The decades following the detonation of the first nuclear bomb were a haze of controversial nuclear tests and detonations. As different powers raced to understand the devastating new power that had been uncovered, they became increasingly reckless and often it was the environment that paid the price.
One of the most infamous, and controversial, nuclear tests carried out by the US government was Project Cannikin, an underground nuclear weapons test carried out in 1971. Scientifically speaking the test was a massive success but its repercussions can still be felt to this day.
The Cannikin Test
The Cannikin test was carried out by the United States on November 6, 1971, on Amchitka Island in Alaska. The test involved the detonation of a 5-megaton thermonuclear device around a mile underground. 250 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, it was the largest underground nuclear explosion ever conducted by the United States.
The Cannikin test’s main objective was to study the feasibility and effects of a high-yield explosion in an underground environment. This was motivated by concerns over the safety and environmental impact of atmospheric testing, which international agreements had banned. It was hoped the Cannikin test would provide scientists with a new, safer, and more controlled method of nuclear testing.
Amchitka was chosen for its remote location and unique geological characteristics. Researchers believed the island’s geology would help to contain most of the explosion and minimize the impact on the surrounding environment. There were some concerns, however.
Environmental groups were worried about the potential release of radioactive materials into the ocean and the potential seismic effects on nearby fault lines. People were concerned, especially after the 1964 Alaskan earthquake, that such a large detonation underground could trigger a geothermal reaction in the fault lines, causing massive earthquakes and knock-on tsunamis.
- Secrets of the Polygon: The Soviet Nuclear Testing Grounds
- Operation Hurricane: Britain’s Desperate Bid to be Third
Despite these concerns, the US, led by Richard Nixon at the time, decided to go ahead. The Cannikin test provided valuable data on the containment of high-yield nuclear explosions underground. It helped scientists understand the dynamics of underground detonations, the degree of containment, and the resulting release of radioactive materials.
It has also been claimed that the test helped the US politically by bolstering Nixon’s position with his foreign and domestic opponents. A year after the test Nixon traveled to China and his administration managed to sign its first strategic arms limitation treaty with the USSR.
The test’s findings influenced later nuclear weapons testing policies and strategies, including the development of the Threshold Test Ban Treaty in 1974, which limited underground nuclear tests to 150 kilotons.
Yes, but What About the Island?
Unsurprisingly the detonation was devastating. The explosion caused the ground above the bomb to rise and then fall from 15 to 20 feet (4.5-6 meters). Ponds, lakes, and the earth itself flew into the air as “ground waves” ripped through the island’s surface.
A crater a mile (1.6 km) wide and 40 feet (12 meters) deep was left. The cliffs surrounding the island fell into the ocean and the water boiled.
Wildlife fared little better, the shock wave produced by the bomb killed countless seabirds and sea otters. The shock produced by the bomb registered at 7.0 on the Richter scale, which for reference is the same as the 2010 Haiti earthquake that devastated the island.
On the other hand, fears of the seismic shocks setting off a tsunami proved to be unfounded. The US also claimed fears of nuclear fallout were also misplaced. Their testing apparatus showed that the earth had contained the blast, meaning the surface of the island was radiation free.
- The Tsar Bomba and Mutually Assured Destruction: Ultimate MADness?
- Fogbank: Lost Material of the Nuclear Age
The situation today is less clear, and largely depends on who you ask. The US Department of Energy claims that besides the massive crater left on the island, everything else is pretty much ok. Other researchers disagree.
While burying the bomb stopped the initial spread of radioactivity, that radioactivity didn’t just disappear. It was trapped under the earth’s surface. The blast created underground holes full of nuclear-contaminated rubble deep beneath the surface of Amchitka.
The problem is that groundwater may be moving through these caves, picking up radioactivity and carrying it out to the ocean. A lot of work is being done by environmental researchers to try and work out how this potential contamination is affecting Alaska.
For example, in 1997 a biologist from Anchorage working for Green Pace, Pam Miller, discovered radioactive particles like americium-241 and plutonium in freshwater samples taken from the Bering Sea. This suggested that the fallout from the blast wasn’t as contained as initially believed. The debate is still ongoing.
A Lost Island
The legacy of the Cannikin weapons test stretches further than just one heavily damaged and potentially irradiated island. In the run-up to the 1971 detonation, the US government faced heavy opposition to its nuclear tests.
Along the US-Canada border, thousands of protestors held up signs saying, “Don’t Make A Wave. It’s Your Fault If Our Fault Goes”. In 1971 the Canadian “Don’t Make a Wave Committee” chartered a ship in the hopes of sailing to Amchitka and protesting the planned Cannikin test. While the ship’s mission ultimately failed after the test was postponed a month, its name lives on.
What was the ship called? Greenpeace. Ever since the organization created by those protestors has fought under that name to fight for the environment. As the saying goes, every irradiated cloud has a silver lining.
Top Image: The Cannikin test may have irradiated the island of Amchitka, but it also spurred an international effort to reduce nuclear weapons proliferation. Source: Atomic Energy Commission / Public Domain.