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From a Tropical Paradise to a Nuclear Hell

Fifty years ago today, Bikini Atoll was blasted away. The pain from bomb testing rages on in the Marshall Islands.

March 01, 2004|JoAnn Wypijewski | JoAnn Wypijewski has written on Pacific issues since the 1980s for the Nation, the Los Angeles Times and Harper's.

"There's a story I can tell you," a fellow called Bruno Lat said to me a few years back. "I was 13. My dad was working with the Navy as a laborer on Kwajalein" -- an atoll in Lat's native Marshall Islands, controlled by the U.S. military. "It was early, early morning. We were all outside on that day waiting in the dark. Everybody was waiting for the Bravo."

That day was 50 years ago: March 1, 1954. Bravo was not the first, or the last, just the worst of the American nuclear tests in the Pacific -- a fission-fusion-fission reaction, a thermonuclear explosion, an H-bomb, the United States' biggest blast. In today's poverty of expression, it would be called a WMD. Except that it was ours, and so real that days after marveling at a sky alight with "all kinds of beautiful colors," young Bruno also took in the sight of refugees from downwind of the blast at Bikini Atoll, miserable and burned and belatedly evacuated to Kwajalein. The skin on their heads, he recalled, "you could peel it like fried chicken skin."

In the standard histories, much of what happened that morning was "an accident." That's the term Edward Teller, the bomb's designer, uses in his memoir. The Navy said it had anticipated a six-megaton bomb, but Bravo came in at 15. It expected the winds to blow one way; they blew another. It had not evacuated downwinders in advance because the danger was deemed slight, and anyway the budget was tight. It had not expected that a Japanese fishing boat, the Lucky Dragon, would be trawling 87 miles from the blast. It had not expected that one of the fishermen would die.

Officially, the Atomic Energy Commission claimed that the Bravo shot had been "routine" and that among the evacuees "there were no burns. All were reported well." A month later, AEC Chairman Lewis Strauss told reporters that they were not only well but "happy" too. It is a simple matter to find government reports acknowledging the opposite now that that particular lie is unnecessary.

The Bravo blast, it is typically said, was equal to 1,000 Hiroshimas, as if that were comprehensible. The Hiroshima bomb instantly killed 80,000 people, more or less. Bravo had the power to incinerate 80 million: 10 New Yorks; 26,666 Twin Towers, more or less.

The "stem" of its mushroom cloud was 18 miles tall, its "cap" 62 miles across. That's a cloud five times the length of Manhattan, vaporizing all beneath it, sucking everything -- in Bravo's case, three islands' worth of coral reef, sand, land and sea life -- into the sky, and then showering it in a swirl of radioactive isotopes across an area now estimated at nearly 20,000 square miles.

The Marshallese on the island of Rongelap, 120 miles from ground zero, had imagined snow from missionaries' photographs of New England winters. That March 1, they imagined the white flakes falling from the sky, piling up two inches deep, as some freakish snowstorm. Children played in it, and later screamed with pain.

On other downwind islands, the "snow" appeared variably as a shower, a mist, a fog. The Navy had a practice of sending planes into a blast area hours after detonation to measure the "geigers," as radioactivity was colloquially known among sailors, and the early Bravo readings are staggering. Scientists didn't know in 1954 that, for example, a radiation dose of 30 roentgens would double the rate of breast cancer in adults. But they did know that 150 roentgens, noted in one of the military's earliest ground-level estimates of Rongelap, was catastrophic. Yet the Navy waited two days to evacuate Rongelap and Ailinginae; three days to evacuate Utirik.

Nine years later, thyroid cancers started appearing in exposed islanders, then leukemia. Even on "safe" atolls, babies began being born retarded, deformed, stillborn or worse. In 1983, Darlene Keju-Johnson, a Marshallese public health worker, gave a World Council of Churches gathering this description: "The baby is born on the labor table, and it breathes and moves up and down, but it is not shaped like a human being. It looks like a bag of jelly."

The Marshallese say that Bravo was not an accident. In the 1980s, a U.S. government document surfaced showing that weather reports hours before the blast had indeed indicated shifting winds. In 1954, the United States had nine years of data on direct effects of radiation but none on fallout downwind; select Marshallese have been the subject of scientific study ever since.

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