U.S. vets still paying the price 75 years after first nuclear test

first underwater detonation Shot Baker, was part of Operation Crossroads in 1946 at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. It was the first underwater detonation. The spray generated by the blast coated the surrounding ships with radioactivity. (Library of Congress)

By Jennifer LaFleur

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The United States entered the nuclear age 75 years ago today when it detonated a nuclear bomb, code-named Trinity, at Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range in New Mexico. 

The blast, part of the Manhattan Project, released a yield equivalent to 20 kilotons of TNT. Less than a month later, the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing hundreds of thousands of people.

Despite knowing  the kind of devastation such weapons could inflict, the U.S. continued to test nuclear weapons at the Nevada Test Site, 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas, as well as near various Pacific islands. The U.S. conducted more than 200 tests in total. 

In 1963, the Partial Test Ban Treaty signed by the U.S., United Kingdom and Soviet Union — stopped all but underground nuclear testing.

But by the time the treaty had been signed, thousands of U.S. troops had participated in the tests in Nevada, aboard ships and from planes. Many later reported health problems and blamed the radiation from the tests, but as I wrote for Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2016, many still struggle to get compensation and recognition.

The atomic veterans are an important part of history, said Keith Kiefer, commander of National Association of Atomic Veterans. “There was a human cost to our atomic era.”

In addition to helping atomic veterans apply for compensation for their service, NAAV has pushed for a military service medal designated for atomic veterans. 

It would recognize “the sacrifice that the veterans made for the country and the nuclear legacy — that they’re not forgotten,” Kiefer said. About 400,000 troops participated in the atomic tests. It’s difficult to know the number still alive because many don’t know that the veil of secrecy was lifted.

Multiple bills have been introduced in Congress over the years to create a service medal and to establish a national Atomic Veterans Day. No federal measure ever passed, but several states now recognize July 16 as Atomic Veterans Day.

Under the 2019 Defense Authorization Act, veterans or their families who were or could have been exposed to radiation during their service may apply for an Atomic Veterans Service Certificate.

For decades, few test participants talked about their experiences because they were sworn to secrecy. That meant that many did not tell their families or even their doctors what they had experienced. The veil of secrecy was lifted in 1996 after a federal committee investigated the country’s human radiation experiments, which included veterans who participated in the tests.

As they began sharing their stories, similar patterns emerged. Many test participants were told to put their hands over their eyes to shield them from the blast; many reported seeing the bones in their hands and arms. Reveal reported some of their stories in a RetroReport documentary.

After the atomic testing program ended, more military personnel were sent to clean up radioactive debris left behind in the Marshall Islands. Clean-up participants also have reported health problems, but unlike the test veterans, they were not recognized under the radiation compensation program.

The National Association of Atomic Veterans is working to add clean-up vets to compensation programs for those exposed to radiation during their service.

The remnants of U.S. atomic tests remain on the islands. The debris left behind in the Marshall Islands as well as irradiated soil transported from Nevada was taken to the island of Runit and dumped  into a crater. That crater was sealed under a concrete dome and “holds more than 3.1 million cubic feet — or 35 Olympic-sized swimming pools — of U.S.-produced radioactive soil and debris, including lethal amounts of plutonium,” the Los Angeles Times reported in a 2019 investigation.

The Times investigation also found that the U.S. government “withheld key pieces of information about the dome’s contents and its weapons testing program before the two countries (U.S. and The Marshall Islands) signed a compact in 1986 releasing the U.S. government from further liability.”

But the U.S. Department of Energy said that the 50-year-old dome is structurally sound, the Times reported on July 1. The Marshallese government remains skeptical, particularly as climate change continues to threaten the Marshall Islands and the dome, which has cracked due to  the rise in sea-level.

We want to hear about the experiences of atomic test and clean-up vets. Email jlafleur@irworkshop.org to share your story.