The American West at Risk: Science, Myths, and Politics of Land Abuse and Recovery

By Howard G. Wilshire; Jane E. Nielson et al. | Go to book overview

Appendix 6
Plutonium Fields Forever

Six years before the 1963 Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty went into effect, a nuclear bomb test called “Project 57” took place at “Area 13” on Nellis Air Force Range, Nevada, near the Nevada Test Site. Area 13 is about 6.5 miles northwest of the center of Groom Dry Lake in Area 51, famous for highly publicized 1950s weird phenomena and extraterrestrial speculations.1 Project 57 was one of about 30 so-called “safety” tests, ostensibly to develop monitoring and cleanup procedures, which purposely scattered plutonium particles to study the dispersal patterns.

Of all the “safety tests,” only the Area 13 experiment involved a real nuclear warhead.2 The bomb’s detonation was not a nuclear reaction, however—instead, high explosives blew up and fragmented the warhead, scattering plutonium fragments across more than 1,000 acres (figure A6.1).3 Unfortunately, follow-up studies on Area 13 were mostly preliminary, and they ended in the mid-1980s without examining the long-term consequences of plutonium contamination in the pulverized soils.

The Area 13 experiment was certainly an unqualified “success” from the perspective of dispersing highly toxic and flammable plutonium widely into the environment. The site still is highly contaminated and will remain so for some 240,000 years. Clearly, neither this project nor the other safety tests yielded practical plutonium cleanup methods, and any efforts to monitor the hazards fizzled. Because the Area 13 experiment emulated possible-to-likely terrorist attack scenarios using nuclear materials, it is of great interest in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

Soon after the test explosion, experimenters sequentially placed 70–80 caged dogs in the contaminated area over 4–161 days, to examine what would happen to them after inhaling plutonium in the dust.4 The researchers then killed and dissected the dogs. Between 1970 and 1986, other Area 13 follow-up studies examined the sizes of plutonium fragments from the explosion; effects of

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