A witness to atomic power

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By Ken Begley

Japan’s recent massive earthquake and apocalyptic tsunami have almost been overshadowed by the nuclear power plant catastrophe that resulted. In fact, it seems that the fear of leaked radiation into the atmosphere has caused near hysteria, though as of yet no one has died from its effects, while untold thousands have died from the two natural disasters that occurred first.
It made me wonder what someone who has seen the might of nuclear power would say and think about the unfolding events from half a world away. Believe it or not I found an individual right here in Washington County who participated in the United States’ testing of its atomic and hydrogen nuclear bombs during the 1950s in the South Pacific. He was there for the testing of seven hydrogen bombs and 27 atomic bombs and is still living to tell the tale at the age of 80.
It is Mr. Bob Mulligan, and it was my pleasure to spend a very interesting afternoon talking with him about these unique experiences. I met Mr. Mulligan through his wife, Marion, who volunteers her time to 4-H here in Washington County. I stumbled on his unique experiences by accident while talking to him about his years in the Air Force.
Let’s step back to 1950 when Mr. Mulligan was 20.
He had already attended some college at Centre and UK. His goal was to be an engineer, but he said he had been an indifferent student at the time. The Korean War broke out and he volunteered for the Air Force as an enlisted man.
Mr. Mulligan tested high on the military’s aptitude tests and was given three choices. He could go into aviation, military intelligence or meteorology. He actually preferred to serve in the other two fields but by circumstances ended up in the last.
He was sent to Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois for about four months. He learned a lot in communications, plotting maps, reading weather reports, and launching weather balloons. Remember that back then there were no weather satellites to rely on. It was a lot more involved when it came to predicting the weather.
Mr. Mulligan completed the school and was assigned to the 2060th Mobile Weather Squadron out of Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma. The squadron was primarily deployed around the country to forecast weather for the airborne divisions when they were conducting maneuvers. Accurate weather forecasting was critical when it came to safely parachuting troops out of planes.
He was with the unit about a year and a half when he did his first of two deployments to the islands of Enewetok Atoll and Pohnpei. The first deployment was around August to December 1952. The second was roughly January to April 1954. His squadron was divided up and placed on three or four islands in the surrounding area around the nuclear test site of Bikini Island.
An atomic bomb and a hydrogen bomb produce the same explosive result using different nuclear means. Yet a hydrogen bomb is much more powerful than an atomic bomb.
So the most obvious question would be how bad is an atomic bomb?
It’s hard to calculate the explosive power of a nuclear bomb. But the lowest estimate I’ve seen says the crude bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War Two had the explosive power of 25,000,000 pounds of TNT. It created a fireball that instantly raised the surface temperatures well above 1,000 degrees F. within a mile of the hypocenter of the explosion.
A hydrogen bomb uses an atomic bomb as the “match” to light it off. I’ve seen one article that says it has the power of 20,000,000,000 pounds of TNT. The bomb can be altered to be larger still.
I asked Mr. Mulligan what he could see from 200 miles away from the test site.
He said the mushroom cloud, which went up to a height of some 30,000 feet, from the explosion could be seen. That mark of 30,000 feet is higher than Mount Everest in the Himalaya Mountains. You would see the flash of the explosion first and then feel the shockwave about seven minutes later.
Mr. Mulligan said it was early dawn one morning when an explosion was released. He was awake and in one of the buildings at their weather outpost. The building suddenly lit up like flood lights had been turned on it.
Again, he was somewhere around 200 miles away.
One time they flew over Bikini Island where the bombs were exploded. It had been beaches and great palm trees. They were gone, totally gone. He said the trees had not just been burned or torn apart. They had been vaporized back into the basic elements from which they came.
One H-bomb named “Mike” vaporized the island of Elugelab. It had the power of roughly 1,000 times the explosive yield of Hiroshima. It created a crater 200 feet deep and more than one mile across.
After the war Mr. Mulligan went back to school and became an engineer in civilian life. I asked him his thoughts on nuclear bombs nearly 60 years in the future from those days in the South Pacific.
He said the explosions left him stunned at their massive power. He showed me aerial photos of Elugelab where half the island was blown away. It was something that inspired awe in what man had done. He wondered out loud if the world could tolerate nuclear warfare without permanently “breaking” the place we all call home.
I asked Mr. Mulligan what he thought about Japan’s current nuclear nightmare. He thought  the dangers from the radiation, while nothing to downplay, were still probably overblown. After all, he had witnessed 34 nuclear explosions meant to destroy, and not accidental nuclear leaks and he is still going strong at 80.
I asked him about his thoughts on nuclear power plants. He said he thought it could be used, but not until we can figure out what to do with all the spent nuclear fuel we have sitting around in power plants. We don’t have a place to safely dispose of it. He also said you can’t go building power plants along earthquake fault lines. It didn’t matter what sort of “containment” facilities you had, nothing man could make would be able to withstand Mother Nature.
His final thoughts and prayers were for the people of Japan. It grieved his soul to see their suffering.
Thank you for talking with me Mr. Mulligan. I won’t forget talking with you that afternoon.
Let’s all pray for the Japanese, and that it doesn’t happen to us.