THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Tuesday, 7 Dec 1999
Generations of Fallout From Nuclear Tests
Marshall Islands residents still waiting for U.S. to clean up its mess
BYLINE- Colin Woodard
CREDIT- Chronicle Foreign Service
PICTURES: (1) A young girl played near a pandanus tree on Kili Island.
In the 1940s and 1950s, residents of Marshall Island atolls,
including Bikini and Enewetak, were forced to relocate to other
islands, such as Kili, so the United States could conduct its
nuclear tests., (2) A Bikinian man cutting his lawn on Kili Island,
home to many islanders who live in exile because of fallout from
U.S. nuclear tests in the 1940s and 1950s. Photos by Jack
Niedenthal/Special to The Chronicle
DATELINE- Majuro Atoll, Marshall Islands
Early one morning 45 years ago, an 11-year-old boy named Norio Kebenli was preparing to fish in the lagoon of Rongelap Atoll, a necklace of tiny coconut palm-covered islands in the center of the Pacific Ocean.
The sun was dawning in the east, as it always does. Kebenli prepared a small boat for the day ahead, as he always did. Then a second sun rose from the west. Kebenli's life, like those of all Rongelapese, would never be the same.
"The light appeared in the western sky and became bigger and bigger," Kebenli, now 56, recalls. "`The light was so strong it hurt my eyes. It filled the whole western sky."
A few hours later, thick flakes of radioactive fallout began falling on Rongelap. By the time a U.S. Navy destroyer arrived the next day to evacuate the atoll, people were vomiting blood and losing their hair. A hydrogen bomb test on neighboring Bikini Atoll had gone awry, they were told everyone must leave immediately.
The survivors and their descendants are still waiting to return home.
The Cold War may be over, but in the Marshall Islands its legacy lives on. In the nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union, the United States conducted 67 above-ground nuclear and thermonuclear weapons tests in the Marshall Islands in the 1940s and 1950s. For decades, the atomic test victims have fought to secure full compensation for the loss of their homes, health and loved ones. And most important, for the funds to make their home islands inhabitable again.
Sometime next year, the U.S. Congress is likely to be asked to do just that. A series of separate legal motions now working their way through a special Marshallese court is expected to lead to a final appeal to legislators in Washington for hundreds of millions of dollars the affected islanders say is required to clean up their atolls to Environmental Protection Agency standards.
"The American public should think of this as part of the cost and legacy of the Cold War," says Jonathan Weisgall, the Washington attorney who represents the people of Bikini. "The tests helped the United States win the Cold War with the Russians, but now it needs to clean up after itself so that these people can go back home."
The United States captured the Marshall Islands from Japan in one of the bloodiest Pacific campaigns of World War II, then ruled the region until 1986 as part of a U.N. trusteeship.
In 1946, the people of Bikini and Enewetak atolls were evacuated from their islands to make way for a series of nuclear tests and were told they could return within a few years, once the testing was completed.
But as the Cold War intensified, so did the atomic testing program in the Marshalls. The bombs grew larger and more destructive, culminating in the 1954 hydrogen bomb test that rained fallout on the people of neighboring Rongelap. That device, code-named Bravo, was 750 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Detonated over Bikini atoll, the 15-megaton blast vaporized the test island, eradicated parts of two adjacent islets, and punched a mile-widecrater in the reef. The fireball could be seen for hundreds of miles.
For decades, the Atomic Energy Commission maintained that the contamination of Rongelap was due to a last-minute change in wind direction. But when the relevant documents were finally declassified, they showed that the commission knew the winds had shifted 72 hours before the test. The resulting fallout contaminated nearly 100 people on Rongelap and other downwind atolls, exiled their inhabitants and doomed prospects for an early resettlement of Bikini.
Meanwhile, the exiled islanders were moved from island to island, their numbers swelling into the thousands through births and new evacuations. The Bikinians suffered starvation after they were left on an island incapable of supporting their population. Many Rongelapese were rushed to U.S. hospitals to have cancerous thyroids removed; women gave birth to retarded or deformed babies.
In the 1960s, Washington told the people of Bikini and Rongelap that it was safe for them to return home. But while background radiation had dropped to normal levels, radioactive elements were concentrated in the soil, in plants, fish and fruit, and, ultimately, in the flesh and bones of the people themselves. Doctors ordered a second evacuation of Bikini in 1978, and Greenpeace evacuated the Rongelapese a few years later.
"Now they tell us it will be safe for us to go back again, but the people are scared to believe them a second time," says Bikini Mayor Tomaki Juda, who, like most of his people, lives provisionally on Majuro Atoll.
For several years, the affected island communities have been considering their resettlement options. Experts demonstrated how radiation levels could be lowered to scientifically-acceptable levels -- an annual exposure of 100 millirems per person -- as long as people avoided eating large amounts of local food.
"For me, I'd read these reports over and over again and I was more or less comfortable with the 100 millirem level," says Jack Niedenthal, the Bikinians' American-born trust liaison, who has a Bikinian wife and children. "But it did bother me that it always sounded like an experiment. I mean, how safe can you feel when every month or so you have to tell your 8-year-old daughter that it's time to go get into the whole body (radiation) counter?"
The community remained divided over whether it would be safe to return, even if Congress agreed to provide the additional funds their lawyers said were necessary for such a cleanup. But last year, the Honolulu-based attorney for Enewetak Atoll, Davor Pevec, discovered that in 1997, the EPA had quietly adopted a 15-millirem standard for the resettlement of radiologically contaminated sites in the United States.
The standard has since been adopted by the Marshall Islands. Sources in Washington say that while nobody contests that American standards should be applied to the cleanup of the atolls, the figures involved may make some members of Congress balk.
Pevec's case, now pending before a special Marshallese court, calls for $115 million just to restore the northern half of Enewetak atoll. He's also asking for $310 million to clean up the soil, improve infrastructure and compensate landowners on the Enewetak atoll's southern islets, which were resettled in 1979 after a $105 million U.S. cleanup operation.
Bikini had already received $90 million from the United States for cleanup and resettlement, but the new standards will require as much as $250 million more, according to Weisgall. That case also asks for several hundred million dollars in compensation for hardship and the loss of the use of the atoll. Similar claims from Rongelap and other atolls are expected to follow next year.
A ruling by the Marshallese court is expected by early next year, but the trust fund provided by the United States to settle such claims has already been exhausted by other health and property awards. Either the Marshall Islands government or the attorneys for the various atolls are expected to appeal to Congress to pay the bill, which could exceed $500 million.
"Congress is generally sympathetic, but there may be some serious sticker shock when they see the numbers," one Washington official familiar with the case said.
Officials in the Marshall Islands say the combined cost of settling claims for the property damage and human suffering caused by American atomic testing is small in comparison with other nuclear site cleanups in the continental United States like the contaminated nuclear site in Hanford, Wash.
"Congress has spent $12 billion at Hanford without even putting a shovel in the ground," Weisgall said. "They ought to be over sticker shock by now."
This Bikini Atoll website is sponsored by:
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The historical information within this site, while constantly updated, is drawn largely from the book, FOR THE GOOD OF MANKIND: A History of the People of Bikini and their Islands, Second Edition, published in September of 2001 by Jack Niedenthal. This book tells the story of the people of Bikini from their point of view via interviews, and the author's more than two decades of firsthand experiences with elder Bikinians.
Copies can be purchased from this direct ordering link at Amazon.com, or you can also buy and download the Kindle edition.