US Nuclear Accident 1000 Times More Powerful Than Hiroshima (Castle Bravo Nuclear Disaster)


This episode is brought to you by CuriosityStream. Use our link in the description below for
a 30 day trial giving you unlimited access to thousands of documentaries and non-fiction
titles from some of the world’s best filmmakers when you use the code “infographics”! At 6:45 am on March 1, 1954 the Earth rumbled
and shook. A massive crater was formed in the Pacific
Ocean as the largest hydrogen bomb to ever go off made its fateful detonation. An orange and yellow explosion that could
be described as glorious shot up a cloud of radioactive debris that stretched four and
a half miles (7243 meters) wide and 130,000 feet (39, 624 meters) high into the sky above
Bikini Atoll, a tiny island that is part of the Marshall Islands. It left a crater in the ocean floor with a
diameter of 6,510 feet (1,984 meters) and a depth of 250 feet (76.2 meters). Just to give you an idea of its magnitude,
that’s more than 18 football fields wide and almost an entire one deep. This lethal debris was still falling about
five hours later on Rongelap, an atoll 97 miles (156,107 meters) away, “where it came
down like ashy snow,” so, naturally, “kids played in it, and even went so far as to eat
it.” This is the story of Castle Bravo, the thermonuclear
accident that ended up being 1,000 times more powerful than Hiroshima. Castle Bravo was the codename for what was
ironically called The Shrimp — a device that weighed 23,500 pounds (10659.412 kilograms)
and was based on the Teller-Ulam thermonuclear weapon design, named after scientist Edward
Teller and mathematician Stanislaw Ulam. Basically, the two set out to create a weapon
that could be delivered by an aircraft. Its design was novel because its different
parts were linked and each part of the sequence was intended to be powered by the part preceding
it. This means that if one of the first elements
failed, so too would all of the subsequent stages rendering the device useless — sort
of a high stakes dominos. This design was also supposed to be an upgrade
from Ivy Mike, a previous bomb model tested in 1952, that had to be the size of a small
building to support the equipment that allowed its fuel to stay in its necessary liquid form. So, not convenient at all. Bravo used solid lithium deuteride, which
meant none of this clunky equipment was necessary for it to retain its form. Bravo was the first part of Operation Castle,
a mission that spanned two and a half months and was the U.S.’s attempt to gather information
on nuclear weapons. They specifically wanted to focus on the shock
the weapons generated, their blast radius and proceeding fallout. Operation Castle was a small part of the much
bigger, secretive arms race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the 1950s. In 1950, the U.S. National Security Council
released NSC-68, which was a 68-page secret paper that suggested quadrupling defense spending
in case the Soviets attacked. Adding to the secrecy, classified studies
at the time projected that by 1958, the U.S. wouldn’t be able to retaliate against the
Soviets in the case of an attack. Back to Castle Bravo, though. It exploded at 15 megatons, which was, well,
slightly higher than the scientists had originally projected. In fact it was a whopping two and a half times
more intense than they had anticipated and can be attributed to some seriously complicated
scientific miscalculations. Essentially what happened was that scientists
at the time didn’t realize that the solid source of fusion fuel we mentioned earlier
— a lithium deuteride – would react the way it did in this extreme situation. And as it turns out, a tiny scientific mistake
can have almost unfathomable results. An area of 7,000 miles surrounding Bikini
Atoll was contaminated — most notably the atolls of Rongelap and Utirik — and they
felt the effects of radioactive poison almost immediately and for decades afterward. Radioactive material was spread to different
parts all over the world, too, later found in Japan, India, Australia, Europe and the
United States. Bravo’s dangerous rain was mostly made up
of pieces of coral, radioactive particles and water. Alex Wellerstein, a scientist at the Stevens
Institute of Technology, noted in a 2013 blog post that what most likely happened during
Bravo was that “small particles went up with the fireball and stayed aloft long enough
to lose most of their radioactive energy and diffuse into the atmosphere, while heavy particles
fell right back down again pretty quickly… So blowing up and irradiating something like
coral is just the worst possible thing,” he wrote. The people of Rongelap weren’t evacuated
until three days after the blast — an eternity to be exposed to such dangerous radioactive
material lingering in the air. They were exposed to radiation of 60 to 300
rem. REM stands for one dose of radiation exposure. Five to 10 of these alone are enough to change
a person’s blood chemistry. 400 units could wipe out half of an exposed
population. To add to this, in studies as recently as
2010, the National Cancer Institute determined that almost 170 cancer cases among residents
of the Marshall Islands who were alive between 1948 and 1970 could be attributed to exposure
to radiation. Not all of the reasons why Castle Bravo went
horribly wrong were due to scientific miscalculations though, but in fact were caused by deception,
negligence, and a combination of the two.The winds were much more intense than scientists
previously thought before carrying out the test. They concluded that the winds were suitable
three days before the bomb, but a really irresponsible duo — Major General Percy Clarkson, head
of the military team that carried out the test, and scientific director Dr. Alvin Graves
— still went through with the plan even though the winds were recognized as unfavorable
just six hours before the blast. U.S.S. Curtiss, a Navy ship, was 23 miles from the
detonation. Writing for Medium, military historian Paul
Richard helped us to picture what that day was like for the men on that ship, noting
that the heat was like having a blowtorch applied to their bodies.” Ouch. It’s impossible to talk about Castle Bravo
without also mentioning Lucky Dragon No.5, a Japanese tuna fishing boat with a 23 man
crew that was about 80 miles away from Bikini Atoll when the test happened. According to a documentary for the Maryland
History Day competition, the men on the boat witnessed “the sun rise mysteriously in
the west” and heard a “symphony of thunder and snow falling out of the sky” about an
hour and a half after the initial explosion. One crewmember died from the exposure and
the others had adverse health effects as a result. One of these fisherman, Oishi Matashichi,
remembered and described the Armageddon-like scene like this: “A yellow flash poured through the porthole. Wondering what had happened, I jumped up from
the bunk near the door, ran out on the deck, and was astonished. Bridge, sky, and sea burst into view, painted
in flaming sunset colors. I looked around in a daze; I was totally at
a loss.” Lucky Dragon also sparked international worry
over the radioactive tuna that was aboard the boat when the bomb exploded. The Japanese called the whole event “a second
Hiroshima.” They also almost severed ties with the U.S.
as a result. A U.S. government doctor sent to Japan to
help after the incident wrongly predicted that those on the boat would recover in a
month. Six months later, Aikichi Kuboyama, the Lucky
Dragon’s 40-year-old radio operator, succumbed to the damage caused by the radioactivity
and died, leading to the New York Times naming him “probably the world’s first hydrogen-bomb
casualty.” Lucky Dragon also had a profound effect on
how the Castle Bravo narrative was framed. In a 2002 interview, physicist Ralph Lapp
attributed Lucky Dragon as the singular event that made the U.S. look bad, saying: “The
story of the Lucky Dragon blew the lid off secrecy because the Atomic Energy Commission
could not keep it a secret. This story had to be told…because radioactivity
persisted and could deny territory to normal use. Furthermore, there was the fact that some
of the chemicals in the fallout were highly toxic fission products and this could be a
health hazard.” At this point, you might be wondering what
happened to the people who were exposed to the fallout. Unfortunately, the reality of what happened
was much more grim than anything that could be conjured up for a riveting science fiction
movie. The U.S. attempted to redeem themselves after
the calamity, but they still managed to screw things up and cause even more long-term damage. Because the people of Rongelap were among
those hit the hardest, they became the test subjects of a government-funded project called
Project 4.1, more specifically named “The Study of Response of Human Beings Exposed
to Significant Beta and Gamma Radiation Due to Fallout from High Yield Weapons,” which
took place a week after Bravo. The Rongelapese people weren’t given a translator
to break down what was going on, so they were essentially being tested on without proper
consent. They were given medication without being told
why they should take them. Pregnant women who were exposed to radiation
eventually gave birth to deformed babies — some of which included larger-than-normal heads
and opaque skin. None of these babies survived more than a
few days after being born. Thyroid tumors, especially among Rongelapese
women, caused them to need corrective surgeries, which limited their abilities to speak and
sing, a devastating side effect since singing is a revered part of Marshallese culture that
goes back hundreds of years. Tony deBrum, who would later become the foreign
minister to the Marshall Islands, was nine years old during Bravo. From his perspective as just a kid, he remembered
a “flash of light — silent and brighter than the sun — and then watched the sky
turn red as blood.” That memory drove him in later years to make
it his life’s mission to fight for the injustices that happened to his people. To a crowd at the United Nations in 2005,
he said, “United States government documents clearly demonstrate that its scientists conducted
human radiation experiments with Marshallese citizens. Some of our people were injected with or were
coerced to drink fluids laced with radiation. Other experiments involved the resettling
of people on islands highly contaminated to study how human beings absorbed radiation
from the food and environment.’ You could say Tony deBrum was the Marshall
Islands’ hero. He helped the Islands become independent of
the United States in 1979 — and even helped file a lawsuit against the U.S. for violating
a treaty on nuclear nonproliferation, so, Tony really wasn’t messing around. You’d think the Castle Bravo disaster would
be enough to stop nuclear bomb testing altogether, but Operation Castle continued on — with
a total of 67 nuclear weapons tested in the Pacific Ocean. The other five parts of the operation were
named Romeo, Koon, Union, Yankee and Nectar. It finally came to a semblance of an end with
the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which was signed and passed in 1963. It required that any and all tests be done
underground. But it looks like there is some hope: Ever
since 1992, the United States has relied on simulations of nuclear weapons instead of
the real thing. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which would
forbid any nuclear tests, garnered signatures from 184 countries in 1996. So, while Castle Bravo led to a series of
seemingly irreparable mistakes, there is a light at the end of the long, long tunnel
that this won’t ever happen again. We want to give a huge thank you to today’s
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