Why America’s Biggest Nuclear Weapons Test Ever Was a Total Disaster

    Paul Richard Huard

    Security,

    The March 1, 1954 experiment was the first thermonuclear explosion based on practical technology that would lead to a deliverable H-bomb for the Air Force’s Strategic Air Command.

    The shock wave destroyed buildings supposedly outside of the calculated damage zone. It nearly knocked observation aircraft out of the sky, and caused some men inadvertently trapped in a forward observation bunker to wonder if the explosion ripped their concrete and steel shelter from its foundations and flung it into the sea.

    Then there was the fireball.

    Sixty-plus years ago on an island in the South Pacific, scientists and military officers, fishermen and Marshall Islands natives observed first-hand what Armageddon would be like.

    And it almost killed them all. The Atomic Energy Commission code-named the nuclear test Castle Bravo.

    The March 1, 1954 experiment was the first thermonuclear explosion based on practical technology that would lead to a deliverable H-bomb for the Air Force’s Strategic Air Command—part of the Operation Castle series of tests needed to manufacture the high-yield weapons.

    Bravo was the worst radiological disaster in American atomic testing history—but the test provided information that led to a lightweight, high-yield megaton bomb that would fit inside a SAC bomber.

    Widespread contamination sickened and exiled Pacific Islanders and killed a Japanese citizen. The United States had to admit it possessed the ability to make deliverable H-bombs—an information windfall for the Soviet Union, and the catalyst for serious consideration of a ban on atmospheric nuclear tests.

    Bravo’s fallout even inspired the creation of a science fiction screen legend Godzilla. In the 1954 Japanese movie of the same name, atomic testing resurrects the “King of Monsters”—a symbol for the new terror felt in the only nation ever attacked with nuclear weapons.

    Perhaps most importantly, Bravo forced many scientists and military officers to concede how deadly nuclear weapons really were—not just in their immediate effects such as blast and intense heat, but the lingering effects of high-energy radiation.

    “I think the most important message we might take away from the Castle Bravo shot is the amount of hubris it represents,” Alex Wellerstein, a historian at the Stevens Institute of Technology and blogger, told War Is Boring.

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    The National Interest

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