Hollywood and the downwinders still grapple with nuclear fallout via The Guardian

The US turned swathes of desert radioactive during the cold war and denied it, bequeathing a medical mystery that still haunts Hollywood and rural Mormon communities and raises the question: how much do you trust the government?

The photograph shows John Wayne with his two sons during a break in filming on the set of The Conqueror, a big budget blockbuster about Genghis Khan shot in the Utah desert in 1954. It was one of Hollywood’s most famous mis-castings. The duke could do many things but playing a 13th century Mongol warlord was not one of them. Film geeks consider it one of the great turkeys of Hollywood’s golden age.

There is another, darker reason it endures in film lore. The photograph hints at it. Wayne clutches a black metal box while another man appears to adjust the controls. Wayne’s two teenage sons, Patrick and Michael, gaze at it, clearly intrigued, perhaps a bit anxious. The actor himself appears relaxed, leaning on Patrick, his hat at a jaunty angle. The box, which rests on a patch of scrub, looks unremarkable. It is in fact a Geiger counter.

It is said to have crackled so loudly Wayne thought it was broken. Moving it to different clumps of rock and sand produced the same result. The star, by all accounts, shrugged it off. The government had detonated atomic bombs at a test site in Nevada but that was more than a hundred miles away. Officials said the canyons and dunes around St George, a remote, dusty town where the film was shooting, was completely safe.

Last week, half a century later, Rebecca Barlow, a nurse practitioner at the Radiation Exposure Screening and Education Program (RESEP), which operates from the Dixie Regional Medical Center in St George, now a prosperous little city with an airport, leafed through her patient records. “More than 60% of this year’s patients are new,” she said. “Mostly breast and thyroid, also some leukaemia, colon, lung.”


The Manhattan Project scientists conducted the first atomic tests in great secrecy in 1945 in New Mexico. After the second world war, testing shifted to the southern Pacific Ocean on the grounds of public safety. But the war in Korea and escalating rivalry with the Soviet Union prompted a shift back to the US mainland for greater security. The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), an agency with near Olympian powers which ran the nuclear programme, selected a government-owned bombing and gunnery range in Nevada partly because winds would blow “radiological hazards” away from Las Vegas and Los Angeles towards “virtually uninhabitable” land downwind to the west, home to ranches and Mormon communities.

From 1951 to 1962 the AEC detonated more than 100 bombs, sending huge pinkish plumes of radioactive dust across the stony valleys and canyons of southern Utah and northern Arizona. It gave each “shot” names like Annie, Eddie, Humboldt and Badger. The official advice: enjoy the show. “Your best action is not to be worried about fallout,” said an AEC booklet. Families and lovers would drive to vantage points for the spectacle, then drive home as ash wafted down on their communities. It was a cheap date


The approximately 100,000 people who lived in the three-state fallout zone north and east of the testing site are more likely to have been affected than the Hollywood visitors. For years they inhaled contaminated dust and ingested contaminated food and milk. In the early 1960s, multiple cases of childhood leukaemia and adult cancers began to appear, a shocking novelty because Mormons, who shun alcohol and tobacco, typically have low cancer rates. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1984 compared those in the fallout area with other Mormons and found leukaemia levels five times higher.

Thomas was in her mother’s womb in 1951 when testing started. As a child she would duck under her desk during nuclear drills only to be sent out to play, she said, in a school yard coated with ash.

Her mother, Irma, waged a lonely campaign warning of the dangers. “She wrote letters and made a chart with rows of square boxes representing homes in our neighbourhood. Whenever someone got a disease she put a cross in the box.” As a cheerleader with beauty pageant ambitions, Thomas was embarrassed by this kooky-seeming activism – until she was stricken with polymyositis, a debilitating loss of muscle mass. Later, she got breast cancer. She survived, but her mother succumbed to cancer.

Speaking last week from a wheelchair in the yard of her St George home, Thomas was an acerbic, outspoken advocate for downwinders. “You have to forgive me if I don’t give a shit about John Wayne. They rewrote my DNA. They rewrote my life.”

Government scientists, drawing on data from Nagasaki and Hiroshima, used to visit schools to check thyroids and radioactivity levels, recalled Peterson, another advocate. “They wore black suits like the Blues Brothers. They knew what was happening.”


Government denials about any cancer-causing fallout unravelled in the 1980s, when lawsuits uncovered internal AEC reports showing scientists and bureaucrats downplayed and distorted evidence. Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act in 1990, establishing a fund for downwinders with cancer and serious illnesses apparently linked to above-ground nuclear weapons testing. Compensation is capped at $50,000 per person.

The fund has disbursed about $2bn and is set to continue until first-generation downwinders have died out. Their children and grandchildren, regardless of any health problems, are excluded. The Radiation Exposure Screening and Education Program (RESEP) has eight clinics in the region. They diagnose and advise about treatment, which is free if you qualify.

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