folks. Just a little
to be afraid of. Now if you’ll all just line up and let these
nice men take some samples from y’all… that’s right, don’t
be afraid… good complacent populace… milk and cookies in the decontamination
anything starts festering or falling off rub some dirt on it and get the
hell away from me.
Ah… the good old days of the cold
war and indiscriminate nuclear testing. We just don’t know how to
ruin the environment like we used to. I don’t want to get all teary-eyed
and nostalgic but some days you just yearn for the simplicity of
duck and cover certain death. Some may not be aware that some nuclear testing
took place east of the Missisippi river; not just in the deserts of the west
and the atolls and islands at sea. I wasn’t… not until I read this.
I guess I won’t be moving to Mississippi any time soon.
[Posted By variable]
Billy Ray Anderson remembers the day the earth kicked up waves, the ground
cracked, chimneys tumbled and the creeks turned black in this corner of the
“The ground swelled up,” said Anderson. “It was just like
the ocean – there was a wave every 200 feet or so.”
It was the day the government nuked Mississippi.
At precisely 10 a.m. on Oct. 22, 1964, a nuclear bomb exploded 2,700 feet beneath
the loblolly pines of Lamar County. Within a microsecond, the clash of plutonium
atoms heated an underground salt dome to the temperature of the sun.
On Saturday, the world will mark the 60th anniversary of the first atomic bomb
test at Alamagordo, N.M. The anniversary is significant to Anderson and his
neighbors because no Americans live closer to a nuclear-test site. The 1,052
other U.S. nuclear blasts occurred in sparsely populated sections of Nevada,
New Mexico, Colorado and Alaska or in the Pacific Ocean.
Time has erased much of the evidence and memory of two underground nuclear
explosions here – the only times the United States detonated atomic bombs
east of the Mississippi River.
Some residents fear that the bomb has caused cancer. Others think that’s
just a bunch of hooey.
Federal and state officials say that residents are safe.
The story of Mississippi and the bomb begins in the Cold War.
By the early 1960s, atmospheric nuclear testing had spread fallout around most
of the world.
The Pentagon and Atomic Energy Commission feared that the Soviets might cheat
on a test-ban treaty by muffling a nuclear explosion inside a salt dome. Officials
decided to test the theory.
Project Dribble would explode two nuclear bombs in Mississippi’s Tatum
Salt Dome, about 20 miles southwest of Hattiesburg, as a test.
Before dawn Oct. 22, 1964, scientists and engineers towed the 1,113-pound nuclear
bomb, called Salmon, behind a Dodge sedan from the heavily guarded assembly
building hidden deep in the pine forest to ground zero. A crane lowered the
Anderson, 69, lives less than a mile from the salt dome – the residents’
phrase for ground zero. No one lives closer.
Most days he is at his fishing camp, an eclectic wood-and-sheet-metal building
next to a pond and topped by Santa’s sleigh and reindeer stenciled in
Christmas lights. It’s a place he can fish, take a swim, drink beer and
tend his tomatoes without interruption.
He remembers the day the bomb exploded as if it were yesterday.
State troopers started knocking on doors at 5 a.m. to evacuate everyone near
ground zero. Each adult received $10 and children $5 for their inconvenience.
Anderson drove a water tanker at the test site and waited at the command post
as the countdown ticked to zero.
Local and state officials were inside an air-conditioned trailer, watching
it on closed-circuit TV, he said.
When the clock hit 10, the bomb exploded with the force of 5.3 kilotons of
TNT – one-third the size of the Hiroshima
“It was like you hit a big drum on top,” he recalled. “It
made such a big bang, it shook things for miles.”
The ground rose. Forty-one years later, Anderson demonstrated the groundswell’s
height by holding his hands about 18 inches off the ground.
“It really did jar things,” he added.
The trailer rocked and rolled. “Those politicians came running out of
the trailer, grabbing their handkerchiefs and wiping the sweat off their foreheads,”
he said. The TV inside was knocked over and the command post’s radios
Seismographs throughout the United States, plus some in Europe, recorded the
After the explosion, Anderson drove to the forward control shack, less than
a mile from ground zero.
“The creek was black … it was running black as it could be,”
he recalled. Anderson would stay busy for days delivering water to neighbors
because the blast soured wells, also turning them black with silt.
Cracks – “big enough to put your hand in” – fractured
roads, he said.
Many foundations, walls and chimneys were damaged.
Although the seismograph needles jiggled, the meters on government radiation
detectors were still. No radioactivity escaped during the blast. No one was
“If (the bomb) had been on top of the earth, it would have scorched Purvis,”
Anderson said, referring to a nearby town.
In 1964, residents didn’t worry about the bomb.
The government men said that everyone was safe. The bomb was a paycheck for
hundreds who toiled as laborers, drivers, carpenters and caterers.
The worrying came later.
In 1979, University of Mississippi scientists reported finding a radioactive
frog at the salt dome. The governor ordered an evacuation. A few days later,
the college professors realized that their equipment was contaminated. The frog
was not radioactive.
Since the 1970s, federal and state officials regularly visit the site to monitor
the water and soil for radiation. During the 1990s, inspectors discovered tritium
– a radioactive isotope of hydrogen – at levels above federal safety
limits. Today, tritium levels have dropped to safe levels.
The Energy Department’s site manager, Pete Sanders, said that no contamination
is present on the surface or off the site.
“We’ve never seen anything off the site,” he said.
State officials continue quarterly water and radiation tests, said Robert Goff,
the director of radiological health for the Mississippi Department of Health.
So far, nothing bad has shown up.
“In the past, present and future, our concern has been for public safety,”
With radiation dissipating naturally, Sanders stands by reports saying that
the salt dome is safe.
Some residents are not so sure.
Cancer has taken many of their friends, neighbors and family members.
One and a half miles from the salt dome, Grace Burge, 62, spent a recent morning
sorting peas for sale at the store she and her husband own.
Asked if the bomb had killed people in Lamar County, she stopped sorting for
a second, gazed toward the road and said, “I would say so, but the government
A 1992 Energy Department study showed normal cancer rates around the salt dome.
However, the study was limited because it covered deaths only between 1980 and
1991 and no follow-up studies were done.
Anderson does not believe that the nuclear tests caused cancer.
“If radiation over there was going to kill someone, I should have been
dead by now,” he said.
Burge is unhappy that the federal government never asked residents if they
wanted nuclear tests and has never taken responsibility for the cancer.
Randy Anderson is hoping that the government takes blame for his father’s
death. His dad, Billy Ray’s brother, worked at the test site. He died
in 1989 of colon cancer.
Two years ago, Randy Anderson, a barber in Purvis, filed a claim with a federal
program that compensates former government and contractor employees who developed
cancers or diseases after working at nuclear sites.
The Labor Department pays up to $150,000 to former employees or their survivors.
Of 96 claims filed by salt-dome workers, the government has paid one, denied
12 and is deliberating on the rest. Nationwide, the government has paid 14,655
claims, totaling $1.1 billion. Nearly 25,000 claims have been denied. Anderson
is still waiting.
“It looks to me, if they pay one they should pay all,” he said.
For five years, Bill Bishop fought the Energy Department over the salt dome.
A county supervisor from 1992 to 2000, Bishop lobbied to get a drinking-water
system installed near the test site. With congressional pressure, he convinced
federal officials to build a $2 million pipeline connecting about 130 people.
“The water system helped a bunch because it helped alleviate many fears
about the water,” he said. “But, the people who were there and the
children of those who’ve died, they believe the nuclear explosions helped
cause their deaths and that fear isn’t going away.”
Four months after the Salmon test, engineers lowered a TV camera to see what
the bomb had wrought.
The blast carved out a spherical cavity, 110 feet across. Radioactive sludge
filled the bottom of the hole. The cavity was still hot enough to vaporize paint
on the camera, causing wispy clouds to obscure the view.
Two years later, the government officials lowered another steel cylinder into
Called Sterling, the second nuclear device had a much smaller yield –
380 tons of force.
When Sterling exploded Dec. 3, 1966, the ground barely shook.
Declassified studies – much information about the Mississippi tests remains
classified – indicate that the Sterling blast was muffled. It helped spur
Pentagon funding for better seismographic equipment, which today can pick up
the smallest A-bomb blasts.
Follow-up drilling and testing contaminated soil, groundwater and equipment
with radiation. Tons of radioactive debris was dumped into the salt dome and
a deep aquifer.
The Atomic Energy Commission razed the buildings in 1972, packed up their instruments
and left Mississippi.