A secret bomb and ruined film: Why the US government only told Kodak it was going to test nuclear bombs

11 months ago 350
  • Nuclear fallout from the Trinity Test damaged a batch of the Eastman Kodak Company's X-ray film.
  • A company physicist traced the damage back to weapons testing before the bomb was public information.
  • To settle threats to sue, the government agreed to alert Kodak before any other nuclear tests.

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When the first nuclear bomb was tested on July 16, 1945, the US government thought they'd done everything to cover their tracks. They dropped it in a remote New Mexico Army base and fed a fake story to reporters about an ammunition explosion to explain the noise.

But little did they know, their test had released tiny radioactive flecks that would travel thousands of miles away, tracing back to that day like breadcrumbs.

In the coming months, 1,111 miles to the northeast, physicists in the Eastman Kodak Company headquarters began following that trail.

By testing the particles that settled in one of its manufacturing facilities, Kodak determined that they came from a nuclear bomb. They initially kept quiet, but when testing ruined more of their product in the 1950s, they threatened to sue the US government, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reported in 1997.

So to avoid public spectacle, the Atomic Energy Commission let the company into one of its most secretive protocols. They agreed to give Kodak advance notice of any nuclear testing in exchange for them dropping legal action.

It took decades for the rest of the country and the world to find out about the dangers of nuclear fallout.

A mushroom cloud forms after the first H-Bomb explosion in 1952.

A mushroom cloud forms after the first H-Bomb explosion in 1952. This was performed at the Nevada proving grounds. Three Lions/Getty Images

The lasting effects of nuclear fallout

After a nuclear bomb explodes, some of the radioactive byproducts it releases get carried away by the wind. This is what they call fallout.

No one knows exactly how far it can travel, mainly because it varies based on wind speed and direction. Scientists have estimated that in some cases, fallout can stay up in the atmosphere for over a year.

Each of these particles is radioactive, and can contaminate whatever it lands on, from skin to the water supply. Over time, the radiation wears off. But for a period after an explosion, many of the materials are hazardous to those who come into contact with them, according to the CDC.

At the time, Kodak's X-ray film was incredibly sensitive to radiation. Even a little bit of sun could damage a roll, fogging the picture with hundreds of little black dots.

So the company took special precautions, like sourcing the cardboard that packaged their product from a special mill that didn't use any radioactive materials, which were common in manufacturing during the war.

Despite these precautions, in August 1945, Kodak started receiving a flood of complaints from customers about their X-ray film.

Products of the Trinity Test

Kodak physicist Julian Webb took it upon himself to investigate these claims.

He traced the issue back to the company's cardboard mill in Vincennes, Indiana. Webb, who knew about radiation from working on the Manhattan Project, determined that the river water used in making the cardboard had been radioactively contaminated.

But he didn't stop there. Webb then tested the radioactive elements to figure out where they came from. He discovered that they weren't from a naturally occurring source, like radium, but instead, likely products of, "wind-borne fission product derived from the atom-bomb detonation in New Mexico," he wrote in 1949.

That means fallout from the Trinity Test had drifted all the way from outside Alamogordo, New Mexico, to Kodak's plant in Indiana.

Perhaps because of patriotism, or perhaps because Webb himself had worked on the Manhattan Project, he chose not to release this information to the public for 4 years, when he published his findings in the scientific journal Physical Review.

Instead, Kodak took extra precautions like installing Geiger counters at its headquarters in Rochester, New York.

An up close look at Kodak Eastman's Rochester, New York headquarters, with the gilded gold KODAK name as the main focus.

The Rochester, New York, headquarters of the Eastman Kodak Company. Corbis Historical/Getty Images

The government told Kodak when to protect its films

Six years later, those Geiger counters began ominously clicking, picking up radiation levels 25 times higher than normal, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reported in 1997.

This coincided with January 27, 1951, when the Atomic Energy Commission dropped the first atomic bomb at its new Nevada testing site.

This was Kodak's last straw. Making the argument that they were losing significant amounts of product, they threatened to sue the AEC.

In order to avoid going to court, the government agreed to give Kodak advance notice of any future nuclear testing, according to a 1997 Senate hearing.

The government even agreed to give the company maps that predicted fallout zones based on weather patterns. That's the last official records of the tug of war between the company and the government, but it wasn't the last that history had to say on fallout.

In the decades following, reports from the National Cancer Institute began telling the public about the dangers of nuclear fallout. After that, government hearings started to hold officials to account.

While rehashing this affair in a 1997 Senate hearing, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa asked, "Why do you suppose it was that the government of the United States saw fit to inform Kodak about fallout and to give them advance warnings on where the hot spots would be, but would not do so for the general public, especially in Utah and Idaho and places like that?"

He continued: "I am speculating here. Why would the government not say: Look, we are going to have an atomic bomb blast; for the next couple of months, people in this area, you ought not to drink milk. Why was that not done? I mean, they told Kodak to protect their films."

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