Just before dawn on July 16, 1945, an exploding atomic sun lit the sky over Alamogordo, New Mexico. That first atomic bomb — code-named “Trinity” — marked the dawn of the nuclear age. As the mushroom cloud expanded, physicist Robert Oppenheimer was reminded of cosmic destruction foretold by ancient Hindu scripture. The god Vishnu proclaimed “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Within a month, U.S. atomic bombs leveled the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

The 75th anniversary of 1945’s trinity of nuclear explosions brings with it reminders of Utah’s past and continuing connections to nuclear weapons and waste.

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Our state’s 500 uranium mines have gone through two boom-bust cycles: first fueling nuclear bombs, then nuclear power plants. The Trump administration’s support for new bombs and reactors may herald yet another boom and bust even as dangers from abandoned mines persist in Utah.

Human casualties of the nuclear age range from Japan to Utah and the Navajo Reservation, where miners of uranium ore suffered lung cancer at up to five times the expected rate. The radioactive material they mined went to places like White Mesa (San Juan County), was milled into “yellow cake” and made ready for nuclear reactors and weapons. Evidence of uranium remains in the blood of many Navajo children today.

Uranium miners weren’t the only Utahns sacrificed to build America’s Cold War nuclear arsenal. Despite U.S. government assurances that there was no danger, Utahns were repeatedly exposed to radiation from uranium and plutonium bomb tests at the Nevada Test Site near Las Vegas. Those explosions were conducted when wind patterns would blow radiation clouds away from Las Vegas and California but toward Utah, where people and livestock downwind were poisoned directly from fallout and by radioactive iodine that concentrated in cattle forage and made its way into children’s milk.

The “downwinders” saga is not yet over. Congressman Ben McAdams is seeking expansion of the 1990 Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) to cover all victims of nuclear tests. Gov. Gary Herbert’s support would be most welcome. RECA legislation currently awaits action in House and Senate committees. Ironically, this effort to fully redress past injuries occurs as the Trump administration wants to resume nuclear bomb testing.

Nevertheless, Utahns have risen to meet nuclear threats in the past and are doing so again.

Forty years ago, our Air Force tried to deploy hundreds of mobile nuclear missiles in the desert valleys of western Utah. The MX missile system threatened our social and natural environments while making the Beehive State a high-priority Soviet target. In response, a network of civic groups, religious leaders, downwinders and everyday citizens rallied to stop the project. Several later joined the campaign that ended Nevada nuclear tests. Again, an informed and engaged citizenry prevailed.

Unfortunately, some still view Utah as a national nuclear sacrifice area. The state is at a radioactive crossroads between nuclear weapons laboratories in several western states. Nuclear waste travels through Utah and some remains here, though groups like HEAL Utah and the Sierra Club are fighting to block weaponized uranium and foreign waste.  Still, military contracts like Northrup Grumman’s new strategic nuclear missile “modernization” facility help ensure that Utah will remain in the crosshairs as a new arms race is set to begin.

Who pays to fuel this race? Taxpayers, of course. From cleaning up defunct uranium mills like the Vitro site in Salt Lake City, to compensation for civilian victims, to unnecessary additional weapons. Former U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower once characterized the arms race as “a theft from those who hunger and are not fed.” That admonition holds true today.

Fortunately, groups like the Utah Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (UCAN) promote compliance with arms treaties and monitor local developments, such as the new missile center near Hill Air Force Base. UCAN works with groups like Downwinders and Sierra Club calling for a halt to all nuclear weapons testing and the elimination of nuclear arsenals. 

With over 13,000 nuclear warheads in the world today, and the Trump administration scrapping one treaty after another, it’s time for all Americans to heed the existential lessons offered 75 years ago and call for an end to the era of nuclear weapons.

Cathy Kreuter is a retired nurse and longtime UCAN member. Stan Holmes is a Utah Sierra Club board member and former MX organizer.