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Amchitka Island sits at the midway point on the great arc of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, less than 900 miles across the Bering Sea from the coast of Russia. Amchitka, a spongy landscape of maritime tundra, is one of the most southerly of the Aleutians. The island’s relatively temperate climate has made it one of the Arctic’s most valuable bird sanctuaries, a critical staging ground for more than 100 migratory species, as well as home to walruses, sea otters and sea lions. Off the coast of Amchitka is a thriving fishery of salmon, pollock, haddock and halibut. All of these values were recognized early on. In 1913, Amchitka was designated as a national wildlife refuge by President William Howard Taft. But these ecological wonders were swept aside in the early 1960s when the Pentagon and the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) went on the lookout for a new place to blow up H-bombs. Four decades ago, Amchitka was the site of three large underground nuclear tests, including the most powerful nuclear explosion ever detonated by the United States.
The aftershocks of those blasts are still being felt. Despite claims by the Atomic Energy Commission and the Pentagon that the test sites would safely contain the radiation released by the blasts for thousands of years, independent research by Greenpeace and newly released documents from the Department of Energy (DOE) show that the Amchitka tests began to leak almost immediately. Highly radioactive elements and gasses, such as tritium, americium-241 and plutonium, poured out of the collapsed test shafts, leached into the groundwater and worked their way into ponds, creeks and the Bering Sea. At the same time, thousands of Amchitka laborers and Aleuts living on nearby islands were put in harm’s way. Dozens have died of radiation-linked cancers. The response of the federal government to these disturbing findings has been almost as troublesome as the circumstances surrounding the tests themselves : a consistent pattern of indifference, denial and cover-up continues even today.