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The Historic Impact of Nuclear “Events” & Accidents on North America

Updated on May 16, 2013

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The nuclear test site in Southern Nevada.
The nuclear test site in Southern Nevada.

During the summer semester of 2011 I had the opportunity to take a class about the History of Utah. It is a required course if I wish to teach in Utah and since there is a good possibility of that I decided to take it. Much to my surprise I learned about a portion of American history that I hadn’t put much thought into. This particular period was the Nuclear Boom and involves everything from the mining of uranium to nuclear testing. This particular subject became of even more interest to me because I have a family member who worked on the Manhattan Project and I have friends in Japan who were close to the tsunami and the subsequent complications with the Fukushima Nuclear reactor. All of this made me consider the implications (past and current) of nuclear events (such as testing or accidents like meltdowns). During this report we will be looking at the impacts on the environment and health of areas impacted by such events. We will be taking a brief look at the nuclear industry in Southern Utah and Southern Nevada. We will also briefly examine the effects of this industry on the North America contentment in general and the Western US in particular.

Former uranium mines and refinery sites in the United States.
Former uranium mines and refinery sites in the United States.

The Nuclear Boom that started in Colorado and Southeast Utah was a modern day equivalent of the 1849 Gold Rush in California. Any Tom, Dick or Harry with a Geiger counter and time on his hands could go out to areas where uranium could be and start looking. Armature geologists mobbed the area known as the Colorado Plateau searching for their big break. On particular person by the name of Charlie Steen, who had professional geologist training, come to this location. After years of effort and being scoffed at for using unconventional methods and combing over areas labeled as barren of uranium deposited he struck one of the largest and highest grade deposits found within the United States. This resulted in his overnight success. But this was not were the story of the Nuclear Boom started. This started with the drive of the US Government for more uranium for nuclear weapons. It was a matter of national security and no cost was too high to get the materials. As a result there was little regulation or oversight of the processes by which the usable ore was extracted or mined. In an industry and science where few people understood the concepts of overexposure or radiation poisoning men were working in dusty environments that were laced with poison and then coming home in those dirty clothes and spreading the dust to their families. The areas primarily affected by this particular problem were factories and mines. Even with researchers pushing for reform in these areas, the businesses involved with the mining and processing as well as the Federal Government were loathed to impose costly health and safety laws. Now we jump to Southern Nevada and Southwest Utah. Outside of Las Vegas is a nuclear testing site. Here several hundred above ground nuclear test “shots” were made. During the early days of these test people would actually flock to high points to see the test in person (with dark glasses of course). The problem with this is the fallout. The Nuclear Commission knew there were risks with the test site being so close to population centers like Las Vegas Nevada or St. George & Cedar City Utah. Despite this the test moved forward. Several test shots including one called Shot Harry (or Dirty Harry) actually had fallout drift over St George and other areas where people lived in Southern Utah.

The fallout path for Dirty Harry.
The fallout path for Dirty Harry.
A zoom-in of the fallout path for Dirty Harry.
A zoom-in of the fallout path for Dirty Harry.

Side Effects to Humans from Fallout Exposure

Birth Deffects
Thyroid Cancer
Bacterial Disease Mutation
Cataracts (Blindness)
Skin Cancer
Hair Loss
Lung Cancer
Other Cancers

The implications of the mining and tests were devastating. Hundreds of cases of cancer and related diseases were being reported at a rate much higher than average for a population four or five times the size of those in the area. The affects of the radiation was cutting people down in their prime or before they could even start their lives in the case of the children of the area. Additionally, the effects on the environment were drastic. Local sheep herders lost large portions of their flocks to radiation poisoning. The native plants and animals were also affected and only recently are showing signs of recovery in the affected areas. Perhaps the most prominent story and tragedy resulting Nuclear Boom is the story of the making of the movie The Conqueror staring John Wayne, Susan Hayward and Pedro Armendariz and directed by Dick Powell. The movie about Gangues Khan was filmed outside of St George in the red sand desert of the area. These areas just so happened to have a large amount of radioactive dust mixed into the sand. Things wouldn’t have been so bad if they had just been filming there, but there was a scene in the movie that was a dust storm so after the onsite filming was completed truckloads of the sand was taken back to Hollywood for the filming of that scene on set. The result of all that dust being breathed in by the cast and crew was the deaths of the stars, the director and 87 others by cancer and other diseases caused by radiation exposure. The high concentration of deaths and illnesses relating to radiation exposure is irrefutable. Citizens of the United States were placed in harm’s way without their knowledge and the impact it has had on their lives was disastrous. While Federal government eventual started to pay reparations to miner, nuclear test employees and the like, the sad but true fact is that there was very little if any compensation to the people and their families who lived in the way of the nuclear fallout from the testing in Southern Nevada.

The nuclear industry and testing has shaped Southern Utah and Southern Nevada. The effects it has had on the lives of the people who lived and worked in these areas have been greatly affected by this industry. While there were some positive effects of commerce and industrialization, the fact still remains the people have died in a war they didn’t know they were fighting against an invisible and insidious enemy called radiation. Whether we like it or not, the Nuclear Boom has had a great effect on the Nevada/Utah region for the worse.

The Downwinders Video

This movie contains excellent information on Downwinders and the affects of the testing. For example thyroid cancer in general is a big marker of radiation exposure. Other cancers such as kidney and breast cancer are also a big side effect of radiation exposure. When radiation in the form of fallout takes place this gets into the food chain which results in an extreme jump in incidence of radiation related diseases. This part of American history is extremely important to know and understand because it shows that citizens NEED to question government. Even if that government's intentions seem pure, there is a need for citizens to do their duty by questioning the governments actions. Without this, things like this happen. If citizens fail to question in the future this sort of thing will happen again. It may not be nuclear testing, but people will be harmed due to unintended and even intended consequences.


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    • ibbarkingmad profile imageAUTHOR

      Brian Middleton 

      7 years ago from Southern Utah

      I am sure that this sorted history is a combination of ignorance, stupidity and the monster bureaucracy. My only consolation to this particular problem is at least the US government was not nearly as bad as its Soviet counterpart. That is a sad, sad, sad consultation considering innocent people had their right to life taken away because some damn stupid bureaucrat thought nuclear testing close to population centers would be a good idea. Blind patriotism can be just as bad as being a traitor sometimes. The poem which says, "[Ours] is not to reason why. [Ours] is but to do and die..." is the battle cry of the damned. It is every good citizen's responsibility to question why else the tragedy that this hub is about will repeat over and over again.

    • vrbmft profile image

      Vernon Bradley 

      7 years ago from Yucaipa, California

      I grew up in Fresno, California, central San Joaquin Valley. During the early to mid 1950's, we would get up early (5 a. m.) and simultaneously watch TV coverage of above ground Nuclear bomb testing from Nevada and look out the window in the living room next to the fire place (window looked due East) and would watch the sky light up when the Bomb was detonated. I don't know milewise how far we were from ground zero, but NOT close, but obviously close enough to see the entire Eastern horizon light up quite brilliantly and so you can imagine the radiation pattern had to have effected LARGE areas, perhaps the entire world, for that matter. Were we all,government included, STUPID or purposely ill informed? We have a sad sad national history when it comes to economic development in military armament, medicine, energy, automobiles, and who knows in what other areas. Will we ever learn?



    • docbruin profile image


      7 years ago from USA

      Very interesting hub. I had never heard about the testing or the effect it had on the movie cast and crew. Makes you wonder how much other stuff like this has been done that people are still suffering from.


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