Silent spring, Castle Bravo and modern environmentalism.

Silent spring is a famous book written in the 1960s that addresses the concerns of pesticide use and the detrimental effect that this can have on human health and the health of the environment. Written by Rachel Carson, the book details the effects of human development on nature, the dangers that pesticides pose to organisms that are not the target animal, the threat of bio-accumulation on human populations and the emerging threat of insect resistance to those pesticides sprayed to limit the spread of malaria.

Silent Spring is seen by many as the birth of the modern environmentalism movement. I discovered this thought while researching my last blog post on Castle Bravo, through and article titled: ‘The link between Castle Bravo and modern environmentalism’. This article is really less about environmentalism, and more about Silent Spring, but the evidence is still there. As it says in the article, Rachel Carson needed something “real” to compare the insidiousness of pesticides like DDT with. She found it in the experiences of the Japanese fishing vessel Daigo Fukyuru Maru, which was only about 140km from the blast site of the Castle Bravo test site when it went off. The men crewing that vessel all experienced the effects of radiation sickness, and one of them died.

Carson used their experiences to talk about what she felt was the growing threat of pesticide use. This speaks to the huge emotional impact the events of Castle Brvo had around the world, that this simile was so effective at spreading the message about the dangers of pesticides. Silent Spring is now considered one of the best non-fiction books of the 20th Century, and is given credit for the birth of modern environmentalism.

The movement it inspired is credited with the development of the US Environmental Protection Agency, which is ironic given the EPA supports the use of nuclear power, even more so now since the introduction of the ‘Clean Power Rule‘, and the associated attempts to lower the amount of carbon released through energy generation.

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The Castle Bravo incident

In my previous discussion of the disasters of the nuclear age, there was one that I probably should have mentioned. To be honest, I had never heard of it. That itself speaks volumes about the influence of certain mindsets on the nuclear debate. The incident I’m talking about came to be known as the ‘Castle Bravo’ incident, and it remains the worst example of US caused nuclear contamination ever.

You may never have heard of Castle Bravo, but you probably heard of its flow on effects. Ever heard of Godzilla?

Early in the morning of March 1, 1954, the USA detonated the most powerful weapon it has yet detonated. The ‘Bravo’ test of Operation Castle, this bomb was designed to study the efficacy of ‘dry fuel’ fusion nuclear weapons (hydrogen bombs). Originally planned to be around 5 megatons in power, the actual blast was on the order of 15 megatons.

Photo of the Castle Bravo test fireball, an immense fireball seen from a great distance, the sky is dark because of how bright it is.

The Castle Bravo explosion from 30 miles away. Los Alamos National Laboratory.

This highlights some of the problems in the scientific culture at the time (and to a lesser extent, today), as the scientists involved were completely sure that what they had planned would happen. A vast miscalculation about the behaviour of the fuel resulted in the enormous blast, but this miscalculation had further effects as the safety protocols developed for the test underestimated the strength of the explosion. In the ensuing chaos, many military personnel were exposed to high levels of radioactive fallout.

In addition to the size of the explosion, there was also a meteorological miscalculation, that resulted in the fallout cloud drifting towards the Marshall Islands, instead of away from them. The populations of the effected islands are still unable to return. A Japanese fishing vessel was also hit hard, with one man dying, which caused a significant political issue with the US.

Because they messed it up so much, the US government was forced to go public about the test, in one moment revealing the extent of their nuclear research to the USSR, but also revealing to the world the terrifying strength of nuclear weapons (especially the effects of radiation and fallout).

The Castle Bravo test is said by some to be the first incident to spark ‘radiophobia‘ around the world, with the dangers being made visible through the suffering of the Japanese and Pacific Islander bystanders and the members of the military who were inadvertently exposed.

In terms of the nuclear power debate, as I said in my previous post, these events have the power to impact the public in a way that cannot simply be undone by presenting facts. Too often, such as in the case of the Chernobyl or Sellafield, the public (or the government) is assured of the safety of a particular scenario, and it is only after problems have developed that the scientists critically evaluate their work (if ever). To combat radiophobia and the negative impacts of these sort of events, much more needs to be done than just reiterating facts at people.

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