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Cancer deaths from nuclear weapons testing

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5 of 7

4-5

Chapter 4 - Nuclear Weapons Complex's Toxic Releases

Nevada National Security Site - the former Nevada Test Site

What is it?

The Nevada National Security Site (NNSS) is a 1,350-square mile Department of Energy facility, located about 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas and 135 miles southwest of St. George (Utah).  

The NNSS is surrounded on three sides by over 4,000 acres of federally owned land comprising the Nellis Air Force Range and Tonopah Test Range.  The expansive area, comprising both 'Yucca Flat' and 'Frenchman Flat' (formerly called the 'South Site'), was dubbed the 'Nevada Proving Ground' until 1955, when the moniker 'Nevada Test Site' was adopted. In August 2010, the test site got a new name: the Nevada National Security Site, or NNSS.15  

What role did it play?

Before the Nevada Test Site was put into use for atomic testing, the United States conducted its first nuclear weapons test in New Mexico (Trinity Test, 1945) followed by five atom bomb tests in the Pacific Proving Grounds (1946-1948).   The U.S. military initially chose to test atom bombs in the Pacific to keep fallout away from populated areas. However, the logistics of conducting more frequent tests, combined with the costs of mid-ocean testing and security matters relating to the proximity of scientists and devices to foreign enemies, forced military planners to choose a continental 'proving ground.'   In late 1950, they chose the Nevada Test Site for its proximity to weapons development complexes in the Southwest and also on the belief that fallout would follow the prevailing winds over relatively unpopulated areas.  

Of the more than one dozen nuclear test sites used by the U.S. government from the 1940s to the 1990s (that spanned from the Pacific all the way to the South Atlantic) the NTS was the location of the most atmospheric and underground nuclear tests.  928 nuclear tests of the atmospheric and underground types were conducted between 1951 and 1992. The first nuclear test dubbed 'Able' was conducted there on January 27, 1951.16  From 1951 to 1958, known as the 'atmospheric testing era,' 119 nuclear tests were conducted at the NTS; 97 of those tests were conducted above-ground.  

In October 1958, the U.S. entered into a voluntary test moratoria with the Soviet Union that lasted until 1961 when the latter broke the agreement by resuming atmospheric testing in September (1961) and the U.S. following suit later that month.  During the test moratoria, the U.S. conducted several dozen secret hydronuclear tests (extremely low fission yield experiments) at the NTS; previous hydronuclear tests were conducted from 1954 to 1956.17

From the early 1960s to 1992, during what is known as the 'underground testing era,' 809 nuclear tests were conducted at the NTS beneath the ground.  More than 80 underground nuclear tests were conducted in a northwestern part of the NTS called the 'Pahute Mesa,' volcanic highlands with peaks topping 7,000 feet in elevation.18 Pahute Mesa was also home to three megaton-range nuclear tests.19

The NTS was also used for research and development of nuclear applications to transportation including nuclear-powered aircraft and rockets. More here

Tell me about some of its toxic releases

Fallout from Nevada bomb tests fanned across the American West much like the plumes from Trinity and those from the bombs dropped on Japan, which we discussed in Chapter 1. In Chapter 2 we discussed the public health damage in Nevada and Utah from these NTS nuclear blasts, and earlier in this chapter we discussed like effects on Idaho's residents. Residents of these states didn't know that because of a discriminating preference of the test site managers, atomic blasts were delayed until the winds would carry fallout into their states because of their low population densities.20  But, as the AEC found on one occasion, radioactive fallout knows no boundaries when released. Radioactive debris from NTS tests created 'hotspots' in dozens of places across the globe such as upstate New York.

On April 25, 1953, at 4:30 am Pacific Standard Time, 'Simon,' a 43-kiloton atomic device at the Nevada Test Site, was detonated 300 feet above-ground.  The top part of Simon's mushroom cloud rose to over 40,000 feet and rode the jet stream at first slowly (around 50 mph) through the south-central part of the U.S. and then sped up to about 100 knots (115 miles per hour) as it steamed towards New England. (In Nevada, the fallout actually forced the AEC to set up roadblocks and decontaminate vehicles).  Around midnight that same day, Simon's plumes intersected with an impressive cluster of thunderstorms in the Northeast near the Albany-Troy area of New York State.  In this upstate region of New York, a 'rain out' of an incredible magnitude from Simon occurred from midnight through daytime hours of April 26.21

Knowledge of the fallout contamination of the continental United States from NTS fallout is very poor.  The primary reason is that the monitoring efforts in the 1950s and 1960s by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) were extremely limited and future dose reconstruction efforts were crippled by the lost opportunity of the AEC to track, monitor, measure and study nuclear fallout from its bomb tests.  Since bricks (yes, bricks) and soil can provide clues as to how much fallout fell where, there is hope that we can one day learn where these hotspots are located and help health professionals educate and inform local residents about their risk factors for cancer and other types of disease.

Veterans

Around 200,000 persons, mostly U.S. military troops, participated in one or more of the nuclear tests conducted at the Nevada Test Site in the 1950s.  Soldiers regularly were exposed to dangerous levels of immediate or lingering radiation and other atomic blast effects (flash blindness) in military drills.  Those atomic veterans who later contracted radiation-linked diseases and illnesses have sought justice and compensation in a protracted fight that has oftentimes been made unbearable by the lack of forthcoming information.  U.S. military troops weren't the only 'human guinea pigs' subjected to 'prompt-fallout' on the Nevada Test Site.  Veterans, and later test workers, sometimes brought their 'work' home with them, contaminating their homes and cars with radioactive particles that exposed siblings, spouses, children and pets.  

Contaminated water

Vast quantities of subsurface radioactivity in Pahute Mesa, the result of huge nuclear explosions including three megaton-range underground nuclear tests, are of particular concern in the 21st century.  Because Pahute Mesa drains to the southwest and tremendous quantities of legacy radioactivity is 'accessible to the environment' - 76 underground nuclear tests were conducted in Pahute Mesa within, below and above, 100 meters of the water table22 - plumes of water contaminated with tritium and dozens of other radionuclides that have already exited the borders of the NNSS are heading into populated, lower elevated areas consisting of farms and communities.  Flow rates from Pahute Mesa have been estimated as low a few feet per year to over 2,000 feet per year - the latter flow-rate puts towns like Beatty, Nevada, in medium-term danger.  

The State of Nevada is feeling the pressure because population growth is clashing with the threat of declining availability of the state's most-craved natural resource - fresh water.  Nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Site tainted over 1 trillion gallons of aquifer water and that tainted water cascading down the mesas could contaminate other aquifers.  The State recently pressured the Department of Energy to complete an Environmental Impact Statement for the test site over a controversial plan there to build a new mixed-low-level nuclear waste dump.  The real reason they forced the DOE's hand is that an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) would be the state's ticket to getting Superfund or other high priority funding for environmental cleanup.  If Nevada doesn't prevent their water supply from becoming further ruined, their future is doomed.

Airborne plutonium plumes

The four most common types of nuclear tests at the Nevada Test Site were weapons effects, weapons related, safety experiment and Plowshare experiment.23 The least known of the four types are the 'safety experiments,' also referred to as 'safety tests' or 'plutonium dispersal experiments.'    Safety experiments were designed to determine how far plutonium would be scattered in accidents involving a nuclear bomb and involved the release of the pure form of plutonium 239 (Pu239), which is 1,000 times more potent than the dust- and debris-covered form that results from an atomic blast.   Forty-two safety tests occurred on the 'greater' Nevada Test Site: thirty-three (33) safety tests were conducted between 1955 and 1958, and five more between 1962 and 1963 (table of all safety tests).  On the adjacent Nellis Air Force Range, four (4) storage-transportation safety tests, comprising the Roller Coaster series, were conducted between 1962 and 1963.  Only one safety test, 'Project 57' in Area 13, involved a real warhead, which was estimated to have released about 250 Curies of plutonium-239.24

In 1979, an Atomic Energy Commission study indicated that plutonium-239 levels in soils in Utah were as much as 3.8 times higher than average concentrations elsewhere and was attributed to the handful of 'safety tests' conducted in 1957 and 1958.   In 1997, a Nevada scientist found trace amounts of Plutonium-239 in the attics of homes in Las Vegas, St. George and other towns in Utah and Nevada which he believed was the second generation dust (resuspended via wind) from these plutonium dispersal experiments.25  There is reason to believe that detectable amounts of plutonium-239 in the top few centimeters of soils in the greater Southern Nevada region are disturbed regularly by construction activities, fires and wind erosion.

Underground tests and accidents

By the time atmospheric nuclear testing was banned by a 1963 Soviet and U.S. pact - the Partial (or Limited) Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) - atmospheric testing at the NTS had released 12 billion curies, or the same amount of radiation as at least 50 Chernobyls.  The 100 atmospheric tests held at the NTS released 150 million curies of Iodine-131 and about 140,000 curies of Strontium-90.  Few people know that the amount of strontium-90 injected into the atmosphere from NTS testing was a mere 1.5% of the amount spewed from all global nuclear testing, including U.S. tests in the Pacific Proving Ground.  The PTBT banned not only atmospheric, but also underwater and outerspace nuclear tests.

After the treaty was signed, both superpowers conducted underground nuclear tests for 30 years.  433 underground tests at the NTS leaked onto the surface and 100 of these were deliberate releases; the rest were unintentional.  

The DOE has admitted that 50 of these underground tests resulted in offsite exposures.  One of those was 'Mighty Oak'.  Just a short time before Chernobyl, on April 10, 1986, the underground nuclear test dubbed 'Mighty Oak' was conducted.  Test site officials, feeling the need to quickly clear out the tunnel cavity of dangerous gases but fearing the public would learn of the nuclear accident through higher off-site radiation readings, purposely vented in a big release weeks later during Chernobyl's 'fallout tour of the globe' so as to mislead the public. The public was not only misled - it was irradiated by both Chernobyl and the Nevada Test Site during the months of April and May 1986.  Another underground nuclear test accident was Baneberry.  'Baneberry' was detonated on December 18, 1970, at a depth of 900 ft. below-ground and blew through the surface of the Nevada Test Site.  Over 6% of the test's total radioactive debris, entrained in a 7,000 foot high mushroom cloud, was spewed into the atmosphere, where it was picked up by the jet stream and rode the winds to the Northwest, Midwest, and New England, also crossing into Canada.   Read: NUCLEAR WORKERS FLEE TESTING SITE (star news, dec. 19, 1970).  

An underground test at the NNSS can happen any day now - by accident.  An anonymous letter sent allegedly by a group of DOE and EPA scientists to the State of Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects in 1998 implied that one of the radiological 'situations' at the Nevada Test Site that a DOE-gutted environmental program would largely fail to 'mitigate' included nuclear "devices [that] have failed to detonate partially or completely."  To date, the only NTS nuclear devices disclosed by the DOE to the public that fully failed to detonate were affiliated with the 'Transom' (May 10, 1978) and 'Peninsula' (October 23, 1975) underground nuclear tests.  While Transom's device never detonated, the Peninsula test wasn't even conducted. The device fell 40 feet during emplacement and was damaged.  Eleven test site workers were injured during the accident.  


Footnotes

15 A new name for the Nevada Test Site was revealed in mid-August 2010. The rhetoric about jobs and 'national security' surrounding the name change ignored the test site's toxic legacy and reason for existence: to test nuclear bombs.

16 'Downwinder day' falls on January 27 every year.  Read more

17There are currently still no environmental (surface radiological) impact data from these hydronuclear series.

18 Pahute Mesa spans Area 19 and Area 20, which was withdrawn from public use for technically Air Force use but the Atomic Energy Commission and Air Force signed a Memorandum of Understanding that gave the AEC the ability to use the land for nuclear testing.  In the 1980s Congressional legislation reassigned the use of the land to the AEC/DOE despite decades of what some consider 'illegal' activity, or weapons testing on land whose specified use was for Air Force activities.

19 One 1968 hydrogen bomb test called 'Benham' had a yield of 1.15 megatons; it was a scaled-down version of the 'Spartan' H-bomb.

20 Atomic Energy Commission officials in Nevada waited until the winds at the Nevada Test Site blew away from the urban centers of Los Angeles and Las Vegas to points north and east before conducting their atomic blasts. Although Idaho was hundreds of miles away from the test site, meteorological effects dealt Idaho a worse hand than its southern neighbors, Nevada and Utah. The fallout from open-air Nevada atomic blasts in the 1950s and 1960s traveled via high-altitude winds into less-arid areas (or 'wetter' areas) in Idaho where the fallout came down with rains. Sometimes fallout levels in Idaho surpassed those in Nevada and Utah.

21 The best data available regarding the fallout (rainout) of Simon in New York State came from a gummed-film monitoring station at Albany Airport that recorded 16 million disintegrations/minute/square foot/day from the last hours of April 25th to the afternoon of April 26th.  What is this number?  It is the number of times per minute that a radioactive decay occurs; the decay could be the emission of a gamma ray, an alpha particle, or a beta.  The fact is no one can tell with this figure what was the true nature of the radioactivity and the strength that fell at the Albany airport.  But it does tell how many atoms are 'popping' from one state to another via radioactive decay, and this was the highest number ever recorded in the gummed film monitoring network up to that time (note: gummed film was notoriously inefficient at measuring fallout.) The ground-level radiation values during the rain-out peaked at around 30 milliRems per hour, or 1,000 times normal background levels. This is per data included in a newsletter of a science group in New York's capital area cited in the book A Good Day Has No Rain (Whitston Publishing Co., 2003 by Bill Heller): "Clark also extrapolated that the rate at the time of deposition of the fallout was 30 millirads per hour." (p.46)

In a U.S. Atomic Energy Commission paper from 1954 titled The transport of atomic debris from Operation Upshot-Knothole by government meteorologist Robert J. List, List notes that "it is certainly probable that other areas, not surveyed by air and not containing ground monitoring stations, would have had even higher readings.  For example, a very heavy shower occurred in eastern Pennsylvania between 2200 and 2300 G.C.T.  Southern Vermont and western Massachusetts had heavy showers from 0200 to 0300 G.C.T.  These may well have scavenged more debris than was found near Albany." List also mentioned that other parts of the country probably were slammed by similar severe 'rain-out' events: "It is also of interest to examine the trajectories and precipitation patterns accompanying bursts of this and previous Nevada tests series to see if other potentially serious cases of intense localized fallout could have occurred which were undetected by the monitoring network. Several such situations were found. They are: New York and New England on November 1, 1951, November 3, 1951, and April 7, 1953; Nebraska on May 26, 1952; and Wyoming on May 8, 1952. The latter case appears to be the one most likely to have produced intense local fallout." (Note that List's list of 'hotspots' was current as of 1954, which was before some of the NTS's most polluting open-air blasts.)

Below pic is the fallout trajectory of the Simon shot and corresponding radiation readings (expressed in units of 10E-2 millirem per hour on ground, based on conversion from values taken via aerial survey at 500 feet along Hudson River - see source for better resolution)

ADVANCED SECTION: In the 1954 AEC, List notes that "since the debris was 36 hours old,"  then 10 to the power of 7, or 10 million disintegrations/minute/square foot/day, "is more nearly the activity at the actual time of fallout." In Roswell, New Mexico, on April 25, the readings from dry fallout from a lower level cloud from Simon measured 13 million disintegrations/minute/square foot/day.

In his book 'Under the Cloud,' Richard Miller sets out a formula to convert disintegrations per unit of time to Roentgens (dose to human).  For his formula, Miller states that 'a good approximation of the exposure rate' (from gamma) can be determined by calculating the energies received at waist height (3.28 ft) from a circular parcel of gamma-irradiating land with a 10 meter (30.48 ft) radius.   Miller calculates - using some calculus - that the exposure from 0.3 MeV gamma rays at 1 meter above ground from a 10 meter radius circle around the human with a radioactivity of 1,000,000 disintegrations/minute/sq. ft is 12 microRem/hr.

An easier method is to simply figure out the dose from a 20 meter square parcel and multiply by 0.765 to figure out the area of the circle that would fit inside (10 meter radius).  The figure 1,000,000 disintegrations/minute/ft2 is the same as 10,763,910  disintegrations/minute/meter2, or 4.8 x 10-6 Curie/meter2.  Since we want 20 square meters, we multiply this by 20 to get 9.6 x 10-5.  Using Miller's formula E=6Ce/distance2, we multiply 6 x  9.6 x 10-5 x 0.3/(3.28 feet)2 = 1.6 x 10-5 Rems/hr.  We multiply this by 0.765 to get the area of the circle within to get 1.2  x 10-5 Rem/hr.  This is also written as 1.2 x 10-2 milliRem or 0.012 millirem, or 12 microRem/hr, which agrees with Miller's tabulation.   

So, as a shortcut to find out the gamma dose from disintegrations per unit of time, convert area cited in the disintegration number to square meters, then convert disintegration number to Curies per square meter, and then multiply by 20 x 6 X .3 x 0.765 divided by 10.75.  Even easier, multiply the disintegration number in curies per square meter by 2.56 to get the dose in Rem, or 2,560,000 in microRem.  Disclaimer: Don't take this to the bank, we have no idea if this is correct!

So, in the case of the Simon reading of 16,000,000 disintegrations/minute/square foot/day, we multiply this figure by 10.76 to get it in square meters and multiply by 4.5 x 10-13 to get Curies, then multiply it by 2,560,000, and we get 205 microRem/hr from gamma rays.

Certainly, one has no idea what kind of energy is giving off the disintegrations; due to fragmentation of the radioisotopes in a fallout cloud, it could be a whole bunch of gamma particles that would elevate the exposure into millrems or rems.

Converting the 16 million d/m/ft2 reading to Curies, we have (0.0072072 milliCuries/square foot/day x 27,878,399 sq. ft/sq. mi) 200,925 mCi/sq. mi/day.

22 'Unclassified Radiologic Source Term for Nevada Test Site Areas 19 and 20,' Smith, Goishi, LLNL, 2000

23 Read about Project Rulison, a Plowshare nuclear test in Colorado that contaminated over 400 million cubic feet of natural gas that later was flared off into the atmosphere despite the objections and a lawsuit filed by activists in the late 1960s.  Nowadays, the DOE is letting test drillers play 'radioactive chicken' as they drill closer and closer to contaminated underground areas and putting residents in danger.

24 250 Ci is the amount a warhead associated with a 1.5 kiloton yield would contain.  [One Curie of Pu239 is about 16 grams]. 

25 See footnote 5 on page 1-1.


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