island go boom

by marjorieingall on July 7, 2010

My uncle, Michael Krepon, tells quite a tale over at Arms Control Wonk. Uncle Michael is a scholar, think-tanker and international-peace-fighter-for. And the video, despite musical accompaniment that is cheesily dramatic (and unnecessary — the content does the job just fine), terrified me. It’s about American nuclear testing in the Aleutian islands, and I promise this is no boring history lesson. 

I’m embarrassed to say that I knew next to nothing about the nuclear goings-on in the Aleutian Islands. I learned from Uncle Michael that there were three underground atomic blasts. The last and biggest was on November 6, 1971, on Amchitka, a 42-mile-long uninhabited island off the coast of Alaska. Producing a 5.1-megaton explosion, it was the largest underground test ever conducted in in the United States. (Read that sentence again. How did I not know about this?) Greenpeace was formed as part of the protest movement against such testing. And rightly so – the tests had a huge environmental impact. The blast killed between 700 and 2000 sea otters, triggered numerous small earthquakes, and could still be causing radioactive material to leak into the ocean from below ground today. Alaskan Aleuts sued to try to halt the final test, and environmental groups joined their fight, but the Supreme Court ruled that the military could go ahead. The explosion on Amchitka had almost 400 times the power of the Hiroshima bomb. It lifted the ground 20 feet, shot geysers of river water and mud 50 feet into the air, and created a new mile-wide lake. Seriously, the video is mindblowing.

Uncle Michael recommends the book Amchitka and the Bomb (sounds like a disco group) by the late Dean Kohlhoff, a professor of history at Valparaiso University in Indiana. Kohlhoff  “traces the enormous environmental impact of the blasts on the Aleutian wildlife refuge system,” says Uncle Michael. “He also examines the social and political fallout from the tests on Aleut civilian populations.” The book also delves into the activism of new environmental groups like Greenpeace, The Wilderness Society and Friends of the Earth.  “Its concise interweaving of the military, scientific, economic, and social implications surrounding the nuclear explosions on Amchitka Island exposes the unpleasant consequences of allowing treasured national values to become victim to political necessity.”

“Allowing treasured national values to become victim to political necessity?” Thank goodness that could never happen today!

Now watch the video and feel sick. (FYI, the military’s name for the third nuclear test was Cannikin. Hence the title.) The video was produced and directed by Peter Kuran. A commenter on Uncle Michael’s blog says the footage includes a shot from the first blast, Long Shot, in 1965. Given that that was a much smaller blast than Cannikin — still harrowing!

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: