Volume 57, Number 4, October - December 2022
|Page(s)||289 - 304|
|Published online||07 December 2022|
The properties and health hazards from early nuclear weapon fallout: The Castle Bravo incident revisited
Bundeswehr Institute of Radiobiology, Munich, Germany
* Corresponding author: firstname.lastname@example.org
Accepted: 26 August 2022
Early fallout is defined as the fallback to the earth’s surface of radioactive particles shortly after a nuclear detonation (often arbitrarily defined within 24 h). At the difference of wide spreading global fallout, early fallout mainly consists of larger particles that are often visible. The initial mixture is rich in short- and very short-lived radionuclides associated with a very high initial activity that decreases rapidly (in 7 h, the dose rate is reduced by 90%). The main danger of early fallout results from external irradiation by highly penetrating gamma-radiation that may cause acute radiation sickness. Only in the case of the thyroid, internal irradiation by the incorporation of radioiodine may prevail. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are examples of airbursts with many fatalities by prompt effects (blast, burns, and initial ionizing radiations), but they produced little fallout. The nuclear test code-named Castle Bravo on the Marshall Islands (1954) did not have casualties by its blast, thermal or initial radiation effects, but the inhabitants of the nearby islands and the crew of a Japanese fisherboat (Lucky Dragon) were affected by large amounts of fallout. For the inhabitants of the Rongelap Atoll, the average dose from external irradiation was assessed at 1.6 Gy. From a clinical point of view, based on hematological data using the METREPOL classification system, the acute radiation syndrome can be categorized as mild (H1). Blood transfusions were not required, and antibiotics were not administered for prophylaxis or therapy of infections related to irradiation. The equivalent dose received by the thyroid resulted mainly from internal irradiation with 7.6 Gy. The major late effects were thyroid abnormalities, including thyroid failure, nodules, and malignant tumors. The 23 Japanese crewmen seem to have been irradiated by higher doses (2.9 Gy). Compared to the hematological data of the Rongelap victims, the evolution pattern over time is quite similar. Still, the absolute values of the cell counts are lower, and on average, the acute radiation syndrome can be categorized as rather moderate (H2). Considering the individual cases, data show a large interindividual variability, and the clinical severity category ranges from “no alterations” (H0) to severe (H3). Victims were treated with repeated blood transfusions and antibiotics. Several of them developed jaundice, and one of them died six months after the incident showing symptoms compatible with subacute liver failure. A radiochemical organ analysis revealed that only the bones were clearly contaminated with fission products. In the 1990s, many surviving crewmen were diagnosed with hepatitis C, incurred probably from blood transfusions that were often contaminated at the time, and died from hepatocellular carcinomas. Thyroid dysfunctions were not reported. The Castle Bravo case permits to study the health hazards resulting from early fallout independently from the prompt effects of a nuclear detonation. The prevailing external irradiation was confirmed, except for the thyroid with a higher dose resulting from radioiodine incorporation mainly caused by ingestion. As shown for the Japanese fishermen, the risks incurred by medical treatments must be carefully weighed against the benefits of the therapeutic intervention. The cause of death of the only short-term fatality is not fully elucidated, but is consistent with liver failure due to transfusion hepatitis rather than radiation effects.
Key words: nuclear weapons / fallout / acute radiation sickness / thyroid dysfunction / Castle Bravo / Lucky Dragon
© The Authors, published by EDP Sciences 2022
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
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