A real blast from the past

Central Leader - - OPINION -

Atomic wor­ries came to Auck­land one evening in June 1962 when a sud­den, gi­ant red flash lit up the north­ern sky.

A life­time of events and un­planned hap­pen­ings are now fad­ing be­hind the shut­ters of old age but that is one mo­ment I’ll never for­get.

It was a fright­en­ing out­come of Amer­i­can nu­clear tests in John­ston Atoll, half the Pa­cific away, us­ing bombs 1000 times more pow­er­ful than Hiroshima’s.

The mem­ory has homed in on me again with new cov­er­age of Mar­shall Is­lan­ders still protest­ing against test­ing which cost them their an­ces­tral homes in the 1960s.

Atomic tests ex­posed thou­sands in the sur­round­ing area to ra­dioac­tive fall­out, and Bikini is­lan­ders have lived in ex­ile since.

Some re­turned in the early 1970s when US sci­en­tists de­clared Bikini ‘‘safe for re­set­tle­ment’’ but were moved off again in 1978 af­ter eat­ing high lev­els of ra­di­a­tion from foods grown on the for­mer test site.

Around 2000 mourn­ers marched re­cently in the Ja­panese port city of Yaizu, to the grave of Ai­kichi Kuboyama – chief ra­dio op­er­a­tor of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru (Lucky Dragon), a fish­ing boat, 60km from a Bikini bomb ex­plo­sion.

They car­ried a photo of Kuboyama, who died of acute or­gan mal­func­tion seven months af­ter the test. Fif­teen other crew mem­bers also died later.

One marcher, 80-year-old Matashichi Oishi, was one of 23 fish­er­men aboard.

He too re­calls the sky we saw: ‘‘I re­mem­ber the bril­liant flash in the west, the fright­en­ing sound that fol­lowed and the ex­tra­or­di­nary sky which turned red as far as I could see.’’

From an of­fi­cial re­port on those tests:

‘‘Strong elec­tro­mag­netic sig­nals, sig­nif­i­cant mag­netic field dis­tur­bances and earth cur­rents were ob­served.

‘‘En­er­getic beta par­ti­cles fol­low­ing the Earth’s mag­netic field lit up the sky, other high-en­ergy elec­trons be­came trapped and formed ra­di­a­tion belts around the Earth.

‘‘These belts – 100 to 1000 times stronger than back­ground lev­els – were even­tu­ally trapped by the Earth’s mag­netic field . . . height­ened lev­els of ra­di­a­tion crip­pling one-third of all satel­lites in low earth or­bit . . . seven oth­ers were com­pletely use­less, in­clud­ing Tel­star, the first commercial/com­mu­ni­ca­tion satel­lite’’.

The tests were a re­sponse to the Soviet an­nounce­ment that they would end a three­year mora­to­rium on test­ing.

At that stage, John­ston Atoll sounded like a hol­i­day re­sort for mad sci­en­tists.

One bomb’s elec­tro­mag­netic pulse caused elec­tri­cal dam­age in Hawaii, about 1445km away.

And our nu­clear mo­ments got a men­tion in tech­ni­cal re­ports: ‘‘The vis­i­ble phe­nom­ena were wide­spread and in­tense; a very large area of the Pa­cific was il­lu­mi­nated.’’

One test rocket with a nu­clear war­head was lost by the radar track­ing equip­ment and de­stroyed in flight.

A sec­ond launch

was ‘‘aborted in flight due to fail­ure of the Thor launch ve­hi­cle’’. The mis­sile flew a nor­mal tra­jec­tory for 59 sec­onds. Its en­gine stopped and the mis­sile be­gan break­ing up.

Mis­sile parts and ra­dioac­tive con­tam­i­na­tion fell on John­ston Is­land and the sur­round­ing ocean af­ter the range safety of­fi­cer or­dered its de­struc­tion.

An­other rocket was later fired on the launch pad but never lifted off.

‘‘Burn­ing fuel . . . flowed over the com­pacted co­ral sur­round­ing the launch mount, pro­duc­ing highly con­tam­i­nated ar­eas.’’

Troops were brought in to clean up dumped rubbish con­tain­ing plu­to­nium in the la­goon.

Eighty-nine per cent had can­cers later: Non-Hodgkin’s lym­phoma was the big­gest killer plus thy­roid cancer, throat cancer, oe­sophageal cancer, kid­ney cancer, mul­ti­ple myaloma and var­i­ous skin can­cers.

Thirty per cent ex­pe­ri­enced ‘‘re­pro­duc­tive in­ef­fi­ciency up to and in­clud­ing still­birth and de­for­mi­ties’’.

‘‘Re­pro­duc­tive in­ef­fi­ciency!’’ All for noth­ing. Even­tu­ally the tests ended. Not be­cause of con­cern over those fig­ures. Oh no. It was be­cause war­time blasts would in­dis­crim­i­nately de­stroy friendly and en­emy satel­lites alike.

Thank heav­ens for that fail­ure.

Big bang: Not a sight any­one could for­get in a hurry.

To con­tact Pat Booth email pat.booth@fair­fax­me­dia.co.nz or write care of this news­pa­per. All replies are open for pub­li­ca­tion un­less marked Not For Pub­li­ca­tion.

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