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Ronald Mortensen: Southern Utah’s experience as downwinders helps explain the area’s low vaccination rates

Government lies about nuclear tests don’t inspire confidence in government advice or directives today.

As recently reported by the Salt Lake Tribune, some of the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rates in Utah are in counties in southwest Utah. Coincidentally, these counties are among those that were the hardest hit by the radioactive fallout from atmospheric nuclear tests conducted in the 1950s and early 1960s.

So could this vaccine hesitancy be at least partially due to the fact that many Utahns who live in the area downwind from the nuclear tests, the downwinders, remember how federal officials and scientists marginalized and lied to them decades ago?

Looking back, in the 1950s when I was growing up downwind of the nuclear tests, the United States faced what was deemed to be a very real threat of nuclear annihilation by the Soviet Union. This led government leaders and scientists to undertake a series of atmospheric nuclear tests in Nevada. Unfortunately, they either didn’t fully grasp the long-term impacts that the radioactive fallout from those tests would have on people living downwind from the test site or, if they did, they covered it up.

It is now clear that federal officials and scientists must have suspected something, as they labeled those of us living in southern Utah as “a low use segment of the population” reflecting the government’s view that we were an expendable and insignificant portion of the population. They then ensured that nuclear tests were only conducted when the wind would blow the radioactive fallout cloud onto us.

The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) repeatedly assured us that there was no danger and apparently none of its scientists ever warned us otherwise. In fact, downwinders were encouraged to “participate in a moment of history” by going outside to watch the radioactive fallout clouds drifting through their communities. An AEC brochure distributed to residents in southwestern Utah in 1953 read: “Your best action is not to be worried by fallout.” And the government’s assurances were echoed by the media. For example, in 1950 the Desert News ran an editorial with the headline: ‘’Spectacular Atomic Explosions Mean Progress in Defense, No Cause For Panic.’’

We now know that many of the 126 fallout clouds from above ground nuclear tests, including some with radiation levels comparable to those released at Chernobyl, deposited their radiation on innocent men, women and children throughout southern Utah and on the food they ate and in the milk they drank.

We also know that American citizens were involuntary human test subjects as revealed by an AEC document titled Medical Experiments in Humans and that the most devastating effects of the fallout were not immediately obvious. However, over time, large numbers of downwinders contracted — and, in many cases, died horrible deaths from — fallout-induced cancers.

Ultimately, Congress acknowledged what had been done and by 2015 the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act of 1990 had awarded more than $2 billion to more than 26,000 victims of the testing who had contracted one or more of the 19 officially recognized radiation caused cancers. Unless it is renewed, that Act expires on July 7, 2022.

Now, just as in the 1950s, downwinders once again hear government officials, scientists and the media telling them that “Your best action is not to be worried by fallout [from the mRNA vaccine].” However, given what the federal government did in the 1950s and 1960s, is it all that surprising that those counties with large numbers of downwinders and their descendants have low COVID vaccination rates? After all, that still small voice in the back of their minds reminds them of just how badly their government and its scientists let them down once before.

Ronald Mortensen

Ronald Mortensen, Ph.D., is a retired Foreign Service officer. During his 40 years of international service on behalf of the United States he has had a wide variety of vaccinations, but he does wonder what the long-term effects, if any, of the COVID vaccines will be.

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