It’s one of the first numbers shown in the documentary “Downwind,” and one of the most chilling.
The number is 928. That’s how many large-scale nuclear weapons the United States government detonated in Mercury, Nevada, over 41 years through the Cold War, both above and underground.
The documentary, which will have its world premiere Monday evening at the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, is a chilling examination of America’s nuclear-testing history and the effect those tests had on the people on whom radioactive fallout landed — commonly known as downwinders.
Though such fallout traveled far and wide, weather patterns carried much of it to Utah, Nevada and Arizona — where it settled into the land and the water, and sometimes got kicked up again into the air.
Among the charges the film makes is that the U.S. government didn’t warn people in so-called “low-use” populations in the affected areas of the dangers.
“The government knowingly exposed people, what they called ‘low-use’ segments of the population — Native Americans and Mormon families — in government documents,” said Mark Shapiro, the film’s co-director. “Those are groups that roll with [things], they don’t tend to raise a ruckus.”
People in those affected areas can be eligible for compensation from the U.S. government, under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), which was first passed in 1990, expanded in 2000 and again last summer (in legislation passed by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden).
As Shapiro and co-director Douglas Brian Miller point out in the film, RECA has its limitations. It only covers some Western states — three from testing fallout, and 11 where uranium mining occurred. (Utah and Arizona are the only states where both happened.) The act provides for lump sum payments, but not enough to cover medical bills for such diseases as cancer.
Downwinders interviewed in the film recount the health effects they and their communities have endured because of fallout: Skin falling off, various cancers and other genetic damage.
The road from Nevada to Utah
Shapiro said that he and Miller were curious about what happened at Mercury, Nevada, the testing site. They visited Nevada several times while filming the documentary.
One particular underground test at the site, “Boxcar,” had the equivalent yield of 65 Hiroshima bombs, the film says, and U.S. residents experienced 2.5 times more radiation exposure than those at the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster in what was then the Soviet Union and is now Ukraine, according to the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation.
As they investigated, Shapiro and Miller came across something called the Miller Map (not related to Douglas Miller) — a map of the United States that the filmmakers and some of their subjects say is a more accurate representation of the effect of fallout. The map shows radiation spread across most of the country.
Their interest, the filmmakers said, led them to drive from Las Vegas to St. George — on the same path that fallout traveled decades before — to film part of their documentary. “It’s only 135 miles from the test site,” Shapiro said.
St. George was also the host for the filmmakers’ other catalyst: It was the shooting location for five months in 1954 of “The Conquerer,” a war epic that starred John Wayne as the Mongol emperor Genghis Khan.
A year before filming, a 32-kiloton nuclear bomb — which later became known as “Dirty Harry” — detonated over Yucca Flats, Nevada. According to the documentary, wind would carry some of the highest levels of radioactive fallout ever recorded, to St. George.
A 1980 People magazine article reported that around half of the cast and crew of “The Conquerer” — including Wayne, co-stars Susan Hayward and Agnes Moorehead, and director Dick Powell — were ultimately diagnosed with some kind of cancer. (That fact isn’t conclusive, since many people of that era, such as Wayne, also were heavy smokers.)
In “Downwind,” the filmmakers interviewed Mark Sennet, one of the writers of that People article — which explored the idea that the U.S. government had, indirectly, killed John Wayne, one of America’s most patriotic and iconic figures.
The article changed public perception about downwinders, said Mary Dickson, a retired executive at KUED, Ch. 7, and a downwinder herself. Before the People article came out, she said, nobody really cared.
“Nobody paid attention to it when it was people in southern Utah who were the first to start speaking up about it, when their sheep, cattle and babies were dying,” Dickson said.
Even today, Dickson said, people generally — including elected officials — don’t understand downwinders or the danger from fallout. The Nevada site remains open, and there was talk during the Trump administration of restarting testing.
Dickson said her hope is that movies like “Downwind” can keep a spotlight on “an incredibly tragic and forgotten chapter of American history. … People have to know it, because how do we not repeat mistakes of the past if we don’t acknowledge them?”
Though its focus is on the everyday people who have dealt with radioactive fallout, “Downwind,” like the People article, will attract some attention because of the celebrity factor.
Narrating the film is actor and activist Martin Sheen, who has protested nuclear weapons for decades. Among those interviewed are actor/producer Michael Douglas, comedian Lewis Black, and John Wayne’s son Patrick.
Too many coincidences
The threats of nuclear attacks remain present, the filmmakers noted. During production of “Downwind,” the nearly yearlong Russian invasion of Ukraine began. “It reinforced this idea that we’re all downwinders,” Miller said.
The invasion was another of the so-called “coincidences” the filmmakers encountered. Most ominously, they found cancer everywhere.
Shapiro said his sister died of carcinoma in 2016. While editing and shooting, Miller said, his dad died of lymphoma. His aunt had pancreatic cancer, his mother had breast cancer twice and his grandparents had forms of cancer, too.
Miller said he looked at the Miller map, and realized that storms carried radiation all the way to Birmingham, Alabama, where his father was born.
The fallout, Miller said, “is altering your DNA, which is going to be passed on to your children.”
To those who might argue there’s no proof that radiation wafting from Nevada around the country could cause the illnesses downwinders have suffered, Dickson counters with the example of California wildfire smoke that filtered into Utah in 2021.
“Fallout was blown by the same winds in America,” Dickson said. “It blew across the country.”
Living with and dying from fallout
Shapiro and Miller have amassed horrifying statistics, archival video and numerous interviews — matching the clicking of the Geiger counters with real stories of families who have lived with and died from fallout over generations.
The filmmakers started with Ian Zabarte, Principal Man of the Western Bands of the Shoshone Nation of Indians, who has advocated his whole life for Indigenous communities affected by the fallout.
In the film, Zabarte speaks about how many of the weapons tests, conducted on Shoshone land, were named after tribes and Indigenous words. He points out the contradiction of how Indigenous people are the closest to land, in comparison to scientists and engineers.
Water is important to them, Zabarte said — their land, their plants and their animals. Radiation now permeates it all, he said.
Indigenous people, he said, “have been addressing the lies of nuclear energy consistently and we’ve [been] forced to bear the burden.”
They just want to live their lives, Zabarte said, and not die of cancer. He, like Dickson, said awareness is key.
One of the film’s most poignant moments is an interview with Claudia Peterson, a St. George medical social worker, talking about her family’s experiences. As she talks, text fills the screen, recounting the many people in Peterson’s family who died of cancer — including her daughter, Bethany, when she was 6 years old.
As Peterson says in the film, “we’re all victims of the nuclear age.”
“Downwind” screens as part of the Slamdance Film Festival, Monday at 5:30 p.m. at the ballroom of the Treasure Mountain Inn, 255 Main St., Park City. Earlier in the day, at 11:15 a.m. Monday, also at Treasure Mountain Inn, Slamdance will hold a panel discussion about nuclear testing and fallout. The panel will include co-directors Mark Shapiro and Douglas Brian Miller, and subjects Mary Dickson, Claudia Peterson and Ian Zabarte. For tickets, go to slamdance.com.
Correction • An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed the moderator for Monday’s panel discussion, based on information provided by the filmmakers.