Atomic Atolls

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 wer

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.