He felt the earth move when scientists nuked western Colorado

  • Demonstrators near Grand Junction, Colorado, in 1969

    Museum of Western Colorado
 

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, Japan.

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 pumping.

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 nutcrackers.

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, succeeded?

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 tools.

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.

Compared to 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 September.

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 quarantine zone.

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 zone.

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 the terrain.

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.

At 30 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 doors.

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.

As 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.

The aftermath

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.

During the 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.

In 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 lie.

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.

Chester 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.

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