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 …
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