"There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest." — Elie Wiesel

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Bringing Home Bikini: The Radioactive Legacy of Nuclear Weapons

At 6:45 AM (local time) on March 1, 1954 at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands the United States detonated its first dry fuel thermonuclear hydrogen bomb device in the test code named Castle Bravo. It was the most powerful nuclear device ever detonated by the U.S. with an explosive yield of 15 megatons (scientists expected a yield of 4 to 6 megatons), roughly 1,200 times more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Castle Bravo was supposed to be a secret test, but because its designers underestimated its yield, things went dreadfully wrong in a flash. Because of the fission products, huge yield and shifting winds, radioactive fallout from the cloud spread quickly and far, contaminating over seven thousand square miles of surrounding ocean and nearby inhabited islands including Rongerik and Rongelap. The flash could be clearly seen 250 miles away (some secret!).

Castle Bravo test

The nearby islands' inhabitants as well as U.S. soldiers stationed there for the test were exposed to the radioactive fallout, and subsequently evacuated. All were exposed to significant levels of radiation; although short term effects were mild, long term effects were significant for many.

Crewmembers of the Japanese tuna fishing boat, the Daigo Fukuryū Maru, or Lucky Dragon 5 were fishing outside of the declared exclusion zone when Castle Bravo detonated. The ship was covered in fine ash soon after the explosion. By the time the ship returned to Japan all 23 crew members were suffering from the effects of acute radiation syndrome - including nausea, headache, burns, pains in the eyes, and bleeding from the gums - and were admitted to hospitals.

One of the crew, chief radio operator Aikichi Kuboyama, died on September 23 from the effects of radiation exposure. His last words were:

"I pray that I am the last victim of an atomic or hydrogen bomb."

The Daigo Fukuryū Maru was one of several hundred fishing boats and their crews exposed to the fallout from Castle Bravo. The Daigo Fukuryū Maru incident helped bring about a strong anti-nuclear movement in Japan.

The U.S. continued its atmospheric nuclear testing, conducting 67 tests at Bikini and Enewetak atolls between 1946 and 1958 leaving a legacy of contamination and death. "840 Marshall islanders are believed to have died of health problems caused by the tests. As of the end of 2003, more than 1,000 islanders were suffering from symptoms believed related to radiation exposure." Today (54 years later) the Marshall Islands are still contaminated, and radioactive cesium is found in water and fruits.

Although the large scale environmental devastation and human suffering was limited to the Marshall Islands, this dark chapter of the Cold War has now come home to roost.  The Center for Investigative Reporting just released a comprehensive investigative report on the Navy's legacy of mishandling radioactive materials at it's Naval Station Treasure Island near San Francisco, California. Much of that contamination is due to the government's nuclear weapons testing in the Marshall Islands.

For decades the Navy used the site to scrap ships laden with radiation from nuclear weapons testing and to train sailors in radioactive decontamination. As a result of routine operations, (documented) accidents and botched cleanup operations Treasure Island, which is supposed to become something of a mini extension of San Francisco, is a radioactive waste cleanup site (can you say "Superfund"???).

Quite ironically, just days before the anniversary of the Bravo test, we learn that through a combination of "ignorance, arrogance and secrecy" (to quote Jonathan Weisgall who wrote Operation Crossroads: The Atomic Tests at Bikini Atoll) our government brought the radioactive legacy of nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific home.  The following quote (from the CIR article) sums it up:

Baker test at Bikini Atoll. Note the naval ships positioned for the test. Some of these ships were brought to Treasure Island for decontamination and scrapping operations.
“What I saw at the birth of the Cold War and the testing program was this ignorance, arrogance, and secrecy, which combined into a hairy-chested attitude of, ‘If you can’t feel it, it doesn’t hurt you,’” Weisgall said. “As I’ve looked at the history ever since, that hairy-chested attitude continues to permeate the approach of government agencies that have dealt with the legacy of atomic weapons.”
Of course, people in the San Francisco Bay Area will demand answers as well as assurances that Treasure Island will be cleaned up and will not pose health risks to those who will ultimately live, work and play there. Beyond that, this could become an opportunity for people to look beyond Treasure Island and better understand how the Cold War legacy of "ignorance, arrogance and secrecy" continues to drive the National Security State.  And that is what continues to hold the world under the threat of nuclear war.

The government can no longer feign ignorance when it comes to the problems it has created throughout the Cold War (and beyond), and it must surely get over the arrogance and secrecy that continue to surround our nation's continuing pursuit of nuclear weapons supremacy.

Maybe now the people behind the Treasure Island development plans will add a museum to educate others about the history of Treasure Island in its relationship with the Cold War and nuclear weapons. Only through public awareness and education will people come to question what legacy they want to leave behind for future generations and to say NO to nuclear weapons. And only then will we begin to chip away at the horrific menace that continues to threaten humanity.  

Only then will we begin to build a world where there will be no more "victims". 

Read the CIR report below:


Treasure Island cleanup exposes Navy’s mishandling of its nuclear past 

Matt Smith, Katharine Mieszkowski, The Center for Investigative Reporting

SAN FRANCISCO – Halfway across the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, an abrupt exit leads to Treasure Island, a seven-sided plain with spectacular views that inspire grandiose dreams. The Army Corps of Engineers created the island for the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition, encircling 400 acres of bay shoals with rock walls, draining them, filling the void with sand and soil, and naming it after the famous adventure novel.

Today, the city of San Francisco has set its sights on erecting a second downtown there.

But Treasure Island’s fate in the intervening decades—and a long-secret legacy of radioactive waste left behind—has complicated those plans.

Click here to read the entire article at The Center for Investigative Reporting

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