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A Utah Resident Remembers Atomic Testing in 1950s Nevada

The arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union for nuclear weapons escalated quickly after World War II. After the Soviets detonated their first atomic weapon in 1949, the U.S. conducted a series of atomic tests in remote areas, including Nevada. Between 1951 and 1963, 126 atomic bombs were detonated at the U.S. government's Nevada testing site. At the time, the government did little to inform the residents of the area of the potential dangers of exposure to radiation and many suffered health problems as a result. Isaac Nelson, a World War II veteran and resident of Cedar City, Utah, describes his experience.

After 1951 they were going to start the testing in Nevada, and everybody was really excited, and thought maybe we’d get a part to play in it and show our patriotism. We wanted to help out what little we could. My wife and I and a hundred or so residents of Cedar drove out to see the first one. We huddled up, our blankets around us because it was so cold, so early in the morning 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 on in the day, you’d see these fallout clouds drifting down in Kanarraville, and up through Cedar, and if you’d ever seen one you’d never mistake it because it was definitely different from any rain cloud, kind of a pinkish tan color strung out all down through the valley there for several miles. They’d float over the city and everyone would go out and ooh and aah just like a bunch of hicks. We was never warned that there was any danger involved in going out and being under these fallout clouds all the time I lived here. . . .

Along about 1955 a cloud came over Cedar, and my wife and I, the kids and the neighbors stood outside looking and talking about it. Later on towards evening, my wife, her skin, her hands, anything that was exposed just turned a beet red. . . . She got a severe headache, and nausea, diarrhea, really miserable. We drove out to the hospital, and the doctor said, “Well it looks like sunburn, but then it doesn’t.” Her headache persisted for several months, and the diarrhea and nausea for a few weeks. Four weeks after that I was sittin’ in the front room reading the paper and she’d gone into the bathroom to wash her hair. All at once she let out the most ungodly scream, and I run in there and there’s about half her hair layin’ in the washbasin! You can imagine a woman with beautiful, raven-black hair, so black it would glint green in the sunlight just like a raven’s wing. . . . She was in a state of panic. . . . After that she kept getting weaker, and listless, and she didn’t even have any desire to go out in the garden to work with her flowers. . . . Finally [the doctors] said it looked like a large tumor in her brain, and they operated and removed a tumor about the size of a large orange or softball, but they couldn’t get it all out, it was too embedded in the brain tissue. Oleta lived two years or so after that operation. She started going downhill from 1955 and died in 1965 at 41.

Source | Carole Gallagher, American Ground Zero (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993), 133-135.
Interviewer | Carole Gallagher
Interviewee | Isaac Nelson
Item Type | Oral History
Cite This document | “A Utah Resident Remembers Atomic Testing in 1950s Nevada,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed April 16, 2024,

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