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The downwinders' side of nuclear history

Yoshiko Nakata

Nov. 22, 2017

‒‒‒Symbol of Peace in a War Museum‒‒‒

The third and final part of our series on how Americans confront the reemerging prospect of nuclear conflict looks at a region of the US that played a central role in the development of atomic and nuclear weapons.

In a small town in northwestern Utah, right across the border from Nevada, is Wendover Airfield Museum.

"This hangar was built for the B29 atomic mission training," says James Petersen, the president of Historic Wendover Airfield Foundation.

The imposing structure once housed the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

In 2001, the former air base was turned into a museum to preserve the history of Wendover's role in World War Two.

This year, a special item was added to the museum's collection – a small but powerful reminder of the consequences of the atomic bombing. It’s a paper crane folded by a young victim from Hiroshima, named Sadako Sasaki.

Sadako believed in an old Japanese legend that says anyone who folds 1,000 paper cranes will be granted a wish. And so she did, praying to recover, until she died of leukemia at the age of 12.

In August, Sadako's family donated one of the few remaining cranes to the museum.

The museum president believes the crane brings a new dimension to the way the atomic bombings are perceived in the US.

"We can't change that history, but it should never happen again," he says. "It's so easy to be angry, it takes more effort to learn to understand each other, and to learn each other's ways, and to learn to live in peace. But that's what we need to do."


‒‒‒The Downwinders' Side of Nuclear History‒‒‒

Sadako didn't survive to tell her story, but Japan isn't the only country to have suffered the consequences of atomic bombs.

Tens of thousands of people in the United States were also exposed to radiation, and they have their own story to tell. NHK World's Yoshiko Nakata looks at their story.

Claudia Peterson grew up in southern Utah, about 200 kilometers east of the United States' main testing ground for nuclear weapons.

"Just between that gap right there is right where the test site’s at," she says. "Over those mountains is right where the ball of flame had come up. The only one I remember because it was so huge, it was just like this big ball of flame, and as a 5-year-old I thought it was a flying saucer."

For Peterson and countless others, the advent of the nuclear age had very personal consequences.

Starting in 1951, the US government chose a remote area of the Nevada desert to test nearly 1,000 atomic and nuclear bombs.

The first 100 were detonated in the atmosphere, sending radioactive fallout across the region. But authorities said residents had nothing to worry about.

"There's no danger, this is simply routine safety procedure," stated a 1953 film by the Atomic Energy Commission. No mention was made of the dangers of exposure to radiation. Instead, the government insisted the tests were crucial to protect the US against the Soviet Union.

A map published in 1986 shows radioactive fallout from the Nevada Test Site spread over most of the United States, contaminating humans, animals and the environment. Southern Utah was one of the main hotspots.

The invisible poison took a heavy toll on Claudia Peterson's family.

Her youngest daughter died of leukemia at the age of 6. "That's my favorite picture of her because she was healthy, off chemotherapy," Claudia says.

Her father died of a brain tumor. And her older sister died of skin cancer, leaving behind 6 children.

"We were told over and over that we were safe," says Claudia. "We were perfect guinea pigs. We were. We just let them continue to do it, and continue and continue."

Petersen has kept in touch with a-bomb survivors in Japan. She treasures the paper cranes they sent in memory of her daughter.

Now, Peterson is alarmed by the crisis with North Korea. She believes it will be used by the US government to upgrade its nuclear arsenal – just as it did during the Cold War.

"The rhetoric is the same," she says. "It is similar. And I'm thinking it's their way of justifying testing, producing, weapons of mass destruction. We have enough weapons. I want to stop worrying about what's going to happen – what our President and other countries, prime ministers and dictators – I want to stop worrying about that, but I never can. About the time I think I can relax, it starts all over again. "

Some are now trying to preserve the history of nuclear testing. In 2016, the University of Utah launched the first digital archive that brings together specific data on nuclear tests and the voices of people who were exposed to them.

Entitled "Downwinders of Utah", the archive is an interactive collection of maps, videos and documents. The timeline features detailed data on every single atmospheric test, paired with articles published at the time.

Another significant feature of the archive is the oral history section. Downwinders speak about the human consequences of nuclear testing.

"We were told everything’s just fine, don't worry about it" says one witness in the archive. "We grew up pretty oblivious to the fallout that was dropping down on all of us," says another, Mary Dickson.

Dickson grew up in the suburbs of Salt Lake City. She was diagnosed with thyroid cancer when she was 29. Her thyroid had to be removed, and since then, her life has depended on a pill she takes every day.

"If you go long enough without it, you die" she says. As she battles her own illness, Dickson continues to fight on many fronts – compensation for the victims, a ban on all nuclear testing, and ultimately, the abolition of nuclear weapons.

"We worked so hard when they were talking about resuming nuclear testing under the Bush administration” she says. “We worked so hard to get the word out and to try and stop that, and I kind of feel like every victory is temporary."

Dickson says the stories of downwinders are not just a valuable record of history, but also a stark reminder of the need to remain vigilant.

"I think one of the most important things is the power of personal story and I think downwinders just need to be telling their stories and need to be getting that word out," she says. "And we all need to be really questioning our governments. I think it’s our patriotic duty, always, to question what governments are doing in our name."

Dickson's elder sister passed away from a skin disease called lupus, at the age of 46.

"That's her" she says, pointing to a gravestone in a cemetery. "You're supposed to come every Memorial Day, and I don't. I just can't. I can't. I just miss them all too much, so I don't come."

The US nuclear weapons program took a heavy toll on America's own citizens, all in the name of national security.

For downwinders and many others, the priority now is not to let history repeat itself.