Representing victims of atomic testing has brought attorney to a 'Crossroads' Starting from ground zero

June 12, 1994|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Sun Staff Writer

Attorney Jonathan Weisgall received his first dose of emotional fallout from nuclear testing in 1975 when he waded ashore on the island of Kili to meet his new clients: Bikini Islanders, displaced by the U.S. government's 1946 atomic tests, living in isolation 400 miles from their home.

The islanders had contacted Covington & Burling, the blue-chip Washington law firm, for help with their situation. They had agreed to "temporarily" evacuate the Bikini atoll 29 years earlier so the military could test bombs it said would make the world a safer place. Although they were spared any direct contact with the blasts' radiation, the fallout material still lacing their homeland kept them in exile. The firm sent Mr. Weisgall, a 25-year-old associate, to evaluate their case. He found a despairing people, exhausted by three generations of U.S. promises, terrified of being poisoned if they returned home.

"That first day I recognized the magnitude of the human aspect of all this," he says. "I realized that what I did -- or what I failed to do -- was going to have a direct major influence on these human beings."

In the nearly 20 years since that first meeting, the Baltimore native has won his clients millions of dollars in reparations from the U.S. government.

He produced an Academy Award-nominated documentary about the islanders, "Radio Bikini" in 1988.

And he has just published a book about Operation Crossroads, the nuclear tests that sent the Bikinians into their long-term limbo. First intended merely to document the events that determined his clients' fate, Mr. Weisgall's research led him to include U.S. atomic military veterans among the tests' human victims.

"Operations Crossroads: The Atomic Tests at Bikini Atoll," (The Naval Institute Press, $31.95) presents the first non-government assessment of the first post-war atomic tests. Mr. Weisgall reveals that the second shot was the world's first peacetime nuclear disaster, a test that exposed thousands of servicemen unnecessarily to the hazards of radiation.

Constructed from documents collected from the government, archives around the country, interviews and litigation material, "Operation Crossroads" reports the Navy decided to conduct the tests despite scientific warnings about radioactive contamination.

"The themes of this story are ignorance, arrogance and secrecy," Mr. Weisgall says. "And when you throw in a little radioactivity, you've got a recipe for a disaster. There was one misstep after another."

The first nuclear test at Bikini, the Able shot, was an air drop similar to Hiroshima. Missing its target by half a mile, it ruined millions of dollars of scientific test equipment, invalidating much of the research and increasing the need for a second test.

The second test, the Baker, was the world's first underwater blast. Triggering a mile-wide dome of water, it unleashed on the earth's surface the greatest amount of radioactivity known at that time. (Ninety-five to 99 percent of the radioactive products of the Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Able blasts were dissipated into the atmosphere. Because the Baker was exploded 90 feet underwater, however, the pressure of the water above the bomb kept the radioactive cloud from rising more than 8,000 feet before collapsing back onto the lagoon.)

The test was conducted despite a report from the laboratory at Los Alamos, N.M., where the atomic bomb was developed, advising that the water near a recent surface explosion will be a "witch's brew" containing enough plutonium "to poison the combined armed forces of the United States at their highest wartime strength."

The Baker shot sunk eight vessels in a guinea-pig fleet of 95 ships, including the huge aircraft carrier Saratoga. (Over the next four years, the other vessels were scuttled because of lingering radiation.)

More than 40,000 military servicemen and scientists watched the blast. Afterward, thousands of sailors were dispatched to scrub the radioactive decks of the contaminated ships with soap and water, completely unaware of the hazards they faced so blithely in shorts and tennis shoes.

Explosive rivalry

"Operation Crossroads" also explores how the route to nuclear testing was paved by rivalry between the Army and Navy. Both branches of the military wanted exclusive control of the atomic bomb and worried how its loss might affect their budgets and prestige. It examines public, congressional and scientific concerns and attitudes about the tests. And it joins the growing library of books about the long-term effects of nuclear testing and the secrecy surrounding it.

A review in Booklist calls it a "notably insightful and balanced treatment of a complex and controversial subject . . . a highly valuable addition to nuclear affairs and postwar military studies."

Publisher's Weekly describes it as chilling "in light of the current attention on U.S. government radiation experiments on humans and the postwar cover-up of nuclear testing."

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