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by Tom Thomson
In 1965, Longshot, a series of three underground nuclear detonations were set off on Amchitka, an island in the Aleutian Chain that had previously been used by the U. S. military during World War II. Milrow was shot off in 1969, and the five-megaton Cannikan shot, the largest underground test in United States history, was detonated in 1971.
Some of the effects of the Cannikan blast are described in The Firecracker Boys. Shorebirds had their legs driven up into their bodies, the eyeballs of sea otters and seals burst through their skulls, lakes drained, the landscape was altered, and unknown amounts of radiation escaped into the environment.
In spite of the fact the island had been described as a "subarctic junkyard," prior to the blasts, wildlife was abundant. Salmon, cod, halibut, and sole inhabited the offshore waters. On and around the island there were Stellar's sea lions, seals, and a large population of sea otters.
The island had once been declared part of a national wildlife refuge by executive order, with the provision that it could be used for "lighthouse, military, or naval purposes."
On shore, a hundred or more pairs of bald eagles and perhaps as many as twenty pairs of peregrine falcons shared the cliffs with thousands of murres, puffins, cormorants, and guillemots. The fate of most of these birds was unknown after the blasts.
Imagine the chagrin and outrage of Eskimo communities in northwest Alaska when in 1992 it was revealed that in 1962 the AEC "had contracted with the U. S. Geological Survey to conduct experiments with radioactive tracers at the Chariot site." Worse, when the experiments were finished, according to O'Neill, "the scientists buried radioisotopes 1,000 times in excess of federal regulations."
After a great deal of public clamor and governmental waffling, the site was finally cleaned up, although it seems details are lacking as to how efficiently the job was done.
Random observations: These revelations were in the news just a few years after the calamitous Exxon Valdez accident when 11 millions gallons of crude oil were spilled into Prince William Sound in southeastern Alaska. Regarding the Project Chariot episode, Barry Commoner is reported to have said: " . . . Project Chariot can be regarded as the ancestral birthplace of at least a large segment of the environmental movement."
So the curtain rang down on the great Alaskan atomic caper, and somehow I am reminded of some thoughts expressed by naturalist and author John Hay when he wrote: "We force the worlds of life into a corner. They become a sacrifice to our monopoly of space; but all true sharing, and interchange, lies not in us but in the unseen allowances of wilderness space. Listen to the music and you hear the earth's designs."
Another time he said, "I also found a fragile cup, all that was left of a broken egg shell, a symbol of where life begins, the shell of the womb, the shape of the globe itself."
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