The Atomic Frontier: Atmospheric Testing in Nevada
    The Two Sides

    By Julie Etchegaray

    "Operation Ranger” began the first atmospheric atomic testing, January 27, 1951 at the Nevada Test Site, which was secretly placed within the Tonopah Bombing and Gunnery Range. Although “Operation Ranger” officially ended ten days later the fallout from atmospheric testing, personal and political, is still being felt in 2001, the fiftieth anniversary.

    At the beginning of my research, I was interested in nuclear energy, then I realized it would be fascinating to study the local history of atmospheric testing in Nevada, since what people who were there said seemed the opposite of what I read in Government publications from that time.

    The first nuclear testing took place at the missile range outside Alamogordo, New Mexico, an air base 120 miles south of Albuquerque at 5:30 a.m. on July 16, 1945. In that same year, Leo Szilard and 68 other scientists working in Chicago issued “The Franck Report.” This petition, sent to President Truman, stated that the first Atomic Bomb to attack Japan should not be used but, might best serve as a demonstration to show the power of this new weapon. These scientists had witnessed the mass destruction it caused and felt it would be inhumane to use it against the Japanese, no matter how savage and ruthless they were felt to be, they were still human. If that failed, and Japan still didn’t surrender, the second bomb would be used to counterattack. The decision was left to the Commander-in-Chief. As we know today, this petition was ignored.

    The Atomic Bomb, created by fission, where uranium (isotope U-238, isotope U-235) or plutonium (isotope Pu-239), the main ingredients, explode spontaneously if a specific amount of material (critical mass) was assembled. Fission is a nuclear reaction in which an atomic nucleus splits into fragments (usually two of comparable mass) with the evolution of approximately 100 million to several 100 million volts of energy, expelled explosively and violently. (Dyson, J.D) Following the Manhattan Project, the Atomic Energy Commission sought a test site on the mainland to serve as “A location where its basic security and general accessibility cannot be jeopardized by enemy action.” (United States. AEC Memo 141/7 p. 2) While it seemed to the AEC that Southern Nevada was almost ideal for atmospheric testing, the people living in this sparsely populated area were to pay the highest price of everyone, even to the point of death because they felt, as their ancestors preceding them, it was indeed an ideal place to live and raise their children. These “downwinders,” as they later became known, were in the way even though generations of families lived before them on this desert land. Their life and livelihood was in the wrong place at the wrong time. In the 1950s, when the tests began, very few Americans knew the dangers and health risks related to atomic fallout. The entire program was cast in a very patriotic light by official releases circulated by the press. For the few people that feared the sometimes fatal effects from radiation, the Government continually announced assurances to downwind residents: “There is no danger.”

    Soon after the tests began, rural residents noticed wildlife, such as deer and birds, thinned from large rangelands regularly dusted with fallout from the upwind Nevada Test Site. Mrs. Mary Jean Etchegaray recalled men going riding and coming back with their faces hurting like they had severe sunburn, following a blast. (Interview with Mary Jean Etchegaray, March 14, 2001) William Marshall remembered cattle coming into Alamo with spots of hair turned white from fallout exposure. (Interview with William Marshall, February 18, 2001) Pietrina Etchegaray said, “We were 180 miles away. It was like an earthquake. Our cow’s milk was tested for radiation.” (Interview with Pietrina Etchegaray, March 10, 2001)

    After thousands of sheep died immediately after a radiation cloud passed over them, some southern Utah ranchers brought unsuccessful suits against the federal government in 1955. The government response in court was that “a combination of factors including malnutrition, poor management, and adverse weather conditions” led to the animals’ death. (Killing Our Own [36]) Internal memos to the contrary from AEC researchers were suppressed. Sworn statements by sheepherders, testifying such epidemics among their herds of livestock had never happened until the fallout clouds went over them, were discounted and the ranchers were ridiculed by government officials. Many of the communities in Southern Utah constantly dusted with fallout were predominantly Mormon. They didn’t drink or smoke, as their religion commanded, so cancer was not prevalent. However, in 1956 and 1957, many people were diagnosed with leukemia, lymphoma, other types of cancer or acute thyroid damage. Prior to this, cancer was rare. By 1960, there was an epidemic. (Killing our Own)

    Booth Bailey

    I was fortunately able to interview several people who were first hand witnesses to some of the Nevada Test Blasts. My great Uncle Booth, whom the army assigned to the Nevada Test Site at that time, was one of the soldiers placed at ground zero. He told me that for a surface detonation, trenches were dug with a backhoe about 2400 yards from ground zero. There were more than two hundred men in a trench, all of them standing up. The bomb went off and he said that it was beyond his capability to describe the force of the air. Immediately following the explosion, the trench caved in. To quote him, “It buried me up to my shoulders. I eventually got my arms free and I only had my helmet to dig myself out.” About thirty to forty other men were buried just like him. Through all this, they were told that there was no danger, but after witnessing each blast, they were made to take off everything they were wearing, including shoes and even helmets. They then had to take a shower and put on new clothes and shoes. This was a daily happening. The Pentagon had appealed to the AEC to allow troops to be stationed closer to ground zero than the previous policy prohibiting anyone to be within six miles of the blast. Shields Warren, Director of Biology and Medicine for AEC, strongly opposed this, however, in the end, the AEC yielded to the pressure and abdicated all safety and health responsibilities to the Pentagon who “accepted full responsibility for the safety of all participating troop units and troop observers.” The amount of radiation to which soldiers were exposed was doubled from 3 to 6 rems while AEC standards for civilian workers remained at 3.9. (Titus p. 62)

    Booth Bailey, circa 1950One of Booth’s worst memories was at Camp Desert Rock (later known as Camp Mercury) when they tried an experiment on farm animals. He recalled that for one particular nuclear detonation, the military decided to test various animals to see how they would fare from a nuclear blast. The distances of the animals varied from three quarters of a mile to two miles from ground zero. The results were a complete disaster. No animals survived. There were such severe burns from the heat that the sheep’s wool was on fire and the cattle’s hide was burned off their backs. They never tried this again. This proved the military knew what would happen to rancher’s animals exposed to the fallout, as was revealed in the atomic compensation hearings, which began in January of 1978. “Documentation from the files of AEC veterinarians investigating sheep deaths in 1953 revealed not only disregarded data linking the losses to radioactive fallout but also fabricated agreements between AEC and various health officials discounting radiation as the cause of death.” (Titus, p. 132-133)

    One interesting point in this interview was that Dr. Robert J. Oppenheimer, the “Father” of the Atomic Bomb, spoke daily to my great uncle. Oppenheimer talked to him about what would be required for the next test blast. They received daily and/or weekly assignments for upcoming tests.

    About three to four months before his discharge, Booth was elevated to drive the camp water truck from Camp Desert Rock to Indian Springs, a town nearby; it took 14 to 15 hours a day. He hauled all the camp’s water because they could not drink contaminated ground water. “ It was not a very exciting job,’ he was telling me, ‘but a job I enjoyed.” Booth believes he was chosen because of the tremendous amount of radiation he received. The amount was recorded on a badge he was required to wear. His level was too high. (Interview with Booth Bailey, March 1, 2001)

    Jerry Etcheverry

    My great Uncle Jerry Etcheverry was also a witness in a different capacity. In 1951 he was 18 years old and on the desert herding sheep with his father, my great grandfather. Their camp was about 50 miles northwest of the test site on Highway 6 between Rattlesnake and Warm Springs. Not being told the government was going to test, the first detonation scared him badly. To quote him, “The bomb rocked the earth and lit up the entire sky.” He said he thought it was the end of the world. During the interview, he also told me that they knew testing was going to take place when about three days before a test, people would drive up and down the roads to different stations to monitor the winds with balloons. They also watched the weather very carefully; we now know from declassified documents that the military wanted the radioactive fallout to move away from Las Vegas and Southern California. If everything appeared to be satisfactory then the test would go forward on schedule. Even if asked these men wouldn’t tell him anything at all. That is how secretive the government was. (Interview with Jerry Etcheverry, January 9, 2001)

    Helen Uhalde

    My interview with Mrs. Helen Uhalde was from a very different point of view. She lived on a ranch downwind from the tests, so the fallout clouds passed over them every time there was a test. She told me a doctor would come around and tell her he wouldn’t live there, it was in a bad spot. He also told her that it was better not to have a garden because the food grown would be contaminated. Her kids wore badges that read the amount of radiation they received from the fallout. Weekly, scientists would come and test their water, also going in the house, from up in the attic clear down to the basement with Geiger counters to test the radiation. Luckily, they were never evacuated.

    Behind the ranch house, there was an old Witte generator that provided electricity. She was paid by the Government to change the air filters often. One point of interest was what the fallout looked like when it came over their ranch. She said it looked like a light snow once, that the particles were as big as snowflakes. They were often told their Geiger counter read so high because it was much finer tuned than the ones the scientists used, and it was no good. The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission’s 1957 book, Atomic Tests in Nevada, said, “Reports about Geiger counters…going crazy…many people worry unnecessarily. Don’t let them bother you.” (United States. Atomic Energy Commission)

    Locally, there were quite a few people that got sick. Butchie Bardoli, a neighbor boy that lived on a ranch down the road died from leukemia. He was only eight or nine years old. Many people died of or had some form of cancer. A neighboring lady by the name of Mrs. Sharp lost all her hair and had to wear a wig. Mrs. Uhalde’s own children were affected. Her daughter had a brain tumor. It was so unique that after it was taken out, it was sent back east to the advanced physicians so they could study it. Her son had bladder cancer. This family was lucky. Nobody died and the only livestock affected were the cows and calves in the meadow beyond the house that received bad radiation burns on their backs. (Interview with Helen Uhalde, March 1, 2001)

    At this time, AEC printed and distributed throughout Nevada, a booklet entitled Atomic Tests in Nevada. The text read, in part, “The effects of a detonation include flash, blast, and radioactive fallout. Your potential exposure to these effects will be low… Every test detonation in Nevada is carefully evaluated as to your safety… Every phase of the operation is likewise studied from the safety viewpoint.” (Titus p. 81) Perhaps Mrs. Uhalde’s definition of safety wouldn’t have agreed with the AEC considering the price her family paid.

    The first atmospheric test detonated at the Nevada Test Site, named Able, took place January 27, 1951. Atmospheric testing did not end until July 1962, when the United States signed a treaty with Moscow stating that it would limit further testing to underground. One hundred atmospheric tests had been conducted within those eleven years. So far, 804 total tests have been conducted. (United States. Department of Energy, The Nevada Test Site.)

    Conclusion

    I learned that atmospheric testing affected many people in many ways. Since then it has been proven that many people exposed to fallout have gotten different forms of cancer, thousands of sheep died and cattle got radiation burns, and even though all this was obviously caused by radioactive fallout, the Government for many years denied all responsibility for deaths and injuries to animals and humans alike. However, on July 14, 1981, Senator Orrin Hatch, Utah, while introducing the radiation compensation bill, S. 1483, stated; “A great wrong was committed by the federal government in exposing thousands of Americans to radioactive fallout while simultaneously conducting a massive campaign to assure the public that no danger existed… There are now many innocent suffering victims of the mistakes made by Government officials over two decades ago… We must make sure that it does not happen again.” (Titus p. 137) As of March 2001, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Program has approved 5,301 downwinders and on site claims for a total of $100,557,807 in compensation. Finally, the Government is beginning to take responsibility and become accountable to those that suffered the consequences of atmospheric testing.

    A Frontier in History was discovered when the energy formerly locked within the core of the atom became available to mankind, offering great promise for the use of this energy. However, the possibility for mass destruction was underestimated and little understood. The words “atomic energy” and “radioactivity” assumed new significance in the affairs of men. The AEC and the military used this time to move the Atomic Age from theory to reality. With the reality came a nuclear arms race with Russia, the missile age, and the development of nuclear medicine. Without the discovery of the Atomic Age, we would not be as advanced in these technologies as we are today.

    Radiation is still an issue for Nevada today as our state is being looked at as a nuclear repository site for the country’s nuclear wastes. During my interview with State Senator and author of Bombs in the Backyard, A. Costandina Titus, she stated she was very skeptical of the Department of Energy’s public comments regarding the safety of nuclear waste. (Interview with Senator A. Costandina Titus, March 15, 2001) Nevada knows firsthand that we don’t want to be a recipient because we learned early on about the devastating effects of atomic and nuclear testing. We understand the effects to groundwater, soil, livestock, air, and humans, and we are wary when the government tells us that nuclear waste will be safe at the NTS, with no danger to people, animals, or the environment. It has all been said before.

    Julie Etchegaray is a 9th grader at Eureka County High School. She won the Nevada History Day competition with this essay and went to Washington D.C. in June to represent Nevada in the National History Day competition.



    Bibliography

    Primary Sources

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      Booth Bailey, my Great Uncle, told me about what it was like to be a soldier placed at ground zero at the time of the atmospheric testing.

    Etchegaray, Mary Jean, interviewed by Julie Etchegaray, March 14, 2001.

      Mrs. Etchegaray, my Grandmother, shared what she remembered living on a ranch out of Eureka, NV.

    Etchegaray, Pietrina Damele, interviewed by Julie Etchegaray, March 10, 2001.

      I learned, from this interview, what it was like on a ranch that was about 150 to 200 miles away from the testing site. Mrs. Pietrina Etchegaray is my Great Grandmother.

    Etcheverry, Jerry, interviewed by Julie Etchegaray, January 9, 2001.

      This interview told me about what it was like to be herding sheep at that time in history. Mr. Etcheverry is my Great Uncle.

    Marshall, William C, interviewed by Julie Etchegaray, February 18, 2001.

      Owned and was living at the Siri Ranch, Eureka County, NV at the time. He talked about the children at the ranch school having to wear radiation detection buttons and about cattle out of Alamo, NV, coming into the ranch with white spots on their backs. William C. Marshall is my Grandfather.

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      To ensure the timely payment of benefits to eligible persons under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. Introduced by Representative Udall of New Mexico (for himself, Mr. Udall of Colorado, and Mr. Matheson) March 20,2001.



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