Source: Tennessee Today | David Goddard | September 16, 2016
Nashville native Adam Stratz got to experience what might be considered an ideal summer vacation just before the start of the fall semester, spending eighteen days in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean.
But for Stratz, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Nuclear Engineering, his mission was anything but vacation.
Stratz was the lone student taking part in the recent radiation survey of former United States atomic and thermonuclear test sites in the islands on a team led by Terry Hamilton, scientific director of the Marshall Islands Program at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
“When you’ve studied something extensively in the classroom, to be able to see these sites, to be able to conduct tests firsthand in locations that are truly part of world history, is amazing,” said Stratz, who is also a Department of Homeland Security nuclear forensics graduate fellow at the UT Radiochemistry Center of Excellence.
The team studied soil, water, plant, and animal conditions at Rongelap Atoll while Stratz was there, while other studies took place at Enewetok and Bikini, site of the largest explosion the United States has ever unleashed. “I made sure I had a window seat on the way in, that’s for sure.”
That March 1, 1954, test, code named Castle Bravo, saw a fifteen-megaton explosion, roughly a thousand times as powerful as either atomic bomb dropped in World War II.
In fact, the explosion was about three times as powerful as expected, and it accidentally destroyed or rendered useless the devices and instruments put in place on Bikini Atoll.
“We worked from dawn to dusk collecting coconuts, digging up soil, testing groundwater, crabs, fruit, things like that,” said Stratz. “We did some throw-net fishing and did some open-sea dives to gather lobsters and clams as well. ”Without data from those instruments, studies like the one Stratz participated in are important.
Stratz said that the clams, in particular, played an important role due to the way they filter food from the water and their propensity to accumulate plutonium.
Despite the residual effects that can be seen in nature, Stratz said that the team was not required to wear monitoring devices due to their limited exposure and that the bigger threat seemed to be in the sea itself.
“As it turns out, one of the world’s largest shark sanctuaries is there,” said Stratz. “They were everywhere. There was even one time when we were reeling in a big fish to test and by the time we’d gotten it on the boat it had been bitten in half.”