"I'm going to speak my mind because I have nothing to lose."--S.I. Hayakawa

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Aftershocks, Part III

We called them the “Glow in the Dark Boys.” They were on Amchitka Island in the Aleutian Chain to discover if any demons were escaping from their man-made hell, leeching into ponds and streams, poisoning the low-growing vegetation, or rising into the atmosphere.

The Glow in the Dark Boys assured us construction workers all was safe, but when they went into the field—and they had specific places they tested—they wore full anti-contamination suits.

Working for the Atomic Energy Commission, they performed annual tests at three spots on the island where the U.S. had conducted underground nuclear explosions. The first was Long Shot, an 80 kiloton blast in 1965. Its purpose was to differentiate between the shock waves of underground nuclear tests and those of earthquakes. All the better to spy on what Russia was doing, my dears.

Road entering from the left is actually a WWII runway. Sea planes landed in the water and taxied ashore and onto the runway. Old military fuel tanks were still in use in 1988. Beyond the fuel tanks, over the low ridge, is Constantine Harbor.

The second, in 1969 and close to the same area, was named Milrow, a 1-megaton blast. It was a calibration shot to determine whether another planned underground test could safely be detonated on the island. That future shot was named Cannikin.

Sea lion rocks off the south end of the island.

The Atomic Energy Commission was playing with fire, quite literally. Amchitka is part of the “Ring of Fire,” a band of tectonically unstable land prone to frequent and severe earthquakes, and volcanic activity. Activists rallied to protest the underground testing, fearing another, much larger, blast could trigger earthquakes and tsunamis. According to a well-documented Wikipedia article, a group called the Don’t Make a Wave met in Vancouver to decide whether to fight the up-coming Cannikin blast.

Military road to the North End. Typical construction ran road along the tops of mountains to avoid drainage problems.

“As he was leaving,” reads the article, “one man gave the traditional farewell of the peace-activist movement, ‘Peace.’

"‘Make it a green peace,’ replied another member. The committee would later become Greenpeace.”

The intent to use Amchitka Island for underground nuclear tests was announced in 1965, a year after Southcentral Alaska had suffered massive damage from the largest earthquake ever recorded on the North American continent. In addition to its 9.2 MM strength, the quake had lasted for up to five and a half minutes. Tsunamis generated by the quake struck the coasts of Oregon and California, included many seaside towns and villages in Alaska. The populace feared another quake could be generated by the underground tests.

WWII chapel built by GIs. Rolling tundra is typical of vegetation and geology at the south end of the island.

The AEC assured the governor of Alaska that there was no such danger and went ahead with its plans. Long Shot and Milrow went off as planned. Some miles away, a shaft 5875 feet deep was bored into the ground, and a 52 foot wide cavity mined at the bottom of the shaft. This was where Cannikin, a test of the Spartan anti-ballistic missile warhead, was to be detonated.

The Cannikin warhead being lowered into the underground test shaft. Photo from Dept. of Energy.

SemiSOB Island.

All personnel on the island were evacuated to nearby volcanic Semisophochnoi Island just prior to detonation of Cannikin. Construction workers "affectionately" called it Semi-Son-of-a-Bitch Island.

Concrete plug and monument over the Cannikin shaft. Cannikin lake in background. Note how the area around the lake has sunk, a blast-caused effect. The Bering Sea is visible in the background.

At around five megatons, it was the largest underground test in U.S. history. A force four hundred times the strength of the Hiroshima bomb lifted the ground twenty feet. A resulting crater, caused by subsidence and ground faults at the site, created a lake over a mile wide. The seismic shock of the Cannikin blast measured 7 on the Richter scale.

The number of sea otters and birdlife killed by the test was far greater than the number predicted by the AEC.

Today, the Cannikin shaft site is topped with a concrete plug. On top of that is a brass plate that reads:

November 6, 1971

As a test of the warhead for a Spartan missile of the Safeguard Ballistic Missile Defense Program, Operation Cannikin was detonated to measure the yield of the device, measure the x-ray flux and spectrum, and assure deployment of a reliable design.

The Cannikin test of a nuclear device of under five megatons was detonated at a depth of 5875 feet in volcanic breccia within a mined fifty-two foot diameter spherical cavity.

I visited the site several times. I stood on the concrete plug and photographed the plaque. I sat on the tundra off to the side and saw how the surface had given way and formed Lake Cannikin. As the tundra on this island goes, it’s a fairly common sight. The lake adds a scenic touch, but there are many other places on the island that have jaw-dropping scenery.

Military housing units from WWII. Heat from the interiors caused the buildings to sink into the tundra. Thousands of feet pounded the tundra into a muddy quagmire.

Only the AEC and other nuclear scientists know what lurks beneath that concrete plug. Reports conflict as to whether some of the demons are escaping. The Glow in the Dark Boys told us all was safe, but they wore their protective clothing into the field. Testing will continue until 2025.

In the meantime, those of us who worked on Amchitka during the AEC days, or during the days of the construction project in which I was involved, have been summoned for health exams, and follow-up exams. Those who have certain diseases associated with known harmful substances are compensated.

Stellar sea lions on Amchitka. Populations of Stellar sea lions decreased dramatically in the last twenty years. Numerous studies are underway to determine a cause.

So far, I’ve escaped being caught by one of those demons, despite my close up and personal visit to their playground.

I well remember the furor in Alaska prior to the underground tests, especially having experienced the 1964 Great Alaskan Earthquake. I recall the sense of impending doom as the Cannikin test neared, and a surreal quality about the day itself. We felt nothing after the blast--no earthquake, no end of the world. Just another day, but one marked with a feeeling that our world had changed.

It was in a different time, those underground tests. We faced different challenges in the defense of our country. But, it‘s something to think about, how a remote and beautiful island was injured permanently in the furtherance of weapons and warheads.

(to be continued)

1 comment:

  1. On my short sojourn to Amchitka I was amazed at the stark beauty of this desolate island. I vividly remember the eerie feeling of standing on the Cannikin plug. Your words and photos bring back a lot of great memories. Thanx!