The Pacific

Atomic Bomb Testing at Bikini Atoll 1946

"Five hours after detonation, it began to rain radioactive fallout at Rongelap. The atoll was covered with a fine, white, powder- like substance. No one knew it was radioactive fallout. The children played in the ‘snow.’ They ate it." - Jeton Anjain, Senator of the Marshall Islands Parliament

Daily Princetonian, Volume 70, Number 30, 13 March 1946 — Physics Department Will Send Five Men To Bikini Bomb Test [ARTICLE]

In 1946, the Princeton University Physics Department sent five representatives to the nuclear  bombing tests, code named Operation Crossroads, at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The representatives consisted of both students and faculty and included Lawrence L. Rauch, D.D. Richards, James Hagadorn, Charles Baechler, and James Robinson.

The bomb tests were the first series of post-war nuclear testing in the Pacific Ocean by the Joint Army and Navy Task Force. Princeton had already been involved in nuclear testing at this time as Princeton’s Palmer Physical Laboratory was contracted by the government for nuclear research. The Princeton representatives for the Pacific bombing were following up the contribution made to the development of the atomic bomb by Professors Smythe, Wigner, and Wheeler.

Operation Crossroads

Atomic testing at Bikini Atoll, 1946. Lawrence Rausch Papers (AC393), Box 3.

Operation Crossroads was a series of nuclear weapons tests conducted by the United States at Bikini Atoll. It consisted of two detonations; Able, which was detonated on July 1, 1946, and Baker, which was detonated on July 25, 1946. There was another scheduled detonation named Charlie but it was ultimately canceled due to dangerous radiation levels.

Princeton’s role in Operation Crossroads was to gather information about the the bombs’ nuclear effects. In July 1946, Lawrence L. Rauch took the telemetry system he developed at Princeton to Bikini Atoll for Operation Crossroads. This test series was conducted to measure the effects nuclear weapons had on warships, equipment, and other military targets.

Impact on the Pacific

Fig. 8. Poet Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner stands alone at the centre of the Runit Dome. Image still from Anointed, 2018. Photo credit: Dan Lin.

From 1946-1958, the U.S. government continued to use the area around Bikini Atoll and the Marshall Islands for nuclear testing. 67 nuclear tests were conducted in the Marshall Island area and 23 of those tests were conducted specifically at Bikini Atoll lagoon, including one 1954 test of the largest nuclear device the U.S. ever detonated, the hydrogen bomb named Castle Bravo Bomb. The impact nuclear testing had on the native residents of Bikini Atoll and the island itself would change their lives forever. Many of the natives living on the island were removed by the United States government prior to the bombing of Able and Baker in 1946 and relocated to the island of Rongerik, then to Ujelang a year later, and further relocations. Residents were allowed to return in the 1970s; however, they were evacuated when new tests showed high levels of residual radioactivity in the region. Today, Bikini Atoll and the surrounding islands are uninhabitable due to high levels of radiation in the area. Many Marshallese have suffered from forced relocation, burns, birth defects, and cancers. Researchers have conducted numerous studies on the health effects of nuclear tests conducted by the U.S. in the Marshall Islands. In 2005, the National Cancer Institute reported that that the risk of contracting cancer for those exposed to fallout was greater than one in three.