Cancer deaths from nuclear weapons testing

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Chapter 15 - Environmental Dangers from Cold War Legacy Radiation: Drilling in Colorado in Nuclear Subterrain


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Test name: Project Rulison

Date: September 10, 1969, 4 p.m. EDT 

Type: Underground atomic bomb test 

Location: 8 miles southeast of the town of Grand Valley, Colorado, USA (map) - Coordinates: 39.40566, -107.948631, aerial map, close-up

Atomic fission yield: 43 kilotons

Depth: 8,426 feet

Welcome to Colorado: AEC's Playground

'Rulison' was the name given to the first nuclear test in Colorado and the first nuclear explosion financially backed by corporations. But when protestors set up camouflaged tent camps dangerously close to the ground-zero of the planned underground nuclear test in west-central Colorado in the fall of 1969, it wasn't out of concern for who was paying but rather what price they themselves would pay. These campers defied eviction calls as government agents in helicopters soaring above them yelled on bull horns. They pooled funds to repeatedly sue the government. They even telegrammed the U.S. President for a last minute intervention. Why? Because they feared the underground atomic explosion could leak or even break through the surface and inject dangerous radiation into the air - this indeed happened the following year in Nevada, when workers were forced to flee the area after grey clouds filled with radiation literally burst through the ground from an underground atomic blast accident.

'Operation Plowshare'

Rulison was one of the Plowshare nuclear experiments of the Atomic Energy Commission, or AEC. 'Project Plowshare' (known officially as 'Operation Plowshare') was inaugurated in 1957 by the nuclear weapons establishment of the United States as an experimental project to find beneficial, peace-time applications of the atomic bomb.  The exclusive rights to the 'atom bomb' had since 1945 remained with America's military, which used it twice in combat and dozens of times in nuclear tests, but soon that would change. As Americans were getting accustomed to isotopes and x-rays in medicine, fission in nuclear power (electrical generation) and even nuclear-powered space missions (the Apollo mission that sent Neil Armstrong to the moon was made possible by several pounds of plutonium), the nuclear bomb had arrived late to the party. But, beginning in 1957, peaceful atomic explosions would now join the fray of American's affair with the atom. The age of public works engineering (and energy production) via atomic blasts had begun.

Plans were being drawn by scientists with the support of key politicians to use the A-bomb to blast new harbors out of coastlines, dig new inter-oceanic canals, extract 'trapped' fossil fuels within America's natural gas fields from Colorado to Pennsylvania, and even control hurricanes and create diamonds from coal.  (The diamonds would be a little radioactive though.) The Rulison test was the first Plowshare experiment aimed at stimulating the production of trapped natural gas in Colorado (a previous experiment was conducted in New Mexico in 1967). It was actually such a potentially lucrative idea that Rulison became the first U.S. nuclear test with corporate backers. The backers included Austral Oil Company, a natural gas concern in Texas, and Nevada-based CER Geonuclear Corporation (as project manager). (The latter was a joint venture of EG&G and Continental Oil.)

The Rulison test was initially planned for mid-1969 and was estimated to have an explosive (atomic) yield about three times that of the A-bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The detonation would occur exactly 8,426 feet underground. Although underground nuclear tests were a regular occurrence in the U.S., most of these tests were conducted at the Nevada Test Site and distant from populated centers. The 'Rulison Site,' or the ground-zero for the Rulison test, was situated significantly closer to communities than virtually any nuclear test ever conducted previously; the Nevada Test Site and two test areas in New Mexico chosen for previous Plowshare atomic tests (Gnome and Gasbuggy) were located far from populated areas. For this, and many other reasons, Coloradans were not pleased with the idea of a nuclear blast in their backyard. Concerned activists came together with grassroots groups and state chapters of national organizations - including the Colorado Committee for Environmental Information, the ACLU and the Open Spaces Coordination Council - to file a lawsuit to force an injunction to stop the test in a Denver federal court.  The suit claimed that the blast would threaten the safety of locals and possibly contaminate water supplies and residents' air.  Testimony in a federal court hearing included experts such as Denver geologist David E. Evans who proposed that [the atomic blast from] Rulison could trigger major earthquakes.  He believed that waste that was injected into a 2-mile-deep well in the Rocky Mountain Arsenal caused Denver-area earthquakes. Although Evans thought Rulison's risk for tremors was not probable, he said it was an 'unnecessary risk' nevertheless. 

Another geologist testified at the trial that the explosion could force radioactive materials into underground water draining into the Colorado River System, affecting communities and cities all the way to Los Angeles. 

Another threat of Rulison, although barely mentioned in the press, was the possibility that it could have vented, like a previous Plowshare test, Gnome, a 3-kiloton atomic blast detonated southeast of Carlsbad, N.M. that accidentally vented a radioactive gas cloud. The AEC closed all roads in the test area 25 miles from Carlsbad for more than three hours until the radioactivity 'died down,' the agency told the press, however radioactive fallout drifted as far as Omaha, Nebraska. Worse venting occurred during three separate 1962 underground nuclear detonations at the Nevada Test Site (Des Moines, Eel and Platte tests); each test accidentally breached the surface and released significant amounts (millions of curies) of radiation into the atmosphere.

The Rulison test was initially planned for May 22nd, 1969, but was delayed to September 4th because of safety concerns (the possibility of blast-related damage to a local dam forced a seismic risk review) and an injunction lawsuit. That lawsuit was dismissed in federal court on August 27, 1969 and appeals to both the Circuit Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court failed to overturn the lower court decision. (A second lawsuit filed in early September, shortly before the test, by the Open Spaces Coordination Council in a Colorado district court in Glenwood Springs also failed to stop the detonation.) 

Protest within legal channels wasn't the only method used by the Rulison opposition.  There was an unsuccessful petition and letter (and telegram)-writing campaign to get Colorado Governor John A. Love to stop the test and also an unsuccessful telegram plea to President Nixon by Rep. Frank Evans (D-Colo.) to order "at least a temporary halt in the firing" so more studies could be rendered.

A last ditch activist effort came in the form of an on-site sit-in protest by members of such groups as Citizens Concerned About Rulison, Students for a Democratic Society, and People United to Reclaim the Environment (PURE).  More than one week prior to the blast date protestors in five groups scattered into the wilderness near the test site, hoping their presence would encourage others to take a stand against the nuclear test. The protestors felt that their presence had something to do with a 'weather' delay that the DOE cited as the reason for postponing the test from September 4 to September 10, 1969. 

The protestors declined to tell reporters where they were camped, and noted to the press that their camps were camouflaged.  Rob Prince, one of the protestors, told The Colorado Independent in a 2007 interview: "There were federal agents in helicopters and bull horns flying around us calling on us to leave, but that was about it. They never landed (to my knowledge) and never actively tried to clear us from the spot where we were camped. We did break up into small groups with the idea that if we did, the federal agents would get some, but not all of us, but nothing came of that."

A spokesperson for CER Geonuclear told the Associated Press a few days before the Sept. 10th test: "We don't know where the protestors are, but we know where they aren't.  They aren't close to the site." 

Helicopters and law enforcement patrolled the area in case protestors got near the site.  (Read part II of the interview with Prince, who blogged extensively in 2007 on Rulison and on the DOE's lack of transparency about Rulison contamination).1

On September 10, 1969, the actual date of the Rulison test, parts of nearby Interstate-70 were closed, as were some local schools.  Residents within a few miles of the ground-zero were asked to evacuate for the day and those who left - not all did - were compensated for leaving. 

The blast site was located eight miles southeast of the town of Grand Valley in Garfield County, about 150 miles west of Denver.  The atomic blast was set off at 4 p.m. EDT and generated a 5.5 magnitude earthquake.

As described in the book 'Nuclear Witnesses, Nuclear Insiders' (by Leslie J. Freeman, 1982): 'The test proceeded on schedule, throwing some of the demonstrators up into the air...[and] produced a shock wave that damaged the foundations of buildings, irrigation lines, mines and an industrial plant." (Freeman). (Allegedly, a group of about 25 protestors were thrown about half-a-foot into the air.)  The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), the federal agency behind the test, stated that no radioactivity escaped accidentally during the underground blast.

'Welcome to Colorado: AEC's Playground' was depicted on a popular bumper sticker in Colorado in the years following the test.

Low-tritium strategy backfires

Rulison's bomb yield, 43 kilotons (three times the yield of the Hiroshima blast), was larger than the combined yield of New Mexico Plowshare tests (in 1961 and 1967). Rulison even surpassed the average yield of above-ground tests at the Nevada Test Site from 1951 to 1962.   

The reason AEC Plowshare scientists planned such a large yield atomic blast was to reduce the amount of tritium, a radioactive chemical formed in nuclear reactors and by bomb blasts. Tritium had plagued the first gas stimulation test under the Plowshare Program, Gasbuggy. 

Gasbuggy, a 29-kiloton underground nuclear experiment in New Mexico in 1967, stimulated less gas than expected, and produced a lot more tritium than expected. The abundance of tritium generated in the Gasbuggy test caused problems not limited to just contaminated natural gas (which meant it would be unfit for commerical sale). This tritium also contaminated local areas when the decision was made to burn the undesirable gas into the open air, an act also known as 'flaring'. Wade H. Nelson reported in 1999 in his article 'Nuclear Explosion Shook Farmington' on the venting of the Plowshare experiment 'Gasbuggy' in New Mexico: 'Among the hundreds of declassified records are memos and reports discussing increased tritium levels in surrounding vegetation, the release of radioactive Krypton-85 gas...'  He noted a New York Times investigative piece that stated that, as a result of the flaring of nearly 300 million cubic feet of Gasbuggy's contaminated gas, 'Tritium would combine with Oxygen to make tritiated (radioactive) water which would rain down somewhere downwind from the Gasbuggy site. Undoubtedly some of it would enter the food chain.'  

With Rulison, the AEC wanted to experiment with the idea that detonating much larger amounts of atomic fissile material underground would reduce the overall levels of tritium (while trying to free the 'trapped' natural gas). It didn't work. Per the book 'The American West at Risk' (Oxford University Press, 2008): 'To reduce tritium, the Rulison test had used a 40-kiloton fission bomb. The results confounded experimenters by stimulating less natural gas than expected - and a lot more tritium.' (p. 403). As the AEC did with Gasbuggy's tainted gas, Rulison's fouled natural gas was flared in the atmosphere. DOE documents state that after the Rulison test, there was an 'operational release of radioactivity detected offsite.' (DOE/NV-209).  On three occasions over a 10 month period spanning 1970 and 1971, the DOE flared about 455 million cubic feet of radioactively contaminated gases into Colorado's atmosphere where it 'dissipated.'  Radioactive gases from the flaring were detected up to 50 miles from the Rulison blast site. (Some radioactive gases were also released when samples needed to be collected and holes were drilled and breached the sealed underground cavity.) 

'The American West at Risk' cites DOE-made measurements of radioactivity released into the environment during Rulison's flaring:  'Radioactivity showed up in three separate flaring tests, which burned gas at the well head. The total radioactivity released included 1,064 curies of Krypton-85, 2,824 curies of radioactive hydrogen-3 (tritium), and 2.4 curies of carbon-14.'2  

Coloradans protested these flaring actions over concerns that exposure to the radiation could increase their cancer risk.  An activist's lawsuit asserted in 1969 that plans by the AEC to flare off the 'atomic gas' would cause radioactive elements to "collect in consumable food and water, and eventually cause infant mortality in a scientifically measurable ratio to the amount of krypton-85 and tritium released."  These are two common radioactive gases also associated with emissions from nuclear power plants. The environmental groups' motion for an injunction to prevent re-entry into the test cavity and stop these flaring actions was rejected; the District Court judge found that the flaring would not 'present a danger to life, health or property'. 

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