“We were probably about a mile and a half from ground zero,” said Kevin Saul, now 55. “They evacuated us to my grandmother’s house in Baxterville. It was just like an earthquake came through. The house was shimmering and shaking. The ground had a buckle effect to it. It would knock you off your feet.”
For 30 seconds, Saul experienced the effects of a moment in history designed to help the U.S. fight the Cold War.
“They kept us out for a day, and we were allowed to go back in,” said Saul, a Mississippi Forestry Commission employee at Jamie White State Forest.
When they did, they found damage.
“The chimney had moved out from the house,” he said. “It caved the water well in. It broke lots of windows and moved the outhouse and the home off its foundation.”
The tests are discussed in a new book, “Atomic Testing in Mississippi: Project Dribble and the Quest for Nuclear Weapons Treaty Verification in the Cold War Era,” by David Allen Burke.
Released in November, it explores the history of America’s only nuclear detonations east of the Mississippi River. Conducted in the 1960s nearly 3,000 feet below ground in Mississippi’s Tatum Salt Dome, it posed a potential threat for those living within 150 miles of the site in the cities of Hattiesburg, Jackson, Gulfport, Biloxi, Mobile and New Orleans.
Inspired by Peter Kuran’s video “Atomic Journeys: Welcome to Ground Zero,” which mentioned the Mississippi detonations, Burke, who grew up in Louisiana and Alabama, decided to write about the subject for his doctoral dissertation.
Nuclear testing resulted in “massive amounts of radioactive fallout,” Burke said. But the U.S. needed that fallout to assess Soviet nuclear weapons development, he said.
Moving Soviet and American tests underground eliminated the fallout but also the source of intelligence. Called the Vela Uniform program, testing began in 1960.
“The first and largest detonation, code-named ‘Salmon,’ was fired Oct. 22, 1964, with an explosive yield of 5.3 kilotons — roughly one-third the size of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima,” Burke said. “The second, smaller one, ‘Sterling,’ was fired Dec. 3, 1966, with a yield of 380 tons, in the underground cavity created by the Salmon blast. These tests were followed by two ethane/oxygen detonations in the chamber in 1969 and 1970.”
Why Mississippi? Burke said the Atomic Energy Commission and the Advanced Research Projects Agency wanted to find a large salt dome devoid of petroleum.
“The Tatum Dome, discovered in the 1930s, was deep underground, lacked oil and had been pretty much forgotten about,” Burke said.
The tests conducted there were designed to examine seismic wave propagation as it spread through various types of soil and materials. Data collected helped determine whether the “Soviets could cheat when it came to underground atomic testing treaties that were anticipated for the future,” Burke said.
“It is worth noting that these tests were conducted publicly and were reported on constantly. They were not secret, by any means. This was intentional. We wanted the Soviets to observe the tests, as well, from their own seismological stations.”
In 1971, the land was returned to the Tatum family, but the Department of Energy purchased it in 1979 after a radiation leak scare, Burke said.
“The Mississippi Department of Forestry obtained the land a couple of years back and is using it as an experimental tree farm,” he said.
After high school, Saul moved away but returned two years ago.
“Radiation was always a big concern,” Saul said. “They did testing there over the years and found out there was a higher rate of cancer there. They have a lot of sample wells out there. They come by periodically to test. It’s a rural area, but there’s a pretty good population now that’s built up over the last few years.”
Burke said periodic monitoring of local plant and animal life for radioactivity continues. Although there has been no evidence of contamination, he says “there are a lot of people who live around the site, and many are either worried or convinced that they have been exposed to radioactive contamination.”
“Still, radioactivity can be tricky, and it is true radioactive substances were brought up to the surface from the test chamber, and there was at least one instance of radioactive steam issuing from the borehole that led into the test chamber deep within the salt dome. Most of this was cleaned up. I cannot say if this is a source for concern, but it also cannot be ignored.
“Over the years, the government dropped the ball when it came to keeping those people informed as to events at the site, and I would argue that it led to far more fear than was warranted,” Burke said.
Wayne Tucker, a retired assistant forester with the Mississippi Forestry Commission, said it’s not widely known that nuclear testing occurred in Mississippi. He said the Department of Energy approached the Mississippi Institute for Forest Inventory, where he worked, about three years ago, offering the state the 1,740-acre tract.
“They had these sites all over the country, and they wanted to divest of them,” Tucker said, adding state officials initially suspected radioactivity. “The only way we would accept it is if we did a study of the trees on the site to make sure there was no radiation.”
Tucker said the agency worked with Mississippi State University and the state Department of Health’s radiology department, sampling about 700 trees.
“We only found one tree that had any contamination at all — called tritium. It’s a precursor to radioactivity,” he said.
Nursing students frequently conduct community health assessments in the area, Tucker said, and there are some 25 water wells routinely tested. Records go back to 1972 for any contamination on that site, Tucker said.
“Like the guy from the radiology group said, there is more radiation in downtown Jackson than there is on that site. Every time I go out there, I see turkey, deer, rattlesnakes, cottonmouth, lots of critters. Every once and a while, they will trap, grind them up and test the meat for contamination, and there’s no contamination.”
Liz Sharlot, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health Department, said the agency routinely tests the Lamar County site and has never discovered significant radioactive levels.
“We test quarterly and then conduct in-depth testing every April,” she said.
Still, says Tucker, “if you come down here, there are all kinds of old wives’ tales that there are three-headed snakes and the animals glow at night.”
Tucker said the salt dome testing is a fascinating piece of history. “It really contributed to the demise of the Cold War because we were able to know exactly what the Russians were doing with their underground testing.” The chilling part of the story is uncertainty — the uncertainty of the tests and the times.
“I don’t think the federal government or any of the government officials knew what to expect,” he said. “They felt like they needed to do it, which I think proved that they did, but they really didn’t know the consequences.”