Sea Level Rise, Eniwetok, and Bert Bigelow

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Sea Level Rise, Eniwetok, and Bert Bigelow

The increasingly dangerous legacy of nuclear weapons in the age of climate change

Antinuclear activist Albert Bigelow (far left) and other crew members of the Golden Rule before setting sail from Hawaii in 1958. (Archive photo: link)

One of the most talked-about consequences of climate change is sea-level rise. The melting glaciers of Greenland could cause a rise of 7 meters, and in March 2014 scientists learned that Greenland’s glaciers are melting much faster than previously believed. The melting West Antarctic ice shelf could cause an additional sea-level rise of 5 meters – and in May 2014 it was learned that that ice mass is also melting far more quickly than previously known.

Two-thirds of the world’s cities with populations above 5 million people would be inundated by a sea level rise of only 3.5 meters – and that is not even accounting for storm surges from increasingly powerful hurricanes (think Katrina and Sandy). Bangladesh, Vietnam, China, Indonesia and the Philippines (the last two are archipelagos) will be particularly vulnerable by the rising sea level, and atoll nations such as Maldives and the Marshall Islands may literally cease to exist.

It is in this context that the long-forgotten name of Bert Bigelow may re-emerge in the twenty-first century. But before I tell you about Bigelow, I need to tell you something about Eniwetok.

Eniwetok Island is part of the Marshall Islands, located in the South Pacific about 2600 miles southwest of Hawaii. For 10 years, from April 14, 1948 until August 18, 1958, the United States used Eniwetok as a testing ground for nuclear weapons. There were 43 tests of atomic (fission) and hydrogen (fusion) bombs, ranging in size from 18 kilotons to over 10 megatons. On October 31, 1952, the world’s first hydrogen bomb was detonated at Eniwetok.

Eniwetok is just over two square miles in size. From 1977 until 1980, the U.S. government “cleaned up” the island. Hundreds of thousands of tons of radioactive soil and debris – contaminated with strontium-90, cesium-137, plutonium-239, and other radioactive isotopes – were bulldozed into a 350-foot-wide crater that had been left by the 18-kiloton A-bomb test code-named “Cactus” on May 5, 1958. The crater was then covered over with dirt.

In May 1980, I was the co-author, together with Dutch-born nuclear physicist Hendrik Gerritsen, of a published article about plutonium. In that article we said:

Plutonium was named after the Greek god of the underworld, Pluto. It is aptly named, for it would be difficult to imagine a more hellish substance than plutonium. Many scientists regard plutonium as the most toxic substance on the face of the earth. An atomic bomb consists of approximately 10 pounds of plutonium. Of this amount, approximately one pound fissions when the bomb explodes; the remain ing nine or so pounds are dissipated into the environment.

Plutonium-239 is an alpha-particle emitter. Although alpha particles are heavy and therefore have little penetrating power, they are emitted from plutonium with so much energy – five to six million electron volts – that they can do tremendous damage to human somatic and gonadal tissue. Microgram quantities (one-millionth of a gram) absorbed into the skin will cause skin cancer; deposited in the bone it causes bone cancer. (Plutonium acts like calcium in biological processes and is a bone-seeker.) A piece of plutonium the size of a piece of pollen will, if inhaled, almost invariably produce lung cancer. Although adequate distribution would be nearly impossible, one pound of plutonium would be enough to kill 9 billion people, more than the current population of the world. The half-life of plutonium is 24,400 years; it remains radioactive and deadly for over a quarter million years.

According to a previously-classified report produced by the U.S. Defense Nuclear Agency and dated August 1980, Eniwetok today has well over 100 pounds of plutonium in various forms, including in plutonium-contaminated soil and in actual chunks.

Oh yes, and one more thing: Eniwetok is exactly two meters above sea level at its highest point. When the Pacific Ocean rises two meters, as it surely will, Eniwetok will be inundated with corrosive sea water, and its plutonium may be dispersed. Which brings us to Bert Bigelow.

In 1958, Bigelow was the skipper of the 30-foot ketch Golden Rule; he and his crew committed civil disobedience by trying to sail into the Eniwetok nuclear test area to protest the creation and testing of nuclear weapons. He did two stints in jail for these acts.

Bigelow was a tony Boston Brahmin WASP, who came from old money. He was a product of private schools and Harvard. Bigelow had enlisted in the U.S. Navy the day after Pearl Harbor. During World War II he saw action as the commander, at different times, of a destroyer escort and a sub chaser.

In addition to Bigelow, the original crew of Golden Rule was Bill Huntington, George Willoughby and David Gale. All were active with the Nonviolent Action (NVA), the forerunner of CNVA, or Committee for Nonviolent Action, with which I was affiliated in the 1960s and 1970s.

On January 9, 1958, NVA and the crew of the Golden Rule sent a letter to President Eisenhower, explaining their planned protest. The letter said in part:

For years we have spoken and written of the suicidal military preparations of the Great Powers, but our voices have been lost in the massive effort of those responsible for preparing this country for war. We mean to speak now with the weight of our whole lives. By our effort in the Pacific we mean to say to all men [sic], “We are here because stopping preparation for nuclear war is now the principal business of our lives; it is also the principal requirement for the continuation of human life . . .”

They sent copies of the letter to Vice President Nixon, U. N. Secretary General Hammarskjold, Secretary of State Dulles, and others.

Interestingly, when they set sail from San Pedro, California on Tuesday, March 25, 1958, the crew of the Golden Rule were not proposing to do civil disobedience. At the time, there was no statute, law, rule, or regulation that prevented private citizens from sailing into the South Pacific nuclear test range as a protest against atomic weapons. (It had probably not occurred to anyone in the U.S. government that a bunch of pacifists would be inclined to do just that.) But on April 11, while the Golden Rule and her crew were en route from California to a stopover in Hawaii, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) hastily issued such a regulation.

On April 19, 1958, after almost a month at sea, the Golden Rule arrived in Honolulu for what the crew expected would be a six-day stay to take on fresh food and drinking water for the final 2600 miles of the journey to Eniwetok. However, on April 24, the day before they were set to sail, a federal judge in Honolulu, relying on the newly issued AEC regulation, issued a temporary restraining order (TRO) barring the protesters from sailing to Eniwetok. A TRO is a stop-gap measure that a court can use to “maintain the status quo” until a hearing is held on a longer-term injunction. (In his book, Voyage of the Golden Rule, Bigelow, the very proper former naval commander, emphasizes how offended he was that the TRO seemed to violate the centuries-old maritime tradition of freedom of navigation on the high seas.)

The TRO rather posed a problem for the protesters, because they had really not intended to commit civil disobedience. To put it another way: the protesters had contemplated putting their lives at risk by deliberately sailing a tiny ketch into the atomic-bomb test zone; but they had not planned to violate the law or risk arrest and imprisonment. It took the group several additional days to decide to violate the court injunction and sail anyway.

The hearing on the preliminary injunction was set for May 1. The protesters went to court and told the judge, truthfully, that they intended to violate the court’s order and sail for Eniwetok anyway. The judge, as expected, issued the preliminary injunction. True to their word, the protesters went directly from the courthouse to the marina and, with lots of reporters watching, they promptly set sail for Eniwetok. They had only gone a few miles when they were intercepted by a Coast Guard cutter and placed under arrest for criminal contempt of court – that is, violating the just-issued preliminary injunction (on which the metaphorical ink was scarcely dry). (The crew of the cutter, however, was young and inexperienced, and Bigelow, ever the hyper-responsible naval commander, had to help the Coast Guard captain navigate back to shore.)

The group spent six days in the Honolulu jail awaiting trial on the contempt charges. While the crew was in jail, anti-A-bomb support demonstrations were held by NVA in Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco. Protesters carried signs reading: “Stop the A-Bomb Tests, Not the Golden Rule,” and “Stop all bomb tests – U.S., Russia, Britain.”

After those six days in jail, the defendants were tried; all, of course, were convicted. They were sentenced to 60 days in jail, with the sentence suspended, and were put on probation for one year. This was a clever move by the government, because it meant that the protesters would be violating probation and subject to re-arrest if they attempted to sail again. The group decided to sail again, but they also decided to send one of the crew members, Bill Huntington, back to the mainland to recruit additional crews for Golden Rule should the initial crew (as seemed highly probable) end up back in jail. At that point, my late friend, Jim Peck, joined the crew to replace Huntington.

Jim had been imprisoned as a conscientious objector for three years during World War II. In Danbury prison, he and Bayard Rustin had organized a strike to desegregate the prison’s mess hall. The previous year, in February 1947, Jim had participated in the first Freedom Ride. (Later, in May 1961, Jim participated in the second Freedom Ride, and was beaten to within an inch of his life.) Jim had originally been blackballed from the crew of the Golden Rule by Bill Huntington, who had insisted that all the crew members be practicing Quakers. (The other crew members were certainly a religious lot; for example, they held a Quaker-style meeting for worship every day on the Golden Rule. Jim, by contrast, was an in-your-face atheist, who was not above mocking religious believers.) Jim knew that he had been blackballed from the original crew, and he knew why, too; and he always resented the fact. The swap between Jim and Bill Huntington had been negotiated by Bayard Rustin, who was active with NVA.

On Sunday, June 1, 1958, NVA announced in Honolulu that the Golden Rule would sail again at exactly 12 noon three days later, on June 4. NVA sent another cable to President Eisenhower explaining the crew’s plan.

On June 4, a crowd of supporters and reporters was gathered at the marina where the Golden Rule was berthed. At five minutes to 12 noon, U.S. marshals arrived and arrested Bigelow.

In court the same afternoon, the judge offered to release Bigelow on his own recognizance, but Bigelow refused to agree not to try to sail again, so the judge ordered him locked up.

As it happened, Bill Huntington arrived back in Honolulu from the mainland on June 4 also; so, at 4:30 PM (after the proceedings in court were over), Huntington, George Willoughby, Jim Peck and a fourth crew member, Orion (Ory) Sherwood, set sail again. Once again, they were intercepted by the Coast Guard; and, once again, they were brought back to port. This time only Huntington was arrested (though Willoughby and Sherwood were later arrested). In the end, Bigelow, Huntington, Willoughby, and Sherwood all served 60-day sentences for criminal contempt. Their imprisonment was big news all over the world, and during that period they crew received over 1,000 letters from North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. The Honolulu Jail authorities, who normally censor correspondence, were overwhelmed and eventually didn’t bother. On Hiroshima Day (August 6), Bigelow and Huntington wrote a letter to the mayor of Hiroshima from their jail cell; on Nagasaki Day (August 9), they wrote to the mayor of Nagasaki.

It is fun to read the published accounts of these events by two of the participants: Bert Bigelow’s book, The Voyage of the Golden Rule (Doubleday 1959) and Jim Peck’s Underdogs and Upperdogs (Greenleaf Books 1969). It is amazing how much the two accounts jibe with each other, despite the radically different perspectives of the two writers. For example, the teetotaling, abstemious, deeply religious Bigelow decries how Jim Peck never travels anywhere without a bottle of rum and box of cigars in his suitcase; for his part, Jim describes exactly the same thing, and how he had failed to get Bigelow to indulge; and how much he (Jim) imagined that Bigelow must have hated Jim’s cigar smoke.

So why am I telling you all this? One of Bigelow’s main motivations for protesting against atomic weapons tests was the danger of radiation in the environment. In his book, Bigelow spends pages describing some of the many dangers from this radiation – probably because when the book was written, in the 1958-1959, those dangers were not as universally understood as they are today.

Today, more than a hundred of pounds of plutonium are buried at Eniwetok. It will remain the most toxic substance on earth for hundreds of millennia. As sea levels rise as a result of climate change, the island will become inundated. When that happens, the long-forgotten name of Bert Bigelow may be remembered. And people may say that Bigelow, and the rest of the crew of the Golden Rule, were prescient.

Jerry Elmer

Jerry Elmer is a Senior Attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation.

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