Rongelap Future?

Tales from the Nuclear Age

Copyright © 2011 by Charles Glassmire

Nov. 27, 2011


Rongelap Future?

          It has been 57 years since some three hundred Rongelap Islanders were exposed to intense fallout; it was from the 1954 Castle Bravo nuclear test on Bikini Atoll in the remote Pacific. They were relocated after several days to Kwajalein for medical treatment and then to Ejit for several years, awaiting lowered radiation levels on their home island. Finally repatriated, they lived on Rongelap until 1985, but noted with growing concern an increase of stillbirths, thyroid and other cancers. They decided the island was still not safe, despite assurances by several scientific teams continually monitoring radiation in their environment. The legacy of radiation-induced cancers can be a long one, but the residents ignored this fact and felt they were still currently being irradiated to dangerous levels. Since their language does not contain words for concepts like “radiation”, “radionuclides” etc., it was difficult to discuss “safe” levels for habitation.

          So in 1985, despite insistence by the U.S. government that the islands were safe, Greenpeace evacuated the population to Mejatto Island. The island was bare except for a single building for women and children. But with help from surrounding islanders, and food from the government, slowly houses were constructed; coconut and breadfruit planted, fishing resumed and life went on.

          Meanwhile, cleanup and resettlement activity began on Rongelap, absent its population. In 1996 the U.S. Congress established a $46 million dollar trust fund to provide for additional clean up to prepare for resettlement. The Department of Energy (DOE) was charged to develop a monitoring system to measure the effectiveness of cleanup. They employed Lawrence Radiation Labs to develop and conduct this effort. This resulted in several inches of topsoil being removed and replaced by clean crushed coral sand, successfully removing most traces of external fission products. The primary remaining fission product was Cesium 137, (responsible for 98% of the total dose to the returning inhabitants (2)) which is taken up by plants in the food chain. To eliminate this problem, the island has been seeded with Potassium Chloride, which blocks 95 percent of cesium uptake in the plant biosphere, enhances growth of local agriculture and allows some eating of traditional foods such as coconut.

          An independent scientist trusted by the population was brought in to measure radiation levels and check the DOE data. Dr. Bernd Franke, scientific director of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Heidelberg Germany took readings, examined the DOE data and stated:

 “..The Rongelap people can now go back to their island if they want…”

           His findings now agree with the Department of Energy (DOE) that the island is safe(1) . He has also recommended that the second (uninhabited) half of the island should be fertilized with Potassium so that people may forage there for their traditional foods.

          In 1998, the Nuclear Claims Tribunal, which rules on all radiation damage claims against the U.S. Government set a maximum cleanup goal at 15 millirem (mrem) per year annual exposure for any inhabitant of Rongelap living and eating partially of local food. Compare this to a single chest X-ray, which induces a dose of about 10 millirem, or a Dental X-ray giving 1 millirem. So 15 mrem/year is an extremely conservative exposure limit and is far below U.S. population exposure from medical and natural background. It is vastly lower than exposure of persons living in high altitude mountainous terrain, as annual dosage from cosmic ray exposure there is much higher.

          Dr. Franke commented:

“The risk to die of cancer because of a 15 mrem dose per year is comparable to the risk of dying in your car when you drive four miles a week…”(1)

           Franke explained further that as a final safeguard, the people who return will be semi-annually monitored by whole body scanning to provide high assurance that whole body accumulated exposure will remain below the mandated standard of 15 mrem/year. During the reconstruction of housing on Rongelap, an additional program of Urinalysis for Plutonium has monitored 115 workers on the island rebuilding and working in uprooted soil conditions with greater exposure potential than a person simply living there would experience. Dr. Hamilton, leading this bioassay effort in 2010 said:

           “The fact that none of the workers participating in the bioassay monitoring program have elevated levels of Plutonium in their urine suggests that Plutonium exposure is unlikely to be an issue of concern with resettlement of Rongelap Island.”(2)

           Today the reconstruction effort is ongoing. An electrical power plant generates 500 kilowatts. A desalinization plant produces 40,000 gallons fresh water storage. Warehouses and Maintenance facilities, field station and WBC building are completed. Public Safety Building and Port Authority, Library, and Town Hall are almost completed. A fresh water reservoir contains 100,000 gallon storage tanks. A paved runway can accept tourist flights and a constructed dock awaits boatloads of visitors. A reconstructed church, dispensary, school buildings, air terminal and housing now sit comfortably radiation free. Breadfruit trees and coconut give edible fruits. A tourism bureau advertises the local mysterious isolation, delightful weather, thriving underwater living vistas, and operates the Oleanda, a dive boat sailing the pristine waters. A hotel and Community Center stand ready to receive excited tourists.

          Not too long ago a team of Boy Scouts from Rongelap/Mejatto Elementary School went to a scouting Jamboree in Oahu Hawaii, and won eight prizes in competitions of knot tying, swimming, athletics and best troop spirit. One scout was awarded a hero’s medal for saving a baby’s life with the Heimlich maneuver.

          Some Rongelap peoples have actually migrated to the United States. In April 2011 in Sacramento California, Rongelap natives gathered for a reunion entitled Rongelap Memorial Day.

          But the future of resettlement remains clouded. In 2010 two U.S. Senators and two Representatives from the Congress (Senators Allan Stayman, Isaac Edwards, and Reps. Bryan Modeste and Bonnie Bruce of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee) visited Rongelap concerned about the lack of resettlement. Earlier agreements had set the completion of resettlement at October 1, 2011 – a deadline which has now passed. In addition to Rongelap Island, the citizens told the congressmen they want the U.S. to clean and decontaminate all the unoccupied islands in the Rongelap Atoll so they may forage there for local traditional foods. Now the funding from the United States Congress seems to be in question. With the passing of the mandated deadline of 1 October 2011, the home island is occupied only by several hundred reconstruction workers and the issue seems in doubt.

          Today, some 26 years after moving to Mejatto, a new generation has grown up and the population there now numbers about 500. We find them still ambivalent about returning to what is still suspected to be an unsafe homeland. The elders urgently long to return so they may die in the home they were born in, but younger members have no memory of life on Rongelap, and are instead migrating to other islands in the Marshals; some even to the United States. Almost one-half of the aging generation originally exposed to Bravo fallout have died in exile(1). The elders say the culture is fragmenting, and the old customs are fading away …

 (To be continued …)


(1)     Marshall Islands Journal, Friday March 31, 2006.

(2)     “Return to Rongelap”, Research Highlights by Kristen Light, Lawrence Livermore National laboratory, S&TR July/August 2010.


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