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The Coming Atomic Blast in Alaska

Even on good days, which are very infrequent, Amchitka Island is depressing. Located 1,400 miles from the coast of Alaska and only 800 miles away from Siberia, this island, which is part of Alaska, is forty-two miles long and less than five miles wide. The only access to it is by air. It is cold, wet, barren, windy, treeless, surrounded by stormy and treacherous seas, and normally uninhabited, except for arctic birds and sea otters who live on the offshore rocks. But since 1964, men have been on the island: Amchitka is a site for underground testing of nuclear bombs by the Atomic Energy Commission and the Department of Defense.

In late September or early October, the most powerful and potentially destructive man-made explosion in history is scheduled to be set off at the bottom of a 6,000-foot hole drilled below the surface of Amchitka. The explosion, which is referred to as Operation Cannikin, will be caused by a five-megaton nuclear bomb, with the destructive power of approximately 10 billion pounds of TNT. The devastating effects of that amount of nuclear energy are far beyond comprehension, especially when one remembers that the bombs that wiped out Hiroshima and Nagasaki were only 20 kilotons each, the equivalent of only 40 million pounds of TNT.

Only one result of the explosion seems certain: instantaneously, the explosion will blow out an underground cavity the length of two football fields in which, says the AEC, all the dangerous radioactive water and gas from the explosion will remain for at least a thousand years. About all other effects of the bomb bitter controversy rages.

On one side are scientists, conservationists, and peace groups, in addition to political figures from Alaska, California, Hawaii, Canada, Japan, and other countries either on the Pacific Rim or bordering the polar regions. All these individuals and groups oppose the test; only the Atomic Energy Commission and the Department of Defense support it. Much of the opposition to Cannikin comes from those scientists and environmentalists who insist that it may trigger, either immediately or later, a huge earthquake which could do very serious damage far beyond Amchitka and Alaska.

There are other dangers. The explosion may cause tidal waves; moreover dangerous radioactivity, in the sea or air or even both, may result, and if that happens, the fallout could easily drift over Canada and to many other parts of the world. Cannikin contains other potential environmental perils: the explosion could kill birds, fish, and animals in the area; it may also drastically disrupt, and for a long time, the delicate ecological balance of life in the Arctic North.

Commission officials insist that the predicted dangers are exaggerated and that Cannikin will have “no major impact on the environment.” But the AEC hedges on Cannikin’s effects: according to the director of the AEC’s Weapons Development Division, Major General Edward B. Giller, the agency’s panel of consultants has not said that “there will be zero possibility of some consequences.” In fact, when it was charged that Cannikin could cause an earthquake, the AEC admitted that “because the understanding of earthquake mechanisms is still developing and is not yet sufficient for exact calculations, the possibility of such an occurrence cannot be ruled out.”

If the possibility of an earthquake cannot be ruled out, how then can the AEC justify taking such a risk? Well, the Commission says, although it’s true that large-scale underground explosions invariably cause earthquakes, such an occurrence in Cannikin’s case might be an advantage. That advantage, so the logic goes, is that if a natural earthquake is now building up there anyway, Cannikin would release some of the pent-up energy prematurely, thus cutting down on what might be a much more serious disaster.

An “unlikely possibility” also exists, the AEC concedes, that the radioactive water and gas created by the explosion wouldn’t just remain quietly inside the huge cavity 6,000 feet below the ground. Instead, it might flow up to the surface, in two or three years, through the fractured rock and chimney system which the blast will create, and then mix with the ocean water. If that happens, the water will be 1,200 times more radioactive than what is considered safe and the process will continue for an estimated 130 years.

How unlikely is the AEC’s “unlikely possibility”? In view of its past track record, no one can have much confidence in the Agency’s ability to predict what happens in underground explosions. Prior to Operation Gnome, held in a New Mexico cave in 1962, the AEC insisted there was “zero possibility” that the test could vent radioactivity into the atmosphere. Nevertheless it did, only moments after the shot. Project Long Shot, conducted at Amchitka in 1965, was not expected to leak radioactivity for hundreds of years. Nevertheless it did, only a few months later.

Moreover, 10 percent of the underground tests conducted at the AEC’s Nevada Test Site have caused radioactivity; none was predicted. Project Baneberry, for example, which was detonated in Nevada in December, 1970, vented so much unexpected radioactivity into the atmosphere that the workers near the test site had to be decontaminated immediately and then evacuated from their homes, which remained unoccupied for months because of dangerously high radioactivity counts. A group of these workers have just filed a $500,000 damage suit against the AEC, claiming their health has been damaged by their sudden exposure.

All these underground detonations were much, much smaller than Cannikin. Indeed it is not possible to have any data whatever about the effects of an underground explosion of as huge a scale as this. The AEC picked Amchitka Island as a test site largely because it could not experiment with such powerful bombs at the Nevada Test Site for fear of adverse effects on the surrounding population.

The first time the AEC tried to use Alaska for an alternate test site was in 1960, when the Commission proposed blowing up a huge chunk of the state’s isolated coast line in order to make a harbor. But nobody in Alaska wanted a harbor there so that project, named Chariot, was converted into an excavation of a large, useless hole in the ground. Chariot was stopped by determined opposition from a few scientists who fought the AEC, and finally won. The uncompleted Chariot cost the AEC $2 million.

But Chariot, unlike Cannikin, had no ostensible military purpose and so could not be defended as in the interest of “national security.” In the mid-1960s, the AEC returned to Alaska to carry out Project Long Shot, a small underground detonation on Amchitka, claiming that this was only a one-shot test, not the first in a series of experiments. Nevertheless, within two years, the AEC was making plans to convert Amchitka into a full-scale test site. In 1969, a one-megaton bomb was exploded underground on Amchitka.

By that time, many Alaskans were becoming suspicious of the AEC and its claims. One of the more wary was the newly elected US Senator from Alaska, Mike Gravel, who discovered in 1969 that a Presidential Commission, headed by Dr. Kenneth Pitzer, then president of Stanford University, had been appointed to investigate the safety of such underground tests. To Gravel’s surprise, he discovered that he couldn’t even get a copy of the Pitzer Report because it had been classified. Only after he threatened to open a full-scale attack on the Commission at a hearing of the Foreign Relations Committee was the report finally released. Among other things, it contained warnings of severe earthquakes which might follow large test explosions.

Since then, Gravel has been critical of many AEC policies—he has attacked the Agency’s method of setting standards for radiation protection at nuclear reactors, and the manner in which the AEC uses its public information program for what the senator has described as AEC propaganda. For example, the AEC recently flew sixteen Alaskans to its Nevada Test Site on an all-expense-paid trip to convince them of the AEC’s virtue. Seventeen other US senators joined Gravel in demanding that the AEC hold public hearings and file a statement on the potential effect on the environment, as required by the Environmental Protection Agency. Finally, at the end of May, the AEC held a three-day hearing in Alaska, partly in Juneau and partly in Anchorage.

In addition to AEC officials, thirty-five other witnesses, including some from Canada, appeared at the hearings. Of the thirty-five, only one spoke in favor of the test and he is an AEC contractor. All the others, including scientists, Alaskan state government officials, California legislators, conservationists, and Canadian representatives, were vigorously opposed to Cannikin. A few days after the hearing, the Alaska State Bar Association Convention recommended that the state attorney general file a lawsuit, if necessary, to prevent the AEC from carrying out the tests.

The final decision about whether Cannikin will be carried out as scheduled rests with the White House. A committee of undersecretaries from all the government departments connected with the test is now studying Cannikin. The committee’s confidential report to the President will be made in early July and the President will have to act upon it quickly for, if the test is going to be made, it will take a month or more to lower the bomb to the bottom of the 6,000-foot hole and connect up all the complex machinery required.

The political risks to Nixon are great. At this writing, protests against the test have come from the governments of Japan, Canada, and Finland. Certainly, the test will affect the SALT talks. And if Nixon decides to allow the test, he will face the kind of determined domestic opposition he encountered in the SST controversy: a working coalition of the groups and individuals opposing the test has been established, ready to begin work at once in Washington. They include the Friends of the Earth, the Committee for Nuclear Responsibility, the Federation of American Scientists, the Sierra Club, and SANE, among others. Those interested in this effort should contact the coordinator of the coalition, Richard Lahn, at 235 Massachusetts Avenue, N.E., Washington, D.C. 20002.

Lawsuits to prevent the test have been prepared in New York, Washington, and Alaska. Legislators in most Western states, as well as Hawaii, are prepared to challenge the action locally: one California state senator has already scheduled hearings on the test. Pacifist groups are preparing to send small ships into the area around Amchitka. All these advance preparations are being made openly and the White House staff is aware of them. The strategy of the opposition is to keep cool, at the moment, rather than open up a large-scale, widespread, and vocal fight against the tests: the theory being that Nixon may decide to cancel the test, on his own, but might resist taking such an action if too much public pressure is brought to bear. But a campaign is ready if he decides to permit the test.

It is obvious that the President faces still another, greater, personal risk if he decides in favor of Cannikin: it could conceivably go wrong and trigger some kind of disaster. And if that happens, the political fallout on the career of Richard Nixon may be as great as the radioactive fallout on the population.

The AEC and the Department of Defense justify Cannikin by conjuring up the “interests of national security” and maintain that, therefore, the small risks of tidal waves, earthquakes, and radioactivity must be taken. Normally, the phrase “in the interests of national security” has a special aura, bringing an automatic response, but in the case of Cannikin, the air of sanctity seems to have disappeared. It has disappeared because the AEC no longer is so sacrosanct as it once was. It is no longer above criticism; its budget requests are now being challenged. For the past few years, the AEC’s credibility has been widely questioned and it has been forced to engage in controversies with its critics, and has, often, defended itself very badly. And while the post of AEC Chairman was once considered a rare prize, Glenn Seaborg, the present Agency head, is reportedly seeking a way of leaving it gracefully.

The Department of Defense, too, no longer has automatic approval for its actions as it once had. Few people believe what is said in Washington. Ironically, in the case of Cannikin, the AEC and the DOD cannot muster even a very strong military case: the five-megaton bomb they want to test was designed for use in a specific type of Spartan missile, but, according to an impressive number of arms experts, that missile is obsolete. Dr. Harold M. Agnew, director of the AEC’s Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, told a Senate hearing last April that the Spartan system, of which the Cannikin bomb is to be a part, would only “be useful in a limited way.”

That “limited way” is evidently enough for the AEC and the DOD to warrant their going ahead with the test. After all, they reason, we’ve built the bomb, invested $20 million in Cannikin, so how else can such vast expenditures be justified except by detonating the bomb? Besides, if you were an AEC or DOD official, wouldn’t you want to find out if the damn thing actually works?

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