Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Robert Jacobs on the 1954 Castle Bravo thermonuclear blast as the turning point in global awareness about nuclear test fallout • July 19, 2014 • Meiji Gakuen Univ, Tokyo

Crew member of Lucky Dragon Number Five, suffering from acute radiation exposure
The fishing boat was 90 miles from the Castle Bravo thermonuclear test explosion epicenter.

If you live in Tokyo and want to learn more about nuclear radiation and the history of the nuclear-free movement, don't miss Hiroshima City University Professor Robert Jacobs' talk about how the 1954 Bravo Castle thermonuclear explosion catalyzed global awareness about the dangers of nuclear fallout.  A sharp, humane, and engaging writer and speaker, the nuclear historian will be speaking on July 19 from 1:00 pm to 5:00 pm at the International Conference Hall at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo.

Jacobs explains that during the atmospheric nuclear test explosion era (1945-1963) radiation became a part of the lives and bodies of people around the world, carried into their homes as radioactive fallout from hundreds of experimental nuclear explosions. However, it was not until the death of a Japanese fisherman who was exposed to radiation while trawling for tuna 90 miles from the epicenter of a US nuclear explosion at Bikini, a tiny atoll in the Marshall Islands, that people realized the real consequences of experimental nuclear explosions.

Just as the shock of 3/11 spurred people worldwide to give louder voice to their fears about radiation from nuclear power plants, nuclear waste, nuclear fuel and nuclear weapons plants, and uranium mines—the shock of the Bravo Castle thermonuclear explosion in Bikini spurred people worldwide to give louder voice to their fears about radiation from nuclear test explosions.

Castle Bravo thermonuclear explosion on March 1, 1954

Bravo was one of six thermonuclear (H-bomb) explosions between March and May 1954 on Bikini and one of 67 thermonuclear test explosions in the Marshall Islands spanning 1952 to 1958 . The formerly inhabited tropical atoll (ring-shaped coral reef that encircles a lagoon) is one of the 29 atolls and five islands that compose the Marshall Islands. The largest (15-megaton) American H-bomb ever, Bravo hit the tropical atoll with the force of 1,000 Hiroshima-sized bombs.  The explosion created an immense fallout cloud that covered thousands of square miles.

Bravo's fallout (radioactive dust from calcinated Bikini Island coral that resembled snow except it didn't melt) exposed over 1,000 fishing and naval vessels to high levels of radiation, causing significant exposures to crews. All of these vessels were outside the official exclusion zone.

The most famous of these vessels was the Japanese tuna fishing boat Lucky Dragon No. 5. Nuclear fallout fell on the boat and its crew for three hours.  When the Lucky Dragon returned to port three weeks later, the entire 23-member crew had to be hospitalized for acute radiation sickness; one crew member later died.

Roberts sums up, "This showed that you could be 100 miles away from a thermonuclear explosion and it could still kill you."

Suffering from nausea, headaches, burns, pain in the eyes, and bleeding from the gums, the Lucky Dragon crew returned to to their home at Yaizu Port, Shizuoka Prefecture, They were diagnosed with acute radiation syndrome and admitted to two Tokyo hospitals. Analysis of the fallout that fell on the ship revealed strontium-90, cesium-137, selenium-141 and uranium-237.

On September 23, Captain Aikichi Kuboyama, 40, died — the first Japanese victim of a hydrogen bomb. His parting message: "I pray that I am the last victim of an atomic or hydrogen bomb." Since then 13 other members of the crew died from cancer.

Lucky Dragon Number Five Captain Aikichi Kuboyama died on September 23, 1954.

We don't know the fates of the crew members of the other 856 Japanese fishing boats that were irradiated from Bravo and other nuclear test explosions in 1954. (The Asahi has brought to light some of the victims' experiences in "‘Forgotten’ victims of U.S. H-bomb testing dying in despair, hopelessness.")

Jacobs describes how Bravo's fallout cloud extended over 200 miles to the northeast of the explosion, creating a lethally contaminated area of 7,000 square miles of the Pacific. The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) calculated that Bikini islanders (who had been located about 100 miles from the epicenter of the blast) were exposed to radiation at levels equal to that suffered from hibakusha 1.5 miles away from the epicenter of the Hiroshima blast. Many of the islanders suffered from radiation sickness, experiencing hair loss, low white blood cell counts, hemorrhages, and skin lesions. They and their descendants continue to suffer from cancers, miscarriages, and genetic defects.

Bravo fallout pattern 35 days after the explosion.

The Lucky Dragon's contaminated tuna was sold in Osaka and eaten. As with the post-3/11 experience, the Japanese public grew increasingly anxious about food safety as radioactive fish was found throughout the Pacific Rim.

Map of radioactive contamination of fish by the Bravo explosion. 

Lewis Strauss, the head of the AEC, issued a series of denials regarding the Lucky Dragon.  He said the lesions on the fishermen's bodies were not caused by nuclear radiation, but instead by the caustic burnt lime produced by calcined coral. He told President Eisenhower's press secretary that the boat may have been a "Red spy outfit", commanded by a Soviet agent who intentionally exposing the ship's crew and fish to embarrass the United States. 

However, nothing could keep the lid on what happened. Jacobs tells us the fact that the Lucky Dragon returned to Japan made it impossible for Washington to keep the massive levels of radioactive fallout secret although they had succeeded in doing this for three weeks.

Because the Lucky Dragon irradiation happened when Japan was about to introduce nuclear power plants from the United States, both Tokyo and Washington wanted to quiet the issue as quickly as possible. They, therefore, limited acknowledging the consequences of radiation exposure from the hydrogen bomb testing to the Lucky Dragon, and ignored the crews of other boats and vessels exposed to fallout.  Eventually the U.S. government paid "condolence money" to the Japanese government, but did not compensate the actual victims who were exposed to the nuclear test explosion fallout, not to mention the people who purchased and ate irradiated fish.

Jacobs explained in an email that the Lucky Dragon's return was a historical turning point: the thermonuclear blast's "terrible toll on human health and life marked the end of the previous containment of the issue of radioactive fallout" that Washington had been able to maintain for the first nine years of U.S. experimental nuclear test explosions.
The fact that someone located over 100 miles away from the blast epicenter died from radiation exposure led people all over the world to understand that the nature of the Earth’s ecosystem made it impossible to use highly toxic materials in one place without later contaminating many other places, raising ecological awareness.
Before Bravo, nuclear abolitionists opposed nuclear weapons in several countries.  After Bravo, "news about the irradiation of Lucky Dragon generated a large movement in Japan where it was seen that Japanese were the first victims of the A-Bomb, and then the first victims of the H-Bomb," said Jacobs. After the Bravo test, people began to protest against nuclear testing, and not just nuclear weapons. Japanese women opposing nuclear tests initiated a citizens' petition, the largest of its kind ever, signed by 32 million Japanese.  In August 1954, the first Conference Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs was held in Hiroshima.

Bravo did the same in the U.S., long irradiated by nuclear test explosions in Nevada:
By the mid-fifties, “residual” and “lingering” radiation had given way to almost universal use of the word “fallout.” Maps were printed in magazines and newspapers showing the paths of fallout clouds from tests in Nevada over the continental United States. The Bravo test had opened the eyes of Americans about the dangers of nuclear testing, and how radioactive their world was becoming—what they would see with these new eyes would very much surprise them.
Fallout patterns from nuclear test explosions in Nevada. 

The irradiation of the Lucky Dragon inspired the original Godzilla, the story of fire-breathing sea monster, spawned by nuclear testing, that attacks Japan. The film was released on Nov. 3, 1954. It was the first of hundreds of similar films about the terrors of nuclear test blast radiation.

Bravo catapulted worldwide public opposition to atmospheric nuclear weapon testing, Jacobs relates:
By the end of the 1950s it was clear to anyone that paid attention that there was no place that would be unaffected if the United States and the Soviet Union were to engage in a total global thermonuclear war. The battlefield would be the Earth itself, and the people of every nation, whether they were at war or not, would be its casualties. This understanding did have some positive outcomes. A great deal of the environmental movement as it emerged in the 1960s and 1970s built upon the worldview constructed through the awareness of the global nature of the threat of radioactive fallout in the 1950s. Bravo was where this awareness was born.
Nuclear weapon states realized that the only way to quiet rising opposition to nuclear weapon testing was to halt testing in the atmosphere and in 1963 the major nuclear powers signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty that banned testing in the atmosphere and moved most nuclear testing underground.

In June 1976, the decontaminated Lucky Dragon Number Five (Daigo Fukuryu Maru) was restored and displayed at an exhibition hall in Yumenoshima Park, in Tokyo’s Koto Ward, open to the public.

This year, just after the 60th anniversary commemoration of the Bravo explosion on Bikini, the Republic of the Marshall Islands filed an extraordinary lawsuit at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, suing all nine nuclear weapons possessors for failing to eliminate their nuclear arsenals. The lawsuit explicitly demonstrates the connection of nuclear nonproliferation goals with humanitarian issues.


"Managing Public Perceptions of Fukushima: First Emergency Response of the Nuclear Complex," Robert Jacobs, DiaNuke,org, March 10, 2013.

"Radiation as Cultural Talisman: Nuclear Weapons Testing and American Popular Culture in the Early Cold War," Robert Jacobs, The Asia-Pacific Journal, June 25, 2012.

"Nuclear Conquistadors: Military Colonialism in Nuclear Test Site Selection during the Cold War." Robert Jacobs, Asian Journal of Peacebuilding Vol. 1 No. 2, Nov. 2013.

"United Nations Report Reveals the Ongoing Legacy of Nuclear Colonialism in the Marshall Islands," Robert Jacobs and Mick Broderick, The Asia-Pacific Journal, Nov. 19, 2012.

Global Hibakusa (Robert Jacobs) on Twitter.

"Blast from the past: Lucky Dragon 60 years on," Jeff Kingston, The Japan Times, Feb. 8, 2014.

"The import of the Marshall Islands nuclear lawsuit," Avner Cohen and Lily Vaccaro, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May 6, 2014.

"‘Forgotten’ victims of U.S. H-bomb testing dying in despair, hopelessness,"Hajimu Takeda and Yasuji Nagai, The Asahi Shimbun, Feb. 28, 2014.

The Day the Sun Rose in the West: The Lucky Dragon, and I, by Matashichi Oishi, University of Hawaii Press, 2011.

 More Info:

Nuclear Savage: Islands of Secret Project 4.1 (Documentary film by Adam Jonas Horowitz that exposes the decades of human radiation testing in the Asia-Pacific.  After the Cold War, declassified documents showed that, before the bombing,  the U.S. had organized  Project 4.1,"The Study of Response of Human Beings Exposed to Significant Beta and Gamma Radiation Due to Fallout from High Yield Weapons,” a medical study of the residents of the Marshall Islands exposed to radioactive fallout from Castle Bravo. The people of Rongelap describe an extreme level of suffering from recurring cancers, miscarriages, and birth defects that have affected multiple generations.)

"BRAVO and Today: US Nuclear Tests in the Marshall Islands," Tony de Brum, The Asia-Pacific Journal, May 19, 2005.

"Bikini and the Hydrogen Bomb: A Fifty Year Perspective," Senator Tomaki Juda and Charles J. Hanley, The Asia-Pacific Journal, April 25, 2004.

"Remember," Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, Feb. 26, 2013.

"Marshall Islander Darlene Keju's Historic Call for a Nuclear-free Pacific and World," TTT, April 29, 2013.


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