In a wooded area in the Pine Belt lies a deactivated nuclear testing site. A small team of Ole Miss student journalists attempts to uncover the site's secrets in a new documentary short film, "Atomic Mississippi."
The atomic testing grounds -- called Salmon Site -- are just outside of Purvis and Baxterville in rural Lamar County. In the height of the Cold War in the 1960s, Mississippi was chosen to host the test site, where two nuclear devices would be detonated. To this day, the magnolia state remains the only place east of the Mississippi river in the U.S. to harbor a nuclear test site.
In a sharply edited 30 minutes, the documentary explores the history of the atomic test site and the land and people who were affected by it.
After the site was shut down, residents in the county were told they would be safe, but then a growing number of people in the area were found to have cancer, the documentary shows. A government investigation into residents' claims reported otherwise, that there, in fact, was not an increased number of cancer patients in the area.
"People trusted the government back then, a lot more than they do now," longtime Purvis resident Dorothy Breshears says in the film. Breshears was 13 at the time of the nuclear testing.
Edmund Keiser, who was chairman of the Mississippi Wildlife Department during the nuclear tests, talks about his radioactivity findings after the site was declared to be safe and how some of his reports on the site were disputed by government officials.
As the film reel continues, the audience is introduced to people who show more and more skepticism of the government's operations at the Lamar County testing site and, at the end, viewers are left with the question: Is the government hiding something at Salmon Site?
Brad Schultz and Kathleen Wickham, journalism instructors at the University of Mississippi, served as faculty advisers for the documentary and guided their students throughout the project. Schultz discovered the nuclear site's existence from an article online and proposed it to his students the following semester, who accepted the challenge.
"I had no idea that this thing existed," said Schultz, referring to the nuclear site, "When I saw that, I was like -- that would be a great project for us."
Wickham and her students were in charge of the extensive research that factored into the film, including reviewing the testing sites' background history as well as the surrounding communities and families. Wickham had started her research over the summer by filing freedom of information act requests to gather information so the project could be completed by the end of Ole Miss' fall semester.
Brittany Clark, one of the students involved in the documentary, said the hardest part about the project was finding sources -- people who were living in Lamar County during the time of the nuclear tests.
"We were really worried how the project was going to finish," said Browning Stubbs, a student reporter on the project, "But we all strapped up and investigated a topic that we were interested in and it was a topic that we felt needed to be told."
The film "Atomic Mississippi" premiered recently at a special screening at the University of Mississippi. The plan is to have the program run statewide on Mississippi Public Broadcasting in the spring or summer, but the release date depends on MPB and its schedule.