Imagine Ocracoke with no paved roads, no ferry service, no visitors…and no residents. Imagine the landscape defaced with huge craters, homes and other buildings destroyed, windows and doors blown out, roofs torn away. Imagine the lighthouse a pile of rubble, cedars and live oaks scorched, and birds silenced.

That might have been the scene today if the 1948 report by the military liaison to the Atomic Energy Commission had recommended Ocracoke as their new site for stateside nuclear weapons testing.

And it almost happened.

1946 Nuclear Test on Bikini Atoll:

After World War II Sandia Base, on the southeastern edge of Albuquerque, New Mexico, was the principal nuclear weapons installation of the United States Department of Defense.

In January of 1947 Secretary of War Robert Patterson and Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal established the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project (AFSWP) at Sandia Base. The AFSWP assumed responsibility for all of the military functions that had formerly belonged to the Army’s component of the Manhattan Project, the research and development program that produced the first atomic bomb during World War II.

Within AFSWP a small group of Army officers oversaw the post-WWII design, assembly, storage, and delivery of atomic weapons. In early 1948 they supported atmospheric tests in the Marshall Islands, a nation of atolls and islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. In April and May of that year three nuclear tests, dubbed “Operation Sandstone,” were conducted on Enewatak Atoll.

Still, by 1948 only a handful of nuclear weapons had ever been detonated, including the July 1945 “Trinity” test in New Mexico, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended World War II, Operation Crossroads, a series of nuclear weapons tests conducted by the United States at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands in mid-1946, and Operation Sandstone.

Much useful data had been collected in the South Pacific, but the Atomic Energy Commission, citing concerns about geography, weather, security, and safety, ordered its military liaison to prepare a secret report outlining possible US continental test sites.

The military was aware of growing public sentiment and fear of radiation and nuclear fallout. In May of 1948 Rear Admiral William Parsons had written to the Joint Chiefs of Staff about what he called “substantial public relations and political difficulties…[surrounding a] dangerous and unjustified fear of atomic detonations.”

The search for a suitable location for testing, codenamed “Project Nutmeg,” commenced in late 1948, under the direction of expert meteorologist and Navy Captain Howard B. Hutchinson. The government was looking for a place where nuclear tests would have little impact on the American people or the American economy.

Five primary sites were considered:

  • The Dugway Proving Ground/Wendover Bombing Range in Utah
  • The Alamogordo-White Sands Guided Missile Range in New Mexico (“a state conditioned to nuclear work; and with easy logistics from the center of atomic bomb storage at Sandia”)
  • An area in Nevada from Fallon to Eureka
  • The Tonopah-Las Vegas Bombing and Gunnery Range (the site finally chosen)
  • The Pamlico Sound area off the coast of North Carolina, along the coastal strip between Cape Hatteras and Cape Fear

Coastal areas in Maine, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia had been dismissed because of high population densities and robust fishing industries. The Outer Banks, however, was given very serious consideration. For a time North Carolina was considered the most favorable location because of several factors. According to Captain Hutchinson:

“In this region population is not dense, meteorology is favorable during two-thirds of the year between 20% and 30% of the time; and the waters of the Gulf Stream will remove the waste products to the open Atlantic Ocean with no possibility of second order effects through biological processes. Cape Hatteras is a possible site for nuclear tests…. This area should be investigated first, at least, for continental test sites….”

Consequently, the Pamlico-Core Sound area received extensive scrutiny. Three specific locations were considered by the research staff, as noted by Captain Hutchinson:

“Cape Hatteras….To the northwestward of Cape Hatteras and extending northward and westward are 100 square miles of sand flats. Most of these flats are exposed at low tide….Cape Hatteras is made up of old strand lines and is apparently building seaward. There are Coast Guard installations and the Light House as well as about 50 buildings in the total area. About half the total area is covered with vegetation while the remaining area is beach sand and sand dunes. A road exists, along the island southward from Oregon Inlet. Rollinson Channel crosses the flats from Pamlico Sound to the little hamlet of Hatteras, some 7 miles to the west. Rollinson Channel has a controlling depth of 6 feet at mean low water. Avon Channel crosses the flats to Avon some 7 miles to the north. Avon Channel has a controlling depth of 5.5 feet at mean low water. Cape Hatteras is a possible site for nuclear tests. It is relatively accessible by water, yet could be easily placed ‘out of bounds’ for security control.

“Ocracoke Island….extends for some 15 miles between the ocean and Pamlico Sound. It has a width ranging from a quarter to a half mile and is bordered on its landward side by some 45 square miles of sand flats. These flats contain Howard Reef, Clark Reef and Legged Lump, composed of hard sand. The aerial photographs show a [sand] road along the entire length of the strand. There are but one or two installations on this island, except the little village of Ocracoke on the southwest end at Ocracoke Inlet. Ocracoke Inlet has a controlling depth of 10 feet at mean low water. It is extensively buoyed and lighted. Ocracoke village has a boat basin and two piers.

“Portsmouth Island, Portsmouth Bank, and Core Bank. Extending from Ocracoke Inlet to Cape Lookout in a southwesterly direction, is some forty miles of sea strand….Between this strand and the mainland extends Core sound through which exists a dredged channel having a controlling depth of 6.5 feet at mean low water. Core sound has an average width of three miles or more. It is believed that an exceptionally favorable site for nuclear tests could be constructed on Portsmouth Bank. If a site were chosen at about 34-55N, 76-14W, a radius of 10,000 yards can be swung without including any important installations, yet there are plenty of adjacent points for observation of the tests. This place is of easy access by water from the Beaufort-Morehead City rail terminus. It is adjacent to the town of Atlantic, opposite Drum Inlet, open to the sea. Atlantic has an air field. The large Marine Corps Air Base of Cherry Point, North Carolina, is 25 miles west of Atlantic. The Beaufort-Morehead City air field is 18 miles southwest of Atlantic. The extensive Cedar Island area, as well as Portsmouth Bank, is apparently under government control since it is called a “danger area” on the aeronautical charts. This last described area seems to hold the most promise for sites on the southeastern Atlantic seaboard because from here southward to Florida, the strand-like islands, separated from the mainland by sounds, are replaced by marshy islands integral with the mainland. It is believed the Pamlico-Core Sound area should be investigated first, at least, for continental test sites, when the desire is paramount to avoid fall-out of radioactive waste upon the population or the commercial fisheries of the nation.”

In spite of North Carolina’s “most favorable” status, the Pamlico-Core Sound area was eventually dropped from consideration. The Soviet Union tested their first nuclear weapon on August 28, 1949, and the Korean War broke out in June 1950. Both events put increased pressure on the US government to select a continental nuclear test site quickly.  By 1951 the Outer Banks region was no longer a candidate because of the difficulties and lengthy delays anticipated for acquiring property for the US government.

The Tonopah-Las Vegas site was finally chosen, in large part because the government already owned the land, and that choice would not require the removal and relocation of entire towns and villages.

Ocracoke residents and visitors can today be thankful that our beloved village and island is not a nuclear wasteland, pockmarked with craters and saturated with radioactivity.

But it almost happened.

1946 Nuclear Test on Bikini Atoll:

References: (Report on United States Nuclear Tests, by the Natural Resources Defense Council, 1 February 1994)

An Outer Banks Reader, David Stick, editor, 1988 University of North Carolina Press, Section: Man versus Nature, pages 55-57