Joe Sixpack: Government tested nuclear bombs ... on beer

Posted: October 26, 2012

WHEN THE BIG ONE drops, I suggest we all head to Philadelphia Brewing Co.'s massive 19th-century brewhouse in Kensington.

Have you ever seen the rock-solid walls and floors in that place? They'd hold up to all but a direct hit, and even if the rest of the city is a smoldering wasteland, we'd have plenty of beer for the apocalypse.

People aren't so consumed by the threat of a nuclear holocaust these days. It's terrorists that have us most worried. And zombies.

But 50 years ago, at the height of the Cold War, atomic bombs were a big deal. There were air raid drills, educational films ("Duck and Cover!") and civil-defense shelters stocked with canned goods.

Meanwhile, out in the Nevada desert, they were dropping bombs on fake towns to see if beer could withstand a nuclear blast.

It was part of "Operation Teapot," according to Alex Wellerstein, a historian at the American Institute of Physics who dug up a long-forgotten 1955 report on the beer test and published it last month on his website, The Nuclear Secrecy Blog.

The study, "The Effect of Nuclear Explosions on Commercially Packaged Beverages," tested radiation levels in bottles and cans of beer that had been stashed little more than a quarter-mile from Ground Zero. One of the report's photos, captioned "missile perforation of containers exposed during Shot II," shows an upside-down can of Pabst Blue Ribbon - a "fallen soldier," Wellerstein quipped.

While I'm sure this is a matter of grave concern to derelicts anxious about surviving Armageddon without a buzz, there was a real-world purpose for the tests: Scientists reasoned that since beer was already widely distributed, it could be an important, readily available source of fluids after a nuclear detonation.

"There's so much weird stuff like this that was produced during the Cold War. It's surreal," Wellerstein said in a phone interview from his office in College Park, Md. "Remember, in the 1950s, everybody was convinced there'd be a nuclear war, and we were interested in these questions."

Well, good news, everybody: The beer was safe to drink.

Unless the bottles had been crushed by falling debris or shattered when they fell off the shelf, the contents were good to go. Only the bottles and cans closest to the blast site had been exposed to much radioactivity, and the study found that even they were "well within the permissible limits for emergency use."

Which, if I'm not mistaken, used to be Old Milwaukee's slogan.

The big question is: How'd the nuked suds taste?

The researchers sent samples to five laboratories for "carefully controlled taste-testing," and the results ranged from "commercial quality" to "definitely off." Still, the labs agreed, "the beer could unquestionably be used as an emergency source of potable beverages."

Naturally, Wellerstein's blog item generated lots of publicity. It was picked up by dozens of newspapers and blogs, and everyone let out a sigh of relief.

Everyone except for Reyco Henning, an assistant professor of physics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Henning scoffed at the findings and told Discover.com that beer in cans and bottles would be more dangerous after a nuclear explosion than liquids stored in a plastic bottle. That's because the neutrons from a nuclear explosion can change the form of heavy materials like metal and glass and make them radioactive.

He said he wouldn't risk drinking exposed beer "under any circumstance."

Wellerstein, who cautioned that he's not a health expert, said Henning's theory seemed "completely plausible, especially with the cans." The historian also noted that today's aluminum cans might react differently to neutrons than the heavier steel or tin cans of the 1950s did.

But what if you were thirsty?

"If it were me and it was a question of dying next week by dehydration or increasing your radiation risk over 20 years, I think I'd go ahead and drink the beer," Wellerstein said.

"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."


"Joe Sixpack" is by Don Russell, director of Philly Beer Week. For more on the beer scene, sign up for his weekly email update at joesixpack.net. E-mail: joesixpack@phillynews.com.

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