Twenty-five years ago Americans walked on the moon for the first time, and a federal agency set off an atomic bomb 8,426 feet underground in rural western Colorado.
I was there at 3 p.m. on Sept. 10,
1969, a stowaway on the surface, you might say, when our government
detonated the 43-kiloton bomb. It released 2.6 times the
destructive power of the bomb we dropped on Hiroshima,
The Atomic Energy Commission chose this
spot in western Garfield County because its scientists believed the
blast would rip apart tight sandstone formations and instantly
release vast stores of natural gas, free for the
At federally financed laboratories in
Los Alamos in New Mexico and Lawrence Livermore in California,
scientists were convinced that atoms could be split just as well
for peace as for war. Their proposals included setting off atomic
bombs to blast a sea-level Central American canal and a new harbor
on the northwest Alaska coast. Bombs would also make the
Mediterranean Sea rise and freshen so that water could flow to
irrigate the Sahara Desert. Physicist Edward Teller saw bombs as
giant shovels, or in the case of western Colorado, huge
What government scientists refused
to consider were unintended consequences: What if the natural gas
released were radioactive? Could people stand to live near the
thousands of blasts envisioned by the agency if Project Rulison,
part of Project Plowshare/Peaceful Atom,
Perhaps these were trivial questions
for an agency that saw itself as rivaling the biblical creator. As
AEC chairman Glenn Seaborg put it, "All of humanity's efforts to
restore the Garden of Eden have been futile so far. Man's machines
have not been powerful enough to compete with the forces of
nature." For Seaborg and his colleagues, atom bombs were God-like
Public hearings were held on the project,
and at one, David Evans, an expert on natural gas at the Colorado
School of Mines, did some AEC calculations out loud. To develop 317
trillion cubic feet of gas as the agency intended, Evans said,
13,000 underground nuclear explosions might be necessary. No one
denied this; no one knew for sure.
ongoing protests against our involvement in the Vietnam war,
hearings on Project Rulison were calm. Still, legal challenges and
other tangles delayed the blast on the southwest flank of Doghead
Mountain, in the Battlement Creek valley, from May until
Then the AEC got serious, designating
a five-mile-radius quarantine zone around the site down which the
bomb was lowered. Families living inside the zone were paid a
pittance to move out of their homes for the day. An AEC spokesman
said that the agency's deep concern for public health and safety
would not permit the bomb's detonation with people inside the
For some of us who had opposed
this bizarre scheme from the start, that statement sounded like a
deal we couldn't refuse. So in early September, 11 of us took the
AEC at its word and entered the quarantine
Weather conditions which might have carried
vented radiation into Rifle, Glenwood Springs, Grand Junction or
other population centers delayed the $11 million blast day by day
for a week. That gave us the chance to become more familiar with
On Wednesday, Sept. 10, the go-ahead
was given, and we scattered over the mountain in twos and threes,
so that we could not all be removed in one fell swoop by
authorities. We listened on portable radios to the countdown for
the blast being broadcast on Rifle's KWSR.
minutes before blast time, we set off smoke flares to confirm for
AEC officials that we were still on the mountain and inside the
quarantine zone. A blue, twin-rotor Air Force helicopter soon
hovered 50 feet above the aspen clearing where Margaret Puls and I
stood. Men in the open door gestured and shouted inaudibly at us.
They could not land on the steep slope safely, and we had no
intention of being passively taken off the mountain so the AEC
could then claim that they had lived up to their word regarding a
human-free quarantine zone. Since they'd known of our presence on
the mountain for nearly a week, we wondered if some sort of special
forces might suddenly slide down ropes from the helicopter
But the helicopter flew off, and we
followed the instructions of scientists we'd consulted: We moved
large rocks nearby that could bounce and possibly injure us in the
shock wave. Then we lay down positioned so our feet, knees and arms
would absorb the shock and motion. Each of us wore a common lab
radiation badge encasing a piece of unexposed film in case the
blast two miles away vented to the surface.
the countdown reached zero we lay on the ground, afraid and
wondering what would happen.
Then a mighty
WHUMP! and a long rumble moved through the earth, lifting us eight
inches or more in the air. We felt aftershocks as we lay there
looking at each other, grateful that we were still breathing and
all in one piece.
Seismic detectors at the
National Earthquake Center in Golden registered 5.5 on the Richter
scale. When we stood up, we looked around quickly for signs of
venting and saw a cloud of dust coming our way from the west. But a
closer look with binoculars proved it was dust from one of the many
fallen cliff faces. Although many boulders in vulnerable positions
in this part of Colorado may have been resting for many centuries,
that day they moved. And some far below the surface literally
melted in the atomic reaction temperatures hotter than the surface
of the sun.
We were never arrested nor confronted,
and two friends who had been apprehended and removed by helicopter
from the mountain before the blast were released without charges.
We assumed the AEC and its corporate partners, CER Geonuclear and
Austral Oil, wished to avoid the publicity and further debate that
a trial would bring.
Months later Project Rulison
was judged a failure. The gas it produced was too radioactive for
safe use. Nonetheless, the AEC proceeded with plans for its next
project: exploding three 30-kiloton bombs, separated by several
hundred feet and detonated milliseconds apart. On May 17, 1973, the
90-kiloton Project Rio Blanco in western Colorado's Piceance Basin
was detonated, this time with a 7.5-mile quarantine zone. Three
bombs were not better than one; Project Rio Blanco was another
awesome, expensive, dangerous failure.
past year, Energy Department Secretary Hazel O'Leary released
documents which show that the atomic energy establishment for
decades has behaved as if the human population and all living
systems are its rightful guinea pigs. From feeding plutonium to
unknowing children to deliberate releases of radioactive clouds at
Hanford, Wash., and Los Alamos, N.M., to the hundreds of nuclear
tests in Nevada and at the Pacific/Eniwetok test sites, the atomic
establishment showed it would stop at nothing.
the long 50 years of the nuclear age, "scientists' have not had the
integrity, courage or decency to acknowledge publicly the enormous
damage they have done to present and future generations. Instead
they hide behind the wall of secrecy called "national security."
When they are forced into the open by court proceedings or
congressional hearings, they routinely weasel-word or
An exception is John Gofman, a scientist and
member of the original Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, which
developed the atomic bomb.
In an interview with
Carole Gallagher, author of the book American Ground Zero, Gofman
said, "The nuclear establishment will not tolerate that nuclear
radiation is dangerous, and that's not limited only to the United
States. It's true in the Soviet Union, France, Great Britain. At
every opportunity you see them struggling to make it safe on paper.
I wouldn't give you two cents for any of them. They're the
scoundrels of the earth ... Basically, I wouldn't believe anything
written by the Department of Defense or the Department of Energy."
What we have been permitted to know is surely
the tip of the iceberg. As Dan Reicher, an assistant to Energy
Secretary O'Leary, says, "Every time you turn over a new document,
there's a $5 billion problem."
Had the Project
Rulison and Rio Blanco blasts been judged successful and hundreds
or thousands of other explosions followed, some of those $5 billion
problems would be right here under our feet and in our food and
water. That is, if anyone were still living in this valley or
northwestern Colorado at all.
McQueary is a beekeeper in Parachute, Colorado. He is still a
citizen activist and plans public events in 1995 to mark the 50th
anniversary of the nuclear age.