In 1964 the Department of Defense and the Atomic Energy Commission determined that planned  nuclear tests at the Nevada Test Site were too large to be conducted in such close proximity to the metropolitan area of Las Vegas. They decided that a more remote test site was deemed necessary for the huge explosions that were to be carried out and Amchitka Island, Alaska fit the bill.

A small island 44 miles long by 5 miles wide that sits as part of the Rat Island Group, the most southerly islands of the Aleutian chain. It lies about 1340 miles southwest of Anchorage, Alaska and 870 miles east of Petropavlovsk, Kamchatka in the Russian Far East. During World War II it provided a strategic fighter bomber airbase defense against Japanese invasion. At one point it numbered 15,000 troops and was instrumental in reclaiming the U.S. territory of Kiska and Attu Islands that were captured and occupied by Japan.

The first nuclear test conducted on Amchitka was Long Shot. An Atomic Bomb detonated 2300 feet underground on October 29, 1965. Its purpose was to investigate  Americas ability to detect nuclear explosions from the Russian far east and distinguish them from naturally occurring earthquakes. It's yield was approx. 80 kilotons or 5.3 times that of Hiroshima.

The second nuclear test was Milrow. A Hydrogen bomb exploded at a depth of 3992 feet below the surface on October 2, 1969. Its yield was 1 megaton, about 67 times that of Hiroshima. Basically it was a calibration test needed to determine the effects  on the biosphere, landslides, water wave production (tsunamis), aftershocks and other seismic -related effects. It was also used  to determine  if the Island would be able to withstand an even larger explosion.

The third and last nuclear explosion was Cannikin. Detonated inside a  52 foot diameter cavity at the bottom of a 5,875 foot shaft on November 6, 1971. It's yield was 5 megatons or 385 times that of Hiroshima. It is today the largest underground nuclear explosion conducted by the United States. The 730 underground nuclear tests conducted by the U.S. produced a total yield of 37 megatons, and Cannikin's yield alone represents 14 percent of the total. It was a test of the Warhead of the Spartan anti-ballistic missile system (ABM). It reputedly fractured the earths crust. The seismic shock from the explosion registered 7.0 on the Richter Scale. 38 hours after the explosion a 1 1/2  mile wide by 60 foot deep subsidence crater formed  as the volume of material above the cavity  (the chimney) collapsed into the void.

In the early 1980's it was determined that Environmental damage to Amchitka Island  by The nuclear tests and prior U.S. Government occupations needed to be investigated. assessed and a cleanup plan implemented. It was placed on the Environmental Protection Agency Superfund list as an uncontrolled hazardous waste site which opened the door to the money required for the cleanup operation. The U.S. Department of Energy developed the Plan of Attack with Engineering contractor IT out of Las Vegas.

In May of 2002 a base camp was set up to house the clean up workers. A combination of crews from  the Department of Energy, the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Corp of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife service, and the civilian contractor Brice Environmental Services Corporation, out of Fairbanks, Alaska who subcontracted the surveying portion of the contract to our company  McClintock Land Associates of Eagle River, Alaska. 

Myself and Tom Pickett, a land surveyor based out of Georgia, were assigned by Bill McClintock to spend the summer on Amchitka performing the Surveys for the remediation sites. There we were to join another surveyor, Gerald (Gerry) Kurtz who was employed directly by Brice Corporation.  A total of 8 sites on Amchitka needed extensive surveying to determine volumes of contaminated water and mud. Volume measurements  of earth needed to stabilize the  contaminated sites, slope staking and grading of the sites to DOE specifications and other surveying as needed by the contractor Brice. 

Upon arrival in Alaska our first week was spent in a 40 hour Hazardous Waste and Emergency response Class to obtain mandatory certification for this project that all cleanup workers were required. The class entailed recognition of Hazardous waste and substances, procedures to isolate dangers associated with said waste. Practice of using Personal Protective Equipment while working in a hazardous environment and decontamination procedures. Our main concerns were Radiation from the nuclear detonations. Chemicals and substances that were used in the  drilling of the shafts for the bombs. Chemical Spills and Unexploded Ordnance from WW II. Even "Rommel Stakes",  An iron rod about 3/4" in diam. with a sharpened point designed to hold concertina and barbed wire and impede a Japanese infantry invasion. These were every where on the island numbering in the thousands some three foot above the ground and some only two inches. They would surely pierce most footwear if you happened to stand on one. Steel shanked footwear was required by all.

Once the class was completed we loaded into a  government chartered Learjet for the ride out to the Island. Our surveying equipment and truck having already been compiled and shipped via barge two weeks prior. Cargo space was very limited on the Lear jet and we were allowed only one small bag each, But was also able to take a few basic surveying essentials like a Topcon GTS-800 One Man Robotic Instrument and tripod just so we could hit the ground running if the barge had not arrived. We landed 3 1/2 hours later on Amchitka in a 40 mile per hour crosswind with horizontal rain which we found was pretty much the normal weather pattern. The camp had been setup to accommodate approximately 100 cleanup personnel. This was comprised of a series of ATCO trailers. We then attended an  orientation meeting to discuss safety issues and point out restricted areas that contained untold amounts of unexploded bombs, small rockets, and hand grenades. We found that the barge indeed had yet to arrive with our equipment due to sea conditions but with access to two quad runners we were able to recon the cleanup sites and set primary control. The constant rain, wind, and fog made the surveying a challenge to say the least. 

When the shafts were drilled for the nuclear bombs a mixture of diesel and bentonite were poured down them to produce a highly slippery condition that helped extract the rock and debris. Large holes were excavated near the shafts and this  drilling fluid was pumped into them. Water had since filled and covered the bentonite mud creating large toxic ponds. Especially in the ponds of the "Long Shot" explosion where levels of radioactive Tritium have been measured. The first phase of our surveying was to do a topographic survey of the original lay of the ponds and surrounding areas so as to create a digital terrain model. With the Topcon Robotic instrument set up at a strategic high point we pulled on chest waders and walked into the water to obtain  shots on top of the mud surface and then forced our rod down under the mud until it hit hard ground and took shots at the bottom so we could calculate the exact quantity of mud that needed to be stabilized. Shots at the ponds perimeter gave us the necessary shots as to calculate the volume of contaminated water. With these figures we were able to know how many tanker loads would be required to remove the contaminated water. This toxic water was sent to a water treatment facility that was also barged in from the mainland. We calculated how much soil and sand  would be needed to be imported and mixed with the bentonite mud to help produce a stable surface. A typical ratio being 1 part mud to 3 parts sand/soil. The second phase of the cleanup operation was to cover the mud mixture with another layer of sand and soil.  Another topo survey was then required to make sure the specific depth was met. The third phase was for the contractor to place a geosynthetic liner over the entire mixture capping the pit and isolating it from the environment. Additional Soil was placed over this liner and this was then  graded and slope staked so rain would run off and away from the center. Finally, a layer of topsoil was added on top of the entire area  and seeded with a mat of native plant seed mixture.


The weather during the summer months in the Aleutian islands is notoriously bad. Heavy Rain, Strong Winds, and a dense fog that  limited the range of our shots from the instrument. The Topcon robotic gun emits  a continuous laser to the prism rod for tracking purposes and a distance of more than approximately  100 feet in this fog would disrupt the tracking laser. It would then go into search mode, turning this way and that way trying to find you. Sometimes it would look for you out in the Bering Sea, sometimes it would look for you up in the clouds. This became very frustrating so when the Fog became to dense we would use our backup Instrument, a Topcon GTS-220 with one person gunning manually. Trying not to breathe on the eyepiece as it would condense and constantly wiping rain droplets from both ends of the scope. The average daily wind speed was about 25 miles per hour with some days reaching 70-80 miles per hour. The instrument set ups had to be low to the ground and  accompanied by large rocks or sandbags to stop the transits from blowing over. Another nuisance we had to deal with was the Propane Cannons setup by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. A cannon like device 4 feet long with a bore of about 4 inches, hooked up to a propane cylinder that would explode with an incredibly loud report every four minutes or so. They were suppose to keep the endangered Aleutian goose from nesting in the project areas. Usually set up at high points where  the instrument needed to strategically be set. After a few minutes would go by you new the blast was imminent but you were constantly on edge waiting for it. You were pretty much a nervous wreck after fighting wind and rain and cannon blasts  all day.

At each of the eight sites a decontamination facility was set up to decontaminate  equipment used before it was removed to another site. As surveyors we were usually the first at the sites to obtain the original topographic lay of the land. We therefore had to decontaminate ourselves after wading in water and mud most of the day. The constant rain and drizzle also helped in keeping the mud off. Department of Energy personnel took radiation readings at all the project sites to make sure that they were well below what is considered safe for humans. The Tritium measured at Long Shot Site has a half life of just 12 years  so had fallen of greatly since the explosion in 1965.


Visit the McClintock Land Associates Amchitka Project Image Gallery.

For more information on the Nuclear tests conducted at Amchitka Island visit the Department of Atomic Energy Website

Recently declassified videos of these tests are available for a small fee from the Atomic Energy Website.

For more Information relating to Amchitka's role during World War II visit the historical index of the green peace site or purchase the authorative book "The Thousand Mile War" by Brian Garfield, available through

Video clips of the Cannikin Explosion