Blazing in the Ring of Fire
On Bikini Atoll lies the mile and a quarter wide crater left by the infamous March 1, 1954 CASTLE BRAVO superweapons test. It was the beginning of Operation CASTLE, a series of atomic tests in the Pacific Proving Grounds located in the Marshall Islands. Ivy Mike, the first fusion bomb test was not technically workable as a weapon. Bravo had the potential, and it was big, bad, and ecologically disastrous.
Slightly north-west of the middle of the Pacific Ocean and well over a thousand miles away from any large land mass, the Marshall Islands are a isolated series of atolls. Atolls are ringed islands built by living coral around the husk of an inactive volcano that becomes eroded and slips into the sea. The first basically correct description of their formation process was described by Charles Darwin on the same voyage that culminated in his discovery of the theory of natural selection. The Ring of Fire is dotted with atolls that sprout up on the edges of the tectonic plates, forming over geologic time spans.
As a westerner, when you think of the middle of nowhere, far away from civilization, the Marshall Islands would seem to fit the bill. Nonetheless, they have been inhabited for perhaps four thousand years. That nowhere, that place without people or valuable life, it doesn’t exist anymore. Over the past few millennia, and particularly within the past three centuries, we’ve made sure of that. Humanity has colonized almost every scrap of usable land outside of Antarctica and a handful of UNESCO protected islands that have been preserved mainly on the basis that they were not yet spoilt. Nonetheless, Bikini and Enewetak islands were selected for the Pacific Proving Grounds on this basis.
The Bravo test took place only nine years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, five years after the first Soviet atomic test, and midway through the second Red Scare that would last from 1947 through 1957. It would detonate on an artificial island constructed just off of Namu Island, an element of Bikini Atoll. The fifteen megaton explosion was impressive to say the least. It was the most powerful bomb the United States ever detonated to this day, a thousand times bigger than Hiroshima’s Little Boy… and its immensity was only an accident. It was a mistake that would have broad implications for culture, nuclear policy, and the fate of the Marshallese.
As discussed last week when we covered the physics package of a nuclear warhead, the Bravo secondary design generated fusion fuel on the spot from Lithium-6. However, natural lithium contains a mixture of Lithium-6 and Lithium-7 of which only about 7.6% is the lighter isotope. It’s difficult to separate the two, so the designers settled for proceeding using an enrichment level of 40% Lithium-6 and 60% Lithium-7. Their understanding was that Lithium-7 would only absorb a neutron, becoming radioactive Lithium-8, an isotope that decays too slowly to matter in the context of a bomb reaction that takes place on the order of nanoseconds. Unfortunately, that turned out to not be the only reaction pathway available.
Lithium-7 splits and generates tritium in response to collisions with fast neutrons, neutrons moving at speeds greater than 14,000 km/s, suitable for interplanetary travel. This steroidally swole the supply of the fusion fuel. The resultant explosion was three times larger than anticipated — an unexpected fifteen megatons versus the expected range of four to six.
Imagine what it would have been like to be one of the sailors observing the blast. The boats were placed what was supposed to be a safe distance away and they would have been told approximately what to expect. When the bomb went off, it kept getting bigger, and bigger, and bigger accompanied by blinding brightness and heat that burned.
Paul Huard wrote a vivid account of what it was like to be there in his piece “Those Who Witnessed Castle Bravo Looked Into Armageddon”. In it, he referenced a first hand account told by L. Douglas Keeney in 15 Minutes: General Curtis LeMay and the Countdown to Nuclear Annihilation.
“We soon found ourselves under a large black and orange cloud that seemed to be dropping bright red balls of fire all over the ocean around us,” one sailor recounted. “I think many of us expected that we were witnessing the end of the world.”
The test was significant not only for its explosive size, but also for being the first thermonuclear test to use the dry fuel, Lithium deuteride. Ivy Mike, the first fusion bomb test, used unwieldy liquid heavy hydrogen to power its reaction, which needed to be kept very cold. The successful use of room-temperature dry fuel meant that the design was weaponizable. It could be stored inside of bombs and missiles of a reasonable size with a reasonable shelf life. Nonetheless, the test was also a PR disaster that awakened the public to the dangers of radioactive fallout. The size of the blast made it undeniable that the development of the top secret Super, a bomb a thousand times more powerful than the ones dropped on Japan, had succeeded.
This event stirred a worldwide debate over the safety of nuclear weapons testing when the radioactive fallout rained down on the unfortunately named Japanese fishing vessel Daigo Fukuryū Maru (第五福龍丸 or “F/V Lucky Dragon 5”), killing one sailor, and saddling the crew of twenty-three with radiation injuries. The bomb also rained fallout on two populated islands, one lightly populated island, and one uninhabited island to the east of the test site. The fallout victims were supposed to have been safe, they were located outside the safety exclusion zone. On Rongelap Atoll, radioactive fallout fell like snow and children ate it. According to the National Institute of Health and Brookhaven National Lab, “During the second and third decades after the accident, most of the Rongelap children and many adults developed thyroid nodules, some of which proved to be malignant.”
The fallout from Bravo was severe for several reasons, most of which were avoidable. The bomb was too big, the bomb was dirty (the second “clean” fusion stage detonated a “dirty” fission casing ), the bomb was a surface blast, and the surface was made of large chunks of coral that were easily irradiated and scattered.
At the time, the Marshall Islands were in a UN trusteeship administered by the United States. To the Marshallese, a foreign nation, one charged with protecting them, the one that had just defeated Imperial Japan, had just conducted a military superweapons test on their soil that had just gone horribly wrong. If that sounds like a science fiction plot, it’s probably because it inspired several of them.
In October 2017, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), won the Nobel Peace Prize for “for its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons”. That work culminated in the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons which is now signed by 53 countries and ratified by three.
Speaking for ICAN at the United Nations’ treaty working group, Abacca Anjain-Maddison, a native of the Marshall Islands testified:
“For years, my home, the Marshall Islands, was used as testing ground for nuclear bombs, which contaminated our beautiful and pristine atolls for all time. Today, we carry in our bodies the legacy of these dreadful experiments. The cancer rate in the Marshall Islands is among the highest in the world. They treated us as guinea pigs. They told us it was for the good of mankind. The adoption of this landmark agreement today fills us with hope that the mistakes of the past will never be repeated.”
— Democracy Now!’s October 6, 2017 newscast at 27 minutes 10 seconds
Those five words, “for the good of mankind” are striking. The Bikini Atoll website includes a short history of the evacuation of Bikini in an excerpt from “For the Good of Mankind” by Jack Niedenthal:
In February of 1946 Commodore Ben H. Wyatt, the military governor of the Marshalls, traveled to Bikini. On a Sunday after church, he assembled the Bikinians to ask if they would be willing to leave their atoll temporarily so that the United States could begin testing atomic bombs for “the good of mankind and to end all world wars.” King Juda, then the leader of the Bikinian people, stood up after much confused and sorrowful deliberation among his people, and announced, “We will go believing that everything is in the hands of God.”
The Bikinian people were moved to Rongerik Atoll temporarily. However, there was not enough food on the atoll and they starved for months until the Navy returned, fed them, and moved them to a new island.
The islands of Rongerik Atoll were uninhabited because, traditionally, the Marshallese people considered them to be unlivable due to their size (Rongerik is 1/6 the size of Bikini Atoll) and because they had an inadequate water and food supply. There was also a deep-rooted traditional belief that the atoll was inhabited by evil spirits. The Administration left the Bikinians food stores sufficient only for several weeks. The islanders soon discovered that the coconut trees and other local food crops produced very few fruits when compared to the yield of the trees on Bikini. As the food supply on Rongerik quickly ran out, the Bikinians began to suffer from starvation and fish poisoning due to the lack of edible fish in the lagoon. Within two months after their arrival they began to beg U.S. officials to move them back to Bikini.
— Exerpted from For the Good of Mankind by Jack Niedenthal
The radiological contamination from the days of nuclear testing has prevented the Bikinian people from returning to their home to this day. CASTLE BRAVO: Fifty Years of Legend and Lore, a 2013 special report published by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency and Los Alamos National Laboratory elaborates. The inherent contradictions between what the islanders were told and what the military was thinking is mind boggling.
The possibility of continued nuclear testing, and of other military operations, in the Marshall Islands area was allowed under the terms of the newly enacted United Nations Trusteeship. Whereas the League of Nations Mandate had forbidden all military activity and utilization, Article 5 of the Trusteeship stated that the “trust territory shall play its part . . . in the maintenance of international peace and security” and authorized the Administering Authority “to establish naval, military, and air bases and to erect fortifications” and “to station and employ armed forces in the territory.” Because the nuclear tests were said to be for “the good of mankind and to end all world wars,” the use of Trust Territory domain as a nuclear test site was viewed as allowable within the bounds of the Trusteeship. It seems always to have been envisioned by the US Government that these would be “islands with a military future” (Firth 1987). Representative Mike Mansfield is said to have remarked during the Congressional debate concerning the Trusteeship agreement that “We have no concealed motives because we want these islands for one purpose only, and that is national security.”
— CASTLE BRAVO: Fifty Years of Legend and Lore, Introduction p. 20
The above report also goes into detail about the fallout of Castle Bravo. As noted by Alex Wellerstein in “Castle Bravo Revisited”, it makes clear that the famous, most widely circulated fallout map of the Castle Bravo test published by the U.S. Air Force’s ARDC is wrong and inadequate. It underestimated the spread of fallout by over a hundred miles because it assumed that 80% of the radioactive fallout was in the mushroom cloud stem. The better model by the Navy assumed a more uniform distribution of radioactive material throughout the cloud, including the cloud head that reached into the stratosphere.
The reason for the contention between the models is that they both explain the data collected on the afflicted atolls. However, information collected from the sea during a later nuclear test, YANKEE, was later able to disambiguate which one was right.
Here’s the faulty ARDC model:
The ARDC pattern reconstruction has been widely disseminated. It is shown, for example, in Figure 9.105 of The Effects of Nuclear Weapons (Glasstone and Dolan 1977). The pattern depicts the principal fallout being constrained within a relatively narrow band, about 170 mi long and 35 mi wide, stretching to the east–southeast of Bikini. This representation also appears on the title page of the report prepared by the Congress of Micronesia concerning medical aspects of the BRAVO incident. It is unfortunate that this illustration has been so widely distributed, since it is incorrect.
— CASTLE BRAVO: Fifty Years of Legend and Lore, Fallout Predictions, p. 59
Here’s the more correct version by the US Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory (NRDL). It’s big, fat, and long.
It can be difficult to conceptualize exactly what this means since most of the fallout is over open ocean. Here’s a projection of the Bravo test as if it happened over Washington DC.
Finally, it would be remiss to not direct your attention to this short documentary on the Castle Bravo test. It shows the setup, the island vibe, and has appropriately creepy music for a 1950's superweapon test that is about to go disastrously wrong.
A Radioactive Island that Dazzles
The legacy of nuclear testing on Bikini and Enewetak atolls still lives today in popular culture. In May 1946, almost a decade prior to Bravo but after testing began on Bikini during Operation Crossroads, Louis Réard, a Parisian running a lingerie shop created a bold new swimsuit for women that he named the Bikini. Réard was competing with designer Jacques Heim, that had earlier that year released “the world’s smallest bathing suit”, a two-piece called the Atome. The competing swimwear visions lead to the joke that the Bikini was “splitting the Atome”.
Up to that point, swimwear had been clumsy and highly concealing of the female form. Over the years leading up to his design, there had been a progressive series of challenges that moved from what was a bulk nearly full dress, to form fitting designs. Réard and Heim further broadened this critique of modesty and changed was considered acceptable in modern culture. Nonetheless, even today we shouldn’t feel we are on the cutting edge of culture. The first two-piece swimsuits for women were of Ancient Roman design.
Kaiju Emerge from Bravo’s Fallout
The Bravo test in particular, due to the fallout showering on Japanese fishermen, horrified the Japanese populace whom had recently been victimized by Fat Man and Little Boy. This inspired filmmaker Ishirō Honda to produce Godzilla (Gojira) in the same year as a metaphor for nuclear weapons.
Godzilla went on to become an international phenomenon and inspired an entire genre of Kaiju (“strange beast”) movies. In one of those twists of fate where art eventually loses the original context, some films like Pacific Rim (2013) kept the monsters but regarded nuclear power and weapons as the solution rather than the source of the problem, contrary to its Japanese conception.
Castle Bravo was a fearsome display of weaponizable thermonuclear physics that terrified the people participating in the test. The irradiated inhabitants of Enewetak, Bikini, Rongelap, Ailnginae, and Rongerik atolls are unable to return to their poisoned homes. In a better world, the radiation would subside in time, presumably long after most of displaced residents have died. At least though their descendants would be able to reclaim a paradise that had been nuked no less than 67 times when all the nuclear tests had been accounted for.
In this world, rising seas immediately threaten not only the islands located in the Pacific Proving Grounds, but all of the Marshall Islands where fifty-three thousand people live according to a UN census. Already, once in every few decade floods are happening every few years. The entire country lies only seven feet above sea level on average, with the lowest points at zero feet, the highest at thirty-three feet, and some urban areas lying as low as three feet above sea level.
Enewetak Atoll was the site of Ivy Mike, the original wet fuel thermonuclear test. On Runit Island, a dark remnant of the days of nuclear testing lies undisturbed. Not every nuclear test succeeded and those that did sprinkled radioactive materials over a wide area. International law prevented the military from dumping material into the deep sea, and no one wanted to bring them back to the United States. Therefore, they scraped the topsoil and gathered the failed nuclear cores under a large concrete dome as a temporary measure that has persisted ever since. Eventually, as part of a negotiation with the Marshallese, responsibility for the dome was transferred to them. It’s fairly safe to say that if something happened to it, they have neither the expertise nor the money to manage it. You can read more about this state of affairs in the in-depth piece “This dome in the Pacific houses tons of radioactive waste — and it’s leaking” by Jose, Wall and Hinzel.
The Marshallese are currently given special status and aid under the Compact of Free Association (COFA). For now, it allows Marshallese with the means to leave for the United States as they do not require visas to live and work under the Compact. Nonetheless, if the islands eventually become uninhabitable, they will still be refugees forced to leave their homes.
The Marshallese were occupied by Spaniards, Germans, and Imperial Japan, repeatedly nuked by the United States under the auspices of the United Nations “for the good of mankind”, and now are drowning from the industrial activity of the developed world. If climate change is not arrested, in just a few decades, the Marshall Islands could be uninhabitable. Along with the homeland of the Marshallese, the aspirations of the displaced, and irreplaceable artifacts of their culture, a dark remnant of the days of nuclear testing will slip beneath the waves. ☀
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Crushing & Burning: The Nuclear Blast and Thermal Radiation
3. Nuked & Sinking: The Beautiful Marshall Islands Were Violated by the U.S. and World was originally published in Insane Before the Sun on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.