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Beer and the Apocalypse

Posted September 5th, 2012 by Alex Wellerstein

Planning for The End is hard. Nuclear apocalypse is big and scary and complicated. Average people don’t want to plan at all — just assume the worst and you’ll never be disappointed. Governments, on the other hand, like to plan. Some people see this as an effort to legitimately save lives; others see it as an attempt to convince the public (or themselves) that they are in control of the uncontrollable. There are merits to both points of view. 

All sorts of things have been studied in the name of Civil Defense — of what to do after the Worst Happens. Two questions along these lines I’ve already discussed in the past: What do you do with all of the dead people? and What will happen to all of our paper-based records? Both of which have “interesting” answers.

Operation Teapot was a series of fourteen nuclear weapons tests conducted in 1955 at the Nevada Test Site, and a number of them were specifically for getting information on nuclear effects for use in Civil Defense. One of these tests, dubbed Operation Cue, was “open” in the sense that the press was allowed to observe it, and it involved nuking a “Survival Town” full of mannequins, the pictures of which were featured prominently in The Atomic Café and were the inspiration for that improbable opening scene to the most recent Indiana Jones movie.

Click for PDF.

One of the many lines of investigation during these Civil Defense tests, Project 32.2a, sought to answer a simple question: What will the survivors drink in the post-apocalyptic world? If the water supply is contaminated or otherwise dodgy, what about all of those cans and bottles that capitalist society churns out by the billions of gallons? The introduction to the final report explains that while lots of attention had been given towards the effects of nukes on food, beverages had been largely ignored:1

Consideration of the problems of food supply show the needs of humans for water, especially under disaster conditions, could be immediate and urgent. At various times some consideration has been given to special packaging of potable water, but since packaged beverages, both beer and soft drinks, are so ubiquitous and already uniformly available in urban areas, it is obvious that they could serve as important sources of fluids.

When the only tool you have is a hammer, all your problems look like nails. The Atomic Energy Commission did what they did best and dropped a nuke on bottles of beer and soda cans. (They were “exposed,” in the euphemism of the report. I also love the phrasing above, “the needs of humans for water” — it’s like the report was written by extraterrestrials.)

The brave test subjects.

They took a number of different types of bottles and cans, filled with different liquids, and put them in various positions relative to Ground Zero for two nuclear tests (“Shot I” and “Shot II” in the report, probably “Apple I” and “Apple II” of Teapot). The closest ones were less than a quarter mile away from the first test — a mere 1056 feet. The furthest ones out were about 2 miles away.

The results were somewhat interesting. Even the bottles pretty near the test had a fairly high survival rate — if they didn’t fall off the shelves, or have something else smash into them (a “missile” problem), or get totally crushed by whatever they were being housed in, they had a good chance of not breaking. Not super surprising, in a way: bottles are small, and there’s a lot of stuff in between them and the shockwave to dissipate it. (Bottles seem more fragile than human beings, but in certain respects they are probably easier to keep safe. Also, human beings are rarely in refrigerators, Indiana Jones notwithstanding.)

Fallen soldiers.

As for radiation, only the bottles closest to Ground Zero had much radioactivity, and even that was “well within the permissible limits for emergency use,” which is to say, it won’t hurt you in the short term. The liquid itself was somewhat shielded by the bottles of the containers which picked up some of the radioactivity.

But there were, of course, still pressing questions to be resolved… how did it taste?

Examination made immediately upon recovery showed no observable gross changes in the appearance of the beverages. Immediate taste tests indicated that the beverages, both beer and soft drinks, were still of commercial quality, although there was evidence of a slight flavor change in some of the products exposed at 1270 ft from GZ [Ground Zero]. Those farther away showed no change.

Immediate taste tests… So immediately after they nuked some beer and soda, someone — it doesn’t say who — took a swig of them. In the name of Science. But of course, they didn’t stop just there:

Representative samples of the various exposed packaged beers, as well as un-exposed control samples in both cans and bottles, were submitted to five qualified laboratories for carefully controlled taste-testing. The cumulative opinions on the various beers indicated a range from “commercial quality” on through “aged” and “definitely off.” All agreed, however, that the beer could unquestionably be used as an emergency source of potable beverages. Obviously, if a large storage of such packaged beers was to be trapped in a zone of such intense radiation following a nuclear explosion, ultimate usage of the beverages beyond the emergency utility would likely be subject to review of the taste before return to commercial distribution.

Not satisfied with their spot taste testing, they sent the radioactive beer on to careful laboratory study. And lo, it tasted acceptable, but not very good! Your tax dollars at work.

But check out that last line again: radioactive beer might not be good to “return to commercial distribution” after the nukes had fallen, because of the taste. At this point I’m not sure what to think about the thoughts of the authors — did they really envision a world where a warehouse of beer was in a zone of “intense radiation” following a nuclear attack, and then, a few weeks later, it would be sent back around to the liquor stores? 

Who would buy once-radioactive beer? I mean, besides me.

For me, the takeaway here is that the next time you find yourself stocking up on beer, remember, it’s not just for the long weekend — it might be for the end of days.

Notes
  1. E. Roland McConnell, George O. Sampson, and John R. Shari, “Report to the Test Director – Operation Teapot – Project 32.2a – The Effect of Nuclear Explosions on Commercially Packaged Beverages, February-May 1955,” WT-1213 (24 January 1957), copy in the Nuclear Testing Archive, Las Vegas, NV, document NV0011597. []

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23 Responses to “Beer and the Apocalypse”

  1. Mike Lehman says:

    It seems to me that the ultimate survival beer would be packed in kegs. That will also help accommodate all the visitors that will show up at your well-stocked fallout shelter for the after-party.

    Note to young hipsters (and my brother):
    The PBR cans did NOT survive the missile penetration test, so best pick up a case of returnables on that pre-apocalypse beer run.

    “What will happen to your deposit?”

    If you’ve just been nuked, that’s the least of your worries.

    The AEC’s research questions are always so…twisted. As is so typical, they’re more interested in how radiation might contaminate a commercial product than they are in what radiation might do to living organisms who ingest it. The consent form for the blind taste test must have been a classic, presuming that the AEC even bothered with such red tape.

    • What I really love is that they had the “spot test” and the systematic taste test. The spot test was probably just an AEC scientist — I bet they didn’t do much in terms of forms. But the systematic taste tests must have had some kind of consent form. Or at least a screening process. One hopes, anyway!

    • Larry says:

      It is also not certain what effect the atomic beer will have on Radioactive Zombies that crash your after fallout party. The may torn up in hordes for a sip or, like holy water to a vampire, repel them.

  2. The tests are lacking in several areas. What about the effects on Twinkies, pork rinds, beer nuts and pepperoni sticks? Besides fluids, humans need a balanced diet to maintain peak health.
    Not including “cheese product”, salt, nitrites and saturated fats leaves us in the dark on this issue.

    Of course we will be in the dark anyways, what with no power and nuclear winter closing in, but come to think of it…”Glow in the Dark Cheezies” could be strung up and used for patio lanterns.

    BTW…I copied your blogpost to mine ( featuring your name )

    Probably the only reader walking around with a radiation burn
    Mike

    • I agree — this report raises more questions than it answers! Though, among the other “effects” studies done for Operation Teapot were:

        • Project 32.1, The Effect of Nuclear Explosions on Bulk Food Staples
        • Project 32.2, The Effect of Nuclear Explosions on Canned Foods
        • Project 32.3, The Effect of Nuclear Explosions on Meat and Meat Products
        • Project 32.4, The Effect of Nuclear Explosions on Semiperishable Foods and Food Packaging
        • Project 32.5, Effects of Nuclear Explosions on Frozen Foods

      So presumably pork rinds and pepperoni sticks might be covered by the last ones, though I’m not sure Twinkies technically count as “Semiperishable Foods” given their well-deserved reputation for being completely imperishable.

  3. OK, I couldn’t resist:

    (Cafepress just added teapots in the last day or so, so they aren’t orderable yet. But still.)

  4. [...] the Nuclear Secrecy blog, Alex Wellerstein describes the results of Project 32.2a, one aspect of the United [...]

  5. [...] Smithsonian.com – At the Nuclear Secrecy blog, Alex Wellerstein describes the results of Project 32.2a, one aspect of the United [...]

  6. J B says:

    Ah. But you have left the REAL question unasked and unanswered:

    Was the beer still COLD?

  7. Dan says:

    >it tasted acceptable, but not very good

    Well it was American beer.

  8. [...] Teapot tackled the problem of what surviving humans might drink after the big one was dropped. In Beer and the Apocalypse, author — and historian of science at the American Institute of Physics — Alex Wellerstein [...]

  9. Anne says:

    Hi Alex! I just found your blog, and I think it is amazing! I just started writing a column for McSweeney’s about Atomic Tourism, so your site is definitely up my alley.

    Thanks for all of the great stuff! :D

    Anne

  10. [...] Documents uncovered by Alex Wellerstein at Restricted Data show that the infamous Operation Teapot–a series of 14 nuclear weapons tests beginning in 1955–featured tests on packaged food, including beer. Those staged mannequins and houses in the Nevada desert you might know from old footage? Beer and soda was placed in them, because, hey, you still need to kick back a little after The End of Days. [...]

  11. [...] Operation Teapot was a series of 14 nuclear tests done in Nevada in 1955. Restricted Data has learned that some of those tests involved packaged food which, thank god for our future nuked selves, included beer. [...]

  12. [...] If you want to see the government report, you can find it here. Alex Wellerstein’s analysis “Beer and the Apocalypse” (which I used to write my story) appeared on his blog, Restricted Data. [...]

  13. Bill says:

    The beer cans back in those days were made of steel. Nowadays they’re made of aluminum. It might make a difference.

  14. [...] This is actually no joke. Alex Wellerstein, an American Institute of Physics science historian who also runs a blog about nuclear secrets, recently posted some old government documents and photos from “Operation Teapot.” [...]

  15. Jonas says:

    There’s stupid, and then there’s government stupid.

  16. [...] ask, “What happens to beer if we nuke it?” Having an excess of nukes, they decided to try it. The results? Delicious. Wander the wastelands of taste as the guys discuss Operation [...]

  17. [...] Beer and the Apocalypse (9/5/2012) – 17,800 pageviews [...]

  18. Haha, this post made by day. Thanks. Hopefully the apocalypse doesn’t reach me just yet!!

  19. Mike says:

    Not only being able to stockpile beer but also having the ingredients on hand to actually make it after the apocalypse will make you the most valuable person in a community and probably someone who has a lot of control. Your fresh water supply could be easily attained by just purifying it through iodine tablets and other means. Finding the water might be problematic though, unless you live in the country and can get access to wells.

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