Castle Bravo by Michael Nagel
The Castle Bravo nuclear test at Bikini Atoll was 2.5x larger than anyone expected. 15 megatons instead of 6. Some people called it a second Hiroshima. Radiation got everywhere: in the water, in the plants, and eventually, of course, in the people. Villagers were evacuated, returned, then evacuated again. There was radiation in the coconut milk. People were getting a double dose. A fishing ship nearby was covered in debris. We didn’t realize it was out there. While scientists were closing up their hatches, sailors were licking the ash off the deck. “Gritty but with no taste,” one sailor described it later, having somehow survived a mouthful of nuclear waste.
Bikini Atoll means, literally, Coconut Place, an island in the Marshall Islands, the namesake of Bikini swimsuits, and the site of twenty-three nuclear weapons tests. Castle Bravo left a crater 1.2 miles wide.
First the palm trees were smoldering and then they were ripped out by their roots. The moisture evaporated from their leaves and floated off into the air. They were, for a minute, effervescing. When the blast hit, they were brittle as paper. You could see the shockwave moving across the ground, churning up the dirt. Tree trunks snapped like popsicle sticks. The world was spinning at one thousand miles an hour. We’d gone supersonic.
People saw the fireball 250 miles away. It was four and a half miles wide, the exact shape of a flying saucer, expanding perfectly in every direction. The mushroom cloud was 130,000 feet tall, contaminating 7,000 square miles of the Pacific. It was 6:45am, March 1, 1954.
The ship was the Lucky Dragon No. 5 and its crew did not know a nuclear test was happening today. They had not been informed. Or maybe they had been informed and they forgot. What did they think when the sky lit on fire? In their confusion, the sailors began licking the decks clean. Maybe I would have done the same thing.
Hiroshima, the name of the city has become synonymous with the day of its destruction, was nine years earlier. 8:15am, August 6th, 1945. It was a Tuesday. The bomb was called The Little Boy and it fell for 44.4 seconds before detonating 1,900 feet above the city. There were 350,000 people down below and the temperature spiked briefly into the millions of degrees. Flower patterns from women’s kimonos were flash-burned onto their skin. 60,000 people died instantly. Scientists called the bomb “very inefficient.” It had only fissioned 1.7% of its material. Castle Bravo would be 1000x more powerful.
You wake up to the end of the world, a fireball the width of Downtown Dallas. There will be no surviving this. You will not make it out alive. And even if you do make it out alive, your skin will glow in the middle of the night and peel down to the bone. You’ll push bits down the shower drain. You’ll be cooked on the inside, microwaved, and you won’t even realize.
The bomb at Bikini Atoll was detonated seven feet off the ground. We wanted to see what would happen if we detonated a nuclear bomb seven feet off the ground. The device was 179.5 inches long and 53.9 inches wide. It weighed 23,000 pounds. We called it The Shrimp. The dry fuel was the problem. It reacted better than anyone expected. The crater was as deep as a skyscraper. The mushroom cloud punched its way through layers of atmosphere: 4 condensation rings, 3 ice caps, 2 skirts. An hour after detonation the test bunker had to be evacuated. Radiation levels had reached 40r/hr. The only escape from the bunker was to go deeper into the bunker, which is where the scientists went, and waited eleven hours for someone to come rescue them. They sat in the corners hugging their knees while the cloud drifted ashore.
The cloud lifted from the earth like a balloon on a tether. You could climb up to the top. You could pull yourself up with your arms and legs and lay on its fluffy mushroom surface. It would hold you up there while it stretched over seven thousand square miles of the earth: our radioactive ceiling. It crackled and buzzed. It told people secrets about their lives. It said to one woman: You are the morning star of Egypt. She already knew this, but still. 154 islanders had to be evacuated. They were standing in the shadow of the atomic.
Nuclear ash covered the island and a few dead islanders came briefly back to life. They were found later, dead again, but miles from their graves.
The Shrimp looked like a furnace. A car muffler. A meat smoker. A metal tube supported by metal braces. A can of spray paint. A robot stomach. A rolling pin. A printing press. It did not, however, look like the most destructive weapon ever created by the United States. That was a surprise. Next to the device, a sign read: Danger No Smoking.
The Shrimp was 2.5x more powerful than intended, 1000x more powerful than Hiroshima: A complete failure of calculation, a raging success of a bomb. Don’t drink the coconut milk, doctors told the islanders, sliding their palms down their spines, thumping their chests with their index fingers.
People were upset. Diplomatic relations were touch and go. As recompense, the United States offered each islander $500 a year and free medical care. Doctors held the islanders’ heads in their hands and said, sincerely, I am so sorry about this. Women were giving birth to pineapples. Men were holding their breath for months at a time. When the Lucky Dragon No. 5 came back into port, one of the sailors was already dead, his tongue glowing black. The entire island had gone incandescent. It changed colors every hour. Anyone who’d stared directly at the blast now saw the blast in permanent negative, two black circles, one in each eye. The mushroom cloud hung in the air for months, hardening into stone, a staircase to the upper atmosphere, 4x the height of Mt. Everest. You would need bottled oxygen. Up on its mushroomy surface, you could snag satellites right out of the sky. If you jumped you would never come back down.
Every islander had 1000hz ringing in their ears.
All of this was documented in a classified study called Project 4.1, or: Study of Response of Human Beings Accidentally Exposed to Significant Fallout Radiation. It is not clear, however, whether this study was planned before or after the explosion.
When they found the scientists, 11 hours later, huddled in the corners of their bunker, they brought them outside to look at what they’d done. They held them by the collars. It was evening now, quiet and beautiful. And the scientists were relieved. Everything was mostly all still here. There had been some talk about the atmosphere catching on fire. The scientists took deep breaths and the air tasted like copper top batteries. The sky was fifteen colors of green. Nuclear snow was still falling like Christmas.
Michael Nagel is an advertising copywriter. His essays have appeared in The Awl, Curbside Splendor, The Bygone Bureau, Switchback, and elsewhere. He and his wife live in Dallas..