OCEANIA NUCLEAR TESTING
The people of Micronesia, in particular, and Oceania in general, would have little reason to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the detonation of the world's first thermonuclear device, code-named "Mike", on Enewetak atoll in the Marshall Islands, in November, 1952.
More than 11,000 civilians and servicemen worked on or near Enewetak atoll to prepare for the blast. The civilians and servicemen left the atoll by ship before the device was remotely detonated from some thirty miles away. The blast completely vapourised the island of Elugelab and created a fireball three miles in diameter and turned millions of gallons of water in the lagoon to steam. It left behind a crater over a mile wide and a deeply fractured reef platform.
It yielded 10.4 megatons which was over 400 times the destructive force of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The island of Elugelab was completely obliterated leaving behind a crater 164 feet deep and 6,240 feet wide. The fireball created by Mike was 3 miles wide with the mushroom cloud rising to 57,000 feet in 90 seconds rising to an eventual height of 135,000 feet in five minutes having a stem eight miles across. The blast lifted 80 million tons of soil into the air and produced the cloud which eventually spread to 1,000 miles wide.
Nuclear detonation at Enewetak (US Army postcard).
The full extent of the atmospheric testing conducted by the United States in the U.S.-administered Pacific Islands or over Pacific waters has only become clear in the last decade with information being released about the yield of 44 of the 66 nuclear weapons tests in the Marshall Islands. The destructive force of these tests was equivalent to the detonation of 8,580 bombs of the size dropped on Hiroshima.
The atolls of Bikini, Enewetak and Johnston, along with other Pacific waters, provided sites for nuclear weapons testing of devices far too powerful and unpredictable to be conducted on the U.S. mainland. For example, the largest test conducted in Nevada in 1962 had a yield of less than one per cent of that of the Bravo test of 1954.
In fact, Bravo produced radioactive components and fallout that encircled the globe. It was this nuclear age that resulted in radioactive fallout finding its way into the food chains, the bodies of honeybees and birds, human foetus and growing children. Environmental radioactivity derived from some nuclear weapons components such as plutonium will persist for up to 500,000 years and may be hazardous to humans for at least half that time. Researchers have concluded that residual radioactivity from atmospheric nuclear testing will cause, through infinity, an estimated three million cancer fatalities.
Since 1946, researchers have estimated that the U.S. government has paid at least $759 million in nuclear-related compensation to the Marshallese. However, medical, cleanup and resettlement costs continue to mount and the Marshallese want more U.S. funding, the prospect of which seems very unlikely. The cleanup of Enewetak atoll involved contaminated soil being dumped into one of the atoll's smaller craters on Runit Island. This crater was created during Operation Cactus which left a 30-foot deep and 350-foot wide crater which was filled with 111,000 cubic yards of radioactive soil which was then entombed beneath a dome of 358 concrete panels, each 18 inches thick. Researchers have suggested that this dome was inadequate as it had an estimated life of 300 years, yet the material encased will remain radioactive for 500,000 years. This particular entombment is a special interest because a nuclear-waste crypt is now being finished 800 miles from Honolulu at Johnston Island where plutonium-laced materials are to be buried under a cap of coral soil.
The sorry legacy of nuclear testing in Micronesia and Polynesia has left, in its wake, considerable long-term health problems for many of the people of Oceania as well as those involved in the nuclear testing. This is quite apart from the loss of many of our ancestral homelands. The islands of the Pacific are beautiful and unspoilt and as such should never be used for nuclear testing.
Finally, it is interesting to see that studies are now being undertaken to examine long-term health problems which are evident in many of the servicemen, including those from Fiji, who served on Christmas Island during the Christmas Island bomb tests.