Briefly Noted: ‘Downwind: a People’s History of the Nuclear West’

Downwind: a People’s History of the Nuclear West, by  Sarah Alisabeth Fox (Bison Books: November 2014), 304 pp.

downwindThe opening lines of this book begin a frightening story: “By the time five-year-old Claudia returned to her swing set, a strangely colored cloud was all that remained of her flying saucer. Years later, she leaned the apparition she had seen in the sky was not a UFO but the mushroom cloud of a nuclear explosion. Her childhood home in southern Utah was about a hundred miles east of the Nevada Test Site.”

Author Sarah Fox goes on to say that the site which was operational between 1951 and 1992 was one of the world’s most heavily used nuclear weapons testing areas.

From the Publisher

Downwind is an unflinching tale of the atomic West that reveals the intentional disregard for human and animal life through nuclear testing by the federal government and uranium extraction by mining corporations during and after the Cold War.

In chilling detail Downwind brings to light the stories and concerns of these groups whose voices have been silenced and marginalized for decades in the name of “patriotism” and “national security.”

With the renewed boom in mining in the American West, Fox’s look at this hidden history, unearthed from years of field interviews, archival research, and epidemiological studies, is a must-read for every American concerned about the fate of our western lands and communities.

From the Reviewers

  • “Comprehensive and incisive, Downwind also adds heart and soul to an epic story of resilience in the aftermath of reckless arrogance. Sarah Fox gives the history of the nuclear age back to the people who had it written in their bones. The testimony she captured is both shocking and inspiring.” – Chip Ward, author of Canaries on the Rim: Living Downwind in the West
  • “Fox’s narrative forces the reader to choose whether to accept the official version of events or to believe the people who lived downwind of the nuclear tests and who worked in the uranium industry. There is no middle ground in her argument. According to Fox, repeated nuclear tests led to cancers and other diseases and to the deaths of innumerable people.” – David Mills in “Montana: The Magazine of Western History,” Winter 2015.

downwindwindpatternsIn her January 27, 2016 blog post, Day of Remembrance for Downwinders: the 65th Anniversary of the Inception of Nuclear Testing in Nevada, Fox says that there were over 900 nuclear tests at the site. Her accompanying graphic illustrates where wind patterns carried the resulting pollution.

In both the blog and the book’s introduction, she says that the proceeds from the sale of the book are being donated Heal Utah, “an environmental non-profit that promotes renewable energy and protects Utah’s public health and environment from nuclear, toxic, and dirty energy threats.”

In an era when the United States’ nuclear weapons program is supposedly a relic of the past, Downwind reminds us that the sins of the past are very much still with us even if we never again use a nuclear weapon. The book has a 4.3 review rating on Amazon with five five-star reviews and one one-star review. The one-star reviewer states that Fox’s stories are not only not new, but that her information about reported illnesses and deaths isn’t accurate. If the author has refuted this claim, I haven’t found it. It’s worth noting that a commenter believes this review is based a less-than-accurate, self-published book.

On balance, the book has stories we should know about if we haven’t heard them already. If readers follow this up by looking at the Heal Utah site, they’ll see that the past is a warning to those currently mining uranium in close proximity to the Grand Canyon.