He was 7 years old when U.S. government representatives came to his Lamar County home, boarded it up and evacuated his family three miles away to protect them from a nuclear blast that shook both his body and the Mississippi earth in a 30-mile radius of the Tatum Salt Dome.
“We were probably about a mile and a half from ground zero,” said Kevin Saul, now 55. “They evacuated us to my grandmother’s house in Baxterville. It was just like an earthquake came through. The house was shimmering and shaking. The ground had a buckle effect to it. It would knock you off your feet.”
For 30 seconds, Saul experienced the effects of the only underground nuclear detonation east of the Mississippi River and a moment in history that ultimately helped the United States government fight the Cold War. That riveting experiment helped American scientists realize that their equipment could detect the underground explosions that the Russians were also conducting.
“They kept us out for a day, and we were allowed to go back in,” said Saul, who now helps manage timber and oversee the site as an employee of the Mississippi Forestry Commission. Turned over to the state of Mississippi about two years ago, the site is now known as the Jamie Whitten state forest.
When Saul’s family returned to their home on Tatum Salt Dome Road following the detonation, they found it damaged.
“The chimney had moved out from the house,” he said. “It caved the water well in. It broke lots of windows and moved the outhouse and the home off its foundation.”
Released in November, Burke’s book explores the history of America’s only nuclear detonations east of the Mississippi River conducted in the 1960s nearly 3,000 feet below ground in Mississippi’s Tatum Salt Dome that posed a potential threat for those living within 150 miles of the site in the cities of Hattiesburg, Jackson, Gulfport, Biloxi, Mobile and New Orleans.
While the detonations ultimately helped limit the world’s nuclear arsenals, they also sparked widespread public concern.
Burke, who grew up in Louisiana and Alabama, attended Spring Hill College in Mobile majoring in psychology before earning a doctorate in the history of technology from Auburn. Inspired by Peter Kuran’s video “Atomic Journeys: Welcome to Ground Zero,” which mentioned the Mississippi detonations, Burke decided to write about the subject for his doctoral dissertation. He said nuclear testing in Mississippi, and elsewhere, in the United States presented a quandry.
“Basically, even though atmospheric nuclear and thermonuclear testing resulted in massive amounts of radioactive fallout, in addition to negative publicity from radiological incidents, the United States depended on this very fallout to assess Soviet nuclear weapons development,” he said.
By moving Soviet and American tests underground, fallout was eliminated, but so was this source of intelligence. New methods had to be developed to detect and assess Soviet weapons development.
Called the Vela Uniform program – it began in 1960, and two of its tests were conducted underground in the Tatum Salt Dome – an enormous subterranean plug of pure salt near Purvis and Baxterville.
“The first and largest detonation, code-named ‘Salmon,’ was fired Oct. 22, 1964, with an explosive yield of 5.3 kilotons – roughly 1/3 the size of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima,” Burke said.
“The second, smaller one, ‘Sterling,’ was fired Dec. 3, 1966, with a yield of 380 tons, in the underground cavity created by the Salmon blast. These tests were followed by two ethane/oxygen detonations in the chamber in 1969 and 1970.”
While the U.S. conducted atomic tests in New Mexico, Nevada, Alaska, Mississippi and Colorado, the Mississippi detonations were the only ones conducted in the U.S. east of the Mississippi River, Burke said.
Burke said the Atomic Energy Commission and the Advanced Research Projects Agency wanted to find a large salt dome devoid of petroleum. Since the largest ones in the U.S. are along and inland of the Gulf Coast, they began searching for a suitable candidate. The Tatum Dome discovered in the 1930s was deep underground, lacked oil and had been pretty much forgotten about.
It was chosen as the site, and the tests conducted there were designed to examine seismic wave propagation and spread through various types of soil and materials.
Data collected helped determine whether or not the “Soviets could cheat when it came to underground atomic testing treaties that were anticipated for the future,” Burke said.
“It is worthy noting that these tests were conducted publicly, and were reported on constantly. They were not secret, by any means. This was intentional. We wanted the Soviets to observe the tests, as well, from their own seismological stations.”
The Salmon test was pretty memorable to locals.
“Despite its relatively small size, it shook the ground for miles around, and destroyed at least one man’s house,” he said. “It knocked down chimneys, cracked plaster, all because of the composition of the soil around the dome.
“At Spring Hill College in Mobile, over 100 miles away, the Rev. Louis Eisele noted that his seismographs recorded that, at the test site itself, there was the equivalent of a magnitude 6 earthquake. It was totally unexpected.” The second test, Sterling, was only detected through the use of seismographs.
In 1971, the land was returned to the Tatum family, but it was later purchased by the Department of Energy in 1979 after a radiation leak scare, Burke said.
“The Mississippi Department of Forestry obtained the land a couple of years back and are using it as an experimental tree farm,” he said.
Saul moved away after high school for 20 years, but returned two years ago to his home place.
“Radiation was always a big concern,” he said. “They did testing there over the years and found out there was a higher rate of cancer there. They have a lot of sample wells out there. They come by periodically to test. It’s a rural area, but there’s a pretty good population now that’s built up over the last few years.”
That’s a question many who read Burke’s book will wonder: Is the area still impacted by those detonations that took place almost 50 years ago.
“Well, yes and no,” said Burke. “If anything, the lack of human activity there has allowed it to return to a more natural state. There is periodic monitoring of the local plant and animal life for radioactivity. I have actually picked and eaten blackberries during my last visit there. They were delicious.
“Still, there are a lot of people who live around the site, and many are either worried, or convinced that they have been exposed to radioactive contamination, although subsequent and regular medical surveys are conducted that have shown no evidence of this.”
Burke notes in his book that the area has also been polluted by the timber processing industry that existed there.
“Still, radioactivity can be tricky, and it is true that radioactive substances were brought up to the surface from the test chamber, and there was at least one instance of radioactive steam issuing from the borehole that led into the test chamber deep within the salt dome. Most of this was cleaned up. I cannot say if this is a source for concern, but it also cannot be ignored.”
Burke said he realizes that the tests frightened people, so he hopes to dispel some of the misconceptions regarding them in his book.
“The people living around there deserve that,” he said. “I do not like to think of them feeling neglected after the tests and being uninformed by the DOE,” he said. “Over the years, the government dropped the ball when it came to keeping those people informed as to events at the site, and I would argue that it led to far more fear than was warranted. They have been trying to remedy this, but still they could have done much more.”
Wayne Tucker, a retired assistant forester with the Mississippi Forestry Commission, said it’s not widely known that nuclear testing occurred in Mississippi. He said the Department of Energy approached the Mississippi Institute for Forest Inventory, where he worked, about three years ago, offering the state the 1,740 acre tract of land.
“They had these sites all over the country, and they wanted to divest of them,” Tucker said, adding that state officials initially suspected radioactivity.
“The only way we would accept it is if we did a study of the trees on the site to make sure there was no radiation,” he said.
Tucker said they worked with Mississippi State University and the Mississippi Department of Health’s radiology department sampling around 700 trees on the tract.
“It was more intensive on ground zero and less as we got away from it,” he said. “We only found one tree that had any contamination in at all called Tritium. It’s a precursor to radioactivity.”
Tucker said the reason salt domes were chosen for testing sites is because they crystallize and encapsulate the radiation.
“If you come down here, there are all kinds of old wives tails that there are three-headed snakes and the animals glow at night,” he said. “According to the Mississippi Department of Health, they have done some studies on cancer. There is an increase, but it’s not a significant increase, and they really can’t blame that entirely on what happened.”
Nursing students frequently do community health assessments in the area, Tucker said, and there are approximately 25 water wells presently drilled all over the site that are routinely tested.
“They test every one of those every quarter for contamination,” he said. “They have records that go back to 1972 for any contamination on that site . . .Like the guy from the radiology group said, there is more radiation in downtown Jackson than there is on that site. Every time I go out there, I see turkey, deer, rattlesnakes, cottonmouth, lots of critters. Every once and a while, they will trap, grind them up and test the meat for contamination, and there’s no contamination.”
Any liability that might come up with the site was left with the Department of Energy and the United States government, Tucker said.
The United States detonated its last nuclear test in 1992, Burke said. Since then, the United States switched to using supercomputer modeling for its weapons program, “as it is far less expensive and messy than actual tests.”
Tucker said the salt dome testing is a “fascinating piece of history.”
“It really contributed to the demise of the Cold War because we were able to know exactly what the Russians were doing with their underground testing.”
The chilling part of the story is uncertainty – the uncertainty of the tests and the times.
“I don’t think the federal government or any of the government officials knew what to expect,” he said. “A lot of things we see now days that we think are good for us, we find out that they weren’t good for us.
“They had no idea. They felt like they needed to do it, which I think proved that they did, but they really didn’t know the consequences.”
I am seeking Mississippians who built bomb shelters on their property in the 1960s.