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Paleontological field work and nuclear testing

In the mid to late 1950s, Charles L. Camp, Professor in the Department of Paleontology and former Director of UCMP (1930-1949), spent his summers working at what would later become Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park, about 55 miles north of Tonopah, Nevada, and 150 miles northwest of Yucca Flat at the Nevada Test Site.

Beginning in 1951 and ending in 1992, the United States did extensive nuclear testing at Yucca Flat. There were 739 tests conducted there, resulting in Yucca Flat being called “the most irradiated, nuclear-blasted spot on the face of the earth.”1 Large amounts of radioactive material were released into the atmosphere, and communities downwind of the test site, such as St. George, Utah, felt the effects of this. See this Journal of the American Medical Association article.

The government publicized the dates and times of scheduled tests so Camp was aware that they were going on while he worked at the ichthyosaur site. In his field notes from 1955 to 1957, he mentions three of these tests:

Apple-2 test

The Apple-2 atomic test conducted on May 5, 1955.


On May 6, 1955, Camp wrote “The atom went off yesterday morning and I didn’t hear or see it. Harold [Harold Newman, a local who assisted Camp] claims he did.”

This was “Apple-2,” the 13th atomic test in a series of 14 called Operation Teapot conducted at the Nevada Test Site. It’s yield was 29 kilotons.

A few days later, on May 15, Camp could not help noticing the atomic blast: “The 14th big atom went off this morning at 5 [5:00 am], 200 miles away. I sat up in bed and saw a violet-pink flash lasting a fraction of a second. About 15 min. later a low grumbling thunderous roar came in like thunder shaking the earth a little. This came in two or three crescendos. About 3-5 min. later a more subdued noise like far away growling of lions came through the air without quite so much force.”

This was “Zucchini,” the final test of Operation Teapot, with a yield of 28 kilotons. According to a 1997 National Cancer Institute report, civilian exposure to some 24,500 kilocuries of radioiodine that had been released into the atmosphere by the Teapot tests would eventually cause about 13,000 cases of thyroid cancer.

On July 5, 1957, Camp experienced another blast: “Big bomb from balloon went off at 5 am and rattled the windows, shook the cabin and growled like thunder. Flash very bright 20 seconds before blasts hit. Three blasts (one ‘aftershock’ I suppose).”

Hood test

The 74-kiloton Hood atomic test conducted on July 5, 1957.


This was the 74-kiloton “Hood” test, fourth in a series of 29 tests called Operation Plumbbob that were conducted from May through October of 1957. It was the largest atmospheric test ever conducted within the continental United States and it was almost five times as powerful as the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima (15 kilotons). The device was carried aloft by a balloon and detonated at 460 meters above the ground. According to the same National Cancer Institute report mentioned above, the Plumbbob test series put more than twice as much radioiodine into the atmosphere as any other series, and about 38,000 eventual cases of thyroid cancer were expected to be the outcome.

Despite his proximity to the test site, Charles Camp lived to be 82, dying in 1975, albeit from cancer. The prevailing westerly winds that blew the radiation clouds towards Utah were probably his saving grace.

 

1Clarfield, G.H., and W.M. Wiecek. 1984. Nuclear America: Military and Civilian Nuclear Power in the United States 1940–1980. Harper & Row, New York. P. 202.

Photos are from http://nuclearweaponarchive.org; the images are believed to be in the public domain.