The spring of 1953 brought with it unusually large losses in sheep herds that had spent that winter grazing in the mountains of southern Nevada and southern Utah. The winter and spring of 1952/1953 had been unusually dry, and most livestock owners had provided their herds with supplemental feed and water to make it through to summer. Of the approximately 11,710 sheep that had wintered within 40 miles north and 160 miles east of the Nevada Test Site (NTS) in 1953, 1420 lambing ewes and 2970 new lambs would ultimately succumb to a painful and mysterious death in the ensuing year.
In addition to the disturbing number of deaths, sheep owners also observed that many of their animals appeared to suffer from unusual burns on their faces and bodies. These burns were reminiscent of those documented in cattle that had been near the in New Mexico, when the world’s first atomic weapon was detonated on July 16, 1945. The burns were also similar to the beta burns found on horses living near the NTS, where above-ground nuclear testing had been taking place since 1951. Speculation quickly focused on two NTS nuclear test series, Operation Tumbler-Snapper conducted in 1952 and Operation Upshot-Knothole conducted in 1953, as the source of death and injury witnessed among the Cedar City sheep herds.
The first veterinarians outside of the Cedar City region to investigate the mysterious sheep deaths were John Curtis and F.H. Melvin, who were assisted by the Bureau of Animal Industry (under the Department of Agriculture). Both men were concerned with the possibility that radiation had played a primary role in the sheep deaths, and what that could mean for the human populations of southern Nevada and Utah. After their investigation, Curtis and Melvin returned to Salt Lake City and voiced their concerns to the director of the Utah Department of Health, Dr. George A. Spendlove. Based on that report, Spendlove immediately requested epidemic aid from the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) for further study.
In early June the USPHS sent three of their own investigators to Cedar City. These representatives included Monroe A. Holmes (a veterinarian for the Public Health Service Communicable Disease Center), Arthur H. Wolff (a veterinary radiologist at the Environmental Health Center), and William G. Hadlow (a veterinary pathologist at the Public Health Service Rocky Mountain Lab). When the USPHS representatives arrived in Cedar City they were joined by two investigators from the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), the agency responsible for administering nuclear tests at the NTS. These AEC representatives included Major R.J. Veenstra (an Army veterinarian attached to the Naval Radiological Defense Lab in San Francisco), and R.E. Thompsett (a veterinarian on contract with the AEC who ran a private practice in Los Alamos, New Mexico).
The team of USPHS and AEC investigators observed sick lambs in Cedar City and initially concluded that radiation and malnutrition were the most likely candidates for problems afflicting the herds. Melvin A. Holmes drafted a report that brought together the investigative work from the seven different agencies initially involved with analyzing the sheep losses in Cedar City. In addition to the main report, individual reports were filed by Wolff, Veenstra, and Thompsett, each of which mentioned radiation more prominently than Holmes as the likely cause of the sheep deaths. These reports were immediately classified by the AEC and not provided to Cedar City sheep owners or local Iron County authorities.
The AEC was loathe to compensate for livestock losses based on harmful radiation due to the precedent it would have set for future claims of loss from exposure to fallout from tests at the NTS. This led to the AEC organizing a second investigation of the sheep herd losses in Cedar City in the summer of 1953. The investigators used in the second investigation had much closer ties to the AEC than those members of the first investigation team. They included Dr. Paul B. Pearson (chief of the AEC Division of Biology and Medicine), Lieutenant Colonel Bernard F. Trum (an Army veterinarian assigned tot he AEC agricultural research program at Oak Ridge, Tennessee), and Lieutenant Colonel John Rust (also of the AEC agricultural research program at Oak Ridge). This second investigatory group focused exclusively on malnutrition as the primary cause of sheep herd loss, and maintained zero contact with members from the first investigation. In a later court case, Iron County extension agent, Stephen Brower recalled a conversation with Paul Pearson in which the latter claimed that the AEC couldn’t expose itself to the risks of setting a precedent in paying sheep owners for their losses. Instead he suggested that the AEC might help fund a range study, again reinforcing the malnutrition narrative as the sole reason for losses and damages to the sheep herds around Cedar City. The AEC did subsequently provide $25,000 for a range study in the Cedar City and Nevada areas used by the sheepmen.
SQUARING THE INVESTIGATIONS
In August of 1953 all participants from the first and second sheep death investigations met in Salt Lake City to review the evidence from both studies. At this meeting there was concerted effort placed on the first group of investigators to abandon their position that radiation was a primary contributing cause to the sheep deaths.
On August 9, 1953, Paul Pearson met with livestock owners in Cedar City to discuss the second group of investigators findings. At that time malnutrition and disease in the herd were cited as the likely culprits. It was also at this time that AEC officials began advancing the premise that radiation levels from the NTS tests were too low to cause radiation poisoning in the sheep herds. In order to validate this claim separate radiation studies were conducted on sheep herds living near heavily irradiated sites in Los Alamos, New Mexico and Hanford, Washington. Sheep in these studies were exposed to varying levels of radiation and the effects were documented.
On October 27, 1953 members of both studies and AEC officials met in Los Alamos to again review evidence from the studies, as well as the evidence from the sheep radiation tests from Los Alamos and Hanford. The secretary for the meeting was AEC official Charles Dunning, who subsequently drafted a short report stating that the expert opinion held that there was a preponderance of evidence against fallout as a contributing cause in the sheep deaths. This report was signed by those in attendance, but the strong dissenting opinions from outside the AEC (primarily from Veenstra, Holmes, and Thompsett) remained.
With the resumption of atmospheric atomic tests as part of the Operation Teapot test series at the NTS in 1955, Cedar City sheep owners who had suffered heavy losses in 1953 filed suit against the AEC for $177,000 in damages. This led to AEC and Justice Department lawyers placing heavy pressure on members of the first investigation to officially change their position that radiation had served as a primary cause of the Cedar City sheep deaths (in order for the government to put up a unified front as defendant).
R.E. Thompsett (of the first investigation team) was heavily dependent on AEC money to fund a private animal hospital in Los Alamos, and eventually went on the record as abandoning his belief that radiation was a contributing cause. At the same time both Monroe A. Holmes and R.J. Veenstra (also of the first investigation team) agreed to disqualify themselves as expert witnesses if called upon to testify.
The trial took place in federal court in September of 1956 and lasted fourteen days. The government was represented by John Finn of the Justice Department’s Torts section, while the sheep owners were represented by Dan S. Bushnell. The judge presiding over the case was A. Sherman Christensen. The government’s defense (backed by expert witnesses and unclassified records) maintained that fallout levels from the Upshot-Knothole Test Series were too low to cause the sheep deaths, and that the timing between the atomic tests and subsequent sheep deaths was purely a coincidence. Judge Christensen sided with the expert testimony provided by the AEC, stating that the government was negligent in not warning sheep owners of potential fallout in the area, but nothing more.
THE LEGACY OF LIVING DOWNWIND
In 1979 a second case was brought to federal court, this time arguing that fallout from the Nevada Test Site was responsible for the death and suffering of human inhabitants of the downwind area south and east of the NTS. At this time records that had formerly been classified became public and the extent of the AEC cover-up with the 1952-1953 sheep case came to light.
Original records from the sheep studies revealed that the radiation dose levels in the thyroids of the affected Cedar City sheep were nearly 1000 times the permissible dose for humans. Records also revealed the extent to which AEC officials went to get members of the first investigation team to change their opinion of radiation as a primary cause in the sheep herd losses.
In February of 1981 six of the original plaintiffs from the 1955 lawsuit brought a new suit to federal court asking for a new trial. They claimed that fraud had been committed upon the court by AEC and Justice Department officials. Judge A. Sherman Christensen heard the case again and the plaintiffs were again represented by Dan S. Bushnell. A settlement offer was extended to the government of three million dollars for damages, but government representatives refused the offer. Evidence was heard over four days in May of 1982 and Christensen delivered his decision in August, ruling that at the time of the sheep radiation studies the AEC held monopoly on information and that government experts and attorneys had deliberately acted to withhold certain pieces of that information from the court.
Judge Christensen ordered that a new trial was to be held, but that decision was overturned on appeal by the Tenth Circuit Appeals Court in Denver. Eventually the case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court where the Tenth Circuit decision was sustained by a 5-3 vote in January of 1986. Chief Justice Warren Burger (who had served as head of the Justice Departments Civil Division at the time of the original sheep case in 1955) disqualified himself from making a formal decision in the case.
Another court case was brought against the U.S. government in the early 1980’s and included residents from Iron County. The suit sought damages from the federal government, and was initially successful on a ruling from Judge Bruce Jenkins that awarded some damages to downwind cancer victims, and their families. However, the case was appealed, and the decision was also overturned by the federal Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.
To date, the most tangible action taken to address the legacy of atmospheric nuclear testing in Nevada, and the impact it had on nearby populations, was passage of the 1990 federal Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which created a trust-fund to award individuals who suffered from radiation-related injuries that occurred before adequate safety warnings were given, or safety protocols enacted in an effected area.
The story of the 1953 sheep deaths in Cedar City can be traced through sheep radiation study records created by the Utah Department of Health, and now maintained by the Utah State Archives and Records Service.
Other related records include radiological surveillance reports and radiation study reports from the Utah Department of Health, administrative records and occupational health hazard records from the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, and Environmental Coordinating Committee minutes and agendas from the Utah Division of Environmental Health.
A final valuable resource held by the Utah State Archives is various radiation study records gathered by the office of Utah Governor Scott Matheson. This collection, in particular, pulls together a variety of materials from a broad range of state and federal government agencies regarding tests conducted at the Nevada Test Site and their impacts on local southern Utah communities. These records once served as the backbone for policy decisions and stances on the issue of downwinder recompensation made by Governor Matheson, who himself grew up in the southern Utah town of Parowan during the era of above-ground atmospheric testing, and would later pass away from a rare multiple myloma cancer in 1990.
Fradkin, Philip L. Fallout: An American Nuclear Tragedy. Boulder: Johnson Books, 2004.
Fuller, John G. The Day We Bombed Utah: America’s Most Lethal Secret. New York: New American Library, 1984.