U.S. Navy crew aboard the USS Ronald Reagan in the Pacific Ocean off Japan stand by as an area is sprayed for radioactive decontamination in 2011. Photo by AP/Eugene Hoshiko
Sixty years ago this week, a misfired hydrogen bomb test plastered with lethal radiation the Japanese fishing boat Daigo Fukuryu Maru—“Lucky Dragon”—and its 23-man crew. The March 1, 1954, test, code-named Castle Bravo, spewed a deadly ash cloud into wrongly predicted winds, contaminating a huge swath of the Pacific Ocean.
The Dragon’s crew fell ill with burns, hair loss, joint pain, nausea, headaches and other ailments diagnosed by medical experts as acute radiation syndrome. Radio operator Aikichi Kuboyama died six months later at the age of 40, praying that he would be “the last victim of an atomic or hydrogen bomb.” Liver cancer eventually killed more than a quarter of the crew.
The ship’s radioactive tuna catch was banned from American fish markets, but a massive public uproar erupted when some was sold in Japan.
Marshall Islanders trapped in the fallout also suffered a terrible wave of disease, including an epidemic of birth defects and malformations. According to Robert Alvarez, an expert who served for six years as a senior official in the Energy Department, parts of the downwind atoll Rongelap remain uninhabitable to this day.
Lewis Strauss, then-chair of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, said the fallout was harmless. The Dragon’s crew was part of a “Red spy outfit” meant to observe and embarrass the American military.
No stranger to nonsense, Strauss also promised atomic energy would be “too cheap to meter.”
Attempts to decontaminate U.S. ships irradiated during the Pacific tests proved fruitless. Hundreds of sailors were exposed to heavy doses of radiation, and in many cases the ships had to be sunk anyway.
The Dragon, which was some 80 miles away from Castle Bravo, is now on display in a Tokyo museum.
The nuclear powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan was close off shore to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant on March 11, 2011, when three reactors there began to melt, followed by four explosions and a deluge of radioactive water into the Pacific.
The crew was warned not to drink or bathe in water being desalinated from a contaminated sea. Many reported being engulfed in a warm cloud with a metallic taste similar to those experienced at Three Mile Island and the bombing of Hiroshima.
Transcribed official communications now confirm the Navy knew the Reagan was immersed in radiation.
The ship was quickly steered away from its humanitarian mission on a zigzag course 100 miles out to sea, where it was still bathed in radiation 30 times background.
Japan, South Korea and Guam deemed the Reagan too radioactive to enter their ports.
The $4.3 billion carrier is now docked in San Diego. Critics question whether it belongs there at all.
Prevailing winds could well have dumped Fukushima’s worst fallout on the Reagan’s 5,500 sailors. One sailor, pregnant that March, gave birth in September to a child with multiple birth defects. Scores now report a wide range of ailments that parallel those from the Lucky Dragon, the Marshall Islands, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. “We were being chased by a death sentence,” one of them says.
The Lucky Dragon tragedy sparked worldwide protests and a movement that eventually won an atmospheric test ban, saving millions of lives. But her crew paid a heavy price.
Like Strauss, the Tokyo Electric Power Company and the Navy now say the doses that engulfed the Ronald Reagan and her sister ships in the area at the time were all “perfectly safe.”
But 60 years after Castle Bravo, and nearly three years after Fukushima, the obvious parallels are too tragic to ignore.
Harvey Wasserman edits Nukefree.org and wrote “Solartopia! Our Green-Powered Earth.”