When atomic bombs were first being developed and tested in the United States, the government, naturally, wanted to keep them secret. However, one camera company discovered what the government was up to, months before anyone else.
The Trinity nuclear tests in 1945 were some of the first nuclear weapons tests. These tests first took place on July 16, 1945, which was only three short weeks before the famous atomic bombs were dropped on Japan to end WWII in the Pacific.
When nuclear tests are done though, more things happen than just giant explosions. Nuclear bombs, notably, release radioactive isotopes that propagate throughout the atmosphere and are picked up by wind currents and carried far away.
But let's back up for a second, how was the U.S. government even planning on keeping the largest explosions known to mankind secret in the first place? Well, they were planning on lying about it.
The Trinity tests occurred largely out in the middle of nowhere, at a U.S. Air Force base at Alamogordo, New Mexico, roughly 120 miles (192 km) from the population center of Albuquerque. Despite the distance, those living in the city, as well as people living closer to the site, heard the explosion. The government has planned for this, though, and simply said it was an accidental explosion of conventional explosives. Nothing to bat an eye about, especially during the height of WWII.
However, covering up the sound was the easy part. It was the fallout, the dispersal of radioactive isotopes, that was basically impossible to cover up. Luckily for the government, radioactive isotopes are invisible, and most people did not have their own Geiger counters, so they didn't worry at all about covering their invisible, but still potentially dangerous, radioactive tracks.
But therein lies the problem. While radioactive isotopes are invisible to humans, they still can have a devastating effect on them; however, these health issues usually don't show up for years or decades. But photographic films are highly sensitive to radioactive energy.
How Kodak discovered the Trinity Tests
Kodak's headquarters at the time was 1,900 miles (3,000 km) away from the site of the nuclear tests in New Mexico. Almost immediately after the Trinity explosions, Kodak started receiving a much higher than average number of complaints from customers that their film was foggy on being developed. Small black dots were showing up all over the film, essentially developing the film in sporadic areas.
This was perplexing to Kodak's scientists, as the factories where the film was produced were designed specifically to prevent this kind of defect and contamination.
The film produced by Kodak that was having issues was X-ray film, which was far more sensitive than the regular photographic film that you might be familiar with. Even just small exposure to light could render it basically unusable. This meant that Kodak spent a significant amount of effort in making sure the films' packaging protected it from all of these dangers during shipping.
One of the efforts Kodak took was making sure to control the entirety of the manufacturing process for the packaging materials, ensuring there was no radioactive contamination along the way.
This meant that Kodak also owned and operated the paper mills that produced their cardboard packaging. Notably, one was located in Vincennes, Indiana. A Kodak scientist by the name of Julian H. Webb took it upon himself to investigate where the fogging in the film was coming from. He eventually traced it back to the packaging produced at the Vincennes mill.
As he investigated further, he found that the spots weren't being caused by Radium, an element that was a common issue for Kodak at the time. Rather, they were being caused by a new radioactive isotope, one that Kodak had never accounted for.
As he was still investigating samples from the Indiana plant, he got word that the same issues were occurring at an Iowa plant. These plants were 450 miles away, but the issues and isotopes found were practically identical.
Red flag number 1.
Upon further investigation, Webb discovered that the flaws were coming from beta-particle radiation, not alpha-particle. Beta-particle radiation penetrates skin, paper, and other materials with ease, and is also considered to be dangerous. Alpha-particle radiation, on the other hand, can be stopped by paper and is generally not considered dangerous unless ingested.
Red flag number 2.
As Webb began investigating even further, he discovered the half-life of the particles was 30-days, meaning that the source of all of this radiation had to have occurred recently. Notably, this discovery would eventually allow Webb to later identify the particles as Cerium-141, one of the most common products of nuclear fission.
Three strikes and you're out.
At this point, the metaphorical film of Julian Webb was developed. He concluded that there was no possible way for this contamination to have come from anything other than an atomic bomb detonation. Released in a report in 1949, he states:
"The most likely explanation of the source of this radioactive contaminant appears to be that it consisted of wind-borne radioactive fission products derived from the atom-bomb detonation in New Mexico on July 16, 1945."
Notable here is the publishing date of Webb's research. He discovered the likely source of the radiation soon after the first test in 1945, yet he waited to release his research. This was likely due to the fact that he recognized how significant his findings were in relation to national security. Webb himself formerly worked on the Manhattan project.
The fallout from the fallout
Backing up for a moment from James Webb's investigation. Webb's discovery that fallout from the Trinity tests had traveled hundreds and possibly thousands of miles across the U.S. wasn't a fluke. In fact, scientists working on the Manhattan project had predicted this.
everal of the leading researchers on the project recommended that the U.S. government establish nuclear testing sites on the East coast, to prevent air currents from carrying fallout west, across the entire U.S. It was also recommended that the tests be carried out at least 150 miles (240 km) from civilian populations.
Despite these early recommendations by the researchers, the Government chose to test not only at the site in New Mexico, but also at the Nevada Proving Grounds, which was just one hundred miles (160 km) from Las Vegas.
t is likely that this choice was made by the military primarily because the New Mexico site was more conveniently located, which would allow for faster testing and development.
Downplaying the negative health effects of radiation was common practice at the time from the U.S. Government, though.
n January of 1951, the first of many atomic bombs were detonated at the Nevada Proving Ground site. After these tests, a Geiger counter at Kodak's headquarters in Rochester, New Jersey, a sprawling complex 2,500 miles (4000 km) away, started reading 25 times above background radiation.
This worried Kodak greatly and they even contacted the Atomic Energy Commission to raise concern. However, the Commission told them not to worry and even allowed Kodak to make a press release about the radiation.
Kodak at this point was frustrated. After complaining to both the National Association of Photographic Manufacturers and the Atomic Energy Commission and being dismissed, the company threatened to sue the government for damage to their products. The government, still wanting to keep their testing secret, came to an agreement with Kodak and the film industry. Kodak would be provided dates of future tests, and predicted fallout patterns, so that the company could take precautions to protect their film. Kodak's side of the bargain was that they were required to keep everything they discovered secret.
hey agreed to secrecy.
Kodak kept the Government's secrets in exchange for knowledge that allowed them to plan and protect their products. This wasn't necessarily malice on Kodak's part, they were simply trying to stay in business and had the U.S. government threatening them to keep quiet. Rather, the responsibility to make the dangers from these tests public largely fell to the government. A task it failed.
ast-forwarding to the late 1990s, the National Cancer Insitute had released findings linking the Trinity nuclear tests to tens of thousands of instances of thyroid cancer, and other negative health effects. After this report, Congressional hearings were held, questioning government officials that kept the tests secret at the time. The hearings made it clear to the public that almost every single person in America that was alive during theses tests was at some risk of negative effects from the fallout.
ne thing that remains unclear is why the government did not warn people of the dangers. It was clear to the public after the bombs were dropped on Japan that the U.S. had nuclear weapons. However, it wasn't until 1997 that the public really became aware of the dangers from these tests, or just how many tests had been conducted close to population centers. In many cases, there were possible alternative testing sites, and precautions that could have been taken. But alas, secrecy was the easier choice.