Thursday, March 17, 2011

Nuclear Families

On May 19, 1953 the United States detonated a 32-kiloton atomic bomb (later nicknamed "Dirty Harry") at its nuclear testing facility in Nevada. With a blast three times the size of the Hiroshima bomb, Harry sent fallout drifting over a wide area, including Southern Utah. This was just one of over 100 bombs detonated above ground at the Nevada facility between 1951 and 1962 and one of five atomic bombs that had a fallout pattern covering Cedar City, Utah.

Isaac Nelson, a resident of Cedar City, describes taking his wife out to see the first explosion. It was dark, he says, just before daylight, "and we were chattering like chipmunks, so excited! Pretty soon, why, the whole sky just flared up in an orange-red flash, and it was so brilliant that you could easily see the trees ten miles across the valley, and if you had a newspaper you could have easily read it, it was so bright. . . ." Later, he says, town residents stood outside to watch the fallout clouds drifting up through Cedar. Isaac's wife died of brain cancer that developed shortly after one of those evenings spent watching the fallout cloud float by.

Grandma, with Aunt Judy and Mother
 In a way, I grew up in the shadow of a nuclear cloud. A native of Cedar City, my mother was five years old when the nuclear testing began, and she tells stories similar to Mr. Nelson's. Thanks to cancer, she later donated both a breast and her thyroid to the American quest for adequate weaponry. My grandmother died of brain cancer just three years after the explosions began, leaving behind her a husband and six children. Though I have no proof that Harry or any of his atomic friends caused her cancer, medical reports of the period show brain tumors among the classes of cancer occurring in excess in the early period after nuclear testing.

My mother developed breast cancer about the time of my earliest memories, and she often spoke of her own mother's death from cancer. As children tend to color the world based on their own limited set of experiences and family stories, I then logically assumed that everyone contracts cancer at some point and saw that eventuality as a simple, if sad, fact of life. I accepted death with similar logic, aided by a religious perspective that emphasizes eternity. I never quite grew out of those assumptions.

Consequently, when my husband's brain tumor returned from vacation with a vengeance, I recognized a pre-established pattern and quietly began planning for the inevitable. I know to some that view rings fatalistic, even regrettably morbid, and I suppose that if I saw death as an end--to self, to relationships, to progress--I would have to agree. As it happens, I see death more as a transition. With that in mind, our little family, each of us in our own time and fashion, began to plan for life on the other side of the approaching metamorphosis. Our son, just a toddler when his father died, absorbed and reflected his insulated world, blithely oblivious to the shock of innocent bystanders when he announced matter-of-factly that his daddy had died and was now in heaven.

I think of these patterns as the crisis unfolds in Japan. My Asian contemporaries grew up in a more striking nuclear shadow than I did. In August 1945, the United States dropped "Little Boy" and "Fat Man" on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Two generations later, the nuclear pattern renews unexpectedly in the wake of an earthquake, once again fundamentally altering families with the fallout of power run amok.

Sources include:

* Nuclear Testing and the Downwinders (from Utah History on the Go)
* Fallout Effects: Impacts of Radiation from Aboveground Nuclear Tests on Southern Utah (from the Utah Department of Environmental Quality)
* Cancer Incidence in an Area of Radioactive Fallout Downwind From the Nevada Test Site (from the Journal of American Medicine)
* Compensating Life Downwind of Nevada (from National Geographic)
* A Utah Resident Remembers Atomic Testing in 1950s Nevada (from the American Social History Project)
* Radioactive Fallout to St. George, Utah (from Washington Nuclear Museum and Educational Center)


  1. Thank you for illuminating the perspective that you have of this awful mess. I have not lost a family member in my lifetime, yet, excepting two grandmothers whose deaths were timely, and yet I share your position that death is a logical transition. I hope though, that when my life experiences change, I will be able to accept it gracefully and faithfully. Accidents and negligence annoy me. Cancer sucks.

  2. I, too, feel the dramatic effect that nuclear testing had on our family. Though my mom has never suffered through any of the cancers associated with being a "down winder," I have often contemplated what life would have been like for her and her siblings should grandma have lived. In college I had the assignment to write a sonnet for one of my classes, the title: "Cedear City, 1953." You can imagine the subject matter, I'm sure.