CHAPTER EIGHT – THE REBELLIOUS ATOM
“If we don’t heed the Nobel laureates warning of things to come. We’ll all be incinerated warriors of the sun.” Joan Baez, Folk Singer and Human Rights Activist
When Joan Baez, 60s folk singer, Woodstock performer, pacifist and founder of the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence Humanitas, was taken to the Hiroshima Memorial Museum, she saw photographic images that haunted her. As she was later to write in her book And A Voice To Sing With, she saw “fossils of people, shadows on the cement, photographs of broken bodies and of faces scarred and pulled into horror masks”. These stark photographs depicted the aftermath in terms of human suffering, of the most powerful weapon ever unleashed in the name of war. The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on a hazy August day in 1945, incongruously codenamed Little Boy and Fat Man, had a combined force of 15 000 tons of TNT.
Early in the morning of 1 March 1954, the United States government detonated a hydrogen bomb codenamed Bravo on Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. Bravo had a force 1000 times greater than the bombs that had decimated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which was a force greater than the combined power of all the weapons that have ever been fired in all the wars in the history of the world. The 15 megaton Bravo blast caused a huge blinding mushroom of ferocious heat to soar high into the atmosphere, generating winds of searing intensity that irradiated the sea and atolls surrounding the test site. The atomic bomb had become a weapon destructive enough to threaten all of humanity and indeed all life on Earth.
Prior to Bravo’s detonation, Bikini’s population of 161 people, after being told by the United States military governor of the Marshall Island chain, Commodore Ben H. Wyatt, that atomic tests were to be performed “for the good of mankind and to end all world wars”, were evacuated from their peaceful coral atoll to Rongerik, a smaller, less fertile atoll east of Bikini, before being transferred to Kili Island eight months later. This was to be a temporary exile. However decades after the detonation, Bikinians have still not been able to return to their original island home and the horrifying legacy of Bravo lives on.
Situated directly under the deadly cloud of fallout ash from Bravo’s blast were Rongelap and Ailinginae Atolls, also in the Marshallese chain. This lethal ash, like gritty synthetic snow, covered the atolls in a thick blanket of white radioactive dust. Children innocently played in this fallout ash. It had also rained down onto the decks of a Japanese tuna trawler resting at anchor in the vicinity of the test site, the Lucky Dragon No 5.
Within hours of the settlement of the deadly white ash, both islanders and fishermen began to exhibit signs of acute radiation sickness. Nausea, severe vomiting, diarrhoea, itching of their eyes, as well as burning, blistering and ulceration of their skin: these were the test’s immediate legacy for these unfortunate people. Some hours later their hair began to fall out. One man aboard the Lucky Dragon No 5 died soon after he was exposed to the deadly ash fall. In terms of radiological exposure, the fishing trawler Lucky Dragon No 5 had been unable to live up to its name, being as it were, in the unluckiest place on the planet on that morning in 1954.
Seven months after Bravo’s blast, all 22 fishermen left alive out of the 23-man crew of the tuna trawler Lucky Dragon No 5 were still in hospital receiving blood transfusions. Marshallese islanders fared no better. Many island pregnancies ended in miscarriage or resulted in the births of tragically malformed babies who died soon after their first gasps of air. Other babies were born with limb-twisting deformities.
Some of the children aged under 10 at the time of the blast grew more slowly than other children of the same age group and there was a higher incidence of thyroid and other cancers than is normal in populations not exposed to radioactive fallout. Islanders have since died from various cancers and leukaemia.
In 1985 Greenpeace activists evacuated the people of Rongelap Atoll to another of the Marshall Islands as parts of Rongelap were found to be still too highly radioactive for human habitation. More than 70 years after Bravo’s blast, Bikini Atoll is also still too contaminated by radiation for resettlement of its people. And it remains a lonely place, too radioactively hot for human safety.
Nuclear bombs of the magnitude of Little Boy, Fat Man and Bravo destroy by blast and fire as conventional bombs do. However, their killing capacity extends long after their radioactive residue has fallen to Earth. Silent and invisible, the ferocious energy released by a nuclear explosion; the alpha and beta particles and gamma rays of radioactive materials, ionise the cells of human bodies, causing molecular changes, cell mutations, and in high enough doses, immediate death. At the very least, the immune systems of people exposed to radiation are compromised, opening the way for susceptibility to other diseases and conditions such as asthma and allergies.
Alpha particles only travel short distances and are not able to penetrate human skin. Beta particles are able to penetrate skin but no deeper into the body. Gamma rays are capable of penetrating sheets of steel. Components of nuclear fallout such as Strontium-90, Iodine-131, Caesium-137 and Carbon-14 can be inhaled, ingested in food or absorbed through drinking water or irradiated milk.
Once inside the body, these radioactive substances irradiate tissues, organs and bones from close quarters, often with devastating results for example Strontium-90, the most dangerous of radioactive materials, goes straight to the bones damaging the bone marrow, which produces blood cells. It is believed that varying levels of Strontium-90, which is a compound not found in nature, exist in every living person on Earth.
Human beings have a variable susceptibility to radioactive exposure. The unborn, youngest, oldest and weakest tend to be at greatest risk whist women have been found to be twice as susceptible to radiation-induced cancers than men, and radiation exposure makes all people more susceptible to diseases other than cancers. It also increases incidence of infertility and stillbirths, as well as affecting genetic material causing defects and deformities, which can be passed on from one generation to the next. We now know the dangers of radioactivity, but humankind has not only received radiation from nuclear fallout resulting from the detonation of atomic bombs.
Since 1895, when Wilhelm Roentgen of the University of Würzburg in Vienna first discovered X-rays, many scientists and researchers have been afflicted by the effects of the rebellious atom in their quest for knowledge. Edison’s assistant, Clarence Dally, was the first person to die of cancer as a result of exposure to radiation in the pursuit of research. And Marie Curie, who will forever be associated with radioactivity after her discovery of radium in pitchblende, was another early researcher who died of leukaemia, believed to have developed through her exposure to high levels of radiation in the course of her work.15
Also at risk have been doctors and their patients in a tragedy of medical errors spanning decades and continents. During the early part of the 20th Century radium, an intensely radioactive metallic element was believed to “have absolutely no toxic effects, it being accepted as harmoniously by the human system as is sunlight by the plant”. As a supposedly harmless substance it was injected intravenously and inserted in capsule form into body cavities by unsuspecting doctors in the treatment of many maladies ranging from heart problems to impotence and depression. Just feeling below par was thought by some doctors to warrant treatment with radium.
Between 1949 and 1960 thousands of children in Israel and America had their heads irradiated for the treatment of ringworm of their scalps so that their hair would fall out, making the treatment of the ringworm easier. This treatment overkill was found to result in six times more cancers of the thyroid, as well as more brain cancers and leukaemias than is normal for non-irradiated populations.
In other studies, women who had had their reproductive organs irradiated for the treatment of gynaecological problems, were found to have a much higher incidence than normal of leukaemia and cancers of the intestines and other organs in the irradiated area. But this medical irradiation was irradiation that was consensual, albeit unknowingly, and on a comparatively small scale. Still to come in the annals of human history was irradiation on a much larger scale: irradiation that was nonconsensual, unintentional, and unjustifiable…