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VIDEO: The First Underwater Nuclear Test in U.S. History

PortandTerminal.com, August 18, 2020

WASHINGTON – In 1946 the United States Navy conducted its first underwater nuclear test, dubbing it “The Baker Test.” It took place just 11 months after nuclear bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending the Second World War in the Pacific.

The Baker Test’s goal was to see how a Naval fleet and humans would fare against a nuclear weapon. The United States and Russia were by then already in a nuclear arms race and it was strategically vital to understand how this new weapon would change naval warfare dynamics.

The plan was simple. Set off a nuclear bomb underwater up and see what happens to a fleet of empty ships and test animals left on board.

On July 25, 1946 the Navy detonated a 23-ton bomb 90 feet beneath a cluster of Navy ships loaded with test animals sitting in the Bikini Atoll, a part of the Marshall Islands in the central Pacific.

The results were much more catastrophic than they could have imagined.

After the bomb was detonated it was discovered that radioactivity levels on the boat were 20 times the lethal level. Ship cleanup crews were forced to turn back.

“Suffering as a whole among the animals was negligible”

Official Report of Operation Crossroads

The Navy had failed to account for the role the water molecules would play in this new type of trial. The bubble of hot gas created by the explosion sent two million tons of water, in a half-mile–wide column, more than 5,000 feet in the air. Radioactive mist rained down across the area’s lagoon, while ship hulls a mile away were drenched with a foamy wall of radioactive water.

Explosion. Water. Mushroom cloud. Ships.
PHOTO SOURCE: National Security Archive
Aerial view of the striking flash of light produced by the Baker explosion.
Aerial view of the striking flash of light produced by the Baker explosion. (NARA, Still Pictures Unit, Record Group 80-G, box 1724, folder 422320-422386)

“All of the pigs and most of the rats on the ships died either from the blast or from radiation exposure. Of the 57 target vessels, eight either sunk or capsized as a direct result of the explosion. Eight more suffered extensive damage. Most of the remaining ships were highly radioactive and remained so despite decontamination efforts, which consisted of scrubbing or spraying the decks.” Official Report of Operation Crossroads

One amphibious landing vessel was immediately pulverized by the blast, and over the next four days, The Arkansas (a battleship), The Saratoga (an aircraft carrier), Nagato (a Japanese battleship captured in WWII), and three submarines all sank, either from the damage sustained or water taken on during the blast.

Aerial view of blast cloud. PHOTO SOURCE: National Security Archive

In the year following the two tests, a group of scientists and technicians were sent to conduct a scientific resurvey in Bikini. They concluded that: “Clearly radioactivity had entered the food chain. Plankton glowed on photographic plates, as did the intestinal tracts of the fish that fed on them. 

Half a century later in 1997, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that the Bikini Atoll was still uninhabitable.

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