Rongelap Wanderings

Tales from the Nuclear Age

Copyright© 2011 by Charles Glassmire

 Sept. 21, 2011

 Rongelap Wanderings

           The wanderings of the Marshall Islands peoples begin in May of 1946. The United States is preparing for Operation Crossroads, a series of atomic bomb tests on Bikini Atoll, which might contaminate their home islands of Bikini and/or Rongelap, which are part of the Marshalls chain. Prior to the test the U.S. explains to the assembled tribe what is to happen with this new weapon which is for “the good of all mankind and to end all wars”. The natives reluctantly agree to leave their homes temporarily. Following the test, Rongelap survives Crossroads, and they are repatriated. The Bikinians are banished to Rongerik island.

          Years pass for the Rongerik natives, and back at home in their island paradise yet more tests loom on the horizon. The 1954 test labeled Bravo Shot detonates a new type of device named “Thermonuclear”. The wind changes direction the day before Bravo, and the test inadvertently contaminates the 82 Rongerik natives (estimates vary up to 95) living on the island.

          Unable to be rescued for some 51 hours after the detonation, these people live, eat, work and sleep in a snow-like fallout of strange (radioactive) white flakes which coats everything. By the second day they are showing symptoms of Acute Radiation Gastrointestinal Syndrome: nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, weeping skin “burns”, swelling of neck, arms and legs, and somewhat later, hair loss. At this time they are evacuated by the U.S. Navy and taken to Kwajalein Island for medical treatment.

          Miraculously, after several weeks, the skin wounds heal (ironically radiation has a somewhat cauterizing effect on local skin areas) and no deaths occur. Slowly the population seems to recover, but the long term effects are unknown. Preliminary estimates seem to indicate they have received much higher doses (especially to some internal organs) than even the Japanese survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – an estimated 100-175 rads on adult age average. (Note: 450 rads short-term whole body exposure is sufficient to kill 50% of the exposed adult population).

          In 1954 there is no medical experience at these high dose levels. But as their homes are too highly contaminated to return, they have become people without a country. As wards of the U.S. government they are relocated to Ejit Island, Majuro to await their fate.

          Within a few days in early March, upon realizing that the human doses were unusually high on rongelap, in addition to their medical care, the AEC and Joint Task Force initiates a study of the medical effects on the population, in order to increase knowledge of biological effects and treatments at these higher dosages. The effort is called “Project 4.1” and is classified SECRET RESTRICTED, as are most weapons effects studies. The main project terminates after 2.5 months, but then the AEC decides that semi-annual and yearly follow-up exposure studies would be uniquely valuable.     Organizations in the project are Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Naval Medical Research Institute, Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory, Naval Air Station Kwajalein, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Univ. of Washington Applied Fisheries Laboratory and Hanford Atomic Power Operations. Ongoing results are subsequently published as a Project 4.1 final report* and in journals such as JAMA.

          But the long term effects are still awaiting the people of Rongelap, now residing on Ejit. Life is difficult there. There is limited food and water. One main staple crab species consumes its own shell after moulting, and thus increases the residual radioactivity when eaten. Some fish in the bay sicken the villagers with high fever and nausea and chills, but they are eaten anyway. Cesium 137 (137C) deposits in the ground and, behaving like Phosphorous chemically, is taken up by the cocoanut trees and concentrates radiation in the cocoanuts.

          Finally three years later, in 1957 the U.S. government declares Rongelap safe for repatriation. The report declares the area “clean and safe…” but contains a disclaimer “… in spite of slight lingering radiation”. The native population is delighted to be allowed to return to their homes, but they are warned to eat only canned foods (supplied by the U.S. government) and to avoid northern portions of the atoll. Meanwhile the United States continues to run nuclear tests in the Marshalls. By 1963 thyroid tumors begin to appear among those exposed to Bravo…

(to be continued …)


*Cronkite, Study of Response of Human Beings Accidentally Exposed to Significant Fallout Radiation, Operation CASTLE-Final Report Project 4.1, Report #WT-923 (October 1954). Also see WT-936, 937, 938, 939.

**Estimation of the Baseline Number of Cancers Among Marshallese and the Number of Cancers Attributable to Exposure to Fallout from Nuclear Weapons Testing Conducted in the Marshall Islands”, Nat’l. Cancer Ins., Dept. H&HS, Sept. 2004.


6 Responses to “Rongelap Wanderings”

  1. B. Brown Says:

    This is a wonderful explanation. On a different note, could you comment on the long term effects of radon as a side product of mining in Pennsylvania.

    • Charles Glassmire Says:

      Dear B. Brown;

      Thank you for the nice comment on the blog. Radon is a long term byproduct of decaying isotopes in the earth and needs to be watched. I hope you already know you can buy kits to test whether you have this gas in your basement. A good idea.

      Not sure what aspect you are interested in re mining in Pennsylvania. I’m sure miners are sometimes exposed at work. They should be able to test for this.

      Charles Glassmire

  2. B. Brown Says:

    I am thinking of buying a home, but don’t know which location would be safest from radon. I know long term exposure can cause lung cancer. I have noticed a very high incidence of follicular thyroid cancer in the Pittsburgh area.

    • Charles Glassmire Says:

      Dear B. Brown;

      The choice of a home is a serious one, and can be made on the basis of avoiding Radon gas, but this isotope is a natural product of decay of the elements originally in the earth’s crust from the time the earth was formed. So it’s not easy to avoid, but one can go to areas statistically low in lung cancers. However, remember it is difficult to separate statistically from the much higher death rate caused by smoking. (yes I know – statisticians can probably claim to do this).

      I would also choose my home on the basis of enjoyable life factors which make living our lives a happy experience.

      Even in an area with higher Radon incidence, one can be aggressive in providing a basement which is a safe livable environment. I would pick my home on factors which make my life enjoyable, and then be aggressive in testing for Radon periodically. Radon test kits are available for $19.95 from websites on the internet. Just Google “Radon test kit” and you will get a large choice of vendors.

      Be well and happy.

      Charles Glassmire

  3. B. Brown Says:

    Thank you for such an eloquent answer.

  4. Bern Says:

    What about now – the level of radiation on Kwaj and other Marshall Islands? There is bunch of American expats working – is it safe for them?

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