The tests at Bikini in July 1946 were the coming out party for the atom bomb. Operation Crossroads began just two weeks after the United States presented the so-called Baruch plan to control the Bomb: The U.S. would give up its weapons only after it was sure no one else had them (or any other “weapon adaptable to mass destruction”). The United States would have the veto-free right to punish anyone that it thought was cheating. Operation Crossroads demonstrated what the “condign punishments” administered by the U.S. might look like, as up close and personal as a bomb explosion would permit.
The U.S. Pacific fleet was there along with 42,000 armed forces personnel. There were US and foreign dignitaries and journalists to report on the proceedings. But it was no tropical picnic for the armed forces personnel. Col. Stafford Warren noted with dismay the “hairy-chested approach” of many naval officers to the “unseen hazard” of radiation. In that spirit, after the first test (Test Able), 18-year-old sailor, John Smitherman, and others were ordered to fight a fire on one of the target ships that were stationed in the lagoon to assess the effects of the bomb. Afterwards, to cool off, he (and others) jumped into Bikini lagoon; He did not know and no one told him hat the lagoon was intensively radioactive, especially due to activated sodium (sodium-24), a powerful beta-emitter. He died in 1983 of lymphatic system cancer, a signature cancer of such exposure. The Veterans Administration repeatedly denied his claims that his illness was connected to his service.
The second test, Test Baker, was a more generalized radiological disaster. The bomb was under a barge; the explosion sent a million tons of radioactive spray into the air. Smitherman experienced some of the fallout. The ships of the fleet were taken into Bikini lagoon; all were contaminated.
The risks of significant exposure were widespread, from sailors scrubbing decks to meat being washed with contaminated seawater. There were no instruments to measure plutonium in the field. Yet even decades later, in the early 1980s, the Defense Department claimed that internal exposure was insignificant.
A study, I did with David Albright on the radiological conditions at Bikini (initiated by my friend Bob Alvarez) was presented to the House Veterans Affairs Committee by Karl Z. Morgan, who was present at Operation Crossroads. He was one of the founders of the discipline of health physics — assessing the risks of radiation to health. The study was based on the documents from the archive of the Chief of Radiological Safety during the tests, Col. Stafford Warren. The documents were brought to Bob and by Anthony Guarisco, who was a veteran of the 1946 Bikini tests.
The report created quite a stir in part because the director of the Defense Nuclear Agency testified that he was not aware of the Stafford Warren documents. In effect, the government had come to its conclusions that Smitherman’s cancer, and those of so many other atomic veterans, were not related to their service without consulting the data of the chief of radiological safety at Bikini. Subsequently, in 1990, the US government passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act to compensate armed forces personnel who participated in atmospheric testing, among others (including uranium miners and certain “downwinders” who lived downwind from the Nevada Test Site).
Operation Crossroads tragically established a pattern of all nuclear weapon states harming their own people in the name of national security — and doing so without informed consent. In fact, General Groves, who oversaw the making of the bomb during the Manhattan Project was fearful of claims being filed by participants in the Bikini tests.