Radioactive Fish and Militarized Honeybees: The U.S. Nuclear Program’s Unknown Impact on Ecosystems

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For decades, the U.S. government has used animals — and, at times, people — to study the effects of nuclear radiation. So why don’t we have more answers?

By Heidi Hong


(Photo: Baker Explosion/U.S. National Archives)

The risks of nuclear power are nothing new. The United States’ bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are permanently etched in our collective consciousness as catastrophic acts of war. In 1986 and 2011, disastrous reactor meltdowns in Chernobyl and Fukushima forced the global community to reckon with the immediate dangers of nuclear power plants.

Although these events shape public awareness and anxieties around nuclear energy, few know about the role of ecology and wildlife in the development of militarized technologies. How did human and animal bodies — fish, pigs, and the honeybee — become militarized tools of nuclear testing? And what can these forms of what anthropologist Joseph Masco calls “nuclear nature” tell us about the afterlives of war?

In 1946, a year after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki marked the end of World War II, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) funded Operation Crossroads. This initiative marked the first of nearly 50 nuclear weapons tests in the Pacific Ocean that would take place over 12 years, between 1946 and 1958. Tests Able and Baker took place in Bikini Atoll, a group of islands circling a lagoon located in the Marshall Islands. Bikini residents were forced to evacuate to nearby islands and were never allowed to return due to high levels of radiation.

Poorly planned attempts to clean up scattered plutonium in the wake of the Baker explosion ultimately proved futile. On August 10th, 1946, Dr. Stafford Warren showed William Blandy, the deputy chief of naval operations, a picture of a surgeonfish—a photo that would wind up convincing Blandy to terminate clean up efforts. While unfissioned plutonium could not be detected in the environment using Geiger counters, fish caught in the lagoon were so irradiated that their dissected bodies produced autoradiographs — X-ray outlines created by radiation embedded within fish scales. From the evidence that the fish provided, Warren and Blandy concluded that the atoll and target naval ships were hazardous to military personnel.

David J. Bradley chronicles the process of making fish autoradiographs in his book No Place to Hide, an account of his scientific work in the aftermath of Baker. He concludes: “Almost all seagoing fish recently caught around the atoll of Bikini have been radioactive. Thus the disease is passed on from species to species like an epizootic.”

Bradley characterizes radioactive fallout as an epidemic with no cure other than the half-life periods of stabilization and dispersal. These tests on fish proved that plutonium travels from the water and algae to fish and human bodies; fallout is distributed and passed on across species. The conflation of the biological epidemic with the scientifically engineered radioactive explosion is central to the creation of nuclear natures — ecosystems directly affected by nuclear radiation on a previously unimaginable scale.

“We all carry a small piece of that island world in our bones.”

Environmental humanities scholar Elizabeth Deloughrey pinpoints Operation Crossroads as a key moment in the rise of ecological thought. The marriage of ecology and quantum physics changed environmental science profoundly, she says. Citing Donald Worster’s prominent history of environmentalism in the U.S., Deloughrey argues that Cold War-era science proposed a theory of ecosystems as closed and contained. This concept of the island as a “laboratory” is rooted in European colonial understandings of the isle as isolated, desolate, and primitive. In the pre-Cold War era, the “island laboratory,” as Deloughrey describes it, justified massive weapons testing that scientists argued would be contained to uninhabited areas.

But as subsequent tests have proven, ecosystems have never been contained. Tongan anthropologist Epeli Hau’ofa, in his article “Our Sea of Islands” draws attention to the different ways of seeing that islands, oceans, and biological life are inherently interconnected. When writing of the trans-oceanic cultures of the Pacific, he points out that the arbitrary categorizations that arose from colonization “confined ocean peoples to tiny spaces for the first time.”

Radioactive materials, carried by marine life moving with ocean currents, are also constantly in motion. The Scripps Institute of Oceanography conducted studies on marine life that showed how dynamic processes in the ocean disperse nuclear fallout across the Pacific.

Though radioactive fallout is not immediately hazardous to human life in small amounts, it is undeniable that it has fundamentally changed the material composition of the world. Nuclear fallout, however dispersed, is embedded in our soil and water and even our own cellular tissue.

In a 2002 study, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that virtually all U.S. residents since 1951 have been exposed to radioactivity. As Deloughrey observes, “the body of every human on the planet now contains strontium, a man-made byproduct of nuclear detonations.” She poignantly attaches the human body to the animal and mineral in this new state of nuclear nature, explaining that “we all carry a small piece of that island world in our bones.”

So how did biological organisms become tools for collecting information for the militarized state? The surgeonfish, which survived the Baker detonation, was caught, slashed down the middle, dried, and placed on a photographic plate. Masco, the anthropologist who coined the term “nuclear nature,” writes that the fish autoradiographs “offer an image of a nuclear ecology of damaged organs, a corrupted food chain, and death.” Between death and liveliness, the radioactive tissue of the surgeonfish tells a story about the ghostly traces of militarized nuclear power, colonization, and globalization. The X-ray may tell a story of death and contamination, but it also speaks of an afterlife.

Operation Crossroads was only the beginning of an era of nuclear weapon testing that also led to unprecedented biological experiments on human and animal bodies coming into contact with radioactivity. Masco argues that, in subsequent experiments, nuclear trauma is “methodologically pursued — in an effort to test the fragility of human and animal bodies to nuclear radiation and blast effects.”

He points to the blast experiments on pigs on naval ships during Operation Crossroads as an early prototype that sets the stage for biological testing. In his book The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico, Masco writes of the biomedical component of Operation Plumbob. Conducted in Nevada in 1957, these biomedical experiments used pigs to study “radiation, thermal, and mechanical injury effects” as well as the effectiveness of surgical procedures and protective gear against nuclear blasts. Scientists concluded that “the nearly 100 percent death rate among the 845 pigs can also be applied to man.”

Other studies of the same era in the Marshall Islands used indigenous islanders as human subjects to test the effects of radiation poisoning. When the U.S. detonated its largest nuclear bomb ever with the Bravo test in 1954, Rongelapese islanders 100 miles east of the Bikini test site were exposed to dangerous levels of fallout. In total, Marshall Islanders were exposed to more than eight billion curies of iodine from over 67 tests. AEC scientists studied the islanders and collected blood, tissue, and bone marrow samples, often without their consent and without providing adequate treatment for radiation poisoning.

In the post-Cold War era, the U.S. government shifted its focus from nuclear research to decontamination and wildlife preservation. Yet this direct connection between nuclear destruction and biodiversity conservation has long been overlooked. Thousands of acres of land, home to nuclear reactor sites in New Mexico, Idaho, South Carolina, and Washington have been converted to wildlife preserves where biodiverse species have thrived in spite of their radioactivity. The Department of Energy notes that these wildlife preserves benefit animals that are more threatened by human activity than radioactive materials.

On the other side of the Pacific, Bikini atoll was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010. Described as a “paradoxical image of peace and of earthly paradise,” that also saw “the dawn of the Atomic Age,” the atoll is now preserved as a landmark of cultural and historical significance. It houses a thriving diving industry and vibrant marine life.

The X-ray may tell a story of death and contamination, but it also speaks of an afterlife.

While the preservation of life is starkly different from earlier projects of nuclear trauma, these wildlife conservation projects give way to a new era of nuclear surveillance and experimentation. Masco does not believe that the borders between nuclear wasteland and wilderness preserves can be maintained. Radioactive traces, however small, will spread through the migratory routes of birds and fish, tumbleweeds, and contaminated fruit flies. The management and containment of these sites will take millennia.

To better understand the afterlife of nuclear testing, we can turn to the ubiquitous honeybee as a tool of environmental surveillance. Scientists in Los Alamos, New Mexico, found that the honeybee is particularly good at monitoring tritium, a radioactive substance used to enhance nuclear explosions.

Tritium-tracking honeybees is only one example of military adaption of natural phenomena. Using biological organisms as tools paves the way for other types of surveillance technologies and apparatuses that merge biology with robotics. For instance, the Navy recently unveiled an underwater drone dubbed the GhostSwimmer, a robotic device that mimics the movements of fish and can be used for a variety of missions including surveillance and data gathering. These biomimicry projects exist in the logics of a nuclear afterlife, where the purity of nature must always be a fiction.

Wildlife reserves containing nuclear reactors are by no means wastelands; their biodiversity and liveliness is not a paradox in an age where environmental violence is often uneven and invisible. Formerly devastated lands are not sites of death and decay, but they — along with humans, animals, and minerals — carry the ghosts of colonization and militarization in lingering radioactive traces with yet-to-be-seen impact.