Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Ill-Advised Nuclear Testing, Part 1

Nuclear bombs: they’re pretty safe, right? Just make sure you’re standing behind the yellow line when they go off and you should be fine. Who drew the yellow line? Umm... some guy, I think. He had a clipboard and everything, so he must know what he’s doing.

It’s hard to do an article on the most ill-advised nuclear tests of all time, because it’s such a competitive area. You’d like to think that any nuclear testing would occur only after the most careful study and extensive cost-benefit analysis. In reality, however, most nuclear test programs seem to have their genesis with someone saying, “Hey, you know what look cool?”

The tradition of poorly thought out nuclear testing goes back almost to the beginning, in fact, when competing superiority and inferiority complexes in top military brass collided to make Operation Crossroads, also known as the Able-Baker tests. It all began in August 1945, the same month that atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when the Navy and a United States Senator independently proposed that we drop a few nukes on warships.

The Navy wanted to do it so they could prove they still had relevance in the nuclear age. The Army Air Force, by way of their pet Senator, wanted to do it to prove the Navy’s irrelevance in the nuclear age. Both proposals were more or less rigged to produce the desired results.  The Air Force wanted to pack as many ships in as tight as possible with full loads of fuel and ammunition to assure maximum destruction, while the Navy wanted unarmed, unfueled ships spread over a wide area to show how survivable they were.

To understand these political machinations, you have to understand that the Air Force brass, drunk with power after killing something like a million civilians with nuclear and conventional weapons during WWII, were of the opinion that, eh, America didn’t really need a navy anymore. The Air Force’s shiny new nuclear weapons could do anything the Navy could, and better! Shit, I bet if you put floaties on a nuclear bomb, it could have landed troops at Normandy at least as well as the stupid Navy did.

The competing plans eventually compromised, crowding the ships into a small area but loading them with only small amounts of fuel and ammunition.  Scientists who’d worked on the Manhattan project, apparently oblivious to the critical need for the Air Force and the Navy to get into a dick-measuring contest, warned that the entire project was as dangerous as it was pointless. They were, of course, ignored. What the hell did they know about nuclear weapons, anyway?


The preparations for the test were abysmal. Simulations were conducted using a stick of dynamite and model ships. Many of the test ships being moored at Bikini Atoll had unrepaired damage from the war, which would complicate any later damage analysis. And no pretesting of the effectiveness of planned decontamination techniques was made, so they really had no idea whether they’d be able to decontaminate surviving ships. The man in charge of the tests, Vice Admiral William Blandy, apparently didn’t even realize that ships might survive an atomic blast but still receive a fatal dose of radiation. When someone brought this up, he hastily added test animals to the target vessels. He also didn’t know that the Geiger counters used on site could not detect alpha radiation, and were therefore blind to plutonium contamination.

In short, the whole operation was fucked from the start.

Rare color photo of Admiral Blandy observing the Able-Baker tests.

Nevertheless, in June of 1946 the first bomb was readied for air drop aboard an Air Force B-29. It was armed with the infamous “demon core,” which had already taken the lives of two scientists in separate accidents during the Manhattan Project. In one last act of defiance, no doubt, the bomb missed its target by half a mile and landed well to the edge of the cluster of test ships, sinking only five of them.

Score one for the Navy.

You can find color footage of the Able test here.

Within a day of dropping the bomb, most of the surviving target ships had been boarded for inspection and decontamination. So, yeah, let’s take that point right back. However, in what I’m just going to assume was sheer luck, given the competence level of the people in charge, the Able bomb was air-burst high enough to avoid significant fallout. Most of its fission products dispersed into the atmosphere, where you’re still breathing them today.

News reporters brought in to witness the blast expressed disappointment that the bomb didn’t sink more ships, which just goes to show how quickly human beings get bored with even the most incredible events. This was only a year after the first detonation of an atomic weapon, and the A-bomb was already blasé.


So fuck it, we’re putting the next one underwater. Won’t that look awesome?

For the Baker test, a nuclear bomb was suspended by cable from the ocean surface, so that it could detonate underneath the surviving target ships. This was a monumentally poor idea, because no one had a clue how this would affect the blast dynamics. Here’s a little preview, though: it wasn’t for the better.

When Baker went off, it lifted millions of tons of irradiated water and seabed material up to a mile in the air. When it inevitably came back down, this radioactive material expanded into a turbulent cloud of mist which spread outward, engulfing all of the test ships and bathing them in radioactivity. Since Baker was detonated below the surface, nearly all of the fission products and unfissioned plutonium settled into the local environment.

Baker Test. The shadow at the base of the water column is thought to be the battleship Arkansas 
being upended by the blast.

5000 people were sent into that radioactive environment to perform evaluation and decontamination. Fireboats tried to scour contamination off target ships with their hoses, but the process was largely ineffective—partly because they were trying to decontaminate with water pumped from the lagoon, which was now also radioactive. In many cases, this process only created more problems, when radioactive spray from the hoses blew back onto the fireboats and contaminated them too.

Video of the detonation and some of the fireboat cleanup efforts can be found here.

And if you think that’s dumb, you haven’t heard nothing yet, because sailors were actually sent aboard test ships to decontaminate them by hand. With soap and water. These sailors were given no protective equipment. They went to work in their uniforms, scrubbed plutonium-contaminated decks on their hands and knees, and then returned to their ships—dragging the contamination with them to spread it there.

Cleanliness is next to glowiness.

Even worse, the Navy was under the impression that target ships moored at the very edge of the test site could be recrewed and sailed home before being scrapped. Why in the holy hell would anyone want to occupy a ship that’s had an a-bomb dropped on it, and that’s just going to be scrapped anyway? Well, remember that dick-swinging contest between the Air Force and the Navy? The Navy wanted to take its surviving ships back to the mainland and get pictures of them steaming into port, to prove they were still operational after being hit by an atomic blast.

Two ships were thus reoccupied. Their crews promptly received a dangerous dose of radiation and had to be evacuated. The commander of the condemned battleship USS New York even got into a pissing match with the officer in charge of safety, Colonel Stafford Warren, and accused him of taking his Geiger counter readings too close to the deck of the ship. The deck where, you know, people have to walk, so wouldn’t it be a nice little bonus if it wasn't a cancer factory?

Speaking of things that aren't supposed to glow in the dark, guess what the fish in the lagoon started to do. Yup. They started to glow. Not in a visible wavelength, mind you, but let's just say that you could take an x-ray picture of them without actually using x-rays. Because, see, the fish were so radioactive that they now provided their own x-rays. Here's one of the blue tangs (a.k.a. surgeon fish) caught after the test, photographed in both x-ray and visible wavelengths:

At least it has a positive attitude.

The incredibly disturbing fish picture, along with data coming in from off-site tests for plutonium contamination—which were showing positive even when samples were taken deep inside the target ships—finally convinced Vice Admiral Blandy that he’d created a massive clusterfuck and ought to stop before things got even worse. The third detonation in the Crossroads operation was cancelled, all operations at Bikini Atoll were suspended, and most of the surviving test ships were sunk.

No one immediately died from the radioactive contamination of the Crossroads tests, though not for lack of effort on the Navy’s part. The mortality rate among veterans present at Bikini, however, has been higher than that for veterans generally, and 200 premature deaths may be attributable to the Able-Baker tests.

Oh yeah, and did I mention that people were living there? Yeah, Bikini was inhabited prior to the tests. It isn’t now, of course, what with the glow-in-the-dark fish and whatnot. The natives were evacuated to Rongerik Atoll, which then had to be evacuated after it too was contaminated by fallout from the botched Castle Bravo nuclear test in 1954.

So congratulations, Bikinians. You’re honorary nijū hibakusha! Hopefully that thought will help get you through your chemotherapy.

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