In mid-1946, the United States conducted two nuclear weapons tests on a remote Pacific atoll, during which several animals were deliberately exposed to the blasts to assess the effects of radiation.
While many of these creatures were killed immediately by the blasts, a few survived – at least initially – and the mysterious story of one pig in particular has sparked fascination ever since. This pig, known as 311, is said to have survived the first of two atomic bomb tests and was brought back to the United States, where it lived for another four years.
The nuclear tests were carried out as part of a military program dubbed Operation Crossroads, less than a year after the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945.
The two tests – known as ‘Able’ and ‘Baker’ – took place on July 1 and 25, respectively, at Bikini Atoll, a ring-shaped coral reef in the central Pacific that is part of the Marshall Islands.
The purpose of the tests was to investigate the effects of nuclear explosions on Navy ships, and more than 90 ships were used as targets, including obsolete US warships and submarines, as well as ships Germans and Japanese who surrendered. The second bomb, Baker, exploded 27.4 m underwater.
On 22 of the targeted ships, the US military also placed thousands of animals – mostly rats, but also pigs, guinea pigs, goats and mice – to study how the bomb blasts would affect them.
“Some animals have been used not only to study the effects of radiation on an individual, but also the long-term health consequences for future generations,” Jennifer Knox, policy and research analyst for the program, told Newsweek. of the Union’s global security. Scientists worried.
“For these reasons, the animals were placed at different distances from the nuclear explosion or shielded with different types of materials, altering the radiation dose they received and their immediate exposure to the effects of the explosion. »
How Nuclear Bombs Affect Animals
According to an official report from 1947, these animals were then removed and taken to a support ship known as the USS Burleson for examination and medical attention shortly after the detonation of the Test Able – on which most of the creatures were found. been used.
Some animals – about 10% – died in the initial explosion. Many more died in the days and weeks that followed from the effects of radiation poisoning. Some returned to the United States, where scientists continued to study them.
But one particularly remarkable story emerged from the tests, that of Pig 311. According to media reports in the 1940s, this animal had been locked in an officer’s lavatory aboard the Japanese cruiser Sakawa during the Able test.
The explosion caused Sakawa, which was about 420 meters from the point of detonation, to burn violently for 24 hours before sinking on July 2.
Somehow, Pig 311 survived the explosion and sinking of his ship and was found swimming in the lagoon at Bikini Atoll a day later, according to reports. Life magazine reported in a 1947 article that the piglet was Sakawa’s only surviving animal.
When the animal was found it was showing signs of radiation sickness – a 1949 Time magazine article reported that pig 311 was “irritable and had low blood counts”, but within a month she appeared to have recovered. restored.
Then the animal was taken back to the Naval Medical Research Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, for study. A year after the test, she went from piglet to sow.
The researchers performed periodic blood tests on the animal to assess the damage it had suffered from the radiation, but the sow appeared to be in relatively good condition, aside from being sterile.
Scientists made several attempts to create it, but to no avail, although it is unclear if this was due to the effects of the bomb.
In April 1949, Pig 311 was delivered to the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington, DC, where it became a favorite with visitors to the site.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Walter Pincus wrote about the 311 pig in his 2021 book “Blown to Hell: America’s Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders.”
Three years after Operation Crossroads, the vast majority of the thousands of animals used in the test are dead, according to Pincus. Pig 311 would soon follow, dying on July 8, 1950 – just over four years after being exposed to the bomb. The cause of the pig’s death has not been revealed.
Did pig 311 go to Sakawa?
There remains some uncertainty as to the circumstances of the pig’s seemingly heroic survival after the atomic explosion. It is unclear exactly how Pig 311 made it out of the ship alive, and at least one local news report from 1946 reported that the creature was not on Sakawa at the time of the test. An investigation revealed that the pig simply disappeared on the support ship USS Burleson before reappearing the next day.
While the circumstances of Pig 311’s story aren’t entirely clear, Kathryn Higley, a professor at Oregon State University’s School of Nuclear Science and Engineering, told Newsweek that several factors may have impacted on animal survival during Operation Crossroads.
“The detonation of a nuclear weapon results in the release of high levels of radiation, high levels of heat and shock waves,” he said.
“When radiation hits the body, it can damage cells. If enough cells are damaged, organ function may be impaired or even organ death may occur.
These types of effects can happen very quickly (at a high dose) or take weeks to months (at a moderately high dose). Some of the Operation Crossroads animals survived the initial blast, but the internal tissue damage they sustained was so extensive that they died within days or months.
“At lower doses, the cells of the body are largely able to repair the damage, but there is a risk of incorrect repairs. Such incorrect repairs can set the stage, for example, to cause cancer,” Higley said.
“This type of effect is called stochastic because the probability of getting cancer from an exposure is based on a probability. The higher the total dose, the greater the potential or likelihood of getting cancer, but not the potential for a “worst case” cancer. »
Lasting impacts of US nuclear testing
The impacts of the test weren’t just felt by the animals. In total, the United States conducted 67 nuclear tests on the Marshall Islands in the 1940s and 1950s, leaving behind radioactive contamination that can still be detected today.
“Tragically, the effects of these tests weren’t limited to animals,” Knox said. “Indigenous populations in the Marshall Islands have also been exposed to the effects of radiation and the legacy of environmental contamination left behind. »
In 2019, studies showed high levels of radioactive contaminants in soil and fruit samples collected in the Marshall Islands.
Survivors still suffer the humanitarian consequences of these tests and have experienced significantly higher rates of cancer, stillbirths, miscarriages, birth defects and reproductive harm, among other long-term health and environmental consequences. .
Alicia Sanders-Zakre, policy and research coordinator for the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, told Newsweek: “The growing risk that nuclear weapons could be used again today makes it even more urgent to us to support those who are already living with the effects of the attacks in Japan and the tests carried out in many other countries since 1945, and that we raise awareness around the world of the devastating impact they have.
The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons [assinado em setembro de 2017, em vigor desde janeiro de 2021] presents the only realistic way to eliminate the risk of using nuclear weapons by eliminating the weapons themselves. All countries must accede to this treaty without delay.
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Mystery of pig 311 found alive after atomic bomb test on Bikini Atoll