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Project Rulison – A Blast From The Past…and some of us were there…Project Plowshares and the “Baby Tooth Survey”

September 5, 2019


The fiftieth anniversary of Project Rulison, an underground nuclear blast to produce commercially grade natural gas – a kind of nuclear fracking – will take place on September 10, 2019. Rulison lies west of the continental divide between Grand Junction and Glen Wood Springs in the Colorado Rockies.

Some of us involved in protesting the blast will return to Rulison for a Memorial Forum and as a part of an effort to make a documentary film on the event. What was Project Rulison and what broader program was it a part of? It was an important moment in the state and nation’s history but so few know anything about it. The Rulison Blast took place some six years after the signing of the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963. Worldwide protests combined with several fascinating and original scientific studies forced nuclear testing underground worldwide, and once underground forced deeper and deeper detonations to control for radioactive contamination. One of the more interesting studies, detailed below, was known as “the Baby Tooth Survey” 


As a part of preparing for the 50th Anniversary Project Rulison reunion which will take place in a few days at the blast site, I decided to do a little reading about “Project Plowshares” of which Project Rulison was an intimate part. To that end, have read two books, one entitled “Project Plowshares” by Scott Kaufman, a fine overview of the history of the “Plowshares” twenty year experiment. The other, entitled “The Firecracker Boys” by Dan O’Neill deals in depth with an early abortive Plowshares’ program called “Project Chariot,” it, an attempt to detonate nuclear weapons on the northwestern coast of Alaska, initially to create a harbor and the movement that sprang up, “mushroomed” against it. The project was killed by widespread popular protest that was spearheaded by Eskimo communities in the area where the blast was scheduled to take place.

It is quite a story that I will detail elsewhere.

When Project Plowshares began in 1957, both the United States and the Soviet Union were tripping over one another’s feet detonating nuclear blasts. Of the more than 2000 nuclear bombs detonated, some 544 of them were above ground nuclear blasts, with the United States and the-then Soviet Union responsible for more than 80% of those. Overwhelmingly, those above ground nuclear tests took place prior to the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of August, 1963. The test ban treaty drove almost all the 1500 or so later nuclear testing underground. This created something of a crisis for Project Plowshares, much of whose leadership opposed the test ban treaty.(1)

There were, during the 1950s, great fears about radioactive contamination, what caused it, the length of toxicity of different radioactive elements and to what degree the above ground nuclear tests were responsible for increased levels of radioactive contamination. But there were very few studies. But there was one, that was conducted by the Greater St. Louis Committee for Nuclear Information (one of whose leading personalities was Barry Commoner) in conjunction with twp St. Louis dental schools. Together they conducted what became known as “The Baby Tooth Survey” – a multi-year scientific study of the teeth of children to test levels of strontium 90 – one of the radioactive contaminants resulting from nuclear blasts. The Baby Touth Studies were a part of a key scientific evidence that drove nuclear bomb testing underground, and in many ways, greatly complicated Edward Teller’s plans at “nuclear landscaping.”

Below is a summary of the Baby Tooth Survey lifted – literally – from “The Pauling Blog” – a collection of the writings of Linus and Alva Helen Pauling. I found it fascinating. Although just a little boy at the time of the Baby Tooth Survey, I have a vague memory of having heard of it as a child, and of my parents having discussed it.

The Baby Tooth Survey

Over the twelve years that the Baby Tooth Survey ran, more than 300,000 teeth were collected from the St. Louis area and analyzed in the project’s laboratories. The results of the project were profound, if not entirely unexpected. Chemical analysis showed that the teeth of children born in 1950 – before most of the bomb testing had taken place – contained about fifty times less Strontium-90 than did the teeth of those born in 1963. The study clearly indicated that the effects of radioactive fallout from nuclear testing were trickling down to humans.

On January 1, 2011, Louise Reiss, a physician best known for having directed a project called the Baby Tooth Survey, died in her Florida home at the age of 90. Reiss, a New Yorker born Louise Zibold, received her medical degree from the Women’s College of Pennsylvania (now part of the Drexel University College of Medicine) in 1945. During her residency at Philadelphia General Hospital, she met the man who would become her husband, Eric Reiss.  The couple moved to St. Louis in 1954 where Eric worked in the medical school at Washington University and Louise as an internist at the City Health Department.

Beginning in 1959, the Reiss’ began collaborating with a local group that included Washington University biologist Barry Commoner to found the Greater St. Louis Citizen’s Committee for Nuclear Information. Later in the year, the committee, along with two St. Louis area dental schools, initiated the Baby Tooth Survey.

The mission of the Baby Tooth Survey was to demonstrate that nuclear bomb testing was increasing the concentrations of Strontium-90 found in the human body. Strontium-90, one of the components of radioactive fallout, can make its way into the human food chain through cow’s milk. As a result of its chemical similarities to calcium, it is readily incorporated into human bones and teeth, where it remains for the rest of its long half-life, emitting radiation that damages the surrounding tissue and increasing one’s chances of developing cancer.

Over the twelve years that the Baby Tooth Survey ran, more than 300,000 teeth were collected from the St. Louis area and analyzed in the project’s laboratories. The results of the project were profound, if not entirely unexpected. Chemical analysis showed that the teeth of children born in 1950 – before most of the bomb testing had taken place – contained about fifty times less Strontium-90 than did the teeth of those born in 1963. The study clearly indicated that the effects of radioactive fallout from nuclear testing were trickling down to humans.

In mid-1963, Eric Reiss presented the to-date results of the Baby Tooth Survey to a Senate committee, and although the data at the time didn’t come across as forcefully as the statistic mentioned above, they still proved to be significantly persuasive. Later in 1963, after years of negotiation, a Partial Test Ban Treaty was signed by the United States, the Soviet Union and Great Britain.

This was a major victory for the Reiss’ and the rest of the Committee for Nuclear Information, but they weren’t the only ones who were pleased. As has been well-documented on this blog, Linus Pauling had taken a strong anti-bomb stance after the two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan in 1945, and had been protesting nuclear weapons testing for several years before the Baby Tooth Survey was conceived.

As increasingly powerful bombs – especially the hydrogen bomb – were developed in greater quantities, Pauling’s concern grew accordingly. In 1955 he signed the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, which spoke out against the dangers of nuclear war; one of many anti-nuclear petitions that Pauling supported during this time. However, Pauling wasn’t content to only protest war; he also wanted to put a complete stop to the testing of nuclear bombs.

In May 1957, after a period filled with many speeches exposing the possible health issues that bomb testing could create not only in the United States, but all over the world, Pauling, his wife Ava Helen, and two other scientists decided to circulate a scientists’ petition to stop atmospheric nuclear testing. One of those original scientists was Barry Commoner, the same man that would collaborate with the Reiss’ to found the Baby Tooth Survey two years later. Commoner worked closely with Pauling to distribute the petition, and within a few weeks they had already gathered signatures from about two thousand scientists.  By the end of 1957, that number had grown to over nine-thousand signatures.

Although Pauling’s petition didn’t lead directly to a nuclear test ban, it was – along with the CNI’s Baby Tooth Survey – undoubtedly instrumental in getting the Partial Test Ban Treaty signed. After the signing of the treaty in 1963, the Baby Tooth Survey continued to run, eventually ending in 1970. Final analysis of the data gathered by the survey indicated that Strontium-90 levels in the teeth of children born in 1968 were fifty-percent lower than were the levels in the teeth of those born in the immediate wake of the treaty’s signing five years earlier. Pauling liked to state in his anti-testing speeches that “the only safe amount of Strontium-90 in the bones of our children is 0,” and although the treaty couldn’t achieve this, it was undoubtedly a step in the right direction.


Staging ground for Project Chariot,originally scheduled for 1961. By 2014, the clean up of the area – where secret experiments with nuclear wastes were conducted, even after the original project was killed – had not yet been completed



  1. During this period the Soviets also had their version of “Project Plowshares.” In many ways it was even far more destructive than its American version. I didn’t know about this program until the recent readings done on the U.S. program, but will find out more and read about it. One comment here – the fact that the Soviet program was so far more active and aggressive than the American Plowshares program became the pretext for the A.E.C. and like-minded nuclear weapons fanatics to prolong the program in this country…
7 Comments leave one →
  1. Phil Jones permalink
    September 7, 2019 1:34 pm

    Don’t know the full extent of your reading, but if you can answer a question I have, I would appreciate it. Today, the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are bustling and vigorous. On a trip to the US’s nuclear test sites in Nevada I was amazed to see significant traffic on highways crossing the sites of old above-ground nuclear explosions. Yet Chernobyl and Fukushima seem dead zones. What the hell is goin’ on? (I admit that I should research this myself, but I’m hoping you might come across some info on the subject.)

    • September 7, 2019 3:17 pm

      I don’t know the answer in detail.. not sure about levels of radioactivity in Hiroshima and Nagasaki today. Would be interesting, informative to now levels of radioactivity currently. Concerning the nuclear test sites in Nevada… I would suggest you not spend much time there as from what I have read levels of contamination remain very high. As for Chernobyl and Fukushima – major accidents with many times the radioactivity that of Hiroshima… and in both cases a continuation of radioactive activity still going on. From what I read about Fukushima radioactivity continues to spill into the Pacific Ocean from the time of the accident until today.

      Am just familiarizing myself with a related issue/problem – the vast quantities of radioactive waste buried everywhere – in this country and abroad.

      And a pattern I have noticed which is: Radioactive contamination is VERY difficult to clean up, if possible at all. Many of these companies come in, do a bit of patchwork, “declare victory” and leave. Cost of actual clean up phenomenal, plus one is never sure that it is done. So the danger of contamination remains. For example, the site Nancy and I are going to on Monday – Project Rulison…if you read the early reports on the blast, it is considered “a success” – meaning no or very little radiation. But then I read that the clean up went on through 1998 at a place where the blast took place in 1969!! Quite a success!

      The issue here – be it from nuclear explosions, used fuel rods from nuclear energy is – in two words – nuclear wastes.

      A friend of mine is putting together what I think to be a fascinating series of articles on nuclear wastes, Should come out in a week or so. I’ll send it along. You might find it interesting.

  2. Phil Jones permalink
    September 8, 2019 11:35 am

    If you guys go back to the mountain-side site, maybe you should take geiger counters with you.


  1. A Blast from the Past – Project Rulison Fifty Years On – A Series on Project Plowshares – Part One. | View from the Left Bank: Rob Prince's Blog

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