Archive for October, 2011

Rongelap Legacy

October 10, 2011

Tales from the Nuclear Age

Copyright © 2011 by Charles Glassmire


Oct. 10, 2011

 Rongelap Legacy

            The thermonuclear test Castle Bravo in 1954 had contaminated the Marshall island Rongelap, and other islands to the east of Bikini ground zero. For 3 days the natives lived in the fallout before being rescued by the U.S. Navy. By U.N mandate they were now charges of the U.S. Government, so they were decontaminated, treated and then resettled on Ejit Island for several years. In 1957 the AEC declared their home island safe again, although some small amount of radiation lingered. New homes were built for them as they were relocated back to Rongelap.

          It was later estimated the Rongelapese had received doses of about 175 rads during their 3 day exposure( 1 ), enough to cause serious symptoms such as skin burns,  but no deaths occurred. However, the legacy of radiation overexposure is a long one.

          In the first five years after 1954, radiation effects were rather muddled statistically. Miscarriages and stillbirths doubled among those exposed to Bravo. Then the rate returned to normal. Impaired growth appeared among some children but was not clearly associated with exposure.

          By 1963 effects became more obvious among those exposed to Bravo and their children. Iodine had appeared in the urine of exposed adults on Rongelap as early as two weeks after detonation( 3 )Exposure to radioiodines such as Iodine 131 (131I) caused an increase in thyroid cancers.( 2 ) By 1974, about one third of those exposed to fallout developed neoplasm’s.( 1 )

          Fallout particles descending to the ground can expose people both internally and externally. During fallout descent the gamma rays emitted can cause external exposure to skin and bone marrow. Skin can be easily treated by simply washing in cold water, washing clothes etc. If particles are inhaled, only the very small particles can effectively reach the deep lung to be absorbed.( 3 )

          After fallout deposits on the ground, it continues to irradiate short term, but the highly active isotopes reach a low level by two weeks after detonation. Thus those sheltered during this time may re-emerge safely. The Marshallese were not so sheltered. Even during this two week period, fallout gradually merges into the soil, reducing exposure by this secondary mechanism.

          During deposit onto the soil, the longer lived isotopes such as Cesium 137 (137Cs) are released into the soil due to natural weathering. This is captured by the roots of plants, and then makes its way into edible fruits and plants such as the cocoanut trees. Many radionuclides from nuclear fission are not soluble in the body and make their way through the stomach and colon, exposing these cells along the way.( 3 ) They are then excreted as waste, causing body waste products to remain radioactive, and must be disposed of carefully.

          In 1972 the first radiation-caused death occurs. John Anjain’s son Lekoj, who was one year old at the time of exposure to the Bravo shot, dies of Leukemia while being treated at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland.

          Brookhaven National Laboratory does in-depth studies of the people of Rongelap. A 1976 report states that 29 children were under 10 years of age when exposed in 1954. By 1976, 20 of these children have developed thyroid tumors (69 percent).

           Watching the “secret” medical examinations and (free) medical treatment they continually receive, and observing silent ongoing measurement of remaining radiation on their islands, rumors begins to grow among the Marshallese that the U.S. Government is using them as “Guinea pigs” in an ongoing secret scientific program. In October of 1975, the Bikini Islanders (who are now repatriated to their island declared safe) file suit against the United States Government in Federal Court. They demand that thorough radiation surveys of the Marshall Islands be conducted, and the results made known to them.

          In June of 1977, the U.S. Congress approves $1 million compensation to exposed populations on Rongelap and Utrik islands. $25,000 is given directly to each person with thyroid tumors.  But suspicions persist. By 1978, Cesium levels in the Bikini population are unacceptable, and once more the Bikinians are removed temporarily to another island.

          The year 1979 finds a constitutional convention of the Republic of the Marshall Islands. They are tasked with creating a constitution and laws for the Marshall Islands. The Constitution calls for a one-house legislature and the appointment of the first President of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Mr. Amata Kabua. Marshallese citizens vote and ratify it.

          Bikinians file a class action lawsuit against the U.S. Government, asking compensation of $450 million. An organization is formed: Marshall Islands Atomic Testing Litigation Project. In 1981 their attorneys file individual lawsuits for thousands of Marshall Islanders. They seek $4 billion compensation for personal injuries from nuclear testing. The U.S. creates another trust fund for Bikinians of $20 million, later increased to $90 million.

          The Marshallese vote in a 1983 plebiscite to create a Compact of Free Association. Section 177 contains compensation payments for the northern islands. Rongelap receives $37 million. An additional $ 2 million is allocated each year for medical care for the four atolls. In 1986 the U.S. Congress approves the Compact.

          Radiation fears still grow among the Rongelap people, and by 1985 they protest radiation levels to the U.S. Congress and decide they must once again evacuate their island home…

 (to be continued …)


( 1 ) E.P. Cronkite, Study of Response of Human Beings Accidentally Exposed to Significant Fallout Radiation, Operation CASTLE – Final Report Project 4.1, Naval Medical Research Institute, Report #WT-923 (Oct. 1954).

 ( 2 )Barton C. Hacker, Elements of controversy: the Atomic Energy Commission and radiation safety in nuclear weapons testing. 1947-1974 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994). pp 226-228.

 ( 3 ) 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.