TIME Science

When Mushroom Clouds Were All the Rage

Atomic Bomb Test, Nevada
Interim Archives / Getty Images Capturing an atomic explosion at a test site in the Nevada desert in 1957.

Jan. 27, 1951: The first atomic bomb is detonated at the Nevada Test Site in Nye County, Nev.

The mushroom clouds that appeared over the Nevada desert were a spectacular tourist attraction — at least initially.

After the first nuclear device was detonated at the Nevada Test Site on this day, Jan. 27, in 1951, atomic fever swept across the nation, bringing waves of visitors to Las Vegas, an ideal vantage point from which to see the clouds rising above the test site 65 mi. away. “At week’s end the Atomic Energy Commission cautiously confirmed the fact that the first atomic explosion had taken place in its new 5,000-sq.-mi. testing ground on the remote and barren plateau northwest of Las Vegas known as Frenchman Flat,” TIME reported in the Feb. 5, 1951, issue. “It was the first atomic explosion in the U.S. since the historic test at Alamogordo in 1945.” The 12 years during which the site averaged one explosion every three weeks was a boom time for Vegas, which nicknamed itself “Atomic City” and sponsored “Miss Atom Bomb” beauty contests, adorning winners with mushroom-cloud crowns.

The Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce printed calendars listing detonation times and suggestions for the best viewing locations. According to the PBS history show “American Experience,” many tourists watched the bombs go off from the Sky Room at the Desert Inn hotel and casino, but others picnicked as close to the test site as they could get.

One lucky group of newscasters was allowed to broadcast the explosion of a 31-kiloton bomb — dubbed the “Big Shot” — from the edge of Nevada’s Yucca Lake, 10 mi. from ground zero. One reporter, per PBS, narrated the experience in majestic terms: “A fantastically bright cloud is climbing upward like a huge umbrella… You brace yourself against the shock wave… Then, after what seems like hours, the man-made sunburst fades away.”

Residents of St. George, Utah, therefore, considered themselves exceptionally fortunate: they had a front-row seat for nearly every blast that rocked the desert. According to a TIME, parents in this tiny town, just downwind of the test site, regularly woke their children before dawn and brought them to a hilltop where they could watch the mushroom clouds rise with the sun.

“When a pinkish-red cloud drifted over St. George hours later, the parents were not frightened,” TIME reported. “After all, the Atomic Energy Commission had assured them that ‘there is no danger’ from radioactive fallout. Some parents even held Geiger counters on their children and exclaimed in wonder as the needles jumped.”

By the time that story was published, in 1979, an alarming number of the children who had once watched the bombs burst in St. George had died of leukemia. Others developed thyroid cancer as adults. Awe over the A-bomb’s pyrotechnical power had been replaced by a better-informed fear of its dangers, and the test site had moved its nuclear operations underground.

Read the original report on the first atomic explosion, from the Feb. 5, 1951, issue of TIME, here in the TIME Vault: “A Kinda Flash”

TIME Environment

How the Atomic Age Left Us a Half-Century of Radioactive Waste

Plutonium Plant
Evans / ;Getty Images The American Atomic Energy Commision's plutonium production plant at Hanford, Washington, circa 1955

Dealing with nuclear waste at a plant in Washington State has proved an intractable problem. Why?

In 1951, atomic optimism was booming—even when it came to radioactive waste. In fact, entrepreneurs believed that the waste might pay off in the same way that coal tar and other industrial by-products had proved useful for the plastics and chemical industries. TIME reported that Stanford Research Institutes estimated they could sell crude radioactive waste from the Hanford plutonium plant in eastern Washington State at prices ranging from ten cents to a dollar a curie (a measure of radioactive decay). Every kilogram of plutonium the plant produced spilled out hundreds of thousands of gallons of radioactive waste. If the entrepreneurs were right, Hanford was a gold mine.

They were wrong. Instead, the former Hanford plutonium plant became the largest nuclear clean-up site in the western hemisphere. It costs taxpayers a billion dollars a year.

On the other hand, maybe they were right—just not the way they intended. Corporate contractors hired to clean up Hanford have made hundreds of millions of dollars in fees and surcharges, and, since little has been accomplished, the tab promises to mount for decades. Since 1991, the US Department of Energy has missed every target for remediation of Hanford’s deadly nuclear waste. Highly radioactive fluids are seeping toward the Columbia River watershed, while in the past two years 54 clean-up workers have fallen ill from mysterious toxic vapors. Last fall, seeking to finally get some action, Washington State sued the DOE to speed up the timeline and make the project safer—but, on Dec. 5, 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice rejected the request. The express schedule was too expensive, they said, despite the fact that the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration is planning to spend a trillion dollars in 30 years to create a new generation of more accurate, deadly weapons. In fact, the DOE spends more money now in real dollars on nuclear weapons than it did at the height of the Cold War.

Unfortunately, the Justice ruling—to scrimp on radioactive waste management while the DOE spends lavishly on bombs—makes for business as usual in the history of Hanford.

It’s never been a matter of knowing the danger. In 1944, Hanford designers understood that the radioactive by-products issuing from plutonium production were deadly. Executives from DuPont, which built the Hanford plant for the Manhattan Project, called plutonium and its by-products “super poisonous” and worried about how to keep workers and surrounding populations safe.

At the same time, DuPont engineers were rushing to make plutonium for the first Trinity test in Nevada in 1945, and they did not pause to invent new solutions to store radioactive waste. Plant managers simply disposed of the high-tech, radioactive waste the way that humans had for millennia. They buried it. Millions of gallons of radioactive effluent went into trenches, ponds, holes drilled in the ground and the Columbia River. The most dangerous waste was conducted into underground single-walled tanks meant to last ten years. Knowing the tanks would corrode, as the high-level waste ate through metal, Hanford designers planned to come up with a permanent solution in the future. They were confident in their abilities. Had they not accomplished the impossible—building from scratch in less than three years a nuclear bomb?

But, as the years passed, no new answer surfaced to safely store nuclear waste. The Atomic Energy Commission, which was in charge of bomb production, left radioactive garbage to its private corporate contractors. For two decades, the AEC had no office to oversee waste management, nor any regulation. AEC officials didn’t know how much radioactive waste there was or where it was located. They also didn’t pay much fiscal attention to the problem. The AEC allocated to General Electric, which took over from DuPont in 1946, $200,000 a year for waste management, small change in nuclear-weapons accounting. In the same decade, the AEC handed over $1.5 million annually to subsidize the local school district in Richland, Wash., where plant workers lived.

Meanwhile, the temporary underground tanks remained long past their expiration date. In the early 1960s, the first tank sprang a leak. Dozens followed suit leaching into the ground a million gallons of high-level waste. From 1968 to 1986, Hanford managers built 28 new, double-walled tanks, designed to last from 20 to 50 years. What was the major design innovation after two decades of experience? An extra tank wall.

The explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in 1986 tore the plutonium curtain of secrecy surrounding Hanford. The newly renamed Department of Energy was forced to release thousands of documents describing how plant managers had issued into the western interior millions of curies of radioactive waste as part of the daily operating order. In the early 1990s, TIME recounted stories of people living downwind who had thyroid disease and cancer, caused, they believed, by the plant’s emissions. In 1991, the DOE resolved to clean up the Hanford site.

The agency hired the same military contractors that had managed the site while it was being polluted. Their main task involved building a state-of-the-art waste-treatment plant to turn high-level waste into glass blocks for millennia of safe storage in salt caverns. But by 1999, eight years and several billion dollars later, the DOE had to admit that its contractors had accomplished little. Multiple times, the DOE set new deadlines or hired new contractors, but the goalposts were always moved. In 2015, after decades of effort, the waste treatment plant is still in the planning stages. High-level waste remains in tanks, some of which continue to leak.

What makes dealing with nuclear waste at Hanford so intractable? The Savannah River Plant in Georgia also made plutonium and has successfully built a treatment plant. So too have the Russians and French. Despite the Department of Justice’s ruling, money is not the main problem. The current contractor, Bechtel Corp, has spent billions of dollars, yet has made little progress. Speaking this week, representatives of the Washington State Department of Ecology said that they would argue their case in federal court in February, hoping to get the DOE to commit to their timeline to get the waste treatment plant up and running. Decades after the story began, it continues.

So perhaps it’s a matter of history. Since the ’40s, Hanford contractors had enjoyed a free hand to produce plutonium and pollute with little AEC/DOE oversight. And for six decades reports of radioactive discharges were denied. It is hard to fix a problem one cannot see—and that’s been, by any measure, an expensive lesson.

Kate Brown lives in Washington, DC and is Professor of History at UMBC. She is the author of several award-winning books, including Plutopia: Nuclear Families in Atomic Cities and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters (Oxford 2013). Brown’s most recent book Dispatches from Dystopia: History of Places Not Yet Forgotten will appear in April 2015 with the University of Chicago Press.

Read a 1986 report on the safety of the American nuclear industry, here in the TIME Vault: Bracing for the Fallout

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TIME Environment

The Nuclear Disaster You Never Heard of

Palomares
Gamma-Keystone / Getty Images The Jan. 17, 1966 catastrophe at Palomares was caused by an accident during the in-flight supplying of a US Air Force B-52 nuclear bomber by a KC-135 of the US Air Force above southern Spain

How the United States whitewashed (literally) a nuclear accident in Spain that still hasn’t been cleaned up

History News Network

This post is in partnership with the History News Network, the website that puts the news into historical perspective. The article below was originally published at HNN.

This month, with little fanfare, Palomares begins its 50th year as “the most radioactive town in Europe.” If you’ve heard of Fukushima, Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island but are unfamiliar with Palomares, you might wonder why. All appear in Time’s top-ten list of the world’s “worst nuclear disasters.” Palomares moreover has been called the worst nuclear weapons accident in history. So why do so few people outside Spain know about it?

The cover-up and whitewash were figurative, also literal. Though four nuclear bombs were rained on Spain, many vaguely recall a lone “lost” bomb, fished out of the Mediterranean intact.

So what exactly happened? On 17 January 1966, a US Air Force B-52 collided with its refueling plane, killing seven airmen and dropping four hydrogen bombs. Conventional explosives in two detonated on impact with the earth, blowing them to bits and scattering radioactive plutonium—a mutagen and carcinogen—over the farming town of Palomares, population 2000.

English-language journalists, though late on the scene, rushed their books into print, replicating oversights of the rushed cleanup operation and circulating the myth of a single lost bomb. Pioneering female foreign correspondent Flora Lewis screamed One of Our H-Bombs is Missing, borrowing a title from 50s Red Scare pulp fiction. Likewise demonstrating their national allegiances, British reporter Christopher Morris lamented The Day They Lost the H-Bomb and American science writer Barbara Moran, four decades later, decried The Day We Lost the H-Bomb.

Only New York Times correspondent Tad Szulc pluralized the threat with The Bombs of Palomares. He further measured the relative importance of events. “Although the long spectacular search” for the harmless fourth bomb—at the bottom of the Med for eighty days—“was to overshadow the village’s radioactivity problem in [U.S.] public opinion, the contamination was in reality the most significant” calamity. Even so, Szulc’s book, like all the others, gave inordinate attention to the “heroic” sea search and its mesmerizing high-tech submersibles. From Pinewood to Hollywood, Finders Keepers to Men of Honor, moviemakers followed suit, literalizing a single lost bomb, duly found by singer Cliff Richard or actor Cuba Gooding, Jr. (A notable exception: Michael Cacoyannis’s landmark The Day the Fish Came Out.)

So what was of greatest significance in early 1966? In addition to the seven airmen, plus eight more killed in a Palomares supply plane crash, people in Palomares suffered—and still suffer—potentially fatal radioactive exposures. At the time, no was evacuated; no one was officially informed for six weeks. Even then, U.S. Ambassador Angier Duke told the international press corps an unconscionable lie: “This area has gone through no public health hazard of any kind, and no trace whatsoever of radioactivity has ever been found.” Why then were nearly 5000 barrels of hot soil and crops shipped away for burial in South Carolina? Why today is plutonium found throughout the food chain in Palomares? Why is radioactivity evident downwind, in neighboring Villaricos?

Spanish authors and activists have provided answers, along with Israeli feminist Dina Hecht. However, Hecht’s extraordinary documentary film Broken Arrow 29, broadcast by Britain’s Channel 4 on the disaster’s 20th anniversary, has never been aired in the U.S. In the lead-up to the 50th anniversary, January 17, 2016, will Americans continue to cover their ears and avert their eyes?

What do Americans need to know? Of crucial concern, many Spanish injuries, fatalities, and miscarriages have been attributed to the disaster. But the United States government assumed limited liability, paying only property damages averaging $250 per person, accepting no responsibility for loss of life or loss of livelihood. To this day, U.S. authorities provide technical assistance, as they argue over “acceptable levels” of contamination. On her last official visit to Spain as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton repeated the usual platitudes and prevarications, even when informed of a secret U.S. dump discovered in Palomares in 2008.

Like this cover-up, the whitewash was not only figurative but also literal. The military’s 200-page Palomares Summary Report contains one solitary tossed-off sentence about radioactive contamination of local homes, not even referenced as such. Unspecified “buildings,” the report hedges, “were washed but in [some] cases this was not sufficient to lower the contamination level to the acceptable limit, and whitewashing had to be done.” In spineless bureaucratese, these passive verb constructions cloud procedures, obscure U.S. military agency, and naturalize what “had to be done.”

So who did what? Along with townspeople’s testimonies, Department of Defense footage first screened by Hecht helps piece it together, as it inadvertently exposes staggering environmental racism. Just as white officers ordered African American servicemen to shovel contaminants into barrels and launder contaminated uniforms, they likewise instructed a black enlistee with gloves but no mask to take radiation readings of buildings. When homes registered as radioactive, servicemen sprayed them with high-pressure water hoses over and over, damaging walls, roofs, and interiors, and exhausting local water supplies. When the homes still read as radioactive, troops whitewashed them, simply painting the plutonium into the surface of the house.

With a half-life of 24,000 years, the plutonium will long outlast the paint, insuring that children’s and animals’ inevitable scraping, licking, and eating of paint chips—so well-documented around lead-poisoning—will have alarming long-term carcinogenic and mutagenic effects. In years to come, periodic sanding for fresh painting will no doubt re-suspend plutonium particles and increase the probabilities of inhalation and lung cancer. Thus, as I summarized for colleagues at the American Historical Association’s 129th annual meeting, U.S. whitewashing has embedded contamination into the very structures of local communities, the very air of local environments.

What now? As the U.S. dickers over decontamination—not to mention reparations or reconciliation—organizers in Palomares promise openness and honesty, despite all the commercial advantages of keeping quiet. As former mayor Antonia Flores puts it, “Since no one cares a damn about us, we won’t forget.” Strategies of memorialization include street-naming, as with Bombards Street, 17 January 1966 Street, and 17 January 1966 Crossing, where I lived over the winter of 2011-12. I continue to conduct research there.

What do I see? Foremost: Resilience. After U.S. forces stole and depleted local water stocks, citrus groves dried up and died. After the flawed cleanup, six successive tomato harvests failed. After the agricultural economy collapsed, an exodus ensued, the population cut in half. But people bounce back.

As my forthcoming documentary photobook shows, whitewashing is resisted not only in annual protests and commemorations but in everyday practices of working, playing, talking and remembering. Farmers still till the land, children go to school, while on the outskirts of town, a rural sex industry has emerged, complicating liberationist calls to occupy liminal spaces. Low-budget tourists now frequent the Palomares environs, and where black servicemen once shifted toxic barrels, there are now naturist hostels and residential communities, a nudist beach with gay cruising ground, and a small strip of eateries, drag venues, gay bars, and heterosexual swingers clubs.

In the nuclear age, as the Palomares disaster semicentennial approaches, marginalized peoples adopt the most marginal lands.

John Howard, a professor of American studies at King’s College London, is the author of “Men Like That and Concentration Camps on the Home Front.”

TIME National Security

More Band-Aids for the Nation’s Ailing Nuclear-Weapons Force

A US Air Force missile maintenance team removes the upper section of an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead in an undated USAF photo at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana.
Airman John Parie—U.S. Air Force/Reuters A US Air Force missile maintenance team removes the upper section of an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead in an undated USAF photo at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana.

Pentagon beefs up spending to keep yesterday’s weapons ready for tomorrow

The U.S. military’s nuclear force — both its hardware (the weapons) and its software (the people who operate those weapons) — is in disarray. That can only come as a surprise to those who don’t concede the Cold War is over, and that neither the funding, nor the required mindset, exists to keep it going indefinitely.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Friday that a pair of reviews calls for spending about $7.5 billion over the next five years to shore up the nation’s nuclear weapons, as well as the bombers, land-based missiles and submarines that carry them. “The reviews found evidence of systematic problems that if not addressed could undermine the safety, security and effectiveness of the elements of the force in the future,” he said. “These problems include manning; infrastructure; and skill deficiencies; a culture of micro-management; and over-inspection and inadequate communication, follow-up, and accountability by senior department in nuclear enterprise leadership.”

There was a palpable sense of national mission when you visited nuclear sites during the Cold War. While that remains true at most sites, there’s a feeling gleaned from speaking with current nuclear officers that their mission isn’t as vital as it once was. Congress feels the same way, which is why the nation’s nuclear-weapons organization has been nickled-and-dimed, relatively speaking, for the past 25 years (although it’s slated to cost $1 trillion over the next 30 years).

Hagel ordered the reviews in January, after reports of widespread cheating surfaced among the airmen operating the Air Force’s intercontinental ballistic missiles at Montana’s Malmstrom Air Force Base. The Navy also discovered that some of its sailors had apparently cheated on tests involving the nuclear reactors that power some of the service’s ships and subs. The panels recommended more than 100 changes, which will be monitored by a newly created Nuclear Deterrent Enterprise Review Group that will report directly to Hagel every three months.

“Our nuclear triad deters nuclear attack on the United States and our allies and our partners,” Hagel told reporters. “It prevents potential adversaries from trying to escalate their way out of failed conventional aggression, and it provides the means for effective response should deterrence fail.”

Arms-control advocates disagree. “Apart from deterring a nuclear attack, nuclear weapons play an increasingly limited role in U.S. national security policy, but our arsenal is still configured and sized for a Cold War world that no longer exists,” says Kingston Reif of the non-profit Arms Control Association. “There are simply no plausible military missions for these weapons given their destructive power, the current security environment and the prowess of U.S. conventional forces.”

The Air Force has already made improvements. Last month, missile launch officers became eligible to receive up to $300 monthly because of the importance of their mission. New uniform and cold-weather gear also have been provided the ICBM crews, who work in North Dakota and Wyoming as well as Montana. It has added 1,100 more troops to its nuclear force (the Navy’s hiring 2,500 more). Last week, the Air Force awarded 25 airmen the new Nuclear Deterrence Operations Service medals to honor their work.

The roots of the problem runs deep. Over the past two decades, the Air Force has shifted responsibility for its ICBMs around like an unwanted child. The missiles bounced from Curtis Lemay’s Strategic Air Command, where they had been since becoming operational in 1959, to Air Combat Command in 1992. They moved to Space Command in 1993, and finally to Global Strike Command in 2009, created as a mini-SAC following a pair of nuclear snafus of 2007-08 that led to the cashiering of the Air Force’s top two officials. “We mattered under Strategic Air Command,” Dana Struckman, a retired colonel who manned missiles from 1989 to 1993, said earlier this year. “The Cold War was still on, and we had a sense of purpose that I don’t think they have today.”

Some official Air Force reports acknowledge the problem. “Many current senior Air Force leaders interviewed were cynical about the nuclear mission, its future, and its true (versus publicly stated) priority to the Air Force,” a 2012 Air Force paper said. Commanders routinely told nuclear airmen that they were in a “sunset business” and “were not contributing to the fight that mattered,” it added. A second Pentagon study noted that most airmen manning ICBMs “were not volunteers for missile duty.”

Hagel conceded the problems aren’t new. “Previous reviews of our nuclear enterprise lacked clear follow-up mechanisms,” he said. “Recommendations were implemented without the necessary follow-through to assess that they were implemented effectively. There was a lack of accountability.” To fix that, he said he has assigned Pentagon cost experts to monitor the new changes being made so that the Defense Department knows “what’s working and what’s not.”

The defense secretary pledged to “hold our leaders accountable up and down the chain of command.” That’s because the problems aren’t confined to the lower ranks. The Air Force fired Maj. Gen. Michael Carey — in charge of all the nation’s ICBMs — last year after an official trip to Moscow, where he drank excessively and cavorted with “suspect” women. During a layover at a Swiss airport, witnesses told Pentagon investigators that Carey “appeared drunk and, in the public area, talked loudly about the importance of his position as commander of the only operational nuclear force in the world and that he saves the world from war every day.”

Those still in charge don’t see their assignment as a Cold War mission. “I don’t think we’re any more a Cold War force than an aircraft carrier, or Special Ops, or the UH-1 helicopter,” Lieut. Gen. James Kowalksi, chief of Global Strike Command, said of his nuclear arsenal last year. A Russian first strike, in fact, has become such a “remote” possibility that it’s “hardly worth discussing,” he said. “The greatest risk to my force is an accident. The greatest risk to my force is doing something stupid.”

Kowalski became the No. 2 officer in U.S. Strategic Command in October 2013, overseeing the nation’s entire nuclear arsenal, after President Obama fired Vice Adm. Tim Giardina from the post for allegedly gambling in an Iowa casino with counterfeit chips. The charge — a felony — happened at Horseshoe Council Bluffs Casino, a 15-minute drive across the Missouri River from the nation’s nuclear headquarters.

Hagel implied Friday that operating the nation’s most deadly weapons in the 21st century is kind of like using enough wax and elbow grease to shine up an old jalopy: “We must restore the prestige that attracted the brightest minds of the Cold War era, so our most talented young men and women see the nuclear pathway as promising in value.” Only one problem: the most talented young men and women know the Cold War ended before they were born. Given that, they also know there’s no way to restore the resolve and purpose those manning the weapons against the Soviet Union once felt.

TIME Nuclear

U.S. Looks to Improve Management of Nuclear Weapons Cache

“Our nuclear deterrent plays a critical role in securing U.S. national security”

The United States’ arsenal of nuclear weapons is badly in need of a makeover, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Friday.

“The good news is that there’s nothing here we can’t fix,” Hagel told reporters. “But if we don’t pay attention to this, if we don’t fix this eventually, it will get to a point where there are some questions about our security.”

Hagel said a full review of the country’s nuclear arsenal revealed “evidence of systematic problems,” including issues with manpower, infrastructure, skill deficiencies, a culture of micromanagement and over-inspection.

The overhaul of nuclear arms across the entire Department of Defense will include reforms that address each of these areas. In order to make the nuclear field a more attractive career path for young soldiers, for instance, Hagel elevated the Global Strike Command to so-called a four-star billet, meaning high-ranking soldiers in the nuclear fleet can be equal in rank to their counterparts in non-nuclear fields. Hagel also announced the creation of a new medal to recognize service in the nuclear field.

“Our nuclear deterrent plays a critical role in securing U.S. national security,” Hagel said. “No other capability remains more important.”

Read next: Why ISIS Can Survive Without Baghdadi

TIME Science

The Nuclear-Safety Activist Whose Mysterious Death Inspired a Movie

Karen Silkwood
AP Images Karen Silkwood in an undated photo

Nov. 13, 1974: A plutonium plant worker and activist dies in a mysterious car crash on her way to expose the plant’s lax safety record

Karen Silkwood was either a martyr among whistleblowers and nuclear safety activists, or, if you believe her employer’s account, a lunatic who smeared plutonium on the bologna in her fridge.

As a lab technician at the Kerr-McGee plutonium plant in Crescent, Okla., during the early 1970s, Silkwood became concerned by what she saw as quality-control failures and lax safety procedures that put employees at risk of radioactive contamination. She was elected to the bargaining committee for the plant’s union and testified before the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission about the facility’s unsafe working conditions.

On this night, Nov. 13, in 1974, the 28-year-old Silkwood was headed to a meeting with a New York Times reporter, carrying a folder full of documents and photos she said would demonstrate the extent of the safety problems. But she never made it to the meeting: her car hit a concrete culvert wall en route, killing her, after she apparently swerved off the road. The folder full of evidence was never found.

A private investigator working for the union found dents on the back of her car that suggested she could have been pushed off the road. An autopsy, however, revealed traces of alcohol and prescription sedatives in her blood. Police concluded that she had fallen asleep at the wheel, and her death was ruled an accident. The circumstances surrounding the crash were nonetheless so bizarre that they made national news. For one thing, Silkwood had been exposed to so much radiation poisoning that cancer was essentially guaranteed, according to a doctor who testified in the case.

But how the plutonium got into her system — including her lungs and her digestive tract — was as mysterious as the cause of the crash. Not only had she recently set off plant monitors that tested for radioactivity — and been scrubbed clean — but plutonium contamination had been found in her apartment as well: in her kitchen, her bathroom and in a bologna-and-cheese sandwich in her refrigerator, according to a 1979 TIME report.

Lawyers for Kerr-McGee hypothesized that Silkwood had intentionally taken plutonium home to contaminate herself. As TIME reported:

Defense Attorney William Paul argued last week that she was emotionally unstable and possibly had been affected by the use of tranquilizers. Paul said she had become deeply involved in a bitter fight between her union and the company, and charged that she had set out to prove that the plant was dangerous by making herself seriously ill. She was, he suggested, kinky.

Still, she became a posthumous celebrity, inspiring a 1983 movie, Silkwood, in which she was played by Meryl Streep. While some critics took issue with her glorification — a New York Times review of “Silkwood” concludes that “the evidence in the case suggests that Miss Silkwood was not a nuclear Joan of Arc but an activist (who) … became a victim of her own infatuation with drugs” — her death galvanized the anti-nuclear community and led to new scrutiny of nuclear facilities.

The Kerr-McGee plant closed the year after Silkwood’s death, partly vindicating her claims. According to TIME, “Westinghouse, which had been buying its fuel rods, complained of their poor quality and refused to renew its contract.”

Read the 1979 story about what happened to Karen Silkwood, here in TIME’s archives: Poisoned by Plutonium

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: October 20

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Early intervention for young people could halt schizophrenia before it starts.

By Amy Standen at National Public Radio

2. Next generation air traffic control management can reduce delays and frustration at the airport.

By Aaron Dubrow at the National Science Foundation

3. Alabama prisons are at 190% capacity. Sentencing reforms are slowing prison population growth, but much work remains.

By Kala Kachmar in the Montgomery Advertiser

4. In the five weeks remaining under the deadline, the U.S. and Iran can reach a historic accord on nuclear arms.

By Joe Cirincione in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

5. For the peaceful coexistence of bicycles and everyone else in a city, we can learn a lot from Copenhagen.

By Mikael Colville-Andersen in the Guardian

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME India

India Successfully Tests Its First Nuclear-Capable Cruise Missile

The weapon is called Nirbhay, which means fearless

India’s first indigenously developed nuclear-capable cruise missile was successfully test-fired on Friday at the Integrated Missile Test Range in Chandipur, Odisha.

The Nirbhay, which means fearless in Hindi, has been dubbed “India’s answer to America’s Tomahawk” and can strike targets more than 400 miles away, according to NDTV.

Although India already had tactical and ballistic missiles in its military arsenal, including the 180-mile BrahMos cruise missile that it developed jointly with Russia, the new weapon is a significant step forward in terms of range and capability.

Nirbhay’s ability to fly at tree level makes it difficult to detect by radar, and it can also hover near targets and strike from any direction.

An unnamed official said that the missile was fired just after 10 a.m. local time from a mobile launcher, according to the Times of India.

“Flight details will be available after data retrieved from radars and telemetry points, monitoring the trajectories, are analysed,” the official said.

This was Nirbhay’s second planned test, after an initial one slated for March 2013 had to be aborted when the projectile deviated from its intended course.

TIME India

Military Action, Diplomatic Threats Between India and Pakistan in Kashmir

Villagers sit on the debris of their house after it was damaged during the recent exchange of fire between Pakistan and India at the Pakistani border town of Dhamala Hakimwala
Faisal Mahmood—Reuters Villagers sit on the debris of their house after it was damaged during the recent exchange of fire between Pakistan and India at the Pakistani border town of Dhamala Hakimwala on Oct. 8, 2014

Border skirmishes are common between the South Asian neighbors, but the weeklong confrontation is the most serious such escalation in nearly a decade

India and Pakistan exchanged multiple warnings and even subtle hints of a nuclear retaliation on Thursday, as military action from both sides continued on the Kashmir border in what is the worst standoff between the two countries in nearly a decade.

Heavy shelling on the border over the past week has resulted in the deaths of at least eight Indian and nine Pakistani civilians, and thousands of villagers have been forced to flee their homes, according to Reuters.

Tensions between India and Pakistan, who have fought three wars since the former was liberated and the latter created in 1947, have long convulsed South Asia. Border skirmishes between the nuclear-armed neighbors are relatively common in spite of a 2003 cease-fire agreement, but a sudden escalation of violence, stronger-than-usual posturing from both governments, and a departure from the usual methods of resolution are what sets the current conflict apart.

“This conflict is different first of all in that it’s prolonged and escalating, and secondly in that civilians are getting killed,” says Radha Kumar, director general of the Delhi Policy Group. “It’s never gone on for this long in the past 10 years.”

In August this year, there were cease-fire violations along the Indian-Pakistan border in Jammu, Indian-administered Kashmir’s winter capital. Some civilians were killed and around 2,000 villagers fled their homes to ramshackle camps. Toward the end of the month, a flag meeting was held between the two forces and peace had prevailed, only to be shattered early this week.

Pakistan’s Defense Minister Khawaja Asif, in response to his Indian counterpart Arun Jaitley’s warning that Indian forces would render any “adventurism” by Pakistan “unaffordable,” said Islamabad has the ability to counter Indian aggression, followed by what could be perceived as a veiled threat. “We do not want the situation on the borders of two nuclear neighbors to escalate into confrontation,” Asif said on Thursday.

The border standoff marks a downturn in India-Pakistan relations under new Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose invitation to Pakistan’s embattled Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for his inauguration ceremony in May sparked hopes of closer ties between the historic adversaries. The recent flash floods in Kashmir, which claimed hundreds of lives on both sides of the border, also saw exchanges of support and goodwill between the two leaders.

Shuja Nawaz, director of the Washington, D.C.–based Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, says the current conflict is fairly typical in terms of the force used by either side and that civilians have been caught in the cross fire. However, “what makes it different is that you have two new governments and they are not following the standard operating procedures of resolving this at the military level,” he tells TIME.

The Indian Express reported that India’s Border Security Force has refused to engage in another flag meeting with Pakistani officials, instead asking the Ministries of Home and External Affairs to use diplomatic channels to resolve the conflict.

“All our efforts to secure peace and tranquility on the Line of Control and the Work Boundary have elicited no cooperation from the Indian side,” said a statement from Sartaj Aziz, National Security Adviser to Prime Minister Sharif. On Friday, the Pakistani leader called on New Delhi to honor the pre-existing cease-fire agreement.

Certainly, the steadily escalating conflict could not come at a more inopportune time for Sharif, as he faces widespread protests over allegations of corruption that have rocked his government for over two months amid rumors of a potential military coup. “He is trying to show that he and the military are on the same page,” says Nawaz.

However, analysts are split on the long-term consequences of the current escalation. According to a high-ranking Indian army official in Kashmir, who spoke to TIME in August on condition of anonymity, border confrontations with India will only increase as political instability deepens in Pakistan.

“The fact of the matter is that Nawaz Sharif is not in charge, he’s not even in charge of the capital,” agrees former Indian diplomat G. Parthasarathy, who served as the high Commissioner to Pakistan between 1998 and 2000. “The [Pakistani] army is primed to see how the Modi government will react to this infiltration.”

But Hamayoun Khan, a lecturer in the Strategic Studies Department at Islamabad’s National Defence University, says that Indian politics have just as much of a role to play in the conflict, pointing to upcoming state-assembly elections in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. Khan says the border situation works to the advantage of nationalist parties like Modi’s BJP, which is not shy about courting anti-Pakistan views to get votes. “Once they are over, once the rhetoric from the other side stops, this conflict will abate,” he says. “They [India] will mellow down and so will we.”

Khan also disagrees with claims that the Pakistani Prime Minister has no control of his government. “The political situation that has been going on for over 60 days has put Nawaz Sharif under a lot of pressure, but he’s bearing the burden of that pretty well and is pretty much in control,” he says.

The question of the possibility of rapprochement, meanwhile, is yet to be answered. “My fear is that the escalation ladder is very steep, particularly in Kashmir. You can go quickly from exchanging words to exchange fire,” says Nawaz. “It’s not in the best interests of either government to let this issue fester.”

— With reporting from Nilanjana Bhowmick / New Delhi

TIME Israel

Netanyahu Tells World Leaders ‘Hamas is ISIS and ISIS is Hamas’

Prime Minister also refutes Palestinian leader's accusations of "genocide" in Gaza Strip

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pushed back Monday against Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’ claims that Israel was waging a “genocide” against Palestinians, and called on world leaders to treat Palestinian militant group Hamas as indistinct from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly, Netanyahu refuted claims by Abbas and others that his military had committed war crimes during the 50-day war in the Gaza Strip this summer, citing the lengths to which the Israeli Defense Force went to warn civilians to evacuate targeted areas.

“Israel dropped fliers, made phone calls, sent text messages, broadcast warnings in Arabic, all to allow civilians to evacuate targeted areas,” Netanyahu said, arguing that Israel took all available precautions to protect civilian lives, while Hamas deliberately fired rockets from areas where children live and play. “Israel was using its missiles to protect its children, Hamas was using children to protect its missiles,” he added.

He said that the fact that Hamas’s deliberate placement of rockets in civilian communities were the “real war crimes.”

The Israeli Prime Minister also spoke about the growing “cancer” of militant Islam, comparing the situation in Israel with that in Iraq and Syria. “ISIS and Hamas are branches of the same poisonous tree,” he said. “When it comes to their ultimate goals, Hamas is ISIS and ISIS is Hamas. And what they share in common, all militant Islamists share in common.”

The conflict, which ended in August, left 2,100 Palestinians dead and 73 Israelis dead, according to the BBC. The UN said that most of the Palestinian dead were civilians. “This last war against Gaza was a series of absolute war crimes carried out before the eyes and ears of the entire world, moment by moment,” Abbas said last week.

Netanyahu said criticism in Europe of Israel’s treatment of Palestinian civilians often amounts to thinly-veiled anti-Semitism. “We hear mobs today in Europe call for the gassing of Jews, we hear some national leaders compare Israel to the Nazis,” he said. “This is not a function of Israel’s policy, this is a function of diseased minds. That disease has a name, it’s called anti-Semitism, and it’s spreading in polite society.”

The president also warned that Iran was undergoing a “manipulative charm offensive” in order to lift sanctions and continue with plans to build a nuclear weapon. “It’s one thing to confront militant Islamists on pickup trucks… its another thing to confront militant Islamists armed with weapons of mass destruction,” he said. “Would you let ISIS enrich uranium? Then you shouldn’t let the Islamic state of Iran do them either.”

A UN Council tasked with negotiating with Iran on its nuclear program has not made much progress in recent weeks, according to the LA Times. They hope to reach an agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear program to non-military uses in exchange for lifting oil sanctions.

Netanyahu urged the world’s leaders not to trust what he called the “world’s most dangerous regime.” “To say Iran doesn’t practice terrorism is like saying Derek Jeter never played shortstop for the New York Yankees,” he said.

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