When official announcement was made of the first planned nuclear test on Amchitka Island, the response of then-Alaska Governor William J. Egan was to declare that, “I am pleased that we have been selected as the hosts, so to speak, for this test, and I’m sure I speak for my fellow Alaskans.” He stated that 140 previous tests in Nevada had “proven that there is no danger from radioactivity being released in the test area.”
In fact, 56 of those 140 Nevada tests had leaked radioactivity. And so did that first Amchitka test, dubbed Long Shot, which was detonated on October 29, 1965.
The explosion, which had a force equivalent to 80,000 tons of TNT, was detonated 2,300 feet below ground. Even so, cracks appeared in the earth, there were rockfalls along the Bering Sea coast as far as 10,000 feet northeast of ground zero, water levels dropped in nearby lakes, lichens were literally drowned by subsequent flooding, and mud geysers burst into the air.
Long Shot was just the beginning of the nuclear age in the Aleutians, and but the latest violation of the island of Amchitka.
It is not known for certain how many thousands of years Native peoples had inhabited Amchitka before the arrival of the first Russian fur traders in 1761, but a little more than a century later, they were gone: some forcibly displaced by the Russians to work at nearby Adak, some killed by previously unknown diseases, others the victims of a society fragmented, disrupted, and ultimately destroyed by Russian and American colonizers.
In 1913, President William H. Taft signed an executive order setting aside the Aleutian chain, including Amchitka, as a wildlife reservation; but the declaration left open plenty of loopholes for economic and military activity, and was of little consequence when confronted with the specter of war.
After Japanese forces bombed Dutch Harbor, and invaded the far western Aleutian islands of Attu and Kiska, in 1942, the United States military moved into Amchitka in force, building a dock and a landing strip, and housing up to 16,000 military personnel. With the cessation of hostilities, Amchitka briefly was allowed to return to its status as a wildlife reservation—albeit one that was now littered with ordnance, and that had been battered and bruised by the boots of thousands of soldiers and sailors.
But then came Long Shot, and four years after Long Shot came Milrow. The plan had originally been to dub the test “Ganja,” until somebody in Washington, DC discovered the word’s more common usage, prompting the name to be changed amid fears that the press would start referring to it as a “pot shot.”
By the time the one-megaton Milrow was detonated, the political climate, stirred by the Vietnam War, had shifted. For the first time since the War of 1812, the Douglas Border crossing between British Columbia and Washington State was closed down, blocked by 2,000 protestors.
Milrow, however, was but a rehearsal, a warm-up act for the main event. Milrow’s principal purpose had been to test whether Amchitka could withstand an even larger blast, and that blast, codenamed Cannikin, was detonated on November 6, 1971. At five megatons, it was 250 times the yield of the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki, and it endured a series of protests, from the legal—the test proceeded only after withstanding a Supreme Court challenge—and the dramatic, most notably attempts by two vessels from a nascent group called Greenpeace to reach the test site and protest or even prevent the explosion.
Cannikin was the largest underground nuclear test ever conducted by the United States—so large that of it comprised 14 percent of the total yield of all 730 underground nuclear tests in US history.
The blast registered a 7.0 on the Richter scale and caused a subsidence crater over a mile wide and 60 feet deep, which filled with water and became the largest lake on the island. Rockfalls, containing over 46,000 square yards of material, smothered intertidal marine life. Nearly three hundred deceased rock greenling fish were found offshore, and subsequent catches of rock sole declined substantially. The remains of over 10,000 three-spined sticklebacks and 700 Dolly Varden were found in the island’s lakes, streams, and ponds. Perhaps 1,000 sea otters were killed, their skulls fractured by the force of the blast driving their eyeballs through the bones behind their sockets. Harlequin ducks were found with their backs broken and their legs driven into their bodies by the force of the explosion.
A 1996 Greenpeace survey revealed continuing traces of plutonium-239. plutonium-240, and a plutonium by-product, americium-241, in moss and algae species, as well as americium-241 in the waters of White Alice Creek, a fast-flowing stream that exits into the Bering Sea.
After Canikin, Amchitka was not used a test site again. Today, it is uninhabited, stripped of most of the infrastructure set up to support the WWII military presence and the testing program, and rarely visited.
“It was a very interesting five years,” said an official with the Atomic Energy Commission of the Amchitka nuclear test program, “but I don’t think I would want to go through it again.”
NOTE: Much of the above information was culled from “Amchitka and the Bomb: Nuclear Testing in Alaska,” by Dean W. Kohlhoff (University of Washington Press, 2002); and “Nuclear Flashback” by Pam Miller (Greenpeace, 1996).