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Echoes of Amchitka

The Bomb that Cracked an Island

by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR

Amchitka Island sits at the midway point on the great arc of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, less than 900 miles across the Bering Sea from the coast of Russia. Amchitka, a spongy landscape of maritime tundra, is one of the most southerly of the Aleutians. The island’s relatively temperate climate has made it one of the Arctic’s most valuable bird sanctuaries, a critical staging ground for more than 100 migratory species, as well as home to walruses, sea otters and sea lions. Off the coast of Amchitka is a thriving fishery of salmon, pollock, haddock and halibut.

All of these values were recognized early on. In 1913, Amchitka was designated as a national wildlife refuge by President William Howard Taft. But these ecological wonders were swept aside in the early ’60s when the Pentagon and the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) went on the lookout for a new place to blow up H-bombs. Four decades ago, Amchitka was the site of three large underground nuclear tests, including the most powerful nuclear explosion ever detonated by the United States.

The aftershocks of those blasts are still being felt. Despite claims by the AEC and the Pentagon that the test sites would safely contain the radiation released by the blasts for thousands of years, independent research by Greenpeace and newly released documents from the Department of Energy (DOE) show that the Amchitka tests began to leak almost immediately. Highly radioactive elements and gasses, such as tritium, americium-241 and plutonium, poured out of the collapsed test shafts, leached into the groundwater and worked their way into ponds, creeks and the Bering Sea.

At the same time, thousands of Amchitka laborers and Aleuts living on nearby islands were put in harm’s way. Dozens have died of radiation-linked cancers. The response of the federal government to these disturbing findings has been almost as troublesome as the circumstances surrounding the tests themselves: a consistent pattern of indifference, denial and cover-up continues even today.

There were several factors behind the selection of Amchitka as a test site. One most certainly was the proximity to the Soviet Union. These explosions were meant to send a message. Indeed, the tests were designed to calibrate the performance of the Spartan anti-ballistic missile, built to take out the Soviet nuclear arsenal. Publicly, however, the rationale offered by the AEC and the Defense Department was simply that Amchitka was a remote, and therefore safe, testing ground. “The site was selectedand I underscore the pointbecause of the virtually zero likelihood of any damage,” claimed James Schlesinger, then chairman of the AEC.

What Schlesinger and his cohorts overlooked was the remarkable culture of the Aleuts. Amchitka may have been remote from the continental United States, but for nearly 10,000 years it had been the home of the Aleuts. Indeed, anthropologists believe the islands around Amchitka may be the oldest continuously inhabited area in North America. The Aleuts left Amchitka in the 1880s after Russian fur traders had wiped out the sea otter population, but they continued to inhabit nearby islands and relied on the waters near Amchitka for subsistence. The Aleuts raised forceful objections to the tests, pointing to the risk of radiation leaks, earthquakes and tsunamis that might overwhelm their coastal villages. These concerns were never addressed by the federal government. In fact, the Aleuts were never consulted about the possible dangers at all.

In 1965, the Long Shot test exploded an 80 kiloton bomb. The $10 million test, the first one supervised by the Pentagon and not the AEC, was really a trial run for bigger things to come. But small as it was, there were immediate problems. Despite claims by the Pentagon that the test site would not leak, radioactive tritium and krypton-85 began to seep into freshwater lakes almost instantly. But evidence of radioactivity, collected by Defense Department scientists only three months after the test, was kept secret for five years. The bomb site continues to spill toxins into the environment. In 1993, EPA researchers detected high levels of tritium in groundwater samples taken near the test site.

The contamination from Long Shot didn’t deter the Pentagon bomb-testers. In 1969, the AEC drilled a hole 4,000 feet deep into the rock of Amchitka and set off the Milrow nuclear test. The one megaton blast was 10 times as powerful as Long Shot. The AEC called it a “calibration test” designed to see if Amchitka could withstand a much larger test. The evidence should have convinced them of their dangerous folly. The blast triggered a string of small earthquakes and several massive landslides; knocked water from ponds, rivers and lakes more than 50 feet into the air; and, according to government accounts, “turned the surrounding sea to froth.”

A year later, the AEC and the Pentagon announced their plans for the Cannikin nuclear test. At five megatons, Cannikin was to be the biggest underground nuclear explosion ever conducted by the United States. The blast would be 385 times as powerful as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Cannikin became a rallying point for native groups, anti-war and anti-nuke activists, and the nascent environmental movement. Indeed, it was opposition to Cannikin by Canadian and American greens, who tried to disrupt the test by taking boats near the island, that sparked the birth of Greenpeace.

A lawsuit was filed in federal court, charging that the test violated the Limited Test Ban Treaty and the newly enacted National Environmental Policy Act. In a 4 to 3 decision, the Supreme Court refused to halt the test. What the Court didn’t know, however, was that six federal agencies, including the departments of State and Interior, and the fledgling EPA, had lodged serious objections to the Cannikin test, ranging from environmental and health concerns to legal and diplomatic problems. Nixon issued an executive order to keep the comments from being released. These documents, known as the Cannikin Papers, came to symbolize the continuing pattern of secrecy and cover-up that typified the nation’s nuclear testing program. Even so, five hours after the ruling was handed down on Nov. 6, 1971, the AEC and the Pentagon pulled the switch, detonating the Cannikin bomb.

In an effort to calm growing public opposition, AEC chief Schlesinger dismissed environmental protesters and the Aleuts as doomsayers, taking his family with him to watch the test. “It’s fun for the kids and my wife is delighted to get away from the house for awhile,” he quipped.

With the Schlesingers looking on, the Cannikin bomb, a 300-foot-long device implanted in a mile-deep hole under Cannikin lake, exploded with the force of an earthquake registering 7.0 on the Richter Scale. The shock of the blast scooped a mile-wide, 60-foot-deep subsidence crater in the ground over the test site and triggered massive rockfalls.

The immediate ecological damage from the blast was staggering. Nearly 1,000 sea otters, a species once hunted to near extinction, were killedtheir skulls crushed by the shockwaves of the explosion. Other marine mammals died when their eyes were blown out of their sockets or when their lungs ruptured. Thousands of birds also perished, their spines snapped and their legs pushed through their bodies. (Neither the Pentagon nor the Fish and Wildlife Service has ever studied the long-term ecological consequences of the Amchitka explosions.) Most worrisome was that a large volume of water from White Alice Creek vanished after the blast. The disappearance of the creek was more than a sign of Cannikin’s horrific power. It was also an indication that the project had gone terribly wrong; the blast ruptured the crust of the earth, sucking the creek into a brand new aquifer, a radioactive one.

In the months following the explosion, blood and urine samples were taken from Aleuts living in the village of Adak on a nearby island. The samples were shown to have abnormally high levels of tritium and cesium-137, both known carcinogens. Despite these alarming findings, the feds never went back to Adak to conduct follow-up medical studies. The Aleuts, who continue their seafaring lifestyle, are particularly vulnerable to radiation-contaminated fish and marine mammals, and radiation that might spread through the Bering Sea, plants and iceflows.

But the Aleuts weren’t the only ones exposed to Cannikin’s radioactive wrath. More than 1,500 workers who helped build the test sites, operate the bomb tests and clean up afterward were also put at risk. The AEC never conducted medical studies on any of these laborers. When the Alaska District Council of Laborers of the AFL-CIO, began looking into the matter in the early ’90s, the DOE claimed that none of the workers had been exposed to radiation. They later were forced to admit that exposure records and dosimeter badges had been lost.

In 1996, two Greenpeace researchers, Pam Miller and Norm Buske, returned to Amchitka. Buske, a physicist, collected water and plant samples from various sites on the island. Despite claims by the DOE that the radiation would be contained, the samples taken by Buske revealed the presence of plutonium and americium-241 in freshwater plants at the edge of the Bering Sea. In other words, Cannikin continues to leak. Both of these radioactive elements are extremely toxic and have half-lives of hundreds of years.

In part because of the report issued by Miller and Buske, a new sense of urgency was lent to the claims of laborers who said they had become sick after working at the Amchitka nuclear site. In 1998, the union commissioned a study by Rosalie Bertell, a former consultant to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (which replaced the AEC). Bertell found that hundreds of Amchitka workers were exposed to ionizing radiation at five times the level then recognized as hazardous. However, the research is complicated by the fact that many of the records from the Amchitka blast remain classified and others were simply tossed away. “The loss of worker exposure records, or the failure to keep such records, was inexcusable,” Bertell says.

One of the driving forces behind the effort to seek justice for the Amchitka workers and the Aleuts is Beverley Aleck. Her husband Nick helped drill the mile-deep pit for the Cannikin test; four years later, he died of myelogenous leukemia, a type of cancer associated with radiation exposure. Aleck, an Aleut, has waged a multi-year battle with the DOE to open the records and to begin a health monitoring program for the Amchitka workers. For more than four decades promised health surveys of the Amchitka workers have languished without funding.

Will the victims of the Amchitka blasts ever get justice? Don’t count on it. For starters, the Aleuts and Amchitka workers are specifically excluded by the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act from receiving medical assistance, death benefits or financial compensation. There is a move to amend this legal loophole, but even that wouldn’t mean the workers and Aleuts would be treated fairly. The DOE has tried repeatedly to stiff arm other cases by either dismissing the link between radiation exposure and cancer or, when that fails, invoking a “sovereignty” doctrine, which claims the agency is immune from civil lawsuits.

Dr. Paul Seligman, former deputy assistant secretary of the DOE’s Office of Health Studies, writes it off as the price of the Cold War. “These were hazardous operations,” Seligman says. “The hazards were well understood, but the priorities at the time were weapons production and the defense of the nation.”

At a time when the mainstream press and Republican politicians are howling over lax security at nuclear weapons sites and Chinese espionage, a more dangerous betrayal of trust is the withholding of test data from the American public. China may use the Los Alamos secrets to upgrade its tiny nuclear arsenal, but the Amchitka explosions already have imperiled a thriving marine ecosystem and caused dozens of lethal cancers.

The continuing cover-up and manipulation of information by the DOE not only denies justice to the victims of Amchitka, but indicates that those living near other DOE sites may be at great risk. “DOE management of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex is of the old school in which bad news is hidden,” says Pamela Miller, now executive director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics. “This conflicts with sound risk management and makes the entire system inherently risky. The overwhelming threat is of an unanticipated catastrophe.”

JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the editor of CounterPunch and the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of NatureGrand Theft Pentagon and Born Under a Bad Sky. His latest book is Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net.

This essay is adapted from a chapter of Grand Theft Pentagon.