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!).
Radioactive fallout from the test affected U.S. service personnel on ships, natives of Rongelap Island, 100 miles from the test, Utrick Island, 300 miles away, and fishermen on a Japanese vessel, the Daigo Fukuryu Maru, or Lucky Dragon. The crew were fishing outside of the U.S. declared exclusion zone when Castle Bravo detonated. The ship was covered in fine radioactive ash soon after the explosion. By the time the ship returned to Japan all 23 crew members suffered 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:
Several hundred other fishing vessels and their crews were also exposed to the fallout from Castle Bravo.I pray that I am the last victim of an atomic or hydrogen bomb.
The nearby islands' inhabitants as well as U.S. military personnel 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. 90% of the Marshall Islands' population experienced thyroid tumors. The Marshall Islanders and their lands were essentially involuntary test subjects in the U.S. governments nuclear testing, as were U.S. service personnel.
The U.S. continued atmospheric nuclear testing around the Marshall Islands, 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 from 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. In 1956, the United States Atomic Energy Commission called the Marshall Islands “by far the most contaminated place in the world.” Today (63 years later) the Marshall Islands are still contaminated, and radioactive cesium is found in water and fruits.
Back in the early 1970s the U.S. government declared Bikini safe for resettlement, and some residents returned. They were removed once again in 1978 after it was discovered that they had ingested high levels of radioisotopes from eating foods grown on the former nuclear test site. Residents of Rongelap Atoll underwent similar indignities. The U.S. has been derelict in failing to protect the health and welfare of the Marshall Islanders and their lands, and has failed to recognize their suffering and adequately compensate them.
The Marshall Islands have tried to bring the greater issue to the attention of the world. Among their strategies has been to file a lawsuit against the U.S., and eight other nuclear powers, in U.S. District Court, alleging that the U.S., as occupying superpower, has continued to modernize its nuclear arsenal in defiance of Article VI of the Treaty for the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).
Whatever the legal outcome of such actions, it should be clear that the United States has no moral standing on this issue. The continued pursuit of nuclear weapons and the threat of their use against other nations constitute crimes against humanity.
The Cold War is a distant memory (although a new Cold War is brewing); and yet the United States and Russia still maintain thousands of nuclear missiles ready to launch on warning. The President of the United States may have just a few minutes to make the fateful decision to launch nuclear weapons in case of warning of a nuclear attack. In 1995, Russia came within a few minutes of launching a nuclear counterattack after it initially interpreted the launch of a scientific rocket from Norway as a first strike. This is just one close call among many documented incidents involving both the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia. A number of them have been just too close.
The Bush administration repeatedly refused to pledge to a "no first use" policy regarding the use of nuclear weapons. President Obama never explicitly stated a "no first use" policy. And now we have a president who has stated that "we're going to be at the top of the pack" when it comes to nuclear weapons. He most likely doesn't even understand what "first use" even means, let alone the existential implications of using nuclear weapons.
Looking forward we should remember those last words of Aikichi Kuboyama before he died of radiation poisoning. We must work to remove the nuclear sword of Damocles hanging over humanity. If we fail in this task, we will have failed Kuboyama and all who have suffered from the effects of nuclear weapons.
Support the upcoming United Nations Nuclear Ban Treaty Negotiations beginning this month. Learn more at the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.