When America Nuked Beer for Science
Good news -- alcohol should survive the apocalypse
At the same time, the Pentagon detonated hundreds of nukes and studied the effects. Washington was sure the next war would be a nuclear — and wanted to be ready.
That’s why, in the spring of 1955, America nuked beer in the Nevada desert.
The American Energy Commission detonated 14 nukes at the Nevada Proving Grounds between late February and May 1955. As part of this “Operation Teapot,” in March the AEC undertook Project 32.2, a “civil effects test.”
The goal — to test out “the exposure of packaged food products” to atomic blasts.
Originally, the commission planned to nuke a bunch of different foodstuffs and see what was still edible afterwards. But once the scientists started setting up the experiment, they decided to narrow their focus. Someone realized that all the food in the world didn’t make a bit of difference if there wasn’t anything to drink.
“The needs of human water, especially under disaster conditions, could be immediate and urgent,” the AEC wrote in its report. One problem — in 1955 most people got their water from the tap. Overpriced bottled water was still decades away.
But beer and Coke were everywhere. “Packaged beverages, both beer and soft drinks, are so ubiquitous and already uniformly available in urban areas,” the AEC wrote. “It is obvious they could serve as an important source of fluids.”
Top left — cans that didn’t survive the explosion. Top right — bottles that did. Bottom — scientists bury bottles before nuking them. AEC photos
The scientists hadn’t planned to nuke beer and soda and once they realized that rad-free water was more important than food was, they sent someone to a local store to round up supplies.
That someone returned with an assortment of canned and bottled beer and soda. The scientists placed the drinks at various distances and locations around ground zero.
They buried beer, wrapped beer in brown wrappers, tossed beer on the ground, put beer on concrete shelves, put beer on brick shelves, placed cans of soda in refrigerators, placed soda on top of refrigerators … and on and on.
The AEC tried to control for as many variables as possible in its nuclear beer explosion and the official report contains pages of tables detailing each particular can or bottle’s distance from ground zero at the Nevada Proving Grounds.
Then the testers set off the bombs. The first was what the scientists called a “nominal-yield” nuke. Meaning the bomb had a power equivalent to 20 kilotons of TNT, a little less than Fat Man and a little more than Little Boy.
Miraculously, most of the beer and soda survived. “These commercially-packaged soft drinks and beer in glass bottles or metal cans survived the blast overpressures even as close as 1270 ft from ground zero,” the AEC explained.
Where the nuke did destroy the drinks, it was mostly due to “flying missiles, crushing by surrounding structures or dislodgement from shelves.”
The metal and glass containers did become radioactive after the blast, but the AEC claimed the levels were low and “none of this activity was transferred to the contents.” Then they opened up the bottles and cans to bravely take some swigs of the not-irradiated-we-totally-swear drinks.
Initial experiments in flavor retention found the drinks still tasted fine … mostly. To be sure, the AEC sent the drinks off for official testing, both for radioactivity and for taste. The scientific studies confirmed what the AEC discovered in the field. The drinks’ containers bore the brunt of the atomic explosion … and the contents were safe to drink.
But that didn’t mean they hadn’t changed. Professional taste-testers found the drinks stored far away from ground zero as palatable as any other store-bought beverage. The drinks stored just over a 1,000 feet from ground zero, however, tasted “aged” and “definitely off.”
The soda fared better in the taste tests, probably because the nuclear blast just broke apart the complex sugars inside into simple sugars. The sucrose of the drinks “inverted to dextrose and levulose.”
But the experiment was a success as both the scientists and the tasters, “agreed … that the [drinks] could definitely be used as an emergency source of potable beverages.”
The experiment was so edifying for the AEC that it repeated the trial in May with a 29-kiloton nuke, with the same happy results. The drinks closer to the blast tasted a little funky, but wouldn’t poison anyone.
In our modern age of bottled water and H20 on tap, experiments such as Operation Teapot may seem ridiculous. But our confidence in the water supply is a recent comfort. Throughout most of human history, water has been a poisonous and dirty resource. There was a time, not long ago, when milk — and yes, alcohol — was our primary source of hydration.