Speak Your Piece: a podcast about Utah's history

Utah & America’s “Downwinders” History with Mary Dickson (S4 E12)

December 14, 2022 Brad Westwood, Senior Public Historian, Utah Dept. of Culture & Community Engagement Season 4 Episode 12
Speak Your Piece: a podcast about Utah's history
Utah & America’s “Downwinders” History with Mary Dickson (S4 E12)
Show Notes

Date: April 11, 2022 (Season 4, Episode 12: 55 min. & 40 sec. long). For the entire show notes and additional resources for this episode Click here. Are you interested in other episodes of Speak Your Piece? Click Here.  This episode was co-produced by Brad Westwood and Chelsey Zamir, with help (sound engineering and post-production editing) from Jason Powers from the Utah State Library Recording Studio.

This SYP episode is an interview with Mary Dickson, a Downwinder and thyroid cancer survivor, with SYP host Brad Westwood. The episode details Dickson’s personal history and her research regarding the implications of America’s nuclear testing. This captivating and devastating story outlines the historical intersections between Utah, the Intermountain West, and the US’s nuclear government testing, mostly done at the Nevada Test Site (300 miles from SLC), during and after America’s Cold War (1947-1991).

Dickson explains the historical context of the western USA during the era of the Cold War. A nation on edge due to the “Red Scare,” the USA rushed to win a nuclear arms race after Russia announced it has the technology necessary to build its own nuclear capabilities. Wanting to build a nuclear arsenal in response, the USA sought out a permanent bomb test site, finally landing on Utah’s neighbor, Nevada (the Las Vegas Bombing and Gunnery Range), where the Nevada Test Site would come to be.

Starting in 1951-1962, nearly 100 atmospheric nuclear tests were conducted, some of these bombs even more powerful than the bombs that leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. Health claims from the surrounding population started to pile up including miscarriages and other largely unexplained ailments.

In an attempt to tamper down concerns, the US government released a statement: these blasts aren’t harmful and, in fact, so safe that people were encouraged to watch the blasts. Behind the scenes, the actual story was kept a secret for nearly forty years. Overall, throughout the eleven years of testing, as Dickson noted, about 160 million Americans suffered the consequences, knowingly or unknowingly becoming Downwinders, what Dickson defines as one who has been exposed, and/or lived downwind from the nuclear tests and became ill from the radiation.

Dickson concludes that many people today still do not fully understand the fallout from America’s nuclear testing. The knowledge of how widespread the exposure really was is still not widely known.  She’s also worked with many community members to advocate for the passage of the US congress bill that will expand Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (bills S.2798 and H.R.5338). After several years of advocacy work, Dickson compiled a series of monologues that consisted of interviews from fellow Downwinders and meeting minutes from the Atomic Energy Commission into a playwright titled “Exposed” which was picked up by Plan B Theater Company and continues as stage readings to this day.

Bio: Mary Dickson is a former KUED TV creative director (now retired) and is the host of Contact with Mary Dickson on PBS Utah. She is an award-winning writer and playwright for “Exposed,” and is an internationally recognized advocate for survivors of nuclear weapon testing.

Do you have a question? Write askahistorian@utah.gov