The Downwinders Project is an online archive that includes records and testimonies on the impacts of the Nuclear Testing.The tests started in 1951 and continued for more than 30 years forcing radiation to spread throughout Nevada, Utah and beyond.
To learn more we called Justin Sorensen, the GIS specialist who created the archive including documented effects of a radioactive discharge, known as Iodine 131.
“The fallout that we focused on for the Downwinders of Utah archive is iodine 131," Sorenson said. "This is a byproduct of the nuclear detonation process. Iodine 131 was found to be related to thyroid cancer. The National Cancer Institute actually did a study on this back in 1997. So we are kind of expanding on that initial work and bringing all these resources together into one whole. But Iodine 131 is just one of the many nuclear byproducts, there are many others that caused very different types of cancer over the years for different people - the Downwinders.”
Why do you think it’s important to document and tell the stories of the Downwinders?
“It’s really important because we can bring together different information - the nuclear testing," Sorenson said. "The detonations the fallout but when you really bring it together and start telling the story that’s what really makes the impact. One of the additional components within the archive we are continuing to collect at this time is oral history interviews with victims, families and advocates. And just to be able to hear their story of what happened during this time, what they went through, just paints a picture and helps people really develop a deeper understanding of the event as they learn more about it.”
Why is it relevant to learn about what happened now?
“Well I think it’s really important that we keep this in mind," Sorenson said. "Even today there’s talks about resuming nuclear testing. And just to know what happened during this time and the impacts so that really the point is to make sure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated again.”
What is the most interesting or eye-opening part of this project for you?
“Well when we started mapping out all of the different fall outs, Iodine 131 and how it impacted counties throughout Utah," Sorenson said. "We knew going in that southern Utah got a big hit, especially the St. George area. I was really interested to learn that even up into the Salt Lake City area and northern areas of Utah received a very high amount of radiation from this Nevada test site. One thing that we are actually looking into now is beyond Utah itself, there’s actually some areas clear up into Montana that received very high levels as well.”
Did the fallout go across all of Utah? Just most of Utah? How big was that?
“There really wasn’t one area in Utah that it didn’t impact," Sorenson said. "Southern Utah was the big one - Washington County, St. George, Cedar City. Really it impacted pretty much every area of the United States. There’s some areas even up in Main that were impacted by it.”