Cold War Weapons Testing Made People Sick. Now, More Mountain West Residents Could Be Compensated

Originally published on June 27, 2018 2:00 pm

Nuclear testing during the Cold War sent radioactive fallout far away from the actual test sites. Politicians are moving to expand who can be compensated by the government for getting sick after exposure to that fallout.

The tests mostly happened in Nevada but winds sent radioactive materials far and wide. Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo said one detonation in 1952 was particularly memorable to his constituents.

“Idahoans that I’ve spoken to in Emmett and elsewhere have shared their memories of waking to find their pastures and orchards covered with a fine grey-white dust that seemingly appeared out of nowhere. It looked like frost, yet it was not cold to touch,” Crapo said in a Senate Committee on the Judiciary hearing Wednesday.

In 1990 Congress created a program to compensate people who became seriously ill after radiation exposure.

Credit U.S. Army / Library of Congress
Soldiers watch the detonation of an atomic bomb in Nevada in 1951.

According to the Department of Justice, since the program started more than $2 billion has been given in compensation. People like miners who worked directly with radioactive materials can get $100,000, people who were on site during nuclear tests get $75,000 and people who lived downwind of a major test site in Nevada get $50,000. So-called “downwinders” have to have lived in certain counties within Utah, Nevada and Arizona at the time of testing to be considered eligible.

“Unfortunately, the science at the time failed to recognize that radioactive fallout is not restricted by state lines,” said Crapo.

According to the National Cancer Institute, some of that fallout landed on fields across the country and especially in the Mountain West. It was consumed by animals like cows and eventually made it into milk cartons. Because of that, people who were milk-drinking children at the time are considered to have a higher risk of thyroid cancer.

Senators, including Crapo, have sponsored a bill that would expand the group of eligible “downwinders” to people who lived in parts of Idaho, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico and Guam at the time that tests were conducted.

The bill would also establish a grant program for further research into the health impacts of uranium mining and would extend the deadline for filing claims from 2022 to the late 2030s.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

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