How Some Foggy Films Revealed Secret Nuclear Testing

On the morning of July 16, 1945, in the Jornada del Muerto desert in Socorro County, New Mexico, the first large-scale atomic weapons test took place. Conducted by the United States Army and code named “Trinity,” the detonation of the nuclear weapon created a fireball that could be seen 250 miles away.

More than 1,900 miles from the detonation site, in Rochester, New York, Eastman Kodak received many complaints from customers who had recently purchased sensitive x-ray films from the company. Black dots fogged the film and made it unusable, which confused many Kodak scientists who had worked hard to prevent a contamination outbreak like this. A physicist in Kodak’s research department, Julian A. Webb, investigated further and tested the damaged film. He discovered that the fogging on Kodak’s films and the Trinity test were mysteriously connected.

To make sure the film safely gets from manufacturing to shipping, and from shipping to the customer’s place of business, proper packaging and protection is important. According to an article Webb wrote in 1949 for the American Physical Society, the paper and cardboard that were used for packaging in the 1940’s were often retrieved from wartime manufacturing plants that also produced radium based instruments. Radium is a natural radioactive element that can cause bits of fogging when it has “intimate contact” with the film for a period of several weeks. Kodak took precautions during wartime to avoid radium contaminations by moving packaging manufacturing to mills where Kodak had full control over the materials.

A mill Kodak used, located along the Wabash River in Vincennes, Indiana, specialized in producing strawboard used between the sheets of film to hold them in place. In 1945, Webb discovered that the fogging didn’t come from the X-ray film itself, but rather from the packaging. He tracked this down to the production of strawboard that started on August 6, 1945 at the mill at the Wabash River. When he tested the radioactive material on the strawboard, he found that the fogging was not caused by radium or any other natural radioactive material, but from a new type that was never seen before.

While studying the samples from Vincennes, Webb found out that a specific production run of strawboard from a plant in Tama, Iowa, was also contaminated and was fogging the films it was packaged with. Both mills also sat next to rivers, with Vincennes at the Wabash River and the Iowa River flowing through Tama. Webb discovered that the strawboard from both mills had a huge amount of beta-particle radioactivity. Beta-particle radiation can go through paper, human skin, and can be considered dangerous. With the help of photographic evidence, Webb was able to estimate the half-life of the radioactive material to 30 days. He later identified the radioactive material as Cerium-141, which is one of the prolific fission products of the atomic bomb. Webb concluded that it wasn’t possible for the straw to be the carrier of the contaminant because it was stored in warehouses and not outside before being used. The Cerium-141 would have decayed by the time the straw was processed if it had gotten directly into the straw, meaning that the radiation would have been hardly detectable.

This led Webb to a shocking explanation: the contamination came from the water of the river. Evidence of this was also shown by the rainfall. Webb noticed that after periods of heavy rain, there was more radioactive activity in the strawboard. Even though it is unknown if Webb knew about the Trinity test when he was doing his research in 1945, a report he made in 1949 said, “The most likely explanation of the source of this radioactive contaminant appears to be that it consisted of wind-borne radioactive fission products derived from the atom-bomb detonation in New Mexico on July 16, 1945.”

In January 1942, the government of the United States secretly launched the Manhattan Project and had a plutonium-based atomic bomb ready for testing by 1945. Informally nicknamed “The Gadget,” the experimental bomb was set for the Trinity test site. At 5:29 a.m., the bomb exploded and released 18.6 kilotons of TNT. In the eyes of the people hoping to use it as a weapon, the test was a success.

Immediately after the Trinity tests, Stafford Warren, the chief of radiological safety of the Manhattan Project, warned that the tests needed to be done at least 150 miles from civilian populations. In 1948, U.S. Air Force meteorologist Colonel B. G. Holzman recommended establishing a new nuclear test site on the East Coast, instead of the West, because western winds carry fallout across the continental U.S. Even with this recommendation, the Nevada Proving Ground, now the Nevada Test Site, was established in 1950 only 100 miles from Las Vegas. According to a 1997 article for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists named “Worse than we knew,” the reason for this terrible choice was that weapons labs were located nearby, which would accelerate the weapons development program. “What is so appalling was that it was the system...that it was by design, to keep the public in the dark like that,” Ortmeyer said to Popular Mechanics. “This was partly because of the context...we were at war…but when you look at the history of nuclear production, that’s the norm...downplaying [health risks].”

On January 27, 1951, the first atomic detonation at the new Nevada Proving Ground took place. A few days later, a Geiger counter at Kodak’s headquarters in the State of New York, 2,500 miles away, measured radioactive readings 25 times above normal after a snowstorm. Declassified documents from 1952 revealed that Kodak alerted the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) of this due to concerns the testing would ruin its film as it happened in 1945. The AEC responded back saying that it would look into it but assured Kodak there was nothing to worry about. They also allowed Kodak to issue a press release to the Associated Press, saying that the snow “that fell in Rochester was measurably radioactive…” but “there is no possibility of harm to humans and animals.”

In March 1951, Kodak threatened to sue the U.S. government for the “considerable amount of damage to our products resulting from the Nevada tests or from any further atomic energy tests…” Then the company and the government came to an agreement: the AEC would give Webb, who was then the head of Kodak’s physics division, schedules and maps of further tests so Kodak could do what was necessary to protect their products, and in exchange, Kodak’s employees would keep everything they knew about the government’s nuclear testing a secret.

In 1997, the National Cancer Institute found that the Nevada nuclear tests released Iodine-131, which could cause thyroid cancer. A Congressional hearing raised the question: why did the government keep this information? The hearing showed that every American who was alive at the time was in danger. This begs the question, what else could the government be hiding from us today?

[Source: Popular Mechanics]