WHAT HAPPENED? (1)
Castle Bravo was the first in a series of high-yield thermonuclear bomb tests conducted by the U.S. as a part of Operation Castle. The bombs were detonated in the Marshall Islands, specifically Bikini Atoll.
The device was the most powerful nuclear device detonated by the U.S., yielding 15 megatons of TNT, which was 2.5x more than the predicted 6 megatons. Given unforeseen circumstances, radioactive contamination on the island and areas east felt effects for years after.
At the time, it was the most powerful artificial explosion in history.
The bomb was detonated from Bikini Atoll, an island with a small population that was set nearly 1,800 miles from Papua, New Guinea, making it a perfectly isolated place ideal for nuclear testing. (2)
In 1946, the U.S. asked if the residents would be willing to temporarily relocate for "the good of mankind and to end all world wars"... The inhabitants agreed, not realizing that decades later, they would still not be able to return. (2)
Castle Bravo detonated at 6:45pm on March 1, 1954. Within 1 second, it formed a fireball almost 4.5 miles across and was visible from almost 250 miles away. Within 1 minute, the cloud was nearly 47,000 feet high and 7 miles wide, and within 10 minutes, it had reached 62 miles wide. The explosion left a crater 6,500 feet in diameter and 250 feet deep. The bomb was calculated to be more than 1,000 times more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (1)
The cloud contaminated more than 7,000 square miles of the surrounding Pacific Ocean and small islands because of 2 things that went terribly wrong: The underestimation by the scientists of the yield, and the winds that changed during detonation. The plan was for the fallout to carry over the ocean, but instead, it fell over populated regions. (2)
The unexpected high yield also damaged many of the buildings on the control site, and much of the diagnostic data was not collected, as instruments designed to transmit data were vaporized instantly or otherwise destroyed in the blast. (1)
THE DANGEROUS AFFECTS
The fallout was large, partially given the dirty fission reactions of the natural uranium temper (because we all know what that means) but also from the aforementioned unexpected high yield and the major wind shift. Because of these effects, there were unfortunate, dangerous consequences for those in range. (1)
Radioactive fallout was spread eastward onto the Rongelap and Rongerik Islands, which didn't evacuate until a few days after detonation. (1) Children within range thought the fallout was snow, and they ate it. The islands were completely covered in the fallout. (2)
The islanders finally begun to return home in the 1970s, but just as they began to get back into the swing of life on the island, researchers found that the inhabitants experienced dangerously high levels of radioactivity, and they had to be re-evacuated... Never to return again. Today, there is still risk in eating food or water on the island, as it is still contaminated, but it is no longer dangerous to simply walk around. (2)
15 different islands and atolls were contaminated, and by 1963, the remaining Marshall Island natives began to suffer thyroid tumors, some of which occurred in the young children of the island. Many birth defects were reported. (1)
The U.S. provided compensation for the islanders, a total of $43.2 million to 1,196 claimants for 1,311 total illnesses.
A Japanese fishing boat also came into direct contact with the fallout, causing many of the crew to become extremely sick from radiation. One member died of a secondary infection months after experiencing acute radiation exposure, and another had a child who was deformed and stillborn. The U.S. paid $15.3 million to Japan, each surviving victim got nearly $52,800 in 2020 currency.
The fallout spread traces of radioactivity as far as Australia, India, Japan, the U.S. and even parts of Europe. It was initially intended to be a secret test, but given the extensive impact across the globe, it quickly because an international incident, which prompted serious conversations about bans of atmospheric testing on these types of devices.
Ultimately, 253 inhabitants of the Marshall Islands were proven to have been dangerously impacted by the radioactive fallout. Populations nearby experienced nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, skin lesions, and hair loss. The exposure has been linked to the increase of leukemia and thyroid cancer.
The female population of the Islands have a 60% greater mortality rate from cervical cancer than mainland U.S. women, and the population in total has a 5x greater likelihood of breast, gastrointestinal and lung cancer.
66 years ago today, a bomb went off that ultimately did not affect the people who set it off, but seriously and dangerously affected the people who were kind enough to give up their home for the test. The people of the Marshall Islands, specifically Bikini Atoll, were willing to relocate from their homes for the good of mankind, and ultimately were never able to return. War is complex and of course, weapons require testing, but to commit to an action that so devastatingly affects people without considering how it affects them is horrifying, and hopefully an event that is able to be learned from in the future.