Since the formation of the united states, its mainland has never been invaded or had any major attack but there are places there which have had more nuclear explosions than anywhere else on earth. Of the 1054 US nuclear tests, 928 were carried out on the US mainland mostly at the Nevada test site but it wasn’t just the US testing nukes, the Soviets, British, French, Chinese, Indian, Pakistanis and recently the North Koreans have all tested nuclear weapons, some on their own territory and some in remote locations around the world in the air, on land, under water and even in space but by far is was the US and Soviets that were the biggest players.But what happened at and to the nuclear test sites, the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty was adopted in 1996 which banned all nuclear tests for both civilian or military purposes and apart from North Korea it has held since 1998.
The very first full scale nuclear test was the trinity explosion of May 16th 1945, at the white sands missile range in New Mexico. This was to prove that the theories developed by the Manhattan project would work in reality. Trinity was an implosion device that used plutonium, this was a response the original design which was a gun type device that used Uranium 235. At the time the Uranium 235 had to be refined almost an atom at a time and even using the massive X-10 Graphite Reactor at the newly constructed Oak Ridge National Laboratory it would take years to get enough for just one bomb.
Plutonium could be made much easier in a reactor but in order to make it explode, a ball of it would need to be compressed to about half its size with an explosive lens, this is what the Trinity test was all about.
As the bomb exploded, the 30m metal tower, its support structure and the bomb casing itself was vaporised along with the sand of the desert floor below it. As the vaporised material cooled and fell back to the ground it become a green glassy mineral now called Trinitite. In some of the greenish glass there are patches of red which is thought to be the copper wire used to trigger the explosive lens.
After the war, samples of Trinitite were sold as jewellery because it was thought that the fireball had just melted the sand and that it wasn’t particularly radioactive, though now it is illegal to take samples from the site which open to the public twice a year. The level of radiation at the Trinity site now in one hour is about the same as the average US citizen would get per day from natural radiation sources.
Following the war, nuclear testing moved to the Nevada Proving grounds about 100 km north west of Las Vegas. From 1951 until 1962, 100 above ground tests were performed, becoming a bit of a tourist attraction in Las Vegas where they could feel the seismic shock wave through the ground and see the mushroom cloud rising in the distance. At the time, even though the effects of radiation where become much more well known little was done to reduce the fall out.
But it wasn’t just bombs they tested, the government wanted to know how buildings, infrastructure and people might far if there was a nuclear attack. So they built typical American houses, fully furnished, industrial buildings, parts of bridges, electricity supply stations, even bank vaults in the test zone and exploded nuclear devices nearby. They tested different types of concrete and building materials to see which would be more resilient. Many of the building codes in use today are based on the results of these nuclear tests.
As part of the governments attempts to reassure the public that things like their money and valuable documents would be safe in the event of an attack, Edwin Mosler the president of the Mosler Safe Company, whose biggest customer was the government, built an armoured Vault on the Frenchman flats test area near a 37 kiloton test to prove it would withstand the heat and blast, which it did and its still there today minus the door which was removed afterwards.
Air burst tests are considered cleaner than ones just above the ground because if the fireball reaches the ground, soil and other materials are sucked up and mixed with the nuclear elements to make a highly radioactive dust cloud that can travel for hundreds of kilometres.
In 1953 a 32 kiloton device nick named “Harry” was detonated. The device later became known as “Dirty Harry” because this test generated more fall out that any other US continental test. Due to an error and an unexpected change in the wind direction the fall out was blown over 200km and over the city of St George, Utah where people said that there was “an oddly metallic sort of taste in the air.”
The prevailing winds carried fallout from many of the Nevada tests over southern Utah but the effects were spread across much of the mid US affecting over 3000 counties and causing a marked increase in the number of cancers from the mid 1950’s up to the early 1980’s.
As of 2014 the US government had approved 28,880 claims for a total of $1.9 billion in compensation to servicemen at the test ranges and the public exposed to radioactive fallout.
Because of the partial test ban treaty of 1963, atmospheric tests were banned and all testing went underground. The thinking is that if it can be contained deep underground their will be little to no fallout but it can still contaminate underground water sources if poorly placed.
In this shot of the area from google earth, each one of the small circular marks is a subsidence crater formed as a result of an underground test. Some 828 were done this way. The biggest of these which can be seen unaided from space and was part of the Operation Ploughshare, to see if nuclear devices could be used for the peaceful use of excavating large areas quickly. The “Sedan” crater which is 100m deep and 390 meters across was formed by a 104 kiloton device detonated 194 meters underground in July 1962.
The test displaced 11 million tons of soil but the fallout which spread northeast wards in two separate clouds as far as Iowa was found to be to high to make this a practical peaceful use of nuclear explosions in the US at least but its believed to have been used in the Soviet Union. Today the crater can be visited and the levels of radiation are safe enough so as not to warrant any protective clothing.
However, in the Soviet union at this time there was less of a concern with health and safety of the rural population of Kazakhstan near the Semipalatinsk Test Site which was also known as “The Polygon”.
The test site was created as a top priority on the orders of Stalin by the Marshal of the Soviet Union and head of the NKVD secret police Lavrentiy Beria in 1947. The facilities were built with on an 18,000 square km area of the steppe in north east Kazakhstan with Gulag forced labour in what Beria said was uninhabited land but actually had about 1 million people living within 160km radius of the site and had many villages much closer.
Between 1949 and 1989, 456 tests were performed, of that 116 were above ground, either air dropped or on towers, the last of which occurred in 1962. The total yield of the tests over the sites 40 year history was equivalent to 400 Hiroshima sized bombs or about 6 megatons.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union and Kazakhstan became a separate country, the area was neglected and nuclear materials were left unguarded in mountain tunnels and bore holes, many of which were targeted by scavengers looking for scrap metal but not necessarily knowing what they were picking up. The significant amounts of plutonium left behind were considered to be one of the biggest nuclear security threats and in 2012 Russian, US and Kazakh scientists completed a secret 17 year, $150 million clean up operation to make the sites safe, which included things like filling bore holes and tunnels with special concreate that chemically bonded with Plutonium.
Its only in the last few years that the scale of the radiation damage has come to light. The Soviet state covered up the extent of the damage for decades and it wasn’t until 1956 that any studies were conducted in the effects on the local population, 9 years after they started. The Institute of Radiation Medicine and Ecology in Semey, what was known as Semipalatinsk has said that between 500,000 and 1 million people were exposed to substantial radiation doses when the atmospheric tests were being carried out which led to a dramatic increase in cancer, birth defects and mortality from the effects of radiation. You can find out more in the report by the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs at the address shown and in the description.
But for the biggest Soviet tests they needed somewhere even more remote. Novaya Zemlya is a crescent-shaped island group in the arctic ocean off the northern coast of Russia. There are three test areas on the islands, Zones A, B & C. It’s most famous for being where the largest ever nuclear test took place on Oct 31st 1961 when the Tsar Bomba, a 50 Megaton hydrogen bomb was air dropped on the test zone C.
Originally designed to have a yield of 100 Megatons, it was scaled back because of fears of the large amount of fallout it would create and the plane carrying the bomb would not be able to escape the fireball in time. Even with the 50megaton blast, the specially modified Tu-95V was only given a 50% chance of survival. The Tsar Bomba detonated at 14,000 ft, 4,260m creating a fireball 8km across but was stopped from reaching the ground by its own huge shockwave reflected back from the ground. The release plane managed to get 45km away before detonation but it still dropped a kilometre in the air due to the shock wave, however it made back to base, safely and the pilot flying the plane resigned from the air force shortly after the test.
The explosion was so large that the fireball was visible from 1000km away. Every building within a 55km radius was destroyed. Wooden houses in districts hundreds of kilometres away were destroyed and stone ones had their roofs blown off and windows and doors blown in. Windows in Norway and Finland were also broken over 1000km away. The mushroom cloud reached an altitude of 65km or 213,000 ft, seven times the height of Everest and the heat from the explosion could create 3rd degree burns at 100km away.
This wasn’t the only test carried out at Novaya Zemlya, there were 224 nuclear detonations with a total yield of 265 megatons, that 132 times the total amount of all the munition used in world war 2 including the atomic bombs on japan.
The last nuclear test was carried out there in 1990 and today its is still a military test area, though it is a mostly barren artic island. Visitors there have found only slightly raised radiation levels but access to the main test sites is not possible.
For the larger US tests, they also used remote islands and atolls but this time in the south pacific. Testing started there in 1948 after the islands came under the control of the US as part of the “Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands” and by 1962, 105 atmospheric and underwater tests had been carried out.
The first test after trinity and the Japanese atomic bombs was to find out if navy ships could withstand a nuclear attack. Operation Crossroads was performed in a lagoon at Bikini Atoll because of its remote location, suitable weather and only a small population of 167 people which were relocated. The Galapagos islands had also been considered as a possible nuclear test site. The test was witnessed by invited members of the press and public.
Over 90 ships including captured German, Japanese and surplus US ships would make up the test fleet in the lagoon. This was to be a to be a three bomb test, the first called “Able” was an airdrop, exploding 158m above the fleet, with the following tests being under water. All 3 bombs were to be the same as the 23 kiloton “Fat Man” implosion bomb dropped on Nagasaki.
The “Able” test was hampered by the bomb being 650 meters off target, 5 ships were sunk and 14 seriously damaged. The second test called “Baker” was an underwater test, the first time this had happened. It created a host effects, many of which had never been seen before but the biggest was the making the sea in the lagoon highly radiative. The radiation was so bad that many of the ships could not be decontaminated but some in the navy didn’t believe the problem was real, it was only when a navy surgeon retrieved a fish from the lagoon and placed next to a piece of photographic film which it exposed, that they decided to cancel the 3rd test. Only 5 ships were able to used after the test and chairman of the Atomic Energy Comission, Glenn T. Seaborg called it the world’s first nuclear disaster.
In 1952 The first hydrogen bomb test, code named Ivy Mike took place at the bigger Eniwetok atoll 320 km east of bikini. This wasn’t so much a bomb as scientific experiment as the hydrogen fuel had to be cooled with a massive cryogenic plant. When it was denoted it produced a yield of 10.4 megatons but over 8 megatons of that came from the fast fission of the uranium tamper which created a huge amount of fallout and an underwater crater 1.9km wide and 50m deep.
By 1954 the hydrogen bomb had been refined to become a practical air droppable device and on the 28th feb the first of six bomb tests were carried out as part of operation Castle at Bikini atoll.
The Castle bravo test was estimated to have a yield of 6 megatons but due to the unexpected higher performance of Lithium 7 in the design, it actually had a yield of 15 megatons and is to this day the largest US nuclear explosion. Because of the greater power, the fallout was much more than expected with highly radiative calcium from the vaporised coral reef not only covering Bikini atoll but also blowing eastwards and contaminating other atolls were both US personnel and islanders were residing at the time. A Japanese fishing boat was also caught in the fallout and one member of the crew died of radiation sickness a few days after.
To this day Bikini atoll is still heavily contaminated and crops grown there are not safe to eat. At Eniwetok, a crater on the small island of runit which had been formed by a bomb test was used by the US to dump contaminated top soil and radioactive debris including plutonium from a bomb that failed explode correctly. It was then covered with a concrete dome by 4000 US service men taking 3 years to complete the clean up. However this was only meant to be a temporary measure until something more permanent could arranged and only 4 out 40 islands contaminated were cleaned. Because of this, the bottom of the test crater was not lined with concrete and so now with rising sea levels caused by climate change, sea water is seeping inside through the porous bedrock into the dome and leaching out radioactive material.
But the seabed of the Eniwetok lagoon is actually as radioactive than the material under the dome. Its been estimated that it would cost nearly a $1 billion to clean up the area effectively and instead its proposed that contaminated areas be treated with Potassium which would cost about $100 million.
Many of the US service men that built the dome and worked on the clean-up claim they were not told that they would be cleaning up radioactive waste and were not given proper training or protective clothing. In the decades since the end of the clean-up, many have died of cancer and had other health problems they say was related to their exposure. However because they were not at the sites when the tests were performed, the US government says they are not eligible for compensation.
The full effects of nuclear testing are difficult to quantify but there has been a growing body of evidence over the last 60 years so. Which ever way you look at it, every nuclear power put the development of increasingly more devastating devices ahead of the health and safety of not only their own people but many others far removed from the political decision makers and that is the lasting legacy of the nuclear test sites.
In 1991 a study by the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) estimated that by the year 2000 – 430,000 cancer deaths would have been related to the atmospheric testing and concluded that eventually about 2.4 million would die as the results of nuclear tests.
So what your thoughts on the issues of nuclear testing and the effects had is still having, let me know in the comments.
Although the tests were the practical demonstration of the theories, the ideas themselves came from the brightest minds in maths and physics using nothing more that slide rules and black boards, but even the best had to start somewhere.
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Many now think this was a deliberate plan to use the people living around the site as guinea pigs to see how they would react to the radiation as if in a real nuclear attack
One of the closest ships to the blast was the Japanese Battleship Nagato the ship from which Admiral Yamamoto co-ordinated the attack on Peral Harbour. She survived for 5 days after the test before capsizing and sinking in the Bikini lagoon
After the test the bombs designer Andrei Sakharov was a key proponent of the partial test ban treaty of 1963