At 6:45 a.m. on March 1, 1954, the blue sky stretching over the central Pacific Ocean was split open by an enormous red flash.
Within seconds, a mushroom cloud towered 4½ miles high over Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The explosion, the U.S. government’s first weaponized hydrogen bomb, was 1,000 times as powerful as the “Little Boy” atomic bomb blast that flattened Hiroshima — and a complete miscalculation.
Scientists had underestimated the size of what became known as the “Castle Bravo” test, resulting in an explosion that was 2½ times larger than expected. Radioactive ash dropped more than 7,000 square miles from the bomb site, caking the nearby inhabited islands.
“Within hours, the atoll was covered with a fine, white, powder-like substance,” the Marshall Islands health minister would later testify, according to the Atomic Heritage Foundation. “No one knew it was radioactive fallout. The children played in the ‘snow.’ They ate it.”
The 1954 explosion was part of nuclear tests conducted as the American military lurched into the nuclear age. From 1946 to 1958, 67 U.S. nuclear tests pulverized the tranquil reefs and islands of the central Pacific. International pressure finally halted the tests, but the damage was done — and continues to this day.
That was the message reiterated by U.N. Secretary General António Guterres on a recent tour of Pacific islands to discuss climate change. In Fiji on Thursday, he told a crowd about the huge “kind of coffin” built by the United States in the Marshall Islands to house the deadly radioactive debris from the 1980s. The structure, however, was never meant to last. Today, due to disrepair and rising sea tides, it is dangerously vulnerable. A strong storm could breach the dome, releasing the deadly legacy of America’s nuclear might.
“I’ve just been with the president of the Marshall Islands [Hilda Heine], who is very worried because there is a risk of leaking of radioactive materials that are contained in a kind of coffin in the area,” Guterres said in Fiji, Agence France-Presse reported.
Guterres’s “coffin” was the product of a belated American response to the testing of the 1940s and 1950s. Beginning in 1977, the Defense Nuclear Agency began a sustained cleanup of the nuclear debris left over on Enewetak Atoll, a slender ring of coral islands in the Marshall Islands’ northwestern corner.
Enewetak Atoll was subjected to repeated blasts during the testing, and inhabitants were forced to relocate before the explosions began. Beginning in 1977, 4,000 U.S. service members began collecting an estimated 73,000 cubic meters (2.58 million cubic feet) of tainted surface soil across the islands, according to the Marshall Islands’ government.
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Source: Washington Post