Nuclear Fallout in Troy?

by Gabrielle DeMarco on September 9, 2009

Source: National Atomic Museum

Meet Simon. The 11,000 lb nuclear bomb was detonated amongst the sand and rocky crags of the Nevada desert the morning of April 25, 1953. Thirty-six hours later and 2,300 miles away, rain poured from the sky onto our humble city, Troy, NY. Forty-eight hours later the Geiger counters in the lab of Rensselaer chemistry professor Herbert Clark were crackling away at surprising levels. The counters closest to the outside wall picked up background radiation levels three times greater than the normal rate of 30 counts/min.

Clark and his students, intrigued by the sudden change, went to work outside. They gathered pavement, leaves, drinking water, and ground water around the city of Troy to test them for possible nuclear rainout. Autoradiographs (a image on x-ray film produced by the pattern of decay emissions for a substance) of the materials showed strong and even distribution of fission products on their surface. Nearby drinking water during the first day after the rainout showed levels of radioactivity 100 to 1000 times greater than natural radioactivity.

This Trojan fallout was documented by Clark in a 1954 volume of the journal Science. The historic article provides a striking look at the relationship between the detonation of nuclear weaponry and the strikingly fast and far ramifications. It was an area that Clark excelled and – as a scientist involved in the Manhattan Project – took extremely seriously. And while Clark did find fallout in Troy, NY more than a half century ago, he was also quick to point out that even though the increases were very apparent, they were never at hazardous levels. As a comparison, that 1,000-fold increase in the radioactivity of Troy drinking water resulted in levels around 1 micro microcurie per milliliter, while water near the actual Nevada detonations sites reached levels 87 times that amount.

Sadly, nuclear science lost a pioneer recently, which is how I came upon this exciting tidbit of Troy history. Herbert Clark passed away last month leaving behind not only his research, but a legacy of study on the powerful impacts of nuclear technology that lives on in the countless Rensselaer students that he taught during his 38 years on the faculty.