The Clouds of Trinity
THE GEOGRAPHIC PATTERNS of the changes in worldwide leukemia and infant mortality trends between 1945 and 1955 clearly matched the patterns of fallout. But so unbelievable and far-reaching a conclusion required much more evidence before the possibility of any other explanation could be ruled out. Laboratory-animal experiments had shown that various pesticides, drugs, food additives, and heavy metals could apparently cause cancer and congenital defects, while air pollution and mothers' cigarette smoking were believed to be linked to fetal and infant mortality.
There was one test, however, that would effectively rule out these agents as the principal factors in the increase. It would involve the first nuclear explosion ever set off by man. Code-named Trinity, this explosion took place at dawn on July 16, 1945, in Alamogordo, New Mexico. Before this, there was no nuclear fallout in the environment, so this explosion would have to have produced a clear effect on mortality rates wherever the fallout descended.
But where had the fallout come down? There was at that time no elaborate countrywide network of fallout-measuring stations. However, many eyewitness accounts of this historic explosion had subsequently been published, and, among these, a book called Day of Trinity by Lansing Lamont reported the event in greatest detail. Lamont, a Time magazine reporter, had gone to considerable lengths to trace the direction of the drifting radioactive debris, studying weather maps and conducting extensive interviews with many of the scientists involved.
According to Lamont, shortly before the final countdown at 5:10 A.M. on the morning of July 16, Dr. Kenneth Bainbridge announced to the scientists at the various observation posts that the winds close to the ground were blowing north, toward where Dr. Robert Wilson was manning an observation post 10,000 yards from ground zero. An instant after the flash of the detonation at exactly 5:29 A.M., the churning fireball detached itself from the ground and shot upward, followed by a column of radioactive dust, penetrating the overcast at 15,000 feet. The column of dust continued upward to an altitude of 40,000 feet, where it spread out in the mushroom shape that was later to become so familiar.
The lower part of the mushroom's stem was blown north toward Wilson's position, which had to be quickly evacuated. Simultaneously, Dr. Luis Alvarez and Navy captain William Parsons, flying high above the cloud cover just to the west of the test site in an observation plane watched the head of the mushroom penetrate the overcast and break up into three distinct sections. These sections drifted off in different directions, generally to the northeast and east. As recounted by Lamont, the largest of the three sections, a dense white mushroom trailed by a dusty-brown streamer, drifted off in a direction just slightly north of east. Meanwhile, the low-altitude fallout from the stem of the mushroom cloud continued north and northeast until it covered an area about 30 miles wide and 100 miles long, gradually settling to the ground in a white mist of intense radioactivity.
By three o-clock in the afternoon, the readings on the radiation counters monitored by Alvin Graves and his wife, Elizabeth, observers assigned to the little town of Carrizozo some 40 miles just slightly north of east from the test site, started to climb rapidly. By 4:20 P.M., eleven hours after the explosion, the counters shot off scale and Alvin Graves called Dr. Stafford Warren, the chief medical officer in charge of radiation monitoring. As Lamont put it, the fate of the little town hung in the balance while the scientists and Army officers decided whether or not to evacuate it. Ultimately, they held off, and within an hour the fallout readings had dropped. Lamont reported that these were difficult hours for Dr. Warren and the officer in charge of the entire project, General Leslie R. Groves. "The medical dangers were most immediate of all," Lamont wrote, "but, in addition, both men knew that the Army was not too eager to pursue too diligently the possibilities of widespread fallout."
From the fact that it had taken the fallout particles some nine to eleven hours to reach Carrizozo, it was possible to determine which portion of the cloud had gone eastward. According to the AEC publication The Effects of Nuclear Weapons, typical fallout particles descend at a speed of about 5000 feet per hour, while smaller particles fall more slowly. Allowing about half an hour for the cloud to travel the 40 miles to Carrizozo at the usual speed of the jet-stream air currents, then, it meant that the particles that caused the Graveses' radiation counters to start climbing must have taken about eight to nine hours to descend at a rate of 5000 feet per hour. Therefore, the cloud that passed over Carrizozo must have been at an altitude of between 40,000 and 45,000 feet.
Thus, it had to have been the uppermost section of the mushroom cloud that drifted just slightly north of east. And since the winds became more northerly with decreasing altitude, the lower, smaller sections would have gone increasingly northward. This estimate was confirmed by the fact that the more northerly towns were the first to receive the fallout, and those to the east were the last. The low-altitude fallout, therefore, had come down mostly in New Mexico to the northeast, while the highest portions would have been carried more nearly eastward across Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and the whole southeastern U.S., where they would be brought down mainly by the rain.
On the basis of these estimations, then, any upward changes in infant mortality should be found to some degree in the sparsely populated areas of New Mexico itself, and to a greater extent in the more heavily populated states to the east, northeast, and north. Among the more distant states generally to the east, those with the heaviest rainfall should show the largest upward changes, since the high-altitude cloud carried the smallest particles, which would largely remain aloft unless brought down by rain. Furthermore, the states near the Atlantic seaboard to the northeast, such as North Carolina and Virginia, should be affected less than nearby Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, for the cloud would have gradually fanned out and the short-lived radioactivity would have steadily diminished in intensity with the passage of time.
The five-year period 1940-45 was the longest period immediately preceding the test during which a steady decline in infant mortality had existed in every state in the U.S. Thus, the amount of upward deviation from this rate of decline would provide a measure of any changes occurring after the explosion.
When the infant mortality figures were plotted on a map of the U.S., the pattern began to emerge. The states directly to the west and far to the northeast of New Mexico kept declining at the 1940-45 rate. In fact, in some cases the decline was actually somewhat faster, due to the introduction of sulfa drugs and antibiotics, since the greatest cause of infant deaths was the infectious diseases that these new drugs succeeded in cutting back. But each year after 1945 and beginning strongly in 1947, there was a growing excess infant mortality in the states of the Gulf and Atlantic coasts to the east and northeast of the test site, amounting to as much as 30 to 40 percent. This pattern extended over the entire southeastern part of the country, from Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi all the way across Alabama and Georgia to South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia, and existed both for the poorer nonwhite as well as for the socio-economically better-off white infants.
Two of my colleagues, Donald Sashin and Ronald Rocchio, became quite concerned about these findings and offered to work out a computer program to calculate and plot the infant mortality rates for every state, thus removing any possible subjective bias. The pattern that emerged from the computer was essentially the same except for one striking difference. For some reason the computer maps showed excesses in infant mortality for the north-central region of the U.S., in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and especially North Dakota. In 1946, even before the increased infant mortality manifested itself to the east of New Mexico, North Dakota was showing a 19 percent increase, reaching 32 percent in 1949. But the low-altitude fallout that went northward from the Trinity test could not possibly have been significant in these distant states so directly to the north.
The mystery was solved when a colleague happened to show me a copy of an AEC publication entitled Meteorology and Atomic Energy. In the opening chapter, dealing with the history of the atomic energy industry, the report explained that in 1944 the first of a series of giant nuclear reactors had gone into operation in Hanford, Washington, to produce the plutonium for the Trinity bomb. The reactor was located in the dry eastern edge of the state of Washington, directly upwind from Montana, Idaho, and North Dakota. Because the operating engineers did not have sufficient experience with these enormous new reactors being built under wartime pressures, large releases of radioactive gases occurred. As the AEC report described it:
As soon as a charge of fuel came out of the plutonium production reactors, a large source of gaseous effluent was encountered. For the plutonium produced to be removed from the uranium and other fission products, it was necessary to dissolve the fuel by various chemical reactions. During the early stages of this process, all the noble-gas fission products, notably radioactive isotopes of xenon and krypton, were released. It was not feasible to remove them by a filter system; they were released to the atmosphere in rather large quantities.
Still more disturbing was the statement that "large quantities of radioactive iodine were involved." Additionally, when the reactor's fuel elements would occasionally catch fire, krypton and biologically more hazardous fission products such as strontium and cesium were driven off.
Not only could this account for the sharp rise in infant mortality in the northernmost part of the U.S. before the effects of the first bomb could make themselves felt, it could also explain the "Mandan Milk Mystery" -- the inexplicably high strontium 90 content of the milk collected at Mandan, North Dakota, by the AEC's New York Health and Safety Laboratory throughout the 1950s. For the radioactive particles from the Hanford reactor in Washington would have largely passed over dry Idaho and Montana as they were blown by the prevailing westerly winds toward the wet eastern part of North Dakota where Mandan was located.
There was also one other peculiarity in the computer-printed maps. Florida, South Carolina, and Oklahoma showed no increase in infant mortality during the five years following the test, even though they had been in the path of the fallout. Soon, however, when I received detailed weather maps from the U.S. Meteorological Records Center, this too fitted the hypothesis: During the week ending July 17, 1945, the heavy rains had missed these states. In fact, the weather map indicated that the rainfall for that week had been restricted mainly to a rather narrow zone, extending from Texas along the northern edge of the Gulf of Mexico and then up the Atlantic coast. About 90 percent of the fallout is brought down by the rains, while only about 10 percent settles to the ground in dry air. This is why the zones of heaviest rainfall showed the sharpest increases. The Weekly Weather and Crop Bulletin summarized the rainfall situation as follows:
Rainfall during the week was again limited mostly to sections east of the Rockies. Heavy 24-hour amounts occurred the forepart of the week in Northeastern Texas and coastal areas of Gulf States and the latter part of the period in most Atlantic States and the lower Lake region.
And the summary ended: "Rain was light over the Central States and little or none occurred in the far west."
The Weather Bulletin also made it clear why the effects of a single small bomb had been so serious. Referring to the rainfall, it added: "Haying continued in nearly all states with generally good to excellent yields."
Thus, the fallout from Trinity, which was twenty to thirty times greater than the fallout from later similar-sized tests because the fireball touched the ground and created enormous amounts of radioactive soil and vaporized rock, was deposited on the fresh vegetables and hay being harvested that week. And so the intensely radioactive short-lived isotopes, as well as the long-lived strontium 90, quickly found their way into the milk and food and from there into the unborn children in their mothers' wombs.
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