Utahns have known for years that the state was showered with dangerous radioactive fallout from nuclear test blasts conducted in Nevada, chiefly in the 1950s and '60s. The federal government reluctantly acknowledged the danger decades later, apologized and offered compensation to some cancer victims. But the Nevada tests were only part of a horrifying story in which Utahns played the role of unsuspecting guinea pigs.

Hundreds of other open-air experiments were performed with nerve gas, deadly germs, radioactive dust and pellets, nuclear rockets and deliberate nuclear "accidents." Nobody knows how deadly all of this was and what impact it had on the health of Utahns, but the exposure clearly carried enormous risks for residents - who were unaware of what was happening.Details of these tests have trickled out over the years, some by demands made by reporters through the Freedom of Information Act and some in recent months from a greater government openness about past research.

All of this information was pulled together in a special six-page Deseret News section published this week. The cumulative story that emerged is staggering in scope. Just listing all the tests takes two newspaper pages in small type. It is enough to make Americans - and Utahns in particular - angry about the extent of the duplicity and danger foisted on them by their own government.

Many of the experiments were classified as secret in the name of "national security," particularly the germ warfare, nerve gas, chemical warfare, etc., but even more than 200 nuclear tests were kept secret.

Yet national security was not always the reason the "secret" stamp was used. Sometimes the tests were kept from the public because officials feared lawsuits - a reasonable fear given the nature of what they were doing. Other times, experiments were classified because of a fear of bad publicity or having the tests canceled. Such misuse of the national security cloak undermines trust in government and its motives.

These weren't one or two tests or a couple of risky experiments done over a few acres of desert land.

A total of 930 nuclear devices were exploded in Nevada and 141 of them likely spread radiation into Utah, either from an open-air detonation or underground blasts where radiation escaped into the atmosphere. Tests took place only when winds were blowing toward Utah and not toward Las Vegas, Los Angeles or other population centers - a cynical attitude that is insulting to Utahns.

In addition, some 20 open-air, non-nuclear explosions were done at Dugway to test the spread of radioactive dust. Such dust was regarded as a potential weapon for urban areas. Between 1949 and 1963, the total radiation released in Utah was 10,000 times more than the highly publicized Three Mile Island nuclear accident.

More than 328 open-air germ warfare tests were conducted at Dugway with bacteria for parrot fever, Q fever, the plague, tularemia, brucellosis, botulism and anthrax.

At least 1,174 open-air tests of chemical weapons, including nerve gas, were carried out at Dugway and the nearby vicinity. All together, nearly 500,000 pounds of nerve gas was released into the atmosphere over the years and not all of it fell into the target areas. A drop of nerve gas the size of a pinhead can be fatal. Responsibility for the death of 6,000 Utah sheep after one test has still not been accepted by the Army, although it paid damages to the sheep owners.

The stories go on and on. The result is not only the dangers posed at the time and a serious breach of faith by the U.S. government with its citizens, but some dangers remain to this day.

A recent study by the Interior Department estimated that more than 1,400 square miles of public lands in Utah may be contaminated with unexploded munitions, including chemical and biological arms.

That is an area larger than Rhode Island and doesn't even count the contamination on Utah's far-flung military ranges and bases.

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Most of this information falls into the category of history. Little can be done now. Even possible cancer victims of the open-air atomic tests have a difficult time getting compensation from the federal bureaucracy, despite funds set up for that purpose by Congress. Many people feel they are being victimized by their government once again.

However, not all of the danger has vanished. Dugway is still in business, although not as a performer of chemical-biological experiments. But it does store thousands of chemical agents and the military is trying to devise safe methods to destroy most of those weapons.

Army officials say the proposed disposal methods - generally, high-temperature furnaces - are safe, but Utahns can be excused for being suspicious and extra-cautious about anything the military might say about safety and lack of risk. Especially since some experts have criticized the equipment and the Army's safety conclusions.

The whole story of experiments with exotic and chilling weapons and methods of warfare leaves Utahns with a sense of betrayal. It is going to take a lot more than reassuring words to win back their trust.

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