-50s to the early 60s—is the concern,” he said.

The testing released plumes of radioactive material into the atmosphere, which was carried hundreds of miles by the wind before falling back down to the ground. This “nuclear fallout” material takes many different forms, but one of the most concerning is iodine-131, which can increase risk of thyroid cancer.

It is impossible to accurately determine the dose of radiation and the resulting risk of this exposure, but a report in 1999 by the National Cancer Institute estimated that nuclear weapons testing at the Nevada site would have yielded between 11,300 to 212,000 excess cases of thyroid cancer over this period.

Exposure to radioactive material is mainly thought to have occurred through the consumption of contaminated milk: when iodine-131 falls down to the earth it can settle on vegetation, which is eaten by cows and goats. Over time, the iodine-131 builds up in the animal’s bodies and accumulates in their milk, which is then consumed by people. Fresh produce and meat may have also contained small amounts of this radioactive material too, but it would have been less concentrated.

Overall, these concentrations are still very small, but some people would have been more vulnerable to this radiation than others. “It’s the children who were the most affected,” Smith said. “This is because they drink more milk and have smaller bodies. Your thyroid accumulates iodine-131, and they have a smaller thyroid.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that iodine-131 is not the only radioactive material in fallout that affects a person’s health. For example, strontium-90 can affect the bone marrow and lead to an increased risk of leukemia.

Downwind directors Douglas Brian Miller and Mark Shapiro, spoke to people from Utah and Nevada about how this testing had impacted their communities.

One of the people they heard from was Mary Dickson, a writer, playwright and downwinder who grew up in Salt Lake City during this period. She ate locally grown vegetables and drank locally produced milk, never knowing the risks of her exposure. At age 29, she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.

Dickson survived the disease, but others she knew were less lucky.

In a post for the anti-nuclear campaign group, #stillhere, Dickson said that two of her fellow classmates had died of cancer at 8 and 4 years old, and her own sister is now battling a rare form of stomach cancer.

“Sometimes I feel like I am forever piling up losses,” she said.

On July 10, 2000, Congress established the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) which provides monetary compensation for the people who developed cancer in light of this exposure. It was due to expire in 2022 but has been extended for another two years.

To date, RECA has awarded nearly $2.6 billion in benefits to close to 40,000 claimants, as per statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice. However, over 13,000 claims have been rejected, and downwinders can only claim compensation if they lived in Utah, Nevada or Arizona during the period of above-ground testing.

Downwind premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, at the end of January.


February 12, 2023 - Posted by | health, USA, weapons and war

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