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Monday, December 29, 1997 Published at 11:29 GMT



Sci/Tech

US nuclear test secrets brought to light
image: [ Hollywood-style films about US nuclear testing have been declassified ]
Hollywood-style films about US nuclear testing have been declassified

The US government has released documents giving details of atomic bomb tests conducted during the Cold War and revealing how far the US government went to stay ahead during the arms race.

The newly declassified films show that the government developed lightweight nuclear weapons more than 30 years ago which were capable of being deployed by a single soldier.

The films they made had the polish of Hollywood productions but with special effects more devastating than any studio could create.

The information that has been released is the most detailed yet on the US government's nuclear tests. Hundreds were carried out between 1961 and 1973, including experiments to study whether atomic devices could be used in civil engineering.

Over 12 years, the Energy Department set off some 27 atomic bombs, 23 of them under the Nevada Desert, to see if they could be used in mining or the building of tunnels and canals.

The biggest test left a crater 100 m deep and 400 m wide.


[ image: Rabbits were used to test the effect of nuclear blasts on the retina]
Rabbits were used to test the effect of nuclear blasts on the retina
There were few limits. Pigs, placed at Ground Zero to test the effects of explosions on humans, would burst into flames. Rabbits were strapped down facing the detonation zones to measure the effect of the blast on the retina.

Servicemen and unsuspecting troops were also victims. One of the films shows a group of film of unprotected "military observers" who were placed directly beneath an airborne detonation.

The film commentary says: "The observers stood directly right under the burst, indicating the safety of intercepted nuclear rocketry."


[ image:
"Military observers", unprotected at an early nuclear test
Some participants in the experiments were told that radioactive fallout could simply be brushed away.

A nuclear weapons analyst, Stephen Schwartz, said: "The only real people that were hurt by US nuclear weapons during the cold war were Americans, people who were subjected to nuclear fallout during these tests and people who worked in nuclear weapons production facilities without adequate safeguards. Although thousands of Marshall Islanders were also harmed by fallout from U.S. atmospheric nuclear testing in the Pacific from 1946-1962."

The experiments also attempted to introduce nuclear devices into every possible military scenario.

One film shows a navy diver practising the deployment of a lightweight nuclear device designed for use in a harbour. The ultimate in portable weaponry, it would be carried by a parachuting navy diver who would detonate it underwater and then swim away.


[ image:  ]
Although its yield was 15 times smaller than the Hiroshima explosion, it would have been able to cause enormous destruction and could have contaminated a wide area of land and water. The government stresses that it was never used.

The film commentary discussing the possibility of underwater nuclear warfare asks: "Could we sink a modern submarine with an underwater A-bomb?" The answer, not surprisingly, was yes.

Not to be outdone, the army equipped some American infantrymen in Europe and the Far East with the Davy Crocket - a bazooka fitted with a small nuclear warhead.

It was decommissioned in 1972 - its only drawback had been that it exploded too close to the soldiers who fired it.

The legacy of such experiments remains. Vast tracts of land will be contaiminated for the forseeable future and hundreds of thousands of cancer deaths have been caused by radiation.

The films were originally made for confidential distribution to politicians providing the funds for America's nuclear weapons programme, which amounted to more than four trillion dollars.

They have been released as part of the Clinton administration's policy of openness in government, with the promise that such secrets will never be kept so long in the future.






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Internet Links

"Living Downwind": Memories of the Cold War and Nuclear Testing in the Southwest

Reforming US military secrecy


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