Monday, April 28, 2014

The Mysteries of the USS Ronald Reagan...and Godzilla!

As I promote CounterPunch’s release of the offprint on my article concerning contamination of the US aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan by Fukushima fallout (link to purchase here; please buy many, many copies), there is a plethora of radiation-related news that highlight and illuminate the questions discussed in the piece.

First, Godzilla!  The creature design for the new reboot looks like it turns its back on the fleet, buff, raptor-ripoff of Roland Emmerich’s disastrous 1986 version (which offended fanboys to the extent that the two planned sequels never made it to the screen; rights-holder Toho Pictures subsequently denied the monster true “Godzilla” status and reassigned it the secondary role of “Zilla” in the as-yet embryonic Godzilla canon).  The new Godzilla faithfully cleaves to the template of the lumbering, obese, murderously irate but somehow lovable pseudoallosaur of the 60s and 70s.

However, the trailer holds out the possibility of some major revisionism on the issue of Godzilla's origin (he was unleashed by nuclear testing in the Pacific), declaring “Not tests.  They were trying to kill it.”

Ahem.  A major reason for the cultural reasonance of Godzilla, especially in Japan, was the big guy’s role as a stand-in for Japanese fears and resentment concerning the nuclear havoc released by the United States, both over Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II, and in post-war atomic testing in the Pacific during the 1950s.

One of the most notorious instances was the surprise of the Castle Bravo H bomb test in 1954 in the Marshall Islands.  Surprise because the planned yield was 5 megatons (300 times the Hiroshima bomb) but the scientists, the atoll, the observers, and the west Pacific got 15 megatons  (1000 times) instead.  It was a pretty big bang, the biggest the US ever pulled off.

Castle Bravo produced an oversized fireball over four miles in diameter, vaporized the test site atoll, and created a lot of radioactive fallout.  Because of a wind shift, a considerable amount of fallout landed on inhabited islands, and also irradiated the crew of a Japanese fishing boat, Lucky Dragon No. 5.  The crew members became sick and one died “of a secondary infection”, a distinction that is very much in keeping with the strong desire of the nuclear industry to draw a bright line between statistically and scientifically unambiguous direct radiation-related mortality and radiation-related health impacts, exemplified by the WHO finding, much disputed by activists, that only 50 people died as a result of Chernobyl radiation (including 28 from acute radiation exposure and 15 from thyroid cancer).

Also typical was the government’s inclination to minimize the true extent of the radiation released in the fallout from Castle Bravo, a problem which also figures in my discussion of the purported radiation exposure of the crew of the Ronald Reagan.

Take it away, Wikipedia!

The official U.S. position had been that the growth in the strength of atomic bombs was not accompanied by an equivalent growth in radiation released. Japanese scientists who had collected data from the fishing vessel disagreed with this. Sir Joseph Rotblat, working at St Bartholomew's Hospital, London, demonstrated that the contamination caused by the fallout from the test was far greater than that stated officially. Rotblat was able to deduce that the bomb had three stages and showed that the fission phase at the end of the explosion increased the amount of radioactivity a thousandfold. Rotblat's paper was taken up by the media, and the outcry in Japan reached such a level that diplomatic relations became strained and the incident was even dubbed by some as "a second Hiroshima".

More Wikipedia:

The sky in the west lit up like a sunrise. Eight minutes later the sound of the explosion arrived, with fallout several hours later. The fallout, fine white flaky dust of calcinated Bikini Island coral, had absorbed highly radioactive fission products, and fell on the ship for three hours. The fishermen scooped it into bags with their bare hands. With one fisherman, Matashichi Oishi, reporting that he "took a lick" of the dust that fell on his ship, describing it as gritty but with no taste. The dust stuck to surfaces, bodies and hair; after the radiation sickness symptoms appeared, the fishermen called it shi no hai (死の灰, death ash).

The US government refused to disclose the fallout's composition due to "national security", as the isotopic ratios, namely a percentage of uranium-237, could, through a radio-chemical analysis of the fallout, reveal the nature of the device to the Soviet Union, which had, as of 1954 not been successful with thermonuclear staging. Lewis Strauss, the head of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), issued a series of denials; he also hypothesized that the lesions on the fishermen's bodies were not caused by radiation but by the chemical action of the caustic burnt lime that is produced when coral is calcined, that they were inside the danger zone (while they were 40 miles away), and told President Eisenhower's press secretary that the Lucky Dragon #5 may have been a "Red spy outfit", commanded by a Soviet agent intentionally exposing the ship's crew and catch to embarrass the USA and gain intelligence on the tests device. He also denied the extent of the claimed contamination of the fish caught by Daigo Fukuryu Maru and other ships. The FDA however later imposed rigid restrictions on tuna imports. The United States dispatched two medical scientists to Japan to study the effects of fallout on the ship's crew and to assist their doctors. 

Reportedly, the sailors were held incommunicado by the US to keep the story from getting out (I guess this was a by-product of U.S. powers under the ongoing occupation [Correction: Nope occupation ended in 1952.  Tks to alert reader MS]).

The case of the Lucky Dragon No. 5—and the radiation scare that prompted the dumping of several hundred tons of tuna—helped ignite the anti-nuke movement in Japan.  32 million Japanese signed a petition calling for the banning of the hydrogen bomb.

The Lucky Dragon No. 5, presumably satisfactorily decontaminated, is currently on display in an exhibition hall in Tokyo.

Castle Bravo also had a big role in igniting the movie career of Godzilla.  Hopefully when the movie comes out, Godzilla will still be true to his anti-nuke roots, and not fall prey to historical revisionism.

Off the nuclear theme for the moment, here is the Wikipedia entry for the most unlikely Godzilla manifestation:

In 1985, North Korea released Pulgasari, a kaiju movie similar to Godzilla. To make the film, North Korea used kidnapped South Korean director Shin Sang-ok. The special effects department from Toho was hired to produce the special effects.[9] Kenpachiro Satsuma, the stunt performer who played Godzilla from 1984 to 1995, portrayed Pulgasari.[10]

Here’s the trailer.  The whole movie is also available on the Internet.  I suppose that’s another reason we can thank sanctions for isolating North Korea from the whole IP/copyright regime.

Next up, Chernobyl.  April 26 was the 28th anniversary of the Chernobyl catastrophe.  Chernobyl figures heavily in my piece, as a cautionary tale of government coverup, proof of concept for the disastrous consequences of washouts a.k.a. precipitation bringing the contents of radioactive plumes down to the surface, and also for the multi-decade search for an alternate scientific and social narrative for the health aftereffects that acknowledges the radiation link to ailments similar to those experienced by some of the sailors on the Reagan.

April 26 was also the anniversary of the little-known Capital Region washout of 1953, a rainstorm which dumped a significant amount of radiation on Albany and its environs from the Simon nuclear test in Nevada.  It offers an illustration of the contamination problems created by local washouts such as the one the Ronald Reagan experienced.  It also recapitulates the government pattern of understating the magnitude of radioactive fallout in dealings with the general public.

Third, the government of the Marshall Islands—the Pacific atolls subjected to 62 nuclear tests—symbolically sued the governments of the United States, Russia, and all the other nuclear powers last week, in order to get them to live up to their nuclear obligations.

Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands was also the site, in 1946, of the only other known instance of radioactive contamination of a US aircraft carrier—and it was intentional.  The Baker shot was designed as an investigation as to whether naval vessels could be decontaminated while serving in a nuclear battle zone.  The answer was negative (see here for my discussion of the test, with a picture of the legendary Baker blast layer cake) at least for the derelict aircraft carrier USS Independence—which was subjected to a post-Baker sequence of unsuccessful decontamination exercises before the Navy gave up, turned it into a floating laboratory for more nuclear contamination experiments, and finally sank it off San Francisco’s Golden Gate with a cargo of nuclear waste.  Presumably, the Ronald Reagan fared better--though how much better is still something of a mystery, a mystery I'm trying to help unravel. 

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