The Bravo H-Bomb
One WMD They Couldn't Hide
by Joann Wypijewski*,
March 2, 2004
"There's a story I can tell
you", a fellow called Bruno Lat
said to me a few years back in Hawaii. "I was 13 at that
time. My dad was working with the Navy as a laborer on Kwajalein",
an atoll in Lat's native Marshall Islands controlled by the US
military. "It was early, early morning. We were all outside
on that day waiting in the dark. Everybody was waiting for the
day was fifty years ago, yesterday. March 1, 1954. Bravo was
not the first, or the last, just the
tests in the Pacific, a fission-fusion-fission reaction, a thermonuclear
explosion, an H-Bomb, America's 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 that some strange sun had
lighted the western sky 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. Their scalp, he recalled, "you could
peel it like fried chicken skin".
In the standard
history of Bravo, much of what happened that morning was "an accident".
That is the term Edward Teller, the bomb's designer, uses in
his memoirs. The Navy said
it had anticipated a six-megaton bomb, but Bravo came in at 15.
It had anticipated the winds to blow one way, but they blew another.
It had not evacuated downwinders in advance because the danger
was deemed slight, and anyway the budget that year was tight.
It had not expected that a Japanese fishing trawler, the Lucky
Dragon, would be out on the sea 87 miles from the blast, or that
when it returned home two weeks later its catch would be "hot",
creating a panic in Japanese fish markets. It had not expected
reports of radioactive horses in New Zealand, radioactive rain
in Sydney. It really had not expected that one of the Lucky Dragon
fishermen, hospitalized with radiation sickness for months along
with his mates, would die. Officially the US government maintained
that the cause of death was hepatitis unrelated to radiation.
the Atomic Energy Commission also claimed, ten days after the
blast, that the Bravo shot had been "routine" and
that among those stricken Marshallese at whom Bruno Lat was gaping, "there
were no burns. All were reported well." A month later AEC
chairman Lewis Strauss told reporters they were not only well
but "happy" too.
Their medical records from the time
tell a story of burns and lesions, nausea, falling hair and weeping
sores. Dr. Seiji Yamada
of the University of Hawaii Medical School reviewed them in Kwajalein
three years ago, and it is a simple matter to find government
reports acknowledging same, now that that particular lie is unnecessary.
Bravo blast was so immense, so terrible that the typical comparison_"equal
to 1,000 Hiroshimas"_seems almost
evasive, as if there were a continuum of comprehensibility within
which it might fit. The bomb on Hiroshima instantly killed 80,000
people, more or less. By crude mathematics, Bravo had the power
to incinerate 80 million. Ten New Yorks? 26,666 Twin Towers,
more or less? No one can grasp such numbers, and because they
are crude abstractions, the easier thing, for most Americans,
has been to forget the whole thing_or at best to regard Bikini
as a bit of cold war kitsch, a curio in the attic of memory.
we can imagine a mushroom cloud with a "stem" 18
miles tall and a "cap" 62 miles across, but probably
not. 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, millions of tons
of it_into the sky, and then moving, showering this common stuff,
now in a swirl of radioactive isotopes, along its path.
on the island of Rongelap, 120 miles from ground zero, had imagined
snow only from missionaries' photographs of
New England winters. That March 1 they imagined the white flakes
falling from the sky, sticking everywhere but especially to sweaty
skin, piling up two inches deep, as some freakish snowstorm.
Children played in it, and later screamed with pain. Unlike Bruno
Lat, they had not been waiting for Bravo.
On other islands
the "snow" appeared
variably as a shower, a mist, a fog. The Navy had a practice
of sending planes
into the blast area hours after detonation to measure "the
geigers", as radioactivity was colloquially known among
sailors, and the early readings over inhabited islands after
Bravo are staggering. Scientists didn't know in 1954 that a radiation
dose of 30 roentgens would double the rate of breast cancer in
adults, that 90 would double the rate of stomach and colon cancer,
that young children were ten times as vulnerable. But they did
know that 150 roentgens, noted in one of the earliest military
estimates for Rongelap, were catastrophic. Yet the Navy waited
two days to evacuate Rongelap and Ailinginae; three days to evacuate
Nine years later
thyroid cancers started appearing in exposed islanders who
had been children
during Bravo, then leukemia.
Even in "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. These babies
only live for a few hours."
The Marshallese say that Bravo
was not an accident. Decades after the fact, a US government
document surfaced showing that weather
reports had indeed indicated shifting winds hours before the
blast. 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.
In all events,
as Alexander Cockburn once put it, "an 'accident'
is normalcy raised to the level of drama". Marshall Islanders
endured sixty-seven US nuclear tests between 1946 and 1958. It
has been calculated that the net yield of those tests is equivalent
to 1.7 Hiroshima bombs detonated every day for twelve years.
A full accounting of the displacements and evacuations, the lies
and broken promises, beginning with the Bikini people's surrender
of their land to US officers who vowed "to test this new
weapon which is designed to end all wars", would fill pages.
A full accounting of the health impact would fill volumes, and
has never been done. Bruno Lat is not an official victim of any
test, so his thyroid cancer doesn't count; the same with his
father's stomach tumors.
Of the broken
culture and broken hearts, there can be no accounting. Never
to be sure if the food
if the doctors are honest,
if the cancer will get you next; to never know home because however
beautifully its white sands shimmer beneath the dome of blue,
however energetically its coconut crabs skitter among the palms,
living there is lethal; to live a different kind of lethal, in
a Pacific ghetto hell, unknown in the region before the displacements
and the testing, and to see no way out_we don't call those things
terror. Yesterday, March 1, on the fiftieth anniversary of Bravo,
the Marshallese formally petitioning the US Congress to make
full compensation for the ruin of their lands and their health.
They also want Congress to express "deep regret for the
nuclear testing legacy". Some had wanted an apology, but
that, the majority decided, America would never concede.
*Joann Wypijewski, former managing
editor of The Nation, writes about labor and politics for CounterPunch.
She can be reached
at: email@example.com. This article was
originally published by CounterPunch on 2 March 2004.