This Is AuburnElectronic Theses and Dissertations

Southern Devices: Geology, Industry, and Atomic Testing in Mississippi's Piney Woods




Burke, David

Type of Degree





This work centers on the two underground atomic tests conducted in south central Mississippi on September 22, 1964, and December 3, 1966. The region, known as the “Piney Woods,” hosted the two blasts, conducted by the United States Atomic Energy Commission, in a mammoth subterranean salt formation known as a “salt dome.” These salt domes are common along the Gulf Coast from Texas to the Mississippi-Alabama border. The two tests, codenamed “Project Dribble” were part of a larger test series, “Vela Uniform,” that sought to improve and create seismological methods to detect underground nuclear tests. The two nuclear tests were followed by two methane/oxygen blasts under “Project Miracle Play” to assess whether chemical explosions could simulate nuclear tests in an underground environment. The atomic test program at the Tatum Dome was the result of a unique combination of geological and industrial factors. It succeeded in producing data considered crucial to nuclear weapons control negotiation and treaties, yet it failed to bring the nuclear industry into the Piney Woods. Furthermore, many of the desired economic benefits failed to materialize due to the federal reliance on outside contractors to perform tasks at the site. Unlike the long-term technological and cultural enthusiasm generated by federal projects such as NASA’s facility in Huntsville, the Dribble program generated initial excitement, which eventually turned to resentment. Citing a variety of archival materials, this work examines the development of Gulf Coast salt domes, the development of regional industry, and the relationship between Frank Tatum and the government, which sought to procure his land for the atomic tests. Once committed to the Tatum Salt Dome, the AEC faced numerous technical and weather-related problems, ultimately succeeding in carrying out its test program there. During this period, the Hattiesburg area, near the test site, sought to broaden its connection with the AEC by attracting a particle accelerator facility; an effort that ultimately failed. Following land remediation, the Dribble site played an important role in the debate over nuclear waste storage in Mississippi salt domes.