SALT LAKE CITY — Growing up in picturesque Iron County, Claudia Peterson’s childhood was perfect.
“In the summertime we’d sleep outside. We’d go fishing on Saturday," said Peterson. “It was all family. It was a great childhood.”
How could she know that the air she breathed, the food she ate, the milk she drank were all poisoned with ionizing radiation.
“They would tell us we were okay. What they were doing at the test site," Peterson remembered.
Sixty-five miles north of Las Vegas, the Nevada test site hosted nearly 1,000 nuclear tests, including 100 above ground. Meanwhile, the fallout from the bomb tests drifted east over southern Utah.
At the time, the Atomic Energy Commission promised the testing was safe, even though government scientists knew radioactive fallout could harm and kill people “downwind.” That's when men in nice suits came to school to test the children for radioactivity.
“There were two or three of us that had it go off. We thought, ‘cool,’ because we lit up the geiger counters,“ Peterson said.
First, a herd of 5,00 livestock died off. By sixth grade, classmates would get sick and die.
“These were children. These were my friends," said Peterson. "Then my friend’s mother got sick, then it just kind of started to snowball.”
Cancer came knocking on The Peterson family door when Claudia’s father died at 64 from brain tumors, which doctors believe was related to the fallout.
"Three years later, Bethany, almost to the day, Bethany was diagnosed with neuroblastoma."
Claudia’s 3-year-old daughter had stage-4 cancer. A tumor the size of an orange grew in her belly, followed by leukemia at six years old.
Doctor then diagnosed Claudia’s 37-year-old sister with melanoma.
The two died a month apart in 1987.
“All these years, there is still a pain a physical pain to think about it." shares Peterson. "You’d think all these years, you’d think, it’s doable. The first 10 years was excruciating.”
An estimated 60,000 people were exposed to fallout in southern Utah, including former Governor Scott Matheson.
"My dad lived in Cedar City in the 1950s, and he told me he’d get up and watch the sky light up from the blasts at the Nevada test site," says former Rep. Jim Matheson, Scott Matheson’s son.
With the government still refusing to admit it poisoned thousands of people, Governor Matheson pushed for a 1979 congressional investigation. It uncovered falsified reports and government fraud lying about the dangers of nuclear testing.
“The government told everyone it was safe. They actually knew it wasn’t safe and they were lying about it," said Matheson. "When we got those documents declassified, that’s when we got the proof.”
Scott Matheson also died of cancer believed to be linked nuclear fallout. In 1990, congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act
The legislation provides a one-time cash payment of $50,000 to people living in certain Utah counties during the time of the atmospheric testing and developed specific cancer related to exposure to ionizing radiation.
The act also provides grants for free cancer screenings at several clinics, including one in St. George to help victims and their surviving families. However, the Department of justice is planning to shut it down in July 2022.
Registered nurse Carolyn Rasmussen is rushing to help victims and their families qualify for the compensation before the act expires next summer. The fund set aside by Congress has given out nearly $2.5 billion dollars in 38,000 approved claims.
Some argue, the act ‘sunsets” as many victims are just now getting sick.
“Those youngest people exposed in July of 2022 will only be 60 years old. This is the age when we would begin to see more of those cancers," said Rasmussen. "Someone the leukemias we saw in little children early on, but many of the other cancers don’t present until a much older age.”
Critics argue the $50,000 compensation to “downwinders” was never enough to begin with and excluded too many people.
“Fallout did not affect only those people in the areas covered by the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act... it went everywhere," said cancer survivor Mary Dickson.
Although Dickson lived in Salt Lake City, she’s certain her diagnosis of thyroid cancer at age 29 is fallout-related. More than 50 neighbors and her sisters also got sick.
"We really think we were one of those pockets," added Dickson. "We lived at Parleys Canyon and there was actually a study at the university that found the fallout would go up the canyon and come back down at night with the canyon breezes and we were double-dosed."
Downwinder experts believe fallout flew much farther than first thought
"This is the tragedy, for me, of this act," said Dickson. "It was a start. It was never inclusive enough. They tried in the beginning to get it to cover all of Utah, but they thought it would be harder to pass."
Now, with the current act set to expire next year, advocates are pushing for congress to pass another bill to compensate “downwinders.” However, they’re finding little support in Washington, DC.
"It’s really an open question about how effectively we are going to keep this story going and make sure there is awareness for the next generation. We have to tell the story," Matheson said.
"If it’s wrong, we need to change it," added Peterson, who says the fallout has forever altered her family’s genetics, causing cancer in second and third generations.
For them, she’s not going to stop fighting.
“We were blindly following along because we were being told we were safe and we were not.”
And while there are a couple of bills expected to expand the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, Utah’s congressional delegation has not formally backed them.