Archive for August, 2011

Snow on Rongelap

August 12, 2011

Tales from the Nuclear Age

Copyright © 2011 by Charles Glassmire


 Aug. 13, 2011

Snow on Rongelap

          Bravo Shot of Operation Castle is scheduled for 1 March 1954 on Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific’s Marshall Island chain. It is to be a test of a new kind of weapon later to be known as a “Hydrogen Bomb”. Weather reports on the evening before the test indicates winds aloft, normally northward in direction, are now shifting more Easterly. This new direction might carry debris towards a small series of populated islands. The safety zone around Bikini has been set at 20 miles, due to the limited strength of the expected explosion. The military Task Force Commander, General Clarkson, indicates that predicted radiation doses to the island population will be significant, but will not be a medical problem, and so the Los Alamos physicist and Test Director Dr. Graves (who has final authority over the military), decides the test will proceed on schedule for the following dawn.

Bravo Shot of Operation Castle

          In the early morning light, the flash lights up the South Pacific sky, and the explosion magnitude instantly assumes gigantic proportions; far greater than the weapon designers intended. It is later to be analyzed at a strength of 15 Megatons, where only 3 to 4 was expected. It will become the largest nuclear weapon ever detonated by the United States. In later years, the always competitive Soviet Union would detonate four larger yield weapons, finally exploding a Hydrogen weapon they name Tsar Bomba at a staggering 50.6 Megatons.

          At the end of World War II, a U.S. Joint Task Force examined possible locations for nuclear testing, including the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean and Central Pacific. It was found the Marshall’s offered advantages of stable weather, an isolated location and hundreds of miles of Trade Winds and ocean to disperse fallout. Bikini then became a center for a long series of tests.

NASA Photo Rongelap Atoll

           On the morning of Castle Bravo, some 100 (statute) miles to the East of Bikini ground zero, lies peaceful Rongelap Atoll. The atoll is composed of 61 coral islands arranged in a ring surrounding a lagoon of approximately 1,000 square miles. Its total land area comprises only 3 square miles. Part of the Empire of Japan after WW I, It forms a legislative district within the Marshall Chain. Following the end of World War II, Rongelap becomes part of the United States Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands.

          On this day in 1954 Rongelap is inhabited by some two hundred natives who survive by fishing the rich local waters. They consume fish, cocoanuts, shellfish and bananas. Some 40 miles further to the East lay Rongerik, where 28 Americans are stationed to report weather conditions for the test.

          Now it is dawn, and the flash lights the morning sky as the Rongelap islanders watch in stunned silence. To them this seems to be some wondrous manifestation of the Gods, some sign of imminent events. Not very long after, a white snow of flakes begins to drift down onto their homes. This sign is greeted with joy and amazement. They dance in the fall, and children gather the stuff to play with as it continues. Soon Rongelap and its inhabitants are coated with the clinging material. The fall continues for hours, eventually coating the entire atoll to a depth of almost one inch.

          Back at Task Force Headquarters, a quiet chaos reigns. No one is quite sure what happened to cause such a large burst. Many of the measuring instruments have been destroyed by the ferocity of the detonation, and some of the actual control buildings across Bikini Atoll have actually been vaporized and no longer exist. The crater is later measured at 1.25 miles in diameter. Soon it is discovered that the fallout is carrying to the East, far beyond the previous estimated ocean limits. Then it is realized it will reach Rongelap and surrounding inhabited islands with much higher intensity than was expected.

          General Clarkson needs to know the situation on the islands. By now it is already late in the day of the test. He orders a U.S. Naval ship to sail to the island, enter the lagoon and send a radiological landing party ashore with Geiger Counters. They are to take radiation readings, but are ordered to strict silence and are to simply measure, depart and report back radiation intensities in the native populated areas. Further action will then be determined.

          Due to the distances, the landing party arrives the next day. The natives have been living in fallout for almost 24 hours. They are not told of the dangers; the measurements are quickly taken and the party departs the island. It is realized that readings are too high to safely reenter the lagoon. Among the natives, vomiting begins, along with diarrhea, fatigue, itching reddening skin, burning eyes and swelling of the limbs. The natives live in the fallout for almost three full days while radiation levels decay to lower levels. Finally navy rescue teams arrive to evacuate them. They must leave without belongings, and are taken southward out of the fallout zone, to Kwajalein Island. There they are decontaminated and receive medical treatment. It is now too dangerous to return to their homes…

 (to be continued …)