The History of Nuclear Testing in the Marshall Islands

The Marshall Islands, located between Hawaii and the Philippines, are a chain of islands that were under the administrative control of the United States from 1944 to 1986. During this time, the United States conducted more than 20 nuclear tests in Bikini Atoll and nearby Enewetak Atoll. The tests left behind residual radioactivity, and massive amounts of radioactive waste are buried under a concrete dome in the Marshall Islands. In 1988, filmmaker Robert Stone released a documentary called Radio Bikini, which began with a radio broadcast from Bikini Atoll before the nuclear bomb explosion and told the story of military personnel exposed to radioactive fallout. The 1982 cult classic documentary The Atomic Cafe is also a haunting portrait of nuclear war in the 20th century, featuring images of Operation Crossroads in 1946 and evidence of the effects of nuclear bombs on animals in Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands.

At the National Cancer Benefit Center, we help veterans who participated in atmospheric nuclear tests conducted on Bikini Atoll and Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands collect compensation for cancer caused by government-created radiation. In 1950, while scientists were working on calculations to see if the super classic, the initial design of the hydrogen bomb, would work, preparations for a new series of nuclear tests in the Pacific were underway. The test was renamed George and ironically, while preparations for George were underway, mathematician Stanislaw Ulam came up with a breakthrough for the actual design of a hydrogen bomb. He suggested placing an atomic bomb and hydrogen fuel in a housing that would reflect neutrons and surrounding hydrogen fuel with material that would effectively increase neutron energy.

The test took place on May 9 at Eniwetok Atoll in the Pacific Marshall Islands. Teller was there to witness it and recalled feeling the heat of the explosion on their faces but not knowing if the experiment had been successful or if the heavy hydrogen had ignited. The design process was complicated by the type of hydrogen fuel they chose to use - liquid deuterium - which required a very complex insulation and cooling system. Despite several prominent scientists lobbying for it to be postponed due to political reasons, President Truman decided to proceed as planned.

The test was to take place on Eniwetok Atoll, which is located in the Marshall Islands, about 3,000 miles west of Hawaii. A six-story cabin was built on Elugelab Island to house Mike and a two-mile long tunnel extending from the device to another island was filled with helium balloons that would provide data on the progress of the fusion reaction. The explosion drilled a crater approximately a mile wide in the reef and within seconds, the fireball was almost three miles in diameter. Illumination from the explosion was visible for almost a minute on Rongerik Island, 135 miles east of the explosion.

Trapped staff in experimental bunkers and wrapped 7,500 foot diagnostic tubing set. An hour and a half later, a sandy-like, snow-like substance began to rain on a Japanese fishing vessel called Lucky Dragon, which was about 80 miles east of Bikini. The 23 fishermen on board had no idea what had happened.

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