Underwater Atomic Blast Contaminated Test Ships Making Them “Radioactive Stoves” in 1946

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tags: nuclear weapons, Bikini Atoll, atomic tests



U.S. atomic tests in Bikini Atoll in July 1946 staged by a joint Army-Navy task force were the first atomic explosions since the bombings of Japan a year earlier. Documents posted today by the National Security Archive about “Operation Crossroads” shed light on these events as do galleries of declassified videos and photographs. Of two tests staged to determine the effects of the new weapons on warships, the “Baker” test was the most dangerous by contaminating nearby test ships with radioactive mist. According to the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s Evaluation Board, because of the radioactive water spewed from the lagoon, the “contaminated ships became radioactive stoves, and would have burned all living things aboard with invisible and painless but deadly radiation.”

The Baker test caused a radiological crisis because task force personnel were assigned to do salvage work on contaminated test ships. Stafford Warren, the task force’s radiation safety adviser, warned task force chief Admiral William Blandy of the danger of these activities: the “ships were “extensively contaminated with dangerous amounts of radioactivity.” It was not possible to achieve “quick decontamination without exposing personnel seriously to radiation.” These warnings eventually led Blandy to halt decontamination activities although only after many military and civilian personnel had been exposed to radioactive substances.

Observers from the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission, including two from the Soviet Union, viewed the Crossroads tests from a safe distance. Recently declassified documents shed light on the emerging Cold War atmosphere; one of the observers, Simon Peter Alexandrov, who was in charge of uranium for the Soviet nuclear project, told a U.S. scientist that the purpose of the Bikini test was “to frighten the Soviets,” but they were “not afraid,” and that the Soviet Union had “wonderful planes” which could easily bomb U.S. cities.

The U.S. Navy’s early March 1946 removal of 167 Pacific islanders from Bikini, their ancestral home, so that the Navy and the Army could prepare for the tests, is also documented with film footage. The Bikinians received the impression that the relocation would be temporary, but subsequent nuclear testing in the atoll rendered the islands virtually uninhabitable.




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