American policy after the Castle Bravo nuclear test is a stark reminder that those who craft nuclear weapons tests from afar have little sympathy for the fate of their victims.
Within a year of dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, the U.S. embarked on a series of nuclear tests in which it vaporised several atolls of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean, in the process destroying the habitation, livelihood and culture of the unsuspecting Marshallese people.
March 1, 2014 marks the 60th anniversary of the most devastating bomb of this surreptitious American project, the Castle Bravo test, in which a hydrogen bomb representing 1,000 times the force of the Hiroshima bomb was dropped on the Bikini Atoll, only one of 67 nuclear tests conducted by the U.S. military in the ‘Pacific Proving Grounds,’ during 1946-58.
The lingering nature of the costs imposed by Castle Bravo and its atomic antecedents in the Marshall Islands is evidenced by local populations suffering from health issues, including “high cancer rates and the highest rate of diabetes in the world, and high unemployment,” according to April Brown, co-founder of the Marshallese Educational Initiative, in “No Promised Land: The Shared Legacy of the Castle Bravo Nuclear Test.”
For the good of mankind
The Marshall Islands, described as two chains of 29 low-lying coral atolls situated north of the equator between Hawaii and Australia, were occupied by the U.S. military during World War II and in 1947 became a United Nations trust territory administered by the U.S., in some senses implicating the UN in what was to unfold.
According to Ms. Brown, the U.S. was “attracted by its remote location, sparse population, and nearby U.S. military bases,” and quietly made post-Hiroshima plans to test nuclear weapons in the atoll.
While numerous documentary films show U.S. Navy Commodore Ben Wyatt meeting with Bikini Atoll inhabitants and their leader to “ask” for use of their atoll “for the good of mankind,” what they do not reveal, says Ms. Brown, is that U.S. President Harry Truman had already approved the area as a test site for Operation Crossroads.
“With no understanding of atomic weapons, radiation, or the likelihood of permanent displacement, the Bikinians acquiesced and were relocated to Rongerik Atoll, an uninhabited island 125 miles to the east where they lacked sustainable food and potable water supplies,” she wrote.
The impact of the bombs was nothing short of catastrophic for the Marshallese. For example two early atomic tests, Able and Baker, were airdrop and underwater detonations for which the U.S. Navy floated 95 vessels, including aircraft carriers and destroyers, into Bikini Atoll’s lagoon, and hundreds of animals were reportedly strapped to decks to monitor blast effects.
For the Castle Bravo shot, aimed at testing lithium deuteride as a thermonuclear fusion fuel, Islanders were not even relocated as they were during the previous episodes owing to the secret nature of the military activities.
In fact the entire exercise would never have been known to the public if not for a Japanese fishing vessel, the Daigo Fukuryū Maru, or ‘Lucky Dragon’ and its 23 crewmen, who were trapped in the contamination zone and one crew member was killed.
The radiation impact on the sailors as well as their catch of tuna resulted in panic throughout Japan, also fuelling an international reaction to atmospheric thermonuclear testing. Critical media reports emerged amidst a public outcry and simmering diplomatic tensions over what some began to dub “a second Hiroshima,”
Around the blast site, Ms. Brown argued, “Winds that were noted as favourable by weather forecasters three days prior to the blast were deemed unfavourable six hours before the test. Still, Major General Percy Clarkson, the head of the military team responsible for carrying out the testing, ordered the detonation to proceed as planned despite the likelihood that winds would carry the fallout over inhabited atolls.”
Tragically the Castle Bravo shot, which at 15 megatons created a 130,000-foot high mushroom cloud spread over an area more than 25 miles in diameter in less than 10 minutes, rained down a deadly nuclear fallout, comprising crushed coral, water, and radioactive particles, over inhabited atolls.
“Witnesses described watching the sun rise in the west the morning of the detonation and were fascinated by the red and orange colours that lit up the sky,” Ms. Brown said, then describing the inhabitants’ terror as the shock wave hit and, hours later, the falling ‘snow’ that “unsuspecting children played in... and women rubbed it in their hair.”
Although the residents of Rongelap and Ailinginae atolls, which bore the brunt of the radioactive fallout, were evacuated three days later, it was too late for many who had been exposed to near-lethal doses of radiation.
According to one calculation of the radiation intake of the population Rongelapese adults likely were exposed to internal doses of ionising radiation of 60-300 rem (Roentgen Equivalent in Man, a measure of the biological effects of ionising radiation), which are doses that “typically cause many kinds of physiological damage.”
That study further notes that “five to 10 rem could alter blood chemistry and cause genetic damage whereas 400 rem would likely kill 50 per cent of the exposed population.”
Dealing with it
What appeared to be even more brazen was that subsequently the Rongelapese “quickly became test subjects of a U.S. government-sponsored program, Project 4.1, entitled ‘The Study of Response of Human Beings Exposed to Significant Beta and Gamma Radiation Due to Fallout from High Yield Weapons.’
Typically the U.S. researchers conducting the study did not seek the consent of their Marshallese subjects or even explain to them that they were subject of the study, instead vaguely telling them that they were being treated for their various illnesses, and shuttling them between the islands and testing facilities in the U.S.
The multi-decade, multi-generational impact of the Castle Bravo radiation was worse still, and Ms. Brown notes that exposed women gave birth to severely deformed babies, some with abnormally large heads and translucent skin, none of whom survived more than a number of days. “Not knowing the cause of their illnesses, the Marshallese sickened by radiation were often ostracized and suffered psychological trauma,” she added.
Additionally with nuclear testing continuing until 1958 the displaced Marshallese people faced malnutrition and starvation. Thyroid tumours were frequent especially among Rongelapese women and the resultant surgeries affected their abilities to speak and sing, the latter of which serves as an important aspect of Marshallese culture.
Although the 1986 Compact of Free Association between the newly-established Republic of the Marshall Islands and the U.S. required the latter to create a $150 million trust fund to make good personal injury and damages to property only $45 million has been provided by the U.S. to the governing tribunal, most of which is said to have been spent and is considered by the Marshallese to be insufficient in the face of a large number of claims.
American policy towards the Marshallese people in the wake of the damaging effect of Castle Bravo is a stark reminder that those who craft such nuclear weapons tests from afar may have little sympathy for the fate of beleaguered victims of these bombs.
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