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Nuclear Downwinders Battle On

A 1955 Atomic Energy Commission brochure used cartoons to tell people in Nevada and the Southwest that nuclear testing "does not constitute a serious hazard to any living thing outside the test site." Since then the government has paid more than $100 million in compensation to those living downwind of nuclear tests.
Atomic Energy Commission

A 1955 Atomic Energy Commission brochure used cartoons to tell people in Nevada and the Southwest that nuclear testing "does not constitute a serious hazard to any living thing outside the test site." Since then the government has paid more than $100 million in compensation to those living downwind of nuclear tests.

Over the course of 40 years, the government detonated nearly 1,000 nuclear devices at the Nevada Test Site. 


While the last test took place almost 30 years ago, downwinders are still grappling with the dubious legacy. 


Downwinders are those who were exposed to radioactive contamination because of the tests. There’s a new push in Congress to extend compensation for those impacted by radiation from the Nevada tests. They also want an official apology. 


Grace Olscamp is with HEAL Utah, an advocacy group that works on behalf of Downwinders. 

“If you go back and look at some of the photos of the time, it’s really pretty incredible," Olscamp said, "It used to actually be a Sunday morning event, Saturday morning event to actually go and watch the bombs go off.”


She said there are pictures from the time of families having a picnic while a bomb went off in the distance. 

Olscamp there are still people alive today who remember the tests and remember family members getting sick from the radioactive fallout.

“There are still people alive who are both currently facing medical conditions connected to radioactive waste, have a memory of their neighborhoods and families suffering from it,” she said.

Olscamp said there is a huge array of cancers that have been linked to the fallout from the tests, including thyroid, breast, gall bladder, and multiple myeloma. 

In the 1990s, Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, or RECA, for people who lived in certain parts of Nevada, Utah and Arizona at a specific time during the testing.

The act also covers workers from the uranium industry and people who worked at the Nevada Test Site. Test site workers can get $100,000 and downwinders can get up to $50,000.

“But it’s actually been notoriously challenging for some people to qualify, especially native individuals, due to the various requirements and paperwork needed to even apply and prove that you are downwinder,” she said.

Dana Holbrook understands the difficulty first hand. He is the mayor of Carlin, a small town in Elko County. His dad worked at the test site and his family lived in Tonopah, during the testing.

His father died of esophageal cancer. His mother died of lung cancer and his sister is currently battling her second round of breast cancer.

Holbrook said when his sister first applied for compensation she was denied because she had to show she was in Tonopah for the entire month of a designated time period. 

Her vaccine record was stamped with another location outside of Tonopah during that time period. Holbrook's sister and wife had to find the nurse who administered the vaccine and get her to send a letter stating she had traveled to Tonopah for the immunizations.  

And even though his father worked at the test site, getting compensation was not easy.

“We had quite the fight," he said, "My wife went to bat for numerous for my mom to get that compensation, which helped her.”

The records from the time period are often missing or inaccurate. Plus, Holbrook said people have to prove their cancer was caused by working there.

“You have to prove over 50 percent chance that you received the cancer from that. And we fought that through two or three appeals processes. It was really difficult,” he said.

Olscamp said Southern Utah, Arizona and Nevada are riddled with stories like Holbrook's. However, those weren't the only areas of the country impacted by the testing. Olscamp said new research done in just the last decade shows the fallout goes as far as Montana, New Mexico, Idaho and Colorado.

A new bill to expand the RECA statute would offer compensation for people impacted there and it would extend the deadline for another 19 years. 

Those impacted are also asking for a formal apology.

“Just giving money to someone who has lost a child, who has lost a parent or a grandparent really can only do so much, especially if you’re someone who has mounting medical bills,“ Olscamp said, “But many see an expanding RECA as a long-overdue apology because of this direct and really irreversible harm that was caused by government actions for multiple decades.”

Holbrook doesn't want an apology.

“Personally, no, I don’t need an apology," he told KNPR's State of Nevada, "I think that the people who did that at the time were… making decisions… they say the road to hell is paved with good intentions and I think sometimes what they were doing they were thinking was in the best interest of our country and I don’t think it was a deliberate attack."

Holbrook said his dad knew it was a risk to work at the test site but he felt it was worth it to make good money, raise his family and do something important for the country's national security.

However, both Holbrook, and his dad, draw a distinction between those who worked on the test side and the downwinders, who were exposed without knowing the risks.

Olscamp is not sure if the government knew how serious the risks were - at first.

“I do think that they knew more than they let on, yet, I think there was still some gaps in their knowledge of the long-term effects,” she said. 

As time went on and more was understood about radioactive waste and fallout, the government was slow to let people know.

“But throughout those multiple decades, I think the knowledge of risk certainly grew and that they were a little slow to very slow to acknowledge it and act on it,” Olscamp said.

Holbrook was born six months after the cut off for compensation. He is still healthy, but if he was to be diagnosed with a cancer connected to radiation, he wouldn't be entitled to compensation.

Even if he could get money from the government, it is cold comfort. 

“If I happen to come down with cancer, I am not eligible for any compensation but I’ll tell you the money is pointless," he said, "I mean, I would much rather be able to make a phone call and send pictures of the garden to my mom and my dad, and I think a lot of people feel that way.”

Grace Olscamp, outreach and communication manager, HEAL Utah;  Dana Holbrook, Carlin mayor and Downwinder

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With deep experience in journalism, politics, and the nonprofit sector, news producer Doug Puppel has built strong connections statewide that benefit the Nevada Public Radio audience.