A real blast from the past
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or write care of this newspaper. All replies are open for publication unless marked Not For Publication.