By James C. Rice
In October 1956, a boy from the Warm Springs area, just north of the Nevada Test Site (NTS), died in a hospital far from home in Reno. Martin Bordoli came home from school feeling tired, running a fever and died less than a year from the initial diagnosis: stem cell leukemia. His nickname was “Butch,” and at just 7 years of age, he may have been the first casualty of open-air atomic testing in Nevada.
Leukemia is one signature effect of exposure to strontium-90, a radionuclide that is a by-product of the fission process. Between 1951-1962 the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) dispersed strontium-90 over the towns, ranches, and Native American settlements downwind of their outdoor proving grounds. In pamphlets, public speeches, and media interviews, AEC and military officials insisted radioactive fallout from weapons testing did not pose a threat to the public. As the 1950s wore on, the people living in the shadow of the NTS began to doubt such assurances.
Indeed, in 1957, Martin’s mother Martha Bordoli circulated a petition signed by 75 neighbors. At times apologetic, it urges the AEC to suspend detonations or that “some equally positive action be taken to safeguard us and our families.” It states:
“We believe further that it is both undemocratic and un-American to subject one group of citizens to hazards which others are not called upon to face, particularly when the adverse effects may be reflected in future generations yet unborn. We are not excitable or imaginative people, most of us coming from rugged ranch families, but neither are we without deep feeling for each other and our children.”
Martha Bordoli also penned a letter to Lewis Strauss, Chairman of the AEC. Strauss’s letter in response misspelled her last name, addressing her as “Mrs. Bordoh,” and admonished she take heed of President Truman’s advice: “Let us keep our sense of proportion on the matter of radioactive fallout.” Strauss noted:
“Of course, we want to keep the fallout from our tests to an absolute minimum, and we are learning to do just that, but the dangers that might occur from fallout in our tests involve a small sacrifice when compared to the infinite greater evil of the use of nuclear bombs in war.” (Emphasis added)
Accusations of alarmism are a tactic frequently employed by powerful actors to curtail public critique. Moreover, the petition earned Martha Bordoli a visit from a Lt. Colonel and a letter from Nevada Senator George W. Malone urging that she does not fall prey to a “minority group of scientists” spreading “‘scare’ stories” about fallout as they were likely “Communist inspired.”
Parents put on a brave, optimistic demeanor, traveled to and from distant hospitals, doled out medicine in measured increments, and braced for the future. They engaged in retrospective cause-and-effect reasoning and parsed official statements and word-of-mouth for clues. And they confronted the unequivocal statements of powerful organizational actors — statements often hiding the tenuous assumptions and shaky inferences lying underneath the conclusion that everything is fine.
Martin Bordoli was, perhaps, one small sacrifice. But there were others.
Christopher Nolan’s 2023 film Oppenheimer is replete with esteemed physicists — their names ticking off, one by one, like the clicking of a Geiger counter over three cinematic hours. But there is one name you will not encounter. Sadako Sasaki.
Two-year-old Sadako was at home, in Hiroshima, on the morning of August 6, 1945. The blast wave threw her diminutive body through a window, but, amazingly, she was not seriously injured. Nine years later, she developed swelling along her neck and behind her ears: malignant lymph gland leukemia.
Confined to a hospital bed, Sadako painstakingly fashioned paper cranes; small and beautiful. It was more than a way to pass the time. In Japanese lore, by fashioning a thousand origami cranes, one may be granted a wish. With each intricate fold, Sadako sought refuge from the harm imposed upon her.
She died in October of 1955 at just twelve years of age.
A burst of gamma and neutron radiation coursed through the survivors at Hiroshima and Nagasaki to varying degrees, depending upon the distance from the detonation point and the sheltering effects of the built environment. They became known as the “Hibakusha” or the “atomic bombed.”
As illustrated in Figure 1, above background cases of leukemia appeared quickly, spiking in the late 1940s. As leukemia was declining by the mid-1950s, evidence of excess solid tumors, including breast, thyroid, lung, large intestine, and stomach cancer, began to appear. To this day, the Hibakusha illustrate a higher probability of a variety of solid cancers. This is more pronounced for those who were children at the time of the bombings.
The pain and suffering of the Hibakusha in the days, weeks, months, and decades after gamma and neutron radiation coursed through their bodies now underpin international standards of radiation exposure. We are indebted to their sacrifice. We are indebted to Sadako and her family. We are indebted to those, such as the Bordoli family, downwind of the nuclear weapons testing sites.
This is necessary context for Oppenheimer. The film is a jarring experience. It does not shy away from the cold Faustian bargain that is nuclear military technology. The reviews littering the Internet are spot-on: it will garner armfuls of Academy Awards. But it leaves a lot unconsidered.
No movie can do it all. Still, amid all of the attention focused on the Shakespearean tragedy that is the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, it does provide an opportunity to examine the complexities left un-considered.
The nuclear era is beset by disproportionalities that too often escape public attention.
The young are by far the most radiosensitive as reflected in a greater risk of a variety of diseases later in life compared to adults exposed to the same dose of ionizing radiation. Females are more at risk than males. To be young is to confront an unequal risk. To be female is to confront a greater hazard. But to be young and female in the era of nuclear technology is to be especially vulnerable.
Figure 2 highlights the lifetime risk of solid cancer mortality from acute exposure to one-tenth of one gray, delineated by age and sex. The data refer to the number of excess deaths per 100,000 persons exposed. A gray is a measure of absorbed ionizing radiation. The National Academy of Sciences report Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation (BEIR) defines “low dose” as anything less than one-tenth of a gray. The dose depicted in Figure 2 is the cut-off point in this regard.
Infant boys illustrate three times the lifetime risk of cancer mortality than a male aged 30-50 exposed to the same dose. An infant girl has an estimated lifetime risk of solid cancer mortality five times higher than a male aged 30-50 when exposed. Moreover, girls under 10 have a significantly higher risk of solid cancer mortality over their lifetime than boys under ten. The steepness of the curve for females under ten years compared to males reflects their radiosensitivity. But females—exposed at any age—have an elevated lifetime risk of solid cancer mortality compared to males.
The sex-specific differences outlined in Figure 2 are, in part, due to the induction of breast cancer. Again, age matters. Girls exposed to ionizing radiation in childhood or, in particular, at puberty are especially at risk of developing breast cancer later in life.
Breast cancer is the canary within the coal mine that is modernity. It is a biophysical cue highlighting the disproportionalities of “progress.” It is indicative of not simply exposure to radioactivity but synthetic chemicals, including herbicides and pesticides. Nuclear technology and the agrochemical industrial complex are profitable, hegemonic industries, and the unintended costs are borne in a strikingly sex-specific manner. But female radiosensitivity is expressed in a higher risk of lung, bladder, and thyroid cancer as well. Across all ages depicted in Figure 2, females have twice the mortality risk of lung cancer due to exposure to one-tenth of one gray of ionizing radiation, for example.
Oppenheimer is a remarkable movie. It will continue to garner a great deal of attention. Perhaps the most consequential outcome, however, is that it opens up space for the consideration of aspects of nuclear technology that have long been overlooked. Oppenheimer will gather awards and accolades. Whether those left behind and left un-considered will find recognition and whether we, the movie-going public, will learn from Oppenheimer, or simply be entertained, remains our challenge and our burden.
For more information see:
Sarah Alisabeth Fox, Downwind: A People’s History of the Nuclear West (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2014).
Mary Dickson, “Living and Dying with Fallout,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 37, no. 2 (2004): 1-34.
Carole Gallagher, American Ground Zero (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993).
U.S. Congress, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, Low-Level Radiation Effects on Health (LREH), 96th Congress, First Session, April 23, May 24, and August 1, 1979. (The petition, Strauss’s letter, and Malone’s letter are reprinted in this volume.)
Robert A. Jacobs, Nuclear Bodies: The Global Hibakusha (Yale University Press, 2022).
Cynthia Folkers, “Disproportionate Impacts of Radiation Exposure on Women, Children, and Pregnancy: Taking Back our Narrative,” Journal of the History of Biology, 54, (2021): 31-66.
Mary Olson, “Disproportionate Impact of Radiation and Radiation Regulation,” Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 44, no. 2 (2019): 131-139.
James C. Rice is Professor of Sociology at New Mexico State University.