Our friend the government

The scholarly journal Foreign Policy has published research indicating that the U.S. and Soviet governments had a “gentlemen's agreement” to keep information from the public about leaks from underground nuclear tests after all testing went underground. Most U.S. tests were conducted in Nevada.

The first Test Ban Treaty, negotiated by the Khrushchev and Kennedy governments, was signed 50 years ago last week. It banned tests in the atmosphere, underwater and in outer space.

Thereafter, underground testing “posed a problem because the tests sometimes produced significant 'venting' of radioactive gases and particles, which traveled across borders in violation of the treaty,” wrote analyst William Burr of the National Security Archive. “Whatever the actual health risks may have been (probably far more serious for people living near the test sites than those far away), venting raised political problems because of the international concern about radioactivity.”

Complaints about leaks by the two sides, Burr went on, eventually decreased because, a recently discovered archival document indicates, “Both superpowers came to observe a tacit 'gentleman's agreement against publicizing venting incidents' in order to depoliticize the issue and to avoid public criticisms of nuclear testing in general (although that was more important to Washington than to Moscow).”

Even then, some leaks were too serious to cover up.

“One venting that became a major news story, reaching the front pages of the U.S. press, was the Baneberry nuclear test on December 18, 1970,” Burr writes. “Everything went wrong geologically at the Nevada Test Site. The 10 kiloton test produced a “prompt, massive venting” of radioactive particles and gases, the worst such incident in the history of U.S. underground testing. The cloud reached 8,000 feet in height and radioactive particles were detected across the Canadian border. Owing to an error by the test controller, a warning was not issued quickly enough, and radiation reached Camp 12 where hundreds of workers were stationed.”

Earlier research and reporting has dealt with the U.S. government also trivializing fallout risks, and denying the seismic detectability of tests in order to prevent a test ban.