Illustration by Shawn Harris

The Age of Plutonium

We've made our mark on geologic time.

Yucca Flat, Nevada, of the early 1950s is a diorama of modern America. Beneath desert stars a faux suburbia has been constructed, with ranch-style homes, utility poles, and pantries filled with canned food. Mannequins in floral dresses and mid-century suits tuck their plastic children into bed or sit before the silent televisions. Nearby, living soldiers crouch in a six-foot trench. Reporters assemble on pine benches dangerously close. An hour away, a woman in a revealing mushroom cloud costume is crowned Miss A-Bomb and an unknown musician named Elvis Presley, hoping for publicity, will soon perform as “the Nation’s only Atomic Powered Singer.” Guests carouse in glass lounges, drinking gin Atomic Cocktails. They’ll party until the bomb lights up the sky, and then they’ll kiss and dance and sing, drunk in the glow of the artificial dawn.

A countdown echoes across the flat. Mannequins and observers alike peer into the shadows. Those in the trenches brace themselves against the earth.

A glinting sphere of plutonium-239, contorted from yellow uranium mined beneath the Colorado Plateau, hangs five hundred feet in the air. The sphere is set like a peach pit in a thick, silvery beryllium shell and packed with explosives. Its roiling atoms are warm to the touch. At the countdown’s end, the explosives detonate and the beryllium shell implodes, crushing the sphere. The atoms split and sear the night in a death flash of blue-white energy. A ruptured shock wave shatters the desert. A fireball boils into the sky, churning radioactive dust into the stratosphere.

A few minutes later, soldiers wearing flimsy radiation badges enter the cloud to collect samples barehanded. “Doom Town” now lies in ashes, the faces of its citizens melted off or vaporized. The real sun rises over a flat expanse once verdant with Joshua trees and creosote, now empty and silent. Reporters share irradiated lunches provided by the Federal Civil Defense and then board Creamsicle-colored buses, drafting stories about America’s victorious nuclear future.

Decades later, on this Cold War battlefield, above a crater cut deep into the earth, radioactive dust continues to rise.

The nuclear bomb Apple-2 was one of a hundred aboveground tests the United States conducted at Yucca Flat between 1951 and 1963—and one of 543 total above-ground tests performed worldwide by the U.S., the former Soviet Union, the UK, France, and China. Every one of these explosions injected into the atmosphere radioactive particles with half-lives ranging from a few minutes to hundreds of thousands of years. The heavier elements fell quickly back to the earth: one spring, nearly ten thousand sheep grazing in Nevada were burned from the inside out by radiation levels far below what was touted as “safe.” Uranium miners, downwinders, and “Atomic veterans” began to sicken and die. Iodine-131 was detected in cow’s milk across the country. Meanwhile, plutonium-239, along with 85 percent of the radioactive fallout, was swept higher still, gradually filtering down to blanket the entire planet’s surface. It settled on the seafloor, into muddy lake beds, stagnant peat bogs, stalagmites, and crystals of glaciers. The element was taken up into living coral, tree rings, and even bone.

Worldwide, plutonium dust forms a twelve-year line in the sediment that simply did not exist before it did. It marks a dramatic transition in the ground on which we walk, an experiment whose fallout continues to this day. For plutonium-239’s postwar injection into the atmosphere is tightly coupled with another element’s exponential rise: carbon. In the last seventy years of what is called the Great Acceleration, humans have consumed more energy and expelled more carbon than in the entire twelve thousand years of the Holocene preceding our generation. Again, the careless few destroy the lives of many. But this behavior has not gone unnoticed: the earth records everything. Long after our cities melt back into the ground, the rocks will continue to speak of us.

Today plutonium-239 is only a thin radioactive seam archived between geologic layers. Because of the ongoing struggle of local and international activist communities who pressed for a ban of aboveground testing, the element largely disappears from the geological record after 1963. As a newly proposed “golden spike” within the Geological Time Scale, plutonium points not to the earth, but to us, to our capacity for unfettered destruction of ourselves, our civilization, and our planet. Yet etched in the steep rise and fall of the spike’s shape, so too is our collective agency and our ability to stand for that without which humankind will not survive.

By entering the world,” writes the Kazakh poet and antinuclear advocate Olzhas Suleimenov, “we change the world.” Humans have become a force on Earth—a geologic force. When the dust has settled, when geologists finally unearth the full story of this spike from within the planet, our generation, grown from the very soil of death itself, will be remembered as the cusp between a vanished and future landscape.


Orion’s Summer issue was generously sponsored by NRDC. 

Natalie Middleton is a freelance writer educated at Johns Hopkins University who specializes in science writing and communication.

Comments

  1. I was born in 1956. I remember how horrified and angry my mother was when she found out that the milk her kids were drinking contained iodine-131. She was greatly relieved when above-ground tests were halted. Thank you for this piece, a snapshot of what those twelve years of nuke testing were like. You document the calm, insouciant attitude of many people toward those dangerous explosions. Those insane bomb tests are probably why every woman my age seems to have thyroid issues. And why there is so much cancer. Humans can be so smart yet so stupid at the same time.

  2. As a child I remember my uncle travelling countless times by train from the Rock Island Arsenal to the test site. I don’t know what part he had in the bomb’s creation, but he suffered the rest of his life with guilt from his actions. During the years of testing he developed bleeding ulcers for which there was no good treatment. He never talked about his specific role. I and my cousins were children. But his Pastor shared – at his death – that his actions haunted him.

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