When Kodak Accidentally Discovered A-Bomb Testing

On July 16, 1945, the ground in Alamogordo, New Mexico, shook and a brilliant white flash enveloped the sky. The world changed forever when the first large-scale weapons testing in history took place. Only three weeks later, two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. More than 1,900 miles away from Alamogordo, at the Rochester, New York, headquarters of Eastman Kodak, a flood of complaints came in from business customers who had recently purchased sensitive x-ray film from the company. Black exposed spots on the film (“fogging”) had rendered it unusable. This perplexed Kodak scientists, who had gone to great lengths to prevent contamination like that. Julian Webb, a physicist in Kodak’s research department, took it upon himself to dig deeper and test the destroyed film. What he uncovered was shocking. The fogging of Kodak’s film and the bomb test in New Mexico were connected. In the end, he discovered that fallout from bombs could travel vast distances. What hasn’t been clear until recently is that the U.S. government knew that early on and just didn’t tell the American public. In March 1951, a frustrated Kodak threatened to sue the U.S. government for the "considerable amount of damage to our products resulting from the Nevada tests or from any further atomic energy tests.” Finally, Kodak and the government came to an agreement. The government would provide Kodak with schedules and maps of future tests so that they could take the necessary precautions to protect their products. In return, the Kodak was to keep everything they knew about the government's Nevada nuclear testing a secret. In 1997, the National Cancer Institute released findings that linked the Nevada nuclear testing to the release of Iodine-131, which can lead to thyroid cancer. A congressional hearing made clear that this was a public health crisis, and that every single American alive at the time was threatened by the radioactive fallout. Julian Webb and Kodak knew this five decades earlier. Why no one told the American people remains a question today.