Bikini Atoll islanders fearful of return home

60 years after '54 hydrogen bomb test, basic distrust of U.S. persists

by Giff Johnson

AFP-JIJI

The Marshall Islands on Saturday marked 60 years since the devastating U.S. hydrogen bomb test at Bikini Atoll, with angry exiled residents saying they are too fearful to ever go home.

Part of the intense Cold War nuclear arms race, the 15-megaton test on March 1, 1954, was 1,000 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. Code-named Bravo, it vaporized one island and exposed thousands in the surrounding area to radioactive fallout.

As those who remember that terrifying day, as well as younger generations living in the Marshall Islands, gathered in the capital, Majuro, to commemorate the anniversary, many refuse to go back to the zones that were contaminated, despite U.S. safety assurances.

“I won’t move there,” Evelyn Ralpho-Jeadrik, 33, said of her home atoll, Rongelap, which was engulfed in a snowstorm of fallout from Bravo and evacuated two days after the test. “I do not believe it’s safe and I don’t want to put my children at risk.”

People returned to live on Rongelap in 1957 but fled again in 1985 amid fears — later proved correct — about residual radiation.

One of the more than 60 islands in Rongelap has been decontaminated as part of a $45 million U.S.-funded clean-up program, but Ralpho-Jeadrik has no intention of going back. “I will be forever fearful. The U.S. told my mother it was safe, and they returned to Rongelap only to be contaminated again,” she said.

It is not just their homes that have been lost, says Lani Kramer, 42, a councilwoman in Bikini’s local government, but an entire swath of the islands’ culture.

“As a result of being displaced, we’ve lost our cultural heritage — our traditional customs and skills, which for thousands of years were passed down from generation to generation,” she said.

Bikini islanders have lived in exile since they were moved for the first weapons tests in 1946, when Kramer’s own grandparents were evacuated.

When U.S. government scientists declared Bikini safe for resettlement, some residents were allowed to return in the early 1970s. But they were removed again in 1978 after ingesting high levels of radiation from eating local foods grown on the former nuclear test site.

“After they were exposed like that I can never trust what the U.S. tells us (about Bikini),” said Kramer, who says she wants justice for the generations forced to leave.

“We need to go to the U.S. Congress. But no one, not my local government or the national government, is engaged with the U.S. Congress on this issue right now.”

The U.S. has expressed regret about islanders’ exposure to high doses of radiation during the Bravo test. “While international scientists did study the effects of that accident on the human population that were unintentionally affected, the United States never intended for Marshallese to be hurt by the tests,” the U.S. Embassy in Majuro states on its website.

Acting U.S. Undersecretary of State Rose Gottemoeller participated in remembrance day activities in Majuro.

Also attending the weeklong commemorations, which included a parade on Saturday, was 80-year-old Matashichi Oishi — one of 23 fishermen aboard the Japanese fishing boat Fukuryu Maru No. 5 (Lucky Dragon No. 5), which was 100 km from the bomb at the time of the explosion.

“I remember the brilliant flash in the west, the frightening sound that followed, and the extraordinary sky which turned red as far as I could see,” he said.

All of the crew members became sick, and many died from their illnesses. Their plight is well known in Japan, where it echoes with that of the victims at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

A visiting group of Japanese students from the Fukushima nuclear disaster zone have also been sharing their experiences.

“The government says ‘don’t worry’ (about radiation exposure), but recently we’ve seen many cases of thyroid problems be confirmed in the Fukushima area,” said Kai Sato, a Fukushima University student. “People don’t know what is the correct information to believe.”

U.S. nuclear experiments in the Marshall Islands ended in 1958 after 67 tests.

But a U.N. report in 2012 said the effects were long-lasting.

The report called for the U.S. to provide extra compensation to settle claims by nuclear-affected Marshall islanders and end a “legacy of distrust.”

The Nuclear Claims Tribunal awarded more than $2 billion in personal injury and land damage claims arising from the nuclear tests, but stopped paying after a U.S.-provided $150 million compensation fund was exhausted.