Bullock v. United States: Radioactive Sheep

The United States Nuclear Testing Program began in the 1950s and was conducted in the Nevada desert near local sheep grazing lands. The Bullock ranching family was heavily affected by the radiation in spring of 1953. Vera Bullock later recorded, “By June 4, eleven bomb tests had been conducted and our lives had been changed forever.”

It was an early, spring morning in 1953 in eastern Nevada when brothers Kern and McRae Bulloch were grazing their sheep. Just miles east of the Nevada Nuclear Testing Site, these brothers were witness to one of the largest nuclear tests performed by the United States government. Kern recorded the experience from that morning in his own words:

"I remember the day very distinctly. I was sitting with one leg cocked over my saddle horn, when I noticed some airplanes. I watched them come from the east and start to turn north over the Nevada Test Site. All at once there was a fire ball, I threw my hands over my eyes, it about blinded me, my horse darn near unloaded me, and the sheep all came together in a wad. They had dropped a bomb from the air less than 40 miles away."

Unnerved by the experience, the brothers sat talking until a convoy of military personnel traveled toward them. An officer addressed them saying, “You’re in a hell of a hot spot. Get these sheep and yourselves the hell out of here as fast as you can.” Kern and McRae moved their sheep, but with a whole outfit of supplies and sheep that only moved six miles a day, the process was slow. On the way back to Utah, the brothers noticed burns and sores on their sheep and horses.

After the Bullocks arrived at their lambing sheds in Cedar City, the sheep died in droves. Each morning, the Bullocks awoke to find more of their sheep dead than the day before. Other sheep ranchers who were in Nevada with them experienced the same strange symptoms of deaths, burns, and deformed lambs. The lambs that survived birth only lived for several hours. In total, the Bullocks lost 2,300 sheep. Local veterinarians were baffled and the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was contacted. Kern was present when government scientists measured the radiation on the sheep with their Geiger counters and were stunned, “They’re so hot the needle’s about to jump the post.” Their final report was published and the cause of death determined: malnutrition. The ranchers were outraged.
The ranchers had not only lost millions of dollars, but their way of life. In 1955, Kern and five other ranchers determined to take the United States government to court. They asked that each rancher be compensated at current market price for each sheep lost. Kern’s wife Vera later wrote that before the trial an AEC attorney approached Kern. He admitted that the radiation killed the sheep, but that the AEC could never admit it because “every pregnant woman who lost a baby and every person who got sick would sue the government.” The ranchers lost the case in 1955 and the appeals case in 1982. McRae later told a newspaper reporter, “What I feel bad about is if they knew they were going to hurt us, why didn’t they warn us ahead of time?” Many families in southern Utah would ask the same question over the next several decades. Bullock v. United States was the first of a series of legal battles against the AEC for negligence

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