Pine Belt ideal spot for U.S. government nuclear tests - WDAM-TV 7-News, Weather, Sports-Hattiesburg, MS

Pine Belt ideal spot for U.S. government nuclear tests

© A U.S. Department of Energy plate, plugging a well leading to underground chamber of nuclear test site. © A U.S. Department of Energy plate, plugging a well leading to underground chamber of nuclear test site.
HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) -

"This test site has the highest population density around it than any other nuclear test site in the world," said historian Dr. David A. Burke, in reference to Lamar County's Salmon nuclear test site.

That means that, if something went wrong with the explosions, done in 1964 and 1966, if even one measurement was off, thousands of lives would have been in jeopardy.

"Within 120 miles we have Purvis, Hattiesburg, we have Jackson, we have Mobile, Alabama, we have Biloxi, Gulfport, Pascagoula, Slidell, Baton Rouge, New Orleans," said Burke, referring to the radius generally considered vulnerable to contamination in a nuclear event.

"It was the fact that a salt dome existed there, it wasn't that the federal government wanted to pick on Mississippi," said University of Southern Mississippi professor Lois Sumrall.

So what made the risk worth it? It was Mississippi's salt domes, left deep underground as the remnants of millions of years of the ocean-receding evolution that shaped the Gulf of Mexico.

"During its formation there were progressive deposits of salt that ended up being buried up to eight miles deep underground," says Burke.

After centuries underground, the salt formed thick bulbous formations - called domes - that became covered with sediment - giving them a density that made them impermeable.

"They chose this one because of its size and because of its depth," Burke says.

Scientists needed to plant the 5.3 kiloton device half a mile below the surface in order to contain the blast and its fallout.

"There was a theory," Burke says, "That said it may be possible to hide or muffle the seismic signal from a nuclear test if you set it off in a chamber, a hollowed out chamber. Well it's easier to do that in salt, because you can wash salt away with high pressure hoses."

In terms of radiation - it worked. The chemistry of the property was not affected - for the most part.

"They did drill into the salt however, so there is some more salt around ground zero than there used to be," says Mississippi Department of Health physicist Karl Barber.

The government looked at two other salt domes in the state but, in the end, wanted this one.

Preparing for the tests, the United States government leased 1,470 acres from the Tatum family, which had been being used to produce timber for the family's company in the early 1900s.

It was a near ideal piece of property; with much of the forests already cleared from harvesting timber, it almost had the appearance of a nuclear ground zero.

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