By all accounts, it felt like the carnival had come to Baxterville that morning.
Kids were out of school on a Thursday.
Families were going on picnics. People from the government were handing
out Cokes and sandwiches.
“We all got up and got dressed up, and
they told us to go to Caney Church,” says Dorothy Breshears, who was 13
at the time. “When we got there, everybody we knew was there.”
But as 10 a.m. drew near, the party-like
atmosphere started to grow tense. Which was understandable, considering
that an atomic bomb was about to go off about three miles away.
In the decades of the Cold War, the U.S.
government conducted more than 1,000 nuclear tests. Most of them were in
the Nevada desert or on faraway Pacific islands. But Breshears and her
neighbors lived in southern Mississippi, around 100 miles from New Orleans.
And on October 22, 1964, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission was about to
blow a gaping cavern in the Earth beneath the pine forests of Lamar
It was the first of two nuclear tests
conducted there, the only ones on American soil east of the Rockies.
It’s a nearly forgotten chapter of Cold War history that seems hard to
fathom today—even for some of those who lived through it.
“I never did know why they wanted to do that,” says Donald Nobles, now 80.
Two factors brought the Bomb to Mississippi: suspicion and salt.
By the late 1950s, the United States, the Soviet Union, and Britain were setting off atomic and hydrogen bombs on land, at sea, and in the air.
The tests spewed radioactive fallout around the globe, fueling
widespread public fears of cancer and birth defects. Pop culture was
full of insects and reptiles turned monstrous by radiation. And the
countries that did have nuclear weapons wanted to make it harder for
others to join the club.
So the nuclear powers started talking about banning bomb tests. And in 1958, experts meeting in Geneva proposed a worldwide network of sensors that would detect nuclear blasts, which appear on seismographs like earthquakes.
But how could you tell if someone was cheating?
In 1959, the American physicist Albert
Latter theorized that setting off a bomb in an underground cavity could
muffle the blast. After tests with conventional explosives, Latterwrote
that a detonation as big as 100 kilotons—more than six times bigger
than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima—“would make a seismic signal so weak
it would not even be detected by the Geneva system.” His theory, known
as “decoupling,” became a rallying point for people who wanted to keep
testing, says Jeffrey Lewis, of the James Martin Center for
Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California.
“They wanted to come up with a reason
that we couldn’t verify an agreement with the Soviets,” says Lewis,
who’s also the publisher of the Arms Control Wonk
blog. But in 1963, after the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world
nose-to-nose with the unthinkable, the superpowers signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty. It kept future tests underground, and researchers turned to making sure those tests would be spotted.
The Atomic Energy Commission wanted to
test Latter’s theory using actual nukes. And salt deposits were
considered the ideal places for tests, since they could be excavated
more easily than rock and the resulting cavity would endure for years.
So the search was on for a salt dome in territory similar to where the
Russians tested their bombs, Auburn University historian David Allen
“It had to be a certain diameter. It had
to be a certain size. It needed to be a very large salt dome that was
still a distance underground and not where it could interfere with water
or petroleum or anything else,” says Burke, who wrote a book about the Mississippi tests.
That led the agency to southern
Mississippi, which is full of salt domes. The government leased a nearly
1,500-acre patch of forest atop one of those domes and got to work.
The idea of nuclear testing in an area
with several medium to large cities nearby wasn’t universally popular.
But Governor Ross Barnett was eager to host the AEC, even as he battled
with the Kennedy administration over civil rights.
“Barnett, even though he was a Dixiecrat
and a segregationist, and one of the most vociferous, bombastic, and
worst, was more than happy to welcome the image of Mississippi as
helping to protect the United States from communism,” Burke says.
And Breshears says, when she was growing up, Lamar County was “a small county, very patriotic.”
“If the government told you the moon tomorrow night would be green, everybody would expect a green moon,” she says.
The first blast, code-named Salmon, was a
5.3-kiloton device that would blow a cavity into the salt dome half a
mile underground. The second, Sterling, was only 380 tons, and would go
off in the cavity left behind by Salmon. AEC crews drilled a 2,700-foot
hole down into the salt dome, lowered the first bomb into it, plugged it
with 600 feet of concrete… and waited.
The Salmon test was put off nearly a
month by a string of technical problems and bad weather, including
Hurricane Hilda, which hit one state over in Louisiana. People living up
to five miles from the test site were evacuated and recalled twice in preparation for blasts that never happened. They got paid $10 a head for adults and $5 for children for their trouble.
Finally, at 10 a.m. on Oct. 22, came the boom.
Steve Thompson and his family had cleared
out of their house for a picnic at Lake Columbia, about 10 miles away.
They watched a wave spread across the water—and then through the ground
“It was like being in a boat,” says Thompson, who was 15 at the time. “There was two big waves and a bunch of ripples.”
To Brenda Foster, “It felt like the Earth just raised up and set back down.”
“The windows on the house were shaking
and rattling, and you could see the chimney on the house cracked all the
way down,” says Foster, who was a few days shy of her 10th birthday.
“That’s about all I remember of that, but I never will forget it.”
In the aftermath, about 400 people filed
claims for damages with the government, mostly for cracked plaster or
masonry. On Nobles’s father’s farm, eight miles from the blast site, two
wells quit working after the blasts. But one man, Horace Burge, found
his house was “completely destroyed,” says Nobles, who was friends with
“It broke everything on the inside of his
house, threw the stuff out of his cabinets, and messed his foundation
up,” Nobles says.
More than two years later, in December
1966, the AEC lowered the second bomb into the 110-foot hole gouged out
by the first and set it off. The smaller device went almost unnoticed at
the surface, and the scientific results weren’t spectacular, either.
Far from Latter’s predictions that a
blast as big as 100 kilotons could be kept off the scopes, Lewis says,
it turned out that decoupling “is not a worry for anything but a very
small explosion.” However, the data helped shape a later treaty which limited underground tests to 150 kilotons.
And the fact that the tests were
something of a wash is a good thing, Lewis says. A country that wanted
to start building its own nuclear weapons isn’t likely to be able to
conceal a test, even if it wanted to—and most aspiring nuclear powers,
such as North Korea, are happy to let the world know they have the Bomb.
“Iran has big salt domes,” Lewis says.
“The last thing we would want Iran to do is have confidence in how big
an explosion they could conduct without being detected. So there are
some things we’d rather not know.”
After the tests came a letdown among the
locals, Burke says. There were hopes they would help Mississippi’s
economy and land a new high-energy particle physics center, but it
eventually went to Texas. The AEC was slow to address damage claims, and
as the work wound down at the site, “the locals were no longer being
involved in things,” he says.
And some people feared the bombs left
behind more than a hole in the ground. Everyone seemed to know someone
who died of cancer, including Breshears’s uncle, who regularly ate fish
he caught nearby.
“Everybody was happy, everybody was
laughing and talking and happy,” Breshears says. “Then it was probably
five or six years, people started mumbling about ‘What did they do?’”
Most of the radioactive waste produced by
the blast was fused into the surrounding salt. But in early 1965, a mix
of water and acid poured into the still-hot cavity caused a burst of
contaminated steam to spew out of the hole. Drilling into the chamber
between and after the tests brought up irradiated chunks of salt, dirt,
and drilling fluid, which were dumped back into the cavity or injected
In 1989, after residents complained to
then-U.S. Senator Trent Lott, the state looked at cancer rates in the
area. The results were inconclusive,
but the federal government eventually built water lines to nearby homes
to replace old wells. Federal records now indicate cancer rates in
Lamar County are lower than both the state and national average.
Today, a chest-high granite monument
marks the spot where the bombs went off below. It’s tucked away in a
clearing down two miles of sandy dirt road, and the buildings and
equipment that neighbored it are long gone. The surrounding 1,450 acres
are a state timber preserve where conservation officials are trying to
bring back the native longleaf pines, quail, and black bears.
The marker is surrounded by test wells
for the local groundwater, which gets analyzed regularly for signs of
contamination by tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen. Despite the
fears of local residents, the results
are well below the maximum safe limit set by the federal government,
and often too low to detect. Before the state took over the site in
2010, scientists also took samples from dozens of surrounding trees to
test for radioactivity, and found nothing.
The United States and the Soviets halted
nuclear testing in the early 1990s, as the Cold War wound down. Only
India, Pakistan, and North Korea have lit off nukes since then, and
nearly 200 countries have joined a treaty swearing off future tests. (The United States has yet to ratify the pact.)
Burke said the detonations that shook
Lamar County not only contributed to arms-control treaties, but helped
build a network of scientific instruments that has life-saving
applications today, such as estimating tsunami risks after an
“This stuff has saved a
lot of lives,” he said. “I think that properly understood, that’s
something the people around that site have a reason to be proud of.”