The Underground Nuclear Test That Didn’t Stay Underground via Atlas Obscura


Less than a decade before, after the U.S. signed onto the Partial Test Ban Treaty, nuclear testing had gone underground. The treaty was meant to stop the venting of nuclear materials into the atmosphere and limit human exposure to radioactive fallout. But the Baneberry test, named for a desert shrub, did not go as planned.

 About 300 feet from the hole where the bomb had been planted, a fissure opened in the ground, and a cloud of radioactive dust and vapor began pouring skyward. It would rise 8,000 feet into the atmosphere; the fallout would spread over Nevada and into California and other neighboring states. For a bomb of its size, Baneberry had an unexpectedly large impact.

While government workers were evacuated from the test site, hundreds of them were exposed to radiation. In an official report, the Atomic Energy Commission noted that more than 400 cars were contaminated; most were sprayed down and vacuumed out before being returned to their owners. About 100 more need extra cleaning.

As for the workers, the exposures they received, according the report, were within established safety limits. But after two of the men with the highest levels exposure contracted leukemia and died, their widows spent years fighting for compensation. The courts eventually found the government negligent—but not liable—in the incident. There would be no damages awarded.



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