Atomic Atolls

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CommonDreams.org

Atomic Atolls

by
Glenn Alcalay
This month marks the 56th year since the infamous "Bravo" hydrogen bomb shook the coral atolls in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific, and left its radioactive legacy for the decades ahead. 

John Anjain, then-mayor of Rongelap Atoll in the Marshall Islands, told me in 1981 how a man working with the Atomic Energy Commission in February 1954 stuck out the tip of his index finger - about a half-inch - and said, "John, your life is about that long."  When asked what he meant, the AEC man explained that they were about to explode a big bomb at Bikini.  John inquired why they were not evacuating the people of Rongelap [130 miles away] beforehand as they had done for a series of A-bomb tests at Bikini in 1946, and was told that "they had not gotten word from Washington to evacuate the people." 

The frangipani scented dawn of March 1, 1954 over Bikini was obliterated by the thunderous force of the "Bravo" H-bomb, cracking the balmy sky and raining gritty radioactive ash - what the Marshallese call "poison" - over a gigantic swath of the central Pacific Ocean.  Mayor Anjain, who "saw the sun rise twice" that morning, could not know the nuclear nightmare awaiting him and his people. 

The "super" Bravo behemoth at 15-megatons was more than 1,200 times the size of the Hiroshima atomic bomb, and was the U.S.' answer at the height of the Cold War to the Soviet's 1953 Sakharov [perceived] thermonuclear weapon believed to be deliverable to America's shores by Soviet aircraft.  Bravo was nicknamed the "shrimp" by its designer Edward Teller because it could be delivered (three years before Sputnik) by bomber to the Soviet heartland.  

The radioactive plume from Bravo spread across an immense area in the central Pacific Ocean, covering numerous inhabited Marshalls atolls:  Thousands of Marshallese on a score of atolls were exposed, but only two were of interest to the U.S.

The downwind people of Rongelap and Utrik [300 miles east of Bikini] were evacuated as they suffered from the acute effects of radiation exposure:  Australian author Nevil Shute drew the inspiration for his popular nuclear apocalypse On the Beach from the Rongelapese.  Likewise, Japanese filmmaker Ishiro Honda based his mutant reptile Godzilla on the Bravo incident.

As the international fallout controversy reached a crescendo after Bravo, a hastily called press conference was held in Washington in late March 1954 with Pres. Eisenhower and AEC chair Lewis ["nuclear energy too cheap to meter"] Strauss, his Administration's top lieutenant in nuclear matters.  Having just returned from the islands, Strauss soothingly explained that "the 236 Marshallese natives appeared to me to be well and happy."  Strauss added the caveat that "the medical staff on Kwajalein have advised us that they anticipate no illness, barring of course, diseases which may be hereafter contracted."  

When I interviewed Nine Letobo from Utrik in 1981, she recalled that after Bravo "many women had ‘jibun' (‘miscarriages'), including myself who gave birth to something that was not like a human being (‘ejab armij').  Some women gave birth to things resembling grapes and other fruits, and some women even stopped having children, including me.  Things are not the same now, and people are not as active and healthy as before ‘the bomb.'" 

Today thirty-six radiogenic disorders are believed to stem from the nuclear testing between 1946-58, when sixty-seven A- and H-bombs were detonated at Bikini and Enewetak.  A recently released Pentagon report known as "Project 4.1" has added fuel to the controversy surrounding Bravo.  Project 4.1 called for the "study of responses of human beings exposed to significant beta and gamma radiation due to fallout from high yield weapons," and was circulated on November 10, 1953, nearly four months before the Bravo event.

The late Dr. Robert Conard, head of the Brookhaven/AEC medical surveillance team for the islanders, wrote in his 1957 annual report on the exposed Marshallese: "The habitation of these people on Rongelap Island affords the opportunity for a most valuable ecological radiation study on human beings . . . The various radionuclides present on the island can be traced from the soil through the food chain and into the human being."

In reference to the exposed Marshallese after Bravo, AEC official Merrill Eisenbud bluntly stated during a NYC AEC meeting in 1956, "Now, data of this type has never been available.  While it is true that these people do not live the way westerners do, civilized people, it is nonetheless also true that they are more like us than the mice."

Thirty years later in 1985, the Rongelap islanders abandoned their homeland [first inhabited 2,000 years ago] due to fears of lingering radiation, having taken up three decades of cesium-137, strontium-90, and a pestilent potpourri of long-lived radioisotopes through the foodchain and background radiation. 

To date around 2,000 Marshallese have been awarded compensation for health injury from the tests.  The Congressionally-formed Nuclear Claims Tribunal has paid out $100 million since 1988, and considers thirty-six radiogenic disorders for claimants.  The NCT has a serious backlog, is out of money, and awaits action from the U.S. Administration and Congress for re-authorization.

This year the dislocated Rongelap people will return - with much anxiety about lingering radiation - to their rehabilitated atoll home:  Perhaps the Rongelap return can signal a new beginning for the Marshall Islanders, the nuclear nomads and a reminder of last century's Cold War in human costs.

And maybe the new Administration and Congress can see fit to fulfill their historic responsibility - both moral and fiduciary - toward the 80,000 people of the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

Glenn Alcalay, a former Peace Corps volunteer on Utrik in the Marshall Islands, is an adjunct professor of anthropology at Montclair State University in New Jersey

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