Sixty years since Bikini’s sacrifice

The Marshall Islands have marked the 60th anniversary of the U.S. hydrogen bomb test in the Bikini Atoll on March 1, 1954. That test bomb was 1,000 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. It completely destroyed one island and exposed thousands in the area, including Japanese workers on the fishing boat Fukuryu Maru No. 5, to deadly radiation. Hundreds of other fishing boats are believed to have been exposed to fallout from that bomb test.

The day deserves greater recognition as a day of nuclear disaster, as do many other days. Between 1946 and 1958, the United States conducted 67 nuclear tests at Bikini and in the Marshall Islands.

Those atmospheric tests, most of which were larger than the Hiroshima atomic bombing, produced mushroom clouds and huge amounts of nuclear fallout. The Marshall Islands were contaminated so badly that many areas became unlivable.

The tests destroyed the culture of the islands, irradiated thousands of people, ruined a large swath of the Pacific and accomplished very little other than add to the Cold War arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States.

In the years after the test, the U.S. told the evacuated inhabitants of nearby islands that it was safe to return. However, a high level of residual radiation exposed returning residents to contaminated water, air and locally grown food.

That type of false assurance from supposed authorities on safety might sound familiar to anyone living near nuclear power plants. Regardless of whether nuclear tests were used as a form of “atomic diplomacy” — as the Marshall Islands tests were — or to research efficient production of energy, the safety of nuclear tests and nuclear power plants has always been overstated.

The U.S. compensated the Marshall Islands monetarily, but that hardly restored the cultural heritage and the uprooted lives. The U.S. also paid for decontamination, but few islanders believe their islands to be truly safe.

Similarly, in Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate prefectures, monetary compensation will hardly begin to rectify the damage caused by Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s mishandling of the March 2011 Fukushima No. 1 plant meltdown. As in the Marshall Islands, contamination of the area will take generations to mitigate.

Marshall islanders, like residents of Fukushima, continue to live in an extended exile, or “indefinite displacement,” as a report to the United Nations Human Rights Council called it.

The Bikini Island testing disaster should stand as a stark reminder of the irreparable damage that the release of nuclear radiation — intentionally or mistakenly — can cause to people and the environment at any time.