Lucky Dragon


“They say the new [hydrogen] bomb will not have a greater nuclear yield and could not perform any new military missions beyond those of existing weapons.”

–Ralph Vartabedian, “US to Develop New Hydrogen Bomb,” Los Angeles Times, March 2, 2007

This is an old story. People at large should not be concerned with the yield of impact of a hydrogen bomb but rather the yield of radioactivity. It is a future history that it easily distorted unless efforts are made to remember the past. It is a story that can be told in two words: Lucky Dragon.

Kuboyama Aikichi died of acute radiation syndrome on September 23, 1954. He was a radioman on a Japanese fishing boat, the Lucky Dragon. The tuna boat and crew of 23 had gone out to sea on March 1, 1954. They were warned to stay out of the danger zone as the U.S. Castle Bravo nuclear test was to be conducted in the Bikini Atoll. They had stayed out of the danger zone yet the effects of the detonation were in great excess to what had been predicted. In addition, unanticipated weather changes rapidly conveyed the radioactive ash over great distances. When the Lucky Dragon returned to Japan, the boat, the crew and the fish they brought back with them, were contaminated from radioactive fallout.

The Lucky Dragon had been exposed to a multi-staged hydrogen detonation. The nuclear test had had an anticipated yield of 4 to 8 megatons; the actual yield was 15 megatons.

In 1954, following the hydrogen bomb test in the Bikini Atoll, Joseph Rotblat attended a conference in Belgium. There he met a Japanese scientist, Yasushi Nishiwaki. Nishiwaki possessed data on the radioactivity of the Lucky Dragon.

Rotblat had not been involved in the development of the weapon nor its testing but he was able to deduce from the data provided by Nishiwaki that the explosion in the Bikini Atoll had yielded an increase in radioactivity of a thousand-fold from the bomb used on Hiroshima. It was an interpretation of data that would not have seen the light of day without the concerted efforts of these two scientists.

A decade earlier, Rotblat had walked away from the Manhattan Project on ethic grounds. He was the only project scientist to do so. Rotblat became a person of great suspicion for the remainder of his years but a new life awaited him; he would become the father of a movement dedicated to the non-proliferation of the hydrogen bomb and the eradication of war.

LARAY POLK is an artist and activist who lives in Dallas, Texas. She can be contacted at laraypolk@earthlink.net