What Happened to the Nuclear Test Sites?

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00:00   |   Mar 14, 2018


What Happened to the Nuclear Test Sites?
What Happened to the Nuclear Test Sites? thumb What Happened to the Nuclear Test Sites? thumb What Happened to the Nuclear Test Sites? thumb


  • Since the formation of the United States, its mainland has never been invaded or
  • had any major attack but there are places there which have had more nuclear
  • explosions than anywhere else on earth. Of the 1054 U.S. nuclear tests, 928 were
  • carried out on the US mainland mostly at the Nevada Test Site but it wasn't just
  • the US testing nukes, the Soviets, British, French, Chinese,
  • Indian and Pakistanis and more recently the North Koreans have all tested
  • nuclear weapons some on their own territory and some in remote locations
  • around the world in the air, on land, underwater and even in space but by far
  • it's the U.S. and the Soviets that would have been the biggest players. But what happened
  • at and to the nuclear test sites. The very first full-scale nuclear test was
  • the Trinity explosion of May 16 1945 at the White Sands Missile Range in New
  • Mexico. This was to prove the theories developed by the Manhattan Project would
  • actually work in reality. Trinity was an implosion device that used plutonium,
  • this was in response to the original design which was a gun type device that
  • used uranium-235 but at the time uranium-235 had to be
  • refined almost an atom at a time and even using a massive x10 graphite
  • reactor of the newly constructed Oak Ridge National Laboratory, it would take
  • years to get enough uranium-235 for just one bomb. Plutonium could be
  • made much easier in the reactor but in order to make it become critical and an
  • explosive device, a ball of it would have to be compressed to about half its size
  • with an explosive lens and this is what the Trinity test was all about. As the
  • bomb exploded the 30-meter metal tower, its support structure and the bomb
  • casing itself was vaporized along with the sand of the desert floor below
  • as the vaporized material cooled and fell back to the ground
  • it became a green glossy mineral now called Trinitite. In some of the greenish
  • glass there are patches of red which is thought to be the copper wire which was
  • used to trigger the explosive lens. Just after the war
  • samples of Trinitite were sold as jewelry because it was thought that the
  • fireball had just melted the sand and it wasn't particularly radioactive, although
  • now it's illegal to take samples from the site which is open to the public
  • twice a year. The level of radiation at the Trinity Ground Zero site is now
  • approximately for one hour of exposure about the same as the average U.S.
  • citizen would get per day from natural radiation sources. Following the war
  • nuclear testing moved to the Nevada proving grounds about a 100km
  • northwest of Las Vegas. From 1951 until 1962, 100 above ground
  • tests were performed becoming a bit of a tourist attraction in Las Vegas where
  • they could feel a seismic shock wave through the ground and see the mushroom
  • cloud rising in the distance. At the time even though the effects of radiation
  • were becoming much more well-known about, little was done to reduce for Fallout.
  • But it wasn't just bombs which they tested the government wanted to know how
  • building's, infrastructure and people might fare if there was a nuclear attack.
  • So they built typical American houses, fully furnished, industrial buildings
  • parts of bridges, electrical supply stations, even bank vaults in the test
  • zone and exploded nuclear devices nearby. They tested different types of concrete
  • and building materials to see which would be more resilient, in fact many of
  • the building codes now in use today are based on the results of these nuclear
  • tests. As part of the government's attempts to reassure the public that
  • things like their money and valuable documents and records would be safe in
  • the event of a nuclear attack, Edwin Mosler the president the Mosler
  • safe company whose biggest customer was the government built an armored vault on
  • the Frenchmen flats area near a 37 kiloton test to prove it
  • it would withstand the heat and blast, which it did, and it's still there today,
  • minus the door which was removed afterwards. Air bursts are considered cleaner than
  • ones just above the ground because if the fireball reaches the ground, soil and
  • other materials are sucked up into the fireball and mixed with the nuclear
  • elements to make a highly radioactive cloud that can travel for hundreds of
  • kilometres. In 1953, a 32 kiloton device nicknamed 'Harry' was detonated. The device
  • later became known as 'Dirty Harry' because this test generated more fallout
  • than any other US continental test. Due to an error and an unexpected change in
  • the wind direction the fallout was blown over 200 kilometers and over the city of
  • St. George Utah where the people said there was an oddly metallic sort of
  • taste in the air. But the prevailing winds carried the fallout from many of
  • the Nevada tests over southern Utah. But the effects were spread across much
  • of a mid US affecting over 3,000 counties and causing a marked increase
  • in the number of cancers from the mid 1950s up until the early 1980s. As of
  • 2014, the US government had approved 28,000 880 claims for a total of $1.9
  • billion in compensation to servicemen at the test ranges and to the
  • public who had been exposed to radioactive fallout. Because of a partial
  • test ban treaty of 1963, atmospheric tests were banned and all testing went
  • underground. The thinking was that if the test could be contained deep underground
  • there will be little or no fallout but they could still contaminate underground
  • water sources if poorly located. In this shot of the
  • area from Google Earth, each one of the small circular marks is a subsidence
  • crater formed as a result of an underground test. Some 828 were done this
  • way, the biggest of these which can be seen unaided from space as
  • part of Operation Plowshare to see if nuclear devices could be used in the
  • peaceful use of excavating large areas of land quickly. The sedan crater which
  • is 100 meters deep and 390 meters across was formed by a 104 kiloton
  • device detonated a 194 meters underground in july 1962. The
  • test displaced 11 million tons of soil but the fallout which spread northeast
  • wards in two separate clouds as far as Iowa was found to be too highly
  • radioactive to make this a practical peaceful use of nuclear explosions in
  • the u.s. at least but it has believed to have been used in the Soviet Union. Today
  • the Sedan crater can be visited and the levels of radiation are safe enough as not to
  • warrant any protective clothing. However in the Soviet Union at this time there
  • was less of a concern for the health and safety of the rural population of
  • Kazakhstan near the Semipalatinsk test site which was also known as the polygon.
  • The test site was created as a top priority on the orders of Stalin by the
  • Marshal of a Soviet Union and head of the NKVD secret police ever Lavrentiy Beria .
  • in 1947. The facilities were built on an 18,000 square kilometer area of the steppe
  • in northeastern Kazakhstan with gulag forced labor in what Beria said was
  • uninhabited land but actually had around about a million people living within a
  • 160 kilometre radius of a site and had many villages much closer.
  • Between 1949 and 1989, 456 tests were performed of that 116 were above ground
  • either air dropped or on towers the last of which occurred in 1962. The total yield
  • of the tests over the site's 40-year history is equivalent to about 400
  • Hiroshima sized bombs or about 6 megatons. After the collapse of the Soviet
  • Union and Kazakhstan became a separate country, the area was neglected and
  • nuclear materials were left unguarded in mountain tunnels
  • and bore holes, many of which were targeted by scavengers looking for scrap
  • metal but not necessarily knowing what they were picking up. The significant
  • amounts of plutonium left behind were considered to be one of the biggest
  • nuclear security threats and in 2012 Russian, US and Kazakh scientists
  • completed a secret 17 year, $150 million cleanup operation to make
  • the site safe which included things like filling bore holes and tunnels with
  • special concrete with chemically bonded with plutonium. It's only in the last few
  • years of a scale of radiation damage has come to light. The Soviet state
  • covered up the extent of the damage for decades and it wasn't until 1956 that
  • any studies were conducted into the effects on the local population. The
  • Institute of radiation medicine and ecology in Semey or what was known as
  • Semipalatinsk has said that between 500,000 and 1 million people were
  • exposed to substantial radiation doses when the atmospheric tests were being
  • carried out, which led to a dramatic increase in cancer, birth defects and
  • mortality from the effects of radiation. You can find out more in the
  • report by the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs at the address
  • shown now and also in the description. But for the biggest Soviet tests they needed
  • somewhere even more remote, Novoa Zemlya is a crescent-shaped island group in the
  • Arctic Ocean off of the northern coast of Russia. There are 3 test zones on the
  • islands zones, A B and C. It's most famous for being the place where the
  • largest-ever nuclear test took place October 31st 1961 when the Tsar Bomba a
  • 50-megaton nuclear device was dropped over test zone C. Originally designed to
  • have a yield of 100 megatons it was scaled back because of fears of
  • the large amount of fallout it would create and that the plane carrying the
  • bomb would not be able to escape the fireball in time. Even with a 50-megaton
  • blast, the specially modified Tu-95V was only
  • given a 50% chance of survival. The Tsar
  • Bomba was detonated at 14,000 feet, 4,260m
  • creating a fireball 8 kilometers across but it was stopped from reaching
  • the ground by his own huge shock wave reflected back from the ground. The
  • release plane managed to get 45 kilometers away before the detonation
  • but it still dropped a kilometer in the air due to the shockwave, however it made
  • it back to base safely and the pilot flying the plane resigned from the airforce
  • shortly after a test. The explosion was so large that the fireball was visible
  • over a 1000 kilometers away. Every building within a 55 kilometers radius was
  • destroyed, wooden houses in districts hundreds of kilometers away were
  • destroyed and stone ones had their roofs blown off of windows and doors blown in.
  • The mushroom cloud reached an altitude of 65 kilometers or 213,000 feet,
  • seven times of a height of Everest and the heat from the fireball
  • could create third-degree burns a 100 kilometers away. This wasn't the
  • only test carried out at Novaya Zemlya, there were 224 nuclear detonations with
  • a total yield of 265 megatons that's a 132 times more than
  • the total amount of munitions used by all sides during World War two including
  • the two atomic bombs on Japan. The last nuclear test was carried out there in
  • 1990 and today it's still a military test area although mostly a barren
  • Arctic island. Visitors there have found only slightly raised levels of radiation
  • but access to the main test sites is not possible. Tor the larger US tests they
  • also used remote islands and atolls but this time in the South Pacific. Testing
  • started there in 1948 after the islands came under control of the US as part of
  • the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands and by 1962, 105 atmospheric and
  • underwater tests had been carried out. The first ever test after Trinity and
  • Japanese atomic bombs was to find out if Navy ships could withstand a nuclear
  • attack. Operation crossroads was performed in a lagoon at Bikini Atoll
  • because of its remote location suitable weather and only a small population of a
  • 167 people which were relocated. The Galapagos Islands had
  • also been considered as a possible nuclear test site. The test was witnessed
  • by invited members of the press and the public. Over 90 ships including captured
  • German, Japanese and surplus US ships would make up the test fleet in the
  • lagoon. This was to be a three bomb test the first being called 'Able' was an
  • airdrop exploding 158 meters above the fleet with
  • the following tests being underwater. All three bombs were to be the same as the
  • 23 kiloton 'Fatman' implosion bomb dropped on Nagasaki. The 'Able' test
  • was hampered by the bomb being 650 meters off target. Five ships were sunk
  • and 14 seriously damaged. The second test called 'Baker' was an underwater test
  • the first time that this had occurred. It created a host of effects many of which
  • had never been seen before but the biggest was the fact that it made the
  • sea in the lagoon highly radioactive. The radiation was so bad that many of the
  • ships could not be decontaminated but some in the Navy didn't believe the
  • problem was real. It was only when a navy surgeon who retrieved a fish from a
  • lagoon and placed it next to a piece of photographic film which it exposed that
  • they decided to cancel the third test. Only five ships were able to be used
  • after the test and the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission Glenn T Seaborg
  • called it the world's first nuclear disaster. In 1952, the first hydrogen bomb
  • test codenamed Ivy Mike took place at the
  • bigger Eniwetok atoll 320 kilometers east of bikini. This
  • wasn't so much a bomb as a scientific experiment as the
  • hydrogen fuel had to be cooled in a massive cryogenic plant. When it was
  • detonated it produced a yield of 10.4 megatons but over 8 megatons
  • of that came from the fast fission of the uranium temper which
  • created a huge amount of fallout and an underwater crater 1.9 kilometers wide
  • and 50 meters deep. By 1954 the hydrogen bomb had been refined to become a device
  • that could be dropped from a plane and on the 28th of February the first of six
  • bomb tests were carried out as part of Operation Castle at Bikini Atoll. The
  • Castle Bravo test was estimated to have a yield of 6 megatons but due to an
  • unexpectedly high performance of the lithium-7 in the design it actually had
  • a yield of 15 megatons and to this day is the largest U.S. nuclear explosion.
  • Because of a much greater power, the fall out was much more than expected with
  • highly radioactive calcium from the vaporized coral reef below the bomb not
  • only covering the Bikini Atoll itself but also blowing eastwards and
  • contaminating other atolls where both US personnel and Islanders were residing at
  • the time. A Japanese fishing boat was also caught in the fallout and one
  • member of a crew died of radiation sickness a few days afterwards. To this
  • day Bikini Atoll is still heavily contaminated and crops grown there are
  • not safe to eat. At Eniwetok, a crater on the small island of Runet which had
  • been formed by a bomb test was used by the U.S. to dump contaminated topsoil
  • and radioactive debris including plutonium from a bomb that failed to
  • explode correctly. Starting in 1977 four thousand U.S. servicemen worked for three
  • years to clean up the area and then cover the waste with a concrete dome.
  • However, this was only meant to be a temporary measure until something more
  • permanent could be arranged and only 4 out of the 40 islands contaminated
  • were cleaned. Because of this the bottom of a test crater was not lined with concrete
  • and so now with rising sea-levels caused by climate change, sea water is
  • seeping inside through the porous bedrock into the dome and leaching out
  • radioactive material. But the seabed of the Eniwetok lagoon is actually as
  • radioactive as the material under the dome. It's been estimated that it will
  • cost nearly a billion dollars to clean up the area effectively and instead it's
  • proposed that contaminated areas be treated with potassium which were only
  • cost around about a $100 million. Many of the U.S. servicemen that built the dome
  • and worked on the cleanup claim they were not told they will be cleaning up
  • radioactive waste and were not given proper training or protective clothing.
  • In the decades since the end of the cleanup
  • many have died of cancer and had other health problems which they say is
  • related to their exposure to radiation. However because they were not at the
  • test sites when the tests were being performed the U.S. government says they
  • are not eligible for compensation. The full effects of nuclear testing are
  • difficult to quantify but there has been a growing body of evidence over the last
  • 60 years or so. Whichever way you look at it every nuclear power put the
  • development of increasingly more devastating weapons ahead of the health
  • and safety of not only their own people but also many others for generations to
  • come who were far removed from the political decision-makers and that is
  • the legacy of the nuclear test sites. In 1991 a study by the International
  • physicians for the Prevention of nuclear war the IPPNW estimated that by the year
  • 2000, 430,000 cancer deaths would have been related to atmospheric testing and
  • concluded but eventually about 2.4 million deaths would be the result of
  • the nuclear tests. So what are your thoughts on the issues of nuclear tests
  • and the effects they've had and are still having let me know in the comments
  • below and also don't forget to subscribe, thumbs up and share the video please.
  • Although over tests were the practical demonstration of the Theory's, the ideas
  • themselves came from the brightest minds in maths and physics using nothing more
  • than slide rules on blackboards but even the best had to start somewhere. If you
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Nuclear testing ended over 20 years ago but the legacy of the test areas still remains and will do for hundreds or thousands of years. 8 countries have actively tested nuclear weapons, some in their own backyard if it was big enough like the Soviet Union and the US but they also used others peoples backyards in the Pacific, the British and French did this.

But what happened to the test sites, in this video we look at the US and Soviet test programs and what became of them and the people nearby.

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Presented by Paul Shillito

Written and researched by Paul Shillito

Images and Footage
Atomic energy Commission,
Dept of Defence,
University of California / PNAS,
Carl Willis,
US Dept of Energy, AtomicHeritage,
Laboratory of Environmental Studies

For more info on the cleanup of the Eniwetok atoll by the US servicemen visit http://www.atomiccleanupvets.com

NUPI report in the Semipalatinsk nuclear testing: The humanitarian consequences

The periodic table at # courtesy of Todd Helmenstine, sciencenotes.org