11. America’s Largest Nuclear Test Exposed Thousands

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Sources: COUNTERPUNCH, Summer 1999; TERRAIN, Fall 1999, Title: “Aftermath of Amchitka” Authors: Alexander Cockburn & Jeffrey St. Clair; IN THESE TIMES, August 8, 1999 Title: “30 Years After—The Legacy of America’s Largest Nuclear Test” Author: Jeffrey St. Clair

Faculty Evaluator: Eric McGuckin, Ph.D. Student Researchers: Tanner May & Fera Byrd

Mainstream coverage: Articles in the New York Times on October 30, 1996, and USA Today the following day reported the Greenpeace findings, but there have been no follow-up news reports since that time.

Thirty years ago, Amchitka, which sits at the midway point on the great arc of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, was the site of three large underground nuclear tests, including the most powerful nuclear explosion ever detonated by the United States. Despite claims by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and the Pentagon that the test sites would safely contain the radiation released by the blasts for thousands of years, independent research by Greenpeace and newly released documents from the Department of Energy (DOE) show that the Amchitka tests began to leak almost immediately.

The tests were designed to calibrate the performance of the Spartan anti-ballistic missile that was built to take out the Soviet nuclear arsenal. One of the factors behind the selection of Amchitka as a test site was its proximity to the Soviet Union. Publicly, however, the rationale offered by the AEC and the Defense Department was simply that Amchitka was a remote, and therefore safe, testing ground. Thousands of Amchitka laborers and Aleuts were, however, living on nearby islands. Highly radioactive elements and gasses poured out of the collapsed test shafts, leached into the ground water, and worked their way into ponds, creeks, and the Bering Sea. Dozens of people have died of radiation-linked cancers.

The immediate ecological damage from the blast was staggering. The blast ruptured the crust of the Earth, sucking a creek into a brand new aquifer, a radioactive one. In the months following the explosion, blood and urine samples were taken from Aleuts living in the village of Adak on a nearby island. The samples show abnormally high levels of tritium and cesium-137, both known carcinogens. Despite these alarming findings, the government never returned to Adak to conduct follow-up medical studies. More than 1,500 workers who helped build the test sites, operate the bomb tests and clean up afterward were exposed. The AEC never conducted medical studies on any of these laborers. Still, the DOE claimed that none of the workers had been exposed to radiation, but later was forced to admit that exposure records and dosimeter badges had been lost. The Aleuts in the region, who continue their seafaring lifestyle, are particularly vulnerable to radiation-contaminated fish and marine mammals, and radiation that might spread through the Bering Sea, plants, and ice floes.

In June 1996, two members of Greenpeace, Pam Miller and Norm Buske, returned to Amchitka to collect water and plant samples from various sites on the island. The samples taken revealed the presence of plutonium and americium-241; both are radioactive elements that are extremely toxic and have half-lives of hundreds of years. In 1998, a study by Rosalie Bertell, a former consultant to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (formerly AEC), found that hundreds of Amchitka workers were exposed to ionizing radiation at five times the level recognized as hazardous. The research is incomplete, however, because many of the records from the Amchitka blast remain classified and others were simply tossed away. In April 1999, the Clinton Administration finally agreed to begin the first health survey of the Amchitka workers. The study was supposed to begin in the summer of 1999, but is languishing without funding.