Fifty-three years ago today, on July 6, 1962, residents of southern Nevada and its surrounding areas felt the earth tremble a little bit. A few felt a bigger jolt than that. Depending on where they were, some people could see a mushroom cloud rising into the desert sky–the telltale sign of a nuclear explosion. Huge billows of dirt and dust rained down long after the blast. After the smoke cleared there was a huge new crater in the desert, big enough to be seen from space. It was 330 feet deep and 1,280 feet in diameter. The explosion occurred at the Nevada atomic testing facility known as Yucca Flat, and was called “Storax Sedan.” It was one of the largest–and one of the last–nuclear tests to be conducted before the 1963 test ban treaty, and in many ways closed a very troubled era of America’s checkered history with nuclear weapons.
Although the residents of Nevada had by 1962 become used to nuclear testing–at least “as used to” as one could get–the Storax Sedan test was unusual in a number of ways. For one thing, it wasn’t strictly a military test. The main institution behind the test was Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, assisted by the U.S. government. Indeed, it was not technically a test of a weapon, but rather the potential application of atomic bombs to peaceful uses. Specifically, Storax Sedan was intended to see whether a nuclear explosion could be useful in excavating large amounts of earth. The theory went that, if Storax Sedan was successful, atom bombs could be used in large-scale engineering projects to build canals, reservoirs and possibly in mining. The bomb was buried more than 600 feet below the ground. When it went off, it displaced 11 million tons of dirt. It was a success in the sense that it proved that yes, if you bury a nuke underground and set it off, it will dig a mighty big hole very fast.
Although melodramatic music has been added to this YouTube video, here is some actual footage, in slow motion, of the Storax Sedan blast of July 6, 1962.
Unfortunately, Storax Sedan echoed most other nuclear tests of the early atomic age in that it had some unexpected results. Nuclear testers evidently had not learned from the horrific aftermath of the 1946 Bikini blast that radiation is always a side effect of nuclear weapons, regardless of whether you’re trying to kill people with them or just dig big holes. Two large plumes of fallout soared into the atmosphere after the Sedan explosion and began to drift over the U.S. Midwest. As they usually do in situations like this, government officials fell all over themselves to reassure people that the doses of radiation raining silently down on South Dakota, Nebraska and Illinois were well within “safe limits.” Still, the amount of the fallout was unexpected. Sedan produced the largest single amount of radioactive fallout of any one U.S. nuclear test before the test ban treaty went into effect in 1963. Given the uncertainties of controlling fallout, and the even more daunting task of convincing everybody there was nothing to fear from it, the planners of Storax Sedan began to realize that using nukes as an excavation technique was a pretty unrealistic idea and abandoned it.
Regardless of how many times you repeat supposedly reassuring statistics about Roentgens and “safe doses,” people are generally pretty hard to persuade that nuclear explosions or other atomic activity near them is safe–and rightfully so. To steal an inspired line from Star Trek, humanity’s relationship with nuclear fission is best described as a “dubious flirtation.” I’m not sure how Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories managed to sell themselves on the idea that they could easily convince people that super-destructive weapons built with the express intention of killing mass numbers of people were perfectly safe if used for “peaceful” purposes, by completely trustworthy institutions like mining companies and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. People in the 1950s and early 1960s were generally far less sanguine about nuclear weapons than we today think they were, all those silly Department of Defense propaganda films extolling “the friendly atom” notwithstanding. Indeed, nukes have always been a hard sell, whether nuclear fission is employed in bombs, in power generation or, as in this case, in proposed engineering projects. People really don’t like nukes. You can’t blame them.
Here is the really, really terrible 1961 film The Beast of Yucca Flats. Watch at your own risk!
Case in point: the year before the Storax Sedan test, a really terrible (and now infamous) SF/horror film called The Beast of Yucca Flats used as its central premise what many people believed deep down about atomic radiation: that it was highly dangerous and unpredictable. The ineptly-made Beast of Yucca Flats starred Tor Johnson, veteran of various Ed Wood productions, as a scientist who happens to get caught out in the Yucca Flat desert at the time of a nuclear test. Predictably for grade Z movies of this era, the fallout turns him into a homicidal zombie, and he spends the rest of the movie wandering about in tattered clothing trying to kill people. The 1990s show Mystery Science Theater 3000 famously lampooned the film. It’s exceptionally dreadful, but as a cultural artifact The Beast of Yucca Flats demonstrates how easy it was to channel early 1960s audiences’ fears about the implications of nuclear weapons. Our fear of them has not receded since the end of the Cold War. Just this week, the latest Terminator film was released. Its central premise? A nuclear holocaust, caused by homicidal machines. Some fears never go out of style.