The hidden truth of the Bikini Incident

by Kenji Namba, Senior Staff Writer

Fifty-four years ago this month, on March 1, 1954, a hydrogen bomb was detonated over Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. Code-named “Bravo,” it was the second hydrogen bomb tested by the United States and its explosive power equaled 1000 Hiroshima-type bombs. Two weeks later, it was revealed that a Japanese fishing boat, the Daigo Fukuryu Maru (The Lucky Dragon No. 5), was exposed to radioactive fallout as it moved through waters outside of the danger zone announced by the U.S. Navy.

An investigation conducted by the Japanese government estimated that as many as 856 Japanese ships were exposed to the bomb test and 486 tons of fish had to be destroyed due to contamination. Lewis L. Strauss, Chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Commission at the time, has stated that the radioactive fallout--the so-called “ashes of death”--fell not only on the 23 crewmembers of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru, but on 28 U.S. soldiers and 236 residents of the Marshall Islands as well.

However, in January 1955, ten months after the test, a political settlement involving the incident was made between the governments of Japan and the United States. The Japanese government declared that all aspects of the incident would be settled in return for a consolation payment of $ 2,000,000 by the U.S. government. Although Aikichi Kuboyama, chief radio operator of the ship, died at the age of 40--the first known victim of the hydrogen bomb--the incident was now essentially closed.

What was behind the hasty closing of this episode? To understand the significance of the Bikini Incident (the Daigo Fukuryu Maru Incident), the Hiroshima Peace Media Center posed this question to Hiroko Takahashi, a research associate at the Hiroshima Peace Institute, who has been pursuing the true story of the Nuclear Age.

Interview with Dr. Hiroko Takahashi of the Hiroshima Peace Institute, Hiroshima City University

March 1, the day of the Bikini Incident, has come again. What significance do you see today in connection with this incident?
Japan is now in an uproar over meat dumplings made in China, which were found to be contaminated with agricultural chemicals. However, 54 years ago, when tons of tuna were contaminated, the investigation was hastily concluded without fully disclosing the facts of the case. Even though the incident was marked by victims who suffered a massive amount of radiation fallout, a thorough investigation was suppressed. Powerful political influence was exerted at the time and we should reflect on that reality.

Sparked by this incident, housewives in Tokyo initiated a signature drive that called for a ban on atomic and hydrogen bombs, an effort that spread worldwide. But in addition to these positive developments, there were negative currents, too, isn't that right?
After the incident was revealed, tuna contaminated by radiation was nevertheless brought to market, which threatened the health of families eating fish in their homes. Consequently, the anger felt by ordinary citizens over atomic and hydrogen bombs mounted. In Japan alone, 30 million signatures were collected calling for a ban on these weapons and scientists around the world voiced concern over the effects of radioactive fallout. These developments produced a powerful momentum that successfully brought a halt to atmospheric testing. And they made a very large number of people more deeply aware that the existence of nuclear weapons in fact threatens the lives of human beings everywhere.

However, the U.S. government did not make efforts to clarify the full facts of the incident; on the contrary, they actively worked to cover them up.

I understand a crucial point involves the distinction between “initial radiation” and “residual radiation.”
The widespread harm caused by the Bikini hydrogen bomb test was clearly the result of residual radiation in the “ashes of death.” It was not due to the blast, the heat rays, or the initial radiation emitted within one minute of the explosion.

The U.S. government has repeatedly put forth the claim that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki produced no ill effects from residual radiation, arguing that, in both cases, the bombs had exploded high in the sky. However, the incident at Bikini demonstrated that this supposedly “harmless” residual radiation did indeed cause grave consequences.

In the following year, in 1955, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission acknowledged the effects of radioactive fallout for the first time. But in regard to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the committee clung to its familiar position that “the bombs exploded high in the sky so they brought about no harmful effects from residual radiation.”

Based on this stance, the U.S. government's Federal Civil Defense Administration contends that people can protect themselves from the release of any residual radiation from a nuclear explosion by simply hiding or covering up on the ground. In fact, this notion of “civil defense” has even become part of the Civil Protection Plan that the Japanese government is now promulgating today. In other words, Japan's own government subscribes to the nuclear weapons countermeasures established by the United States, even though that nation understates the true devastation caused by the atomic bombings.

Are you suggesting that the A-bomb disease certification criteria, which A-bomb survivors from Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been calling on the government to revise, as well as the Civil Protection Plan that the government makes compulsory for local municipalities, both of these are rooted in U.S. policy?
Yes, the premise of the United States, the party that produced the harm, maintains that “the effects of residual radiation are insubstantial” and this view has been incorporated into the A-bomb disease certification criteria. Thus, the curious circumstance has occurred in which most of the people who hold A-bomb Survivor Health Certificates, officially recognizing them as A-bomb survivors, are nevertheless not acknowledged to be suffering from illnesses related to the radiation emitted by those bombs.

In regard to U.S. influence on the facts surrounding the Bikini Incident, how successful were their efforts?
After Bikini, the United States conducted further nuclear tests in the Pacific and in the state of Nevada in the U.S. mainland. The test results were assessed in various ways and accumulated in their store of nuclear-related data. In line with the theory of nuclear deterrence, the United States has proactively disclosed information which demonstrates the destructive power of its nuclear weapons. But at the same time, using the justification of “national security” as a shield, it never reveals information that might prove inconvenient to continued nuclear development, such as the effects of radiation on the human body.

How did the Japanese government react, on behalf of its citizens, to these actions by the United States?
The Japanese government did not oppose these further nuclear tests; in fact, they continued to sanction the U.S. government's nuclear testing and development. And although Japan conducted an investigation into the contaminated tuna, government officials focused solely on the crewmembers of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru; they never sought out the crewmembers of hundreds of other ships who were also exposed to the radioactive fallout.

The Japanese government was reluctant to clarify the truth because a range of troubling situations would have arisen. In the 1990s, documents related to nuclear testing, which are housed in the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, began to be declassified--though many of these documents are still classified. Information on the Bikini Incident, as well as the tuna investigation which concluded on December 28, 1954, was removed from the declassified files. Thus, it's very clear that the incident is considered classified even today.

If the full picture of the incident became clear, what significance would this have?
We could prove that people everywhere are endangered by nuclear weapons as long as they exist. The more the incident is clarified, the more it would be revealed that the rationale for nuclear weapons development is full of deceit.

The people who develop these weapons and promote their utility stress their power and expediency--but they don't discuss the harmful effects on the human body and the environment. We should realize that the power and expediency of the weapons they champion are, in actuality, devices that kill human beings and bring about disastrous circumstances.

The nuclear state of the world remains grim, doesn't it?
The biggest obstacle to the elimination of nuclear weapons is indifference. The U.S. government contrived to smother the incident and make people assume it had been settled. If not for this cover-up, I believe human beings would have felt a stronger desire to effect a ban on atomic and hydrogen bombs, awakening much earlier to the realization that we must attain a nuclear-free world.

To remain indifferent is to resign oneself to being deceived. Speaking about the Bikini Incident, the American poet Arthur Binard, a longtime resident of Japan, once expressed the sentiment, “Some people are simply waiting for the story to be forgotten.” We must not forget the ruin of that hydrogen bomb test 54 years ago, as we must not forget Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Hiroko Takahashi is a research associate, specializing in American History, at the Hiroshima Peace Institute, Hiroshima City University. She took up her current post in 2002 after serving as a lecturer at Toyama University and a special researcher at the Institute for Research in Contemporary Political and Economic Affairs, Waseda University. She is the co-chair of “Global Hibakusha,” a special interest group of the Peace Studies Association of Japan. Her recent publications include “Classified Hiroshima-Nagasaki: U.S. Nuclear Tests and the Civil Defense Program.” Dr. Takahashi was born in Hyogo Prefecture in 1969.