The tiny, secluded ring of islands known as Bikini Atoll was the site of 23 nuclear explosions carried out by the United States between 1946 and 1958.
U.S. military leaders started preparing future nuclear weapons tests in November 1945, just a few months after atomic bombs were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the close of World War II. They initially chose to conduct a detonation in a remote area that probably not many Americans were even aware existed.
Bikini Atoll, a small group of coral islands in the center of the Pacific Ocean with a total area of just two square miles, was once a part of the larger Marshall Islands chain.
According to an assessment by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Bikini atoll satisfied the requirements of the military. It was under American control, far from any maritime lines, but just a thousand miles from a base where bombers might launch. Furthermore, Navy ships, including those that would be utilized as targets, had a safe port in the lagoon that the atoll ringed. And the military could only remove a very small portion of the population—167 people, according to one estimate.
Commodore Ben H. Wyatt, the military administrator of the Marshall Islands, visited Bikini Atoll in February 1946 and spoke with a group of locals to inform them that they would have to evacuate, at least temporarily. For the Good of Mankind, Jack Niedenthal's 2001 account of the Bikini Atoll, states that Wyatt informed them that the tests were required to avert further wars. The locals responded in a perplexed and depressed manner. King Juda, their commander, finally rose to his feet and said, "We will go, believing that everything is in God's hands."
The little atoll would quickly rise to fame, earning a swimsuit's name from a French fashion designer. It would rank among the most well-known locations on earth. At Bikini Atoll, the US exploded 23 nuclear weapons, including 20 hydrogen bombs, between 1946 and 1958. One of these was the Castle Bravo H-bomb test on March 1, 1954, which had a yield of 15 megatons and was 1,000 times more potent than the nuclear bomb that obliterated Nagasaki in 1945.
Here are seven interesting facts regarding the Bikini Atoll nuclear experiments.
1.Bikini Atoll's first atomic bomb misses its target
Operation Crossroads, a project to look at the effects of nuclear bombs on Navy vessels, was chosen to take place at the atoll. Test Able was conducted on July 1 of that year. With laboratory animals—pigs, goats, and mice—on board, a target fleet of 95 ships was stationed in the lagoon of Bikini Atoll so that researchers could examine the potential effects of radiation on ship crews. Another 150 ships from the backup fleet retreated to a position 10 nautical miles away from the atoll and waited.
According to a report from the Atomic Heritage Foundation, a B-29 bomber overflew the lagoon at nine in the morning and dropped an atomic bomb. The bomb burst 520 feet below the surface and missed the target ship in the center of the lagoon by 1,500 to 2,000 feet. Only five of the ships were sunk by the bomb, but a third of the lab animals perished as a result of the blast's force and radiation.
2. The Second Atomic Bomb Test at Bikini Atoll Created a Tsunami
The American military tried a different strategy in Test Baker on July 25, 1946, detonating a bomb 90 feet under the lagoon's surface. The Atomic Heritage Foundation claims that it was the first nuclear bomb test conducted underwater and that it produced a variety of astonishing occurrences. A huge bubble of hot gas was created by the explosion, and it simultaneously grew up and down.
It carved a 30-foot-deep and 2,000-foot-wide crater in the sea floor near the bottom. It broke through like a geyser on the surface, forming a massive dome of water that eventually grew to be over a mile tall. The explosion produced a tsunami with a 94-foot-high wave that was so strong that it lifted the 27,000-ton ship Arkansas. Many of the target ships were covered with radioactive debris when the ocean surge surged over them. A report from the U.S. Navy claims that eight of the ships were sunk.
3. Although they observed the tests, the Soviets weren't impressed.
According to Richard Rhodes' 1995 book Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb, the U.S. permitted foreign observers at the tests, and Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria—who oversaw both the Soviet atomic program and the secret police of the Stalin regime—sent a scientist and a geologist.
They evidently weren't impressed. According to the National Security Archive, one of the observers, Simon Peter Alexandrov, who was in charge of uranium for the Soviet Union's own nuclear program, told a U.S. scientist there that if the test's goal was to frighten the Soviets, it hadn't succeeded because the Soviets had bombers that could reach U.S. cities.
Following these tests, the Soviet publication Pravda denounced them as "common blackmail" and claimed that aside from a few old vessels, the only thing the US had destroyed was "belief in the seriousness of American talk about atomic disarmament."
4. The cancellation of a third nuclear bomb test at Bikini
In 1946, the United States' nuclear weapons program faced a challenge because it lacked enough bombs. According to Rhodes, two of the US stockpile's three nuclear cores were used up in the Able and Baker tests. Although the manufacture of new bombs soon increased, the US military was still concerned about wasting money. In the original plan for Operation Crossroads, a third test called Charlie, set for April 1947, was also included. In this test, scientists intended to detonate an atomic bomb considerably deeper in the ocean. According to the National Security Archive's report, however, senior Pentagon and Manhattan Project officials claimed that it had no military use and that developing a lighter and smaller atomic weapon would be hampered by the addition of another device.
The test was delayed and ultimately called off. According to reports, officials were also dissatisfied with the atoll's lack of land for a support station and inability to construct an airfield. When the United States started testing hydrogen bombs in 1954, Bikini Atoll was used once more after the 1946 experiments.
5. A hydrogen bomb test resulted in a larger explosion than anticipated
According to a Brookings Institution research, the 23,500-pound bomb, when it exploded on March 1, 1954, created a 15-megaton blast, which was three times as large as intended. Three of the atoll's islands were completely destroyed by the explosion, which was also powerful enough to rip a mile-wide crater in the lagoon's floor.
According to Stanford Magazine, Stephen Palumbi, a biology professor at Stanford University who traveled to the atoll in 2017 for a television series, calculated that the bomb blast launched debris into the air that was the equivalent of 216 Empire State Buildings.
Residents of Rongelap and Utirik atolls, as well as 23 crew men on a Japanese fishing boat 80 miles away, were all exposed to radioactive debris from the event. A Japanese boat crew member named Kuboyama Aikichi passed away six months later at the age of 40. Radiation sickness was listed as Aikichi's cause of death by Japanese doctors who conducted an autopsy, albeit that conclusion was still debatable.
6. H-Bombs Tested at Bikini in the 1950s Had Odd Nicknames
The nuclear bomb used in the Bravo test was dubbed "Shrimp," despite weighing 23,500 pounds. Several weeks after the Bravo test, the Romeo test was conducted with an even larger bomb known as "Runt I." Other bombs went under names like "Morgenstern" and "Alarm Clock," the NRDC research said.
7. The Bikini Atoll Still Isn’t Fit for Habitation
People from the Bikini Atoll were moved in 1946, although their ultimate return was guaranteed. Instead, they were sent to other Marshall Islands. Bikini Atoll was finally deemed safe for human settlement by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission in the late 1960s, and some former residents were permitted to return. But a decade later, a research revealed that the cesium-137 levels in the bodies of returnees had increased by 75%, ending the project.
The people of Bikini were once more moved, this time 450 miles away to Kili Island. According to scientists, it's still risky to go back. According to Ivana Nikolic Hughes, senior lecturer in chemistry at Columbia University and director of the K-1 Project Center for Nuclear Studies, "probably the most robust finding from our research is that Bikini Island must be cleaned up if people are to live there again." "This is based on levels of Cesium-137 in the food, background gamma radiation, and the presence of various isotopes in soil and ocean sediment."
In order to serve as a reminder of the terrifying potential of nuclear bombs and their impact on contemporary civilization, UNESCO designated Bikini Atoll as a World Heritage Site in 2010.
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