Downwinder Screening May Come to an End
Updated: July 22, 2008 08:58 AM
In 1958, Troy Wade worked at the Nevada Test Site. His knowledge of that era comes in handy as president of the Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas.
"The Soviet Union tested their own atomic bomb, and suddenly this country was faced with a very different problem. Instead of developing weapons to be used against another country, suddenly this country had to defend itself against nuclear weapons developed by somebody else. That led to the establishment of the Nevada Test Site in 1950," he said.
From 1951 to 1992, there were more than 900 tests carried out at the sites. Some were for the purpose of design testing for new weapons concepts. Others were for proof testing of existing weapons.
Still others were for testing the impact of nuclear weapons on manmade structures.
"There were all kinds of structures at the Nevada Test Site in all sizes and shapes -- from single rooms to bridges to railroads," said Wade.
These powerful weapons would eventually be scaled down. But at first, bigger was better.
"This country would have enough nuclear weapons to wipe the Soviet Union off the map, and the Soviet Union had the same policy and they developed enough weapons to completely destroy the United States. In retrospect, that was a crazy policy," said Wade.
The above ground tests were a spectacle for locals and visitors. Mark Brandenburg, co-owner of the Golden Gate Casino, has heard the stories, "My step-father, Italo Ghelfi, was one of the original Golden Gate partners. Used to take customers up on the roof of the hotel so they could watch the mushroom clouds and see the flash of light."
And Las Vegan Don Triolo's childhood memories were a blast, "We would take TV dinners, Rosarita Mexican dinners as a matter of fact, and a bottle of Coca Cola, and go up on the roof of our flat-roof bungalow and watch the testing."
But for some, the testing would lead to misery. Radioactive clouds drifted predictably over a number of counties, including Eureka and White Pine.
"Nobody knows exactly how much radiation you got if you lived in, say Ely, Nevada versus Battle Mountain. But you were exposed to some radiation," said Dr. Thomas Hunt.
Dr. Hunt is with the University of Nevada School of Medicine and heads the Nevada Radiation Exposure Screening and Education Program funded thru the federal government.
"We target Nevadans who lived in certain counties in the 1950's and early 60's, who have been exposed to radiation from above-ground testing that was done at the Nevada Test Site," said Dr. Hunt.
The free medical screenings for downwinders has, for some, resulted in compensation. The program ends in August and Dr. Hunt is trying to secure enough funding for another three years.
The Nevada Test Site has diversified into other areas, including conventional weapons testing. It remains one of the largest restricted-access-areas in the United States.
Dr. Hunt's program has screened nearly 700 downwinders for cancer. And among them, over $1 million in compensation has been awarded.
For more on the history of the Nevada Test Site, click here.