Tales from the Nuclear Age

Copyright © 2011 by Charles Glassmire

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Nov. 6, 2011

From Rongelap to Mejatto

          After being contaminated by fallout from the 1954 Castle Bravo nuclear test, the Rongelap native population was relocated to Ejit Island in the Kwajalein atoll. After living there for three years, finally in 1957 their home island was declared safe for habitation, and they returned home to Rongelap.  The American government had built new homes for them and the outlook was towards a new hopeful future in their homeland. But such was not to be.

          The long lived isotopes of Cesium-137 (137Cs), Strontium-90 (90Sr) and Plutonium were still present in the soil, but careful measurement indicated the levels were quite low, and provided no danger from external irradiation. The people were cautioned to avoid some of the traditional foods however, because Cesium behaves like Potassium in the food chain. It is taken up by plants such as the Coconut tree, and could be eaten with dangerous consequences. But it was observed that Cesium in the soil was disappearing faster than its 30-year half life, due to natural drainage into the soil depths. Canned foods were recommended for diet staples, and were delivered by boat which visited the islands on a regular basis.

          As the decades passed, life on Rongelap returned to normal. But troubling problems began to surface. Radiation induced cancers can often take many decades to become evident. Slowly the initial bomb exposures began to express malignancies. Thyroid cancers increased alarmingly, along with birth defects, leukemia, retardation, stunted growth and other cancers. On occasion, severely malformed infants were born, but died within hours.

          In the meanwhile, numerous long range scientific studies were initiated by Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, Brookhaven National Laboratory and others, both to safeguard the health of the Rongelapese and to gain knowledge of the long range effects of radiation exposure. There was no medical experience in this situation, no practical knowledge of what the major problems in a population might be on a decades-long time frame. This was new, if tragic, experience in the health history of mankind.

          Whole body scanning facilities were set up permanently on the island, to evaluate the health of those exposed, to flag problems early and quickly provide medical treatment for those needing such. The local soils were continually sampled and recorded to verify safe conditions. Lawrence Radiation Lab scientists began a programmed study adding potassium fertilizer to the agricultural fields, hopeful that Potassium would replace the Cesium uptake in the living plant life. This program proved fantastically successful, reducing the Cesium uptake by 95 percent in the agricultural products. They additionally noted this added fertilizer increased the growth rates of the crops and produced no adverse effects on the environment.

          There was one troubling effect observed which was puzzling to the studies. Some of the population who had NOT been exposed to the initial bomb effects in 1954 had returned to the island along with the others. These provided classic “controls” for the studies against those actually exposed to the initial bomb fallout. It was surprisingly observed that these populations also began to evidence cancer growth rates higher than statistically expected. This seemed to contradict the notion that the islands were now a safe living habitat. It was noted that some islanders ignored the warnings against eating the coconuts and certain crabs which concentrated Cesium in their shells; some continued to eat the natural food sources. It was theorized this was the mechanism producing the increasing cancers in the control group.

          But as the Rongelap people observed the monitoring activities, and saw the increasing cancer appearance, a suspicion began to grow that their island was not really safe, and that radiation levels were dangerously high, despite what the scientists were telling them. With growing anxiety, they watched silent scientists walk the island with clicking Geiger Counters, and observed the increasing incidence of cancers of their family members and relatives. They noted the disturbing rate of birth defects appearing among their children.

          By 1985, the situation had come to a head. Many became convinced they were living on a highly radioactive island home. By now the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) had established a constitutional government over the entire chain of Marshall Islands. In addition, Rongelap citizens had also elected a local government for their island which functioned and was represented by a Senator, Jeton Anjain.

           Finally Senator Anjain called a community meeting of the islanders and the situation was discussed. Lemeyo Abon, present at the meeting said later,

…it was during this meeting that we made the final decision to leave Rongelap… We thought if we moved from our land the U.S. would finally consider our plight… so many people were getting sick. All we wanted was for the U.S. to clean our island…” (1)

          Appeals for help were made to the Republic of the Marshall Islands national government. According to the current Mayor James Matayoshi,

…national government turned us away. They said there was no money to help us move. They were basing their decision on the U.S. Department of Energy reports that claimed there was nothing for us to worry about …”(1)

          When approached by the Senator, the United States government refused to sanction or assist the exodus, asserting that the island was a safe living area which possessed, in some parts, lower background radiation than some locations in the United States.

          Rongelap Senators approached Greenpeace and Steve Sawyer of that organization agreed to assist an evacuation using their Rainbow Warrior vessel.(1)  Another island, Mejatto, in the Kwajalein atoll was chosen approximately one days sailing away from Rongelap. So in May of 1985, the Rainbow Warrior sailed into the bay at Rongelap, to begin the second departure of the Rongelap people out from their homeland. The vessel was greeted by parades of marching women and welcoming banners saying “we love the future of our children”.

          320 persons were evacuated over a four day period that month. Mejatto Island had been chosen because it was uninhabited. For a good reason. There was virtually nothing there.  The island was about one square mile in size, the soil rather salty and the waters shallow for fishing or landing boats. Before their arrival a single building had been erected for shelter of the women and children. It was a foreboding place to begin anew 

 (To be continued …)

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(1) “Farewell Rongelap”, by Suzanne Murphy, the Marshall Islands Journal, Mar. 11, 2005.

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