23 Chinamen

April 15, 2012

Tales from the Nuclear Age

Copyright © 2012 by Charles Glassmire


Apr. 14, 2012

23 Chinamen

           Now that nuclear weapons have been reduced in size to something carried by a single person in a backpack, or easily concealed inside a shipping container (which are 40 foot long metal boxes carried on cargo ships and loaded, presumably, with tons of goods for U.S. markets) the security of United States borders is a critical matter. U.S. citizens labor under the assumption that our borders are “secure”.

          Recognizing the inherent danger, in 2006 the United States Congress passed the Secure  Access for Every Port Act (SAFE Ports) of 2006(1), which requires the Homeland Security Department (HSD) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Department to initiate daily inspection of 100% of all cargo entering the borders of the United States. This capability was to be operational by January of 2012.

          Two months ago, on February 8th of 2012, the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security held some pertinent hearings. Before the congress, California Representative Janice Hahn (D) asked some interesting questions of officials from both departments. I am paraphrasing her questions here:

     Q:… As of today, do we fulfill the terms of 100 % scanning of entering shipments?

     A: No ma’m.

     Q: What percentage do we scan?

     A: About 5 percent daily.

     Q: How many shipments does that represent?

     A: About two thousand shipments entering the U.S. …

           It seems clear that government agencies with the designated duty to inspect shipments for radiation, nuclear weapons, drug contraband and illegal aliens entering the United States are woefully deficient.

          Admittedly the task is formidable. Estimates vary, some put the number of entering shipments as high as 50,000 per day, but the testimony above seems to set the number at 40,000 per day. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, these entering shipments are spread over 329 official ports of entry(3), including seaports, airports and ground based entry points. However, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach account for about 40% of all entering shipments. They are the two busiest seaports in the United States.

          So being from California, Representative Hahn has a serious interest in scanning containers inbound to her state. No wonder. During her questioning she reminded the members of HSD and CBP that this was an urgent matter, and not to forget about the “19 Chinese” incident.

          Years earlier, on Monday April 2nd 2001, at about 11 p.m. a security Guard was patrolling the Long Beach seaport docks – Birth number 254. Tied up alongside was the Chinese vessel Maple River.  She had been loaded (likely in either Hong Kong or Shanghai) by the China-based shipping line COSCO and had departed China on the 14th of March. After a 19 day sea journey and a stop at Vancouver, she finally arrived at the Port of Long Beach.

          Making his usual rounds, the guard probed the darkness with his flashlight, and noticed a dark bundle lying beside a stack of 40 foot long shipping containers. Then he heard a low moan coming from the shadows. As he approached, the “bundle” came alive. It was an injured foreign person, lying in a restricted area where he was not permitted to be. Further, it became evident he was in great pain from an injured ankle, later determined to be broken. He did not speak English and was unable to show passport or other identification. The Guard radioed the presence of a wounded illegal, and paramedics from the Long Beach Fire Department were summoned to render assistance.

          During questioning by a translator, the wounded man confessed he had emerged from a shipping container with a canvas top-cover while it was being offloaded from the ship, and had fallen from the top of the container, breaking his ankle. Soon Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) agents arrived on the scene, and suspicion of additional illegals was immediately aroused. Likely canvas-covered containers were surrounded and one officer broke the wire seal on the door to a suspect container. Carefully he swung open the doors.

          What first emerged from the darkness inside was a powerful stench. The flashlights then revealed frightened faces peering from a huddled group, some shielding their eyes against the light. The container later was found to contain blankets, mattresses, water and food storage and a makeshift toilet. They were ordered out of their surroundings, but some refused to come out. Officers had to go in and forcibly remove several. The count was 9 plus the wounded man. One was determined to have badly injured hands from rope burns and was treated. All were determined to have no valid documents. The next issue was whether they were alone.

          INS agents had sometimes found even larger groups and suspected the presence of additional stowaways. Other canvas-topped containers were opened and searched. Another container was found to contain thirteen additional Chinese illegals. Sources differ as to the situation in the second container. Some report that four of the thirteen were found dead, making a total of 19 surviving the ocean voyage.

          Some told officials they had paid a sum of $50,000 to be smuggled to the U.S.  Fire Captain Mike Garcia said “unfortunately, we have seen this kind of thing in the past. Some of these journeys take several months to complete…Despite deplorable living conditions inside the stowaways were in good health…”.(4)(5) 

          He noted the containers were stacked with the canvas covered ones at the top. This was fortunate for the inhabitants, he said, allowing breathing air to enter their living spaces. The stowaways were transported to the INS Terminal Island processing center.

(… To be Continued)


(1)   www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/PLAW-109pub1347/contentdetails.html

(2)   ErikFloden: http://armscontrolcenter.org/policy/nuclearterrorism/articles /Bordersecurity

(3)   www.cbp.gov/sp/cgov/toolbox/contacts/ports

(4)   Los Angeles Times, “23 Stowaways Found…” Louis Sahagun Times Staff Writer, April 03, 2001.

(5)   Houston Chronicle, “23 stowaways found…”, April 3, 2001.

Radioaactive Borders (part 5)

March 18, 2012


Tales from the Nuclear Age

Copyright © 2012 by Charles Glassmire


Mar. 18, 2012

Radioactive Borders (part 5)

          Six months have passed.  Radioactive Shipping Container number 307703 has been moved to a remote unused area of the Voltri docks at Genoa. It is now surrounded by a triple high stack of cement-filled shipping containers, hopefully absorbing the deadly gamma  radiation field at the surface, and allowing radiation to escape harmlessly into the sky while shielding human workers on the docks.

          The Genoa officialdom are at a loss as to how to proceed (1) . Saudi Arabia has refused to take back the shipment. The United Arab Emirates also denies any responsibility. In addition, all shipping lines are refusing to accept the container, now known to contain a large radioactive amount of Cobalt 60 isotope – source still unknown. Officials ineffectually post signs around the area saying “Danger-Ionizing Radiation”.

          One full year now passes while port officials and Italian Interior Ministry officials argue about who is responsible. The container now sits quietly undisturbed, awaiting its fate. A cost estimate indicates that the disposal operation would probably involve robots and is estimated to cost in excess of 536,000 Euro’s (~$700,000 (1) U.S.).

          A German firm is located (1)   which professes to possess the knowledge and equipment, hot cells, remote handling arms etc. to receive and handle the high intensity gamma source – assuming it is conventional structure and in one solid piece, not dispersed into a dirty bomb architecture. In addition, this company routinely recycles and reclaims commercial high intensity source materials. A plan begins to form with advice from the Germans. A team of robot operators are located with equipment able to function in a high radiation field; lastly the Genoa Port Authority and Officials of the Italian Interior Ministry finally agree to split the costs.

          On 18 July 2011 the operation begins, and it opens in le grande style; five large green tents are pitched in the area and are badly needed. Now assembled near the remote dock are a Genoa Police bomb squad, a robot team complete with assorted devices, the original Port Authority Radiation Team (with Geiger counters at the ready), dock workers to operate a large crane, assorted officials from Police, Genoa Port Authority and the Italian Ministry of the Interior, one small sized ambulance, and – ten fire trucks accompanied by some 40 firemen!

          The possibility of a dirty bomb inside the container is very real and must be dealt with. The container rear doors cannot be opened because they may be wired to explode the device. Operating from a distance, a crane is used to lower a cutting machine onto the container roof. A foot wide hole is cut into the roof to allow access. Now a small robot is lowered onto the roof with cameras attached. The hole is sniffed for traces of explosives with negative results. But this is not definitive. A small fiber optic camera and light wire is inserted and searches the maze of radiators and scrap copper wire packed into the interior. No wires can be detected around the doors, nevertheless authorities are reluctant to open the doors.

          Now the fire department cuts a larger access hole into the roof and the really difficult search begins. If it is a commercial source, the search must find a 9 inch long pencil-thin piece of metal lying among some 20 tons of scrap! An excavator machine is used to pick up a few cubic feet(1) of metal in its claw. The sample is moved away to a safe distance, and a radiation crew checks the debris for gamma rays. Nothing is found. For three long days this sampling method continues, removing claws-full at a time to be tested with negative results. The only positive note is that the source is probably not dispersed in powder form throughout the container, since no radiation clings to the sampled debris.

          Radiation detectors are placed on the container roof to detect as the metal is lifted from the hole. Finally on the morning of the 26th of July, as the claw lifts a load clear of the roof the radiation detectors sing out. They have finally grabbed onto the source! As the claw is raised into the air part of the load slips back into the hole. Again the detectors alarm as the metal falls back inside. The operator tries again and seizes a second clawfull. This time the pile slips onto the ground outside the container.

          Now a tracked robot is sent in to photograph the pile of debris. Night is falling and it takes another 10 hours of carefully examining robot video pictures to locate the pencil buried in the pile. Near midnight, the robot raises aloft a Cobalt pencil held securely in its gripper! Curiously the source is painted with copper paint making it harder to single out from the other metal debris. Has someone intentionally tried to disguise the material to look like scrap?

          Now that the robot has the source isolated in its gripper, it is necessary to put it into a configuration safe to legally transport. In the U.S. the transport of radioactive materials is heavily regulated by state and local municipalities. The transport vehicle must be marked with the yellow and magenta radiation danger signs front and rear. Documentation must be carried indicating the isotope and activity level (using a unit called “Curies”). Lead containers known in the trade as “pigs” are used to shield the material, and must be safety tested to remain intact against fire and crash conditions. The pigs which contain gamma radiation are often 6 to 10 inches in wall thickness, making a container extremely heavy to lift.

          A search is on for a suitable pig. One is located nearby, but when the robot places the pencil source into the hole in the center of the pig, several inches protrude above the top of the opening, prohibiting use of this pig for shipping. A new pig must be machined in a metal shop – this will take two more days!

          Meanwhile the pencil is examined for identifying marks. None are found. There is no indication where it was manufactured and how or why it was inserted into the container. It appears to be a Cobalt 60 source configured for use in medical therapy irradiation. It is an expensive proposition to dispose of these sources by legal means and it is speculated someone may be trying to save costs of disposal.

          Finally on July 29, 2011, the source is sealed into a suitable (new) pig, and levels outside the container once again return to background. The pig is secured to the back of a flatbed truck, and documentation is prepared to ship it to Leipzig where it will be recycled into a new medical irradiator. Life at the Voltri Terminal now returns to some semblance of normality, and the Italian Sun sets upon a Genoa dock preparing to accept its daily quota of thousands of new offloaded shipping containers, contents unknown.

(to be continued …)


(1) “Mystery Box”, Andrew Curry, Wired Magazine, Nov. 2011.


Radioactive Borders (part 4)

February 22, 2012


Tales from the Nuclear Age

Copyright © 2012 by Charles Glassmire


Feb. 22, 2012

Radioactive Borders (part 4)


          On July 20, 2010, radiation inspector Enzo Montagna detected a shipping container on the dock near Genoa Italy emitting a life-threatening level of high radiation. The container manifest showed nothing irregular. Emergency personnel were summoned and it was decided to isolate the box by surrounding it with other shipping containers moved in by crane. Now the box sits quarantined on the Voltri dock surrounded by a barricade of stone and water-filled shipping containers; the radioactive source still remains unidentified.

          Additional surveying around the container determines the hottest spot to be in the center of the long side of the container and about 2 feet above ground(1). This exact center location is suspicious, for if someone were trying to hide a source, they would likely bury it at the middle of the container so as to be difficult to reach. It also suggests the container was NOT meddled with during transit. The remainder of the contents is 18 tons of copper wire, old radiators and other scrap metal. To place a source at the middle, 9 tons of metal would first need to be removed.

          Now there is time to direct attention to identifying the source. Many decaying radioisotopes give off a spectrum of gamma rays. This radiation is similar to visible light, but much more energetic in damaging human cells. If an isotope is present in its pure form, each one gives off gammas with a characteristic energy, wavelength and frequency. If there is a mixture of isotopes present, the problem becomes more complex. If the spectrum of the gamma field can be measured, it might be possible to identify the isotope in question.

          A very expensive scintillation counter is brought in – known as a pulse height analyzer. It should be able to measure the energy of the emitted gammas and hopefully classify the isotope. The gamma field is subsequently scanned and the data printed out. Two clear peaks appear at energy levels of 1.17 Million Electron Volts (Mev) and 1.33 Mev. These peaks identify the offender as Cobalt 60. The data is distinct from natural background radiation, and there seem to be no other isotopes present.

          How did such an active isotope get into this shipping container? Perhaps by accident? Not likely. The handler would probably be dead by now. An RDD? (Radiological Dispersion Device – dirty bomb)? This is a possibility. Cobalt 60 has a 5 year half life. It would linger in a dispersed area for a very long time – rendering the real estate unusable. Some observers object that it is a solid very hard metal, and difficult to “blow up”. A determined user however, could first machine it into a powdered form, then mix it with a common explosive.

          Cobalt 60 is fairly readily available especially around medical facilities. This is its most common use. Cobalt 60 is not found in nature. It must be created in a high flux nuclear reactor by irradiating the natural form, which is Cobalt 59. Normally the radioactive 60Co is then extracted for use in medical devices which emit intense radiation for treatments utilizing cancer therapy and other medical applications. There is also some use in industry for radiography of pipe metal welds, food irradiation etc. Cobalt 60 decays to a stable Nickel, and about 12.5% of the Cobalt isotope disappears each year.

          But if the origin of this material was medical or industrial, why would someone anonymously put it into a shipping container? The obvious answer is for terrorism purposes. But there are better sources to steal if one intends a dirty bomb. Perhaps the answer lies elsewhere.

          By United States law, 60Co sources are tracked carefully after manufacture, each one being assigned a serial number, and transport is required to use shipping containers weighing tons and tested to survive fire and crashes. This is not necessarily the case in foreign countries. For example, when the Soviet Union manufactured their nuclear weapons, each weapon was not issued a serial number. This makes it very difficult to track the devices. When Senator Lugar visited a few years ago, he found warehouses full of unnumbered bombs secured by underpaid guards, or padlocks and chain fences, and sometimes not guarded at all. We hope none have been sold clandestinely.

          Since the Cobalt eventually loses its potency (5.27 year half life) this raises a problem for the owner of the isotope. Eventually it becomes ineffective. So what to do with the source after its life expires?  Disposal turns out to be an expensive proposition. Until recently, The Department of Energy operated the Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada for safe deposit of nuclear waste materials. After an investment of billions, President Obama, at the urging of Harry Reid, closed the facility.

          Currently, the worldwide installed base of Cobalt 60 is estimated to be 260 million curies (a unit of radioactivity), disbursed to 170 gamma facilities(2). In the U.S., high-activity sources are uniquely numbered and tracked “cradle to grave”. In addition, the irradiator pays substantial upfront financial guarantees to cover anticipated disposal costs(2). Sometimes sources may be returned to the manufacturer, who mixes the depleted metal with newly activated to get a mix with appropriate strength. Disposal with shipping and fees of just one high level Cobalt source can cost the owner upwards of $130,000 (3). How much easier to avoid such costs in a less regulated foreign country, by just throwing the source in the garbage?

          On the dock at Voltri, alarm grows. The Stevedores are now refusing to handle or go near the container. The union blames port authorities for the week of unattended irradiation of passers-by. For 5 days in August 2010 the union strikes for 2 hours each day.  TV begins quoting local outrage. Painted signs begin to appear on the dock.   Genoese officials post signs   “Danger – Ionizing Radiation …

 (to be continued …)


(1) “Mystery Box”, Andrew Curry, Wired Magazine, Nov. 2011.

(2) “Cost-Benefit Analysis for Potential Alternative Technologies for Category 1 and 2 Radioactive Sources”, ICF Incorporated, L.L.C., August 31, 2009.

(3) “Radiation Source Use and Replacement”, http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=11976&page=27.

Radioactive Borders (part 3)

February 4, 2012

Tales from the Nuclear Age

Copyright © 2012 by Charles Glassmire


Feb. 4, 2012

Radioactive Borders (part 3)

          It is now the 20th of July 2010 near Genoa on the Italian coast.  Radiation inspector Enzo Montagna stands on the Voltri shipping dock, beside a rusty red cargo container off-loaded on the 13th from a ship. The Geiger Counter he holds is detecting a radiation level sufficient to kill an exposed human within eight hours. Something inside the 20 foot long sealed metal box is giving off a very high intensity gamma field. (1)  His problem now is how to determine what it is without opening the container. The possibilities are ominous. 

          Nuclear weapons are now designed to be small enough to fit inside a heavy back pack.  Such a device would take up only a small space mixed in with other elements of the cargo, listed on the manifest as “scrap metal…” Detonated on the dock, such a device could decimate a 10 mile radius of the city, and destroy all shipping activity for a period of five to ten years into the future. In addition to the large loss of life and physical wreckage, it would be an economic disaster.  But the device might also be an RDD (Radiological Dispersion Device) i.e. a “dirty bomb”. This is a conventional explosive mixed with a radioisotope. When such a device detonates the physical damage is relatively local but it distributes wind-born contamination over a large area, instilling panic and denying use of the area for long periods.

          In order to check his  body dose, Enzo removes a six-inch pencil-thin cylinder from his shirt pocket and holds it to his eye.  Reading through the lens in the end, he sees a small hairline scale which is recording his total whole body gamma dose since he zero’d it before leaving for work early this morning.  The device is called a Dosimeter, and every radiation worker the world around knows its life-saving capability.

          Enzo knows his time is very limited in this high radiation field, so the safest course is to move away quickly. The radiation intensity will decrease as the square of the distance he moves away.

          But the situation is life-threatening. He calls the facility supervisor, and they declare a radiation emergency. An urgent call is placed summoning two radiation inspectors from the Regional Environmental Agency. (1) They arrive within a few hours, meters in hand. Circling the container, they verify his readings and also note that the field intensity is not decreasing. This is a long-lived gamma source.  The question is what kind? A terrorist could booby-trap the doors to trigger a device when the container is opened. If the material is loose inside, opening the container could presumably spread the radioactive material across the entire area, exposing everyone to contamination, stopping all shipping, and causing an uncontrolled emergency.  The container must remain sealed.

          However, on the positive side, because the radiation level is so high this implies there is probably not a nuclear weapon inside. Radiation from an unexploded weapon is comprised of lower level Alpha and Beta particles with only smaller amounts of Gamma. Also, a nuclear bomb presence would imply a terrorist objective and it is likely that such a device would be carefully shielded so as to avoid discovery. But this does not rule out the presence of an RDD.

          Now a search is begun for the origin of the box’s contents.  Officials  find the  container was leased in April 2010 from Textainer (maker of the box) to a large Geneva based conglomerate, the Mediterranean Shipping Company.(1  Subsequently the box was “stuffed” in Saudi Arabia under auspices of a scrap dealer, Sun Metal Casting. The sealed container was then trucked to a dock, loaded aboard ship and finally transshipped onto a second vessel in a southern Italian seaport. The destination is a foundry in a small town north of Genoa.(1). Experts know that sealed containers can be broken into during transit.  The manifest shows no record of any radioactive contents.

          Three years earlier (2007) the United States Congress passed a bill requiring that Department of Homeland Security scan all cargo containers for radiation before they are permitted to enter the U.S.(1) Estimates vary on this number but it is possibly 50,000 containers each day entering our borders. Skeptics scoff politely at DHS’s claim that 99% of all containers entering each day are scanned for radiation.  DHS has now proposed an alternative plan of scanning before the containers arrive. If documentation indicates something suspicious, and if there is a U.S. Customs agent on duty at the foreign port, the container is scanned before setting sail to America.

          Now that the possibility of a Nuclear Bomb is eliminated, local officials are summoned, and in turn, call – who else? The Fire Department! As the level of officialdom increases, the amount of confusion also seems to increase. What should be done? With hand waving and excited discussion options are examined. Close the Port? Evacuate everyone, redirect the surrounding highway traffic, do nothing?  Or perhaps burn all the contents? It is politely pointed out that fire does not destroy radiation. All you get by incineration is very radioactive  smoke drifting uncontrolled up into the sky!

          Finally a crane is brought in to stack other containers around the box to block some of the emissions and keep others away to create an exclusion zone of safety. This gives the radiation experts a little breathing room to further probe this very mysterious source …

(to be continued …)


(1) “Mystery Box”, Andrew Curry, Wired Magazine, Nov. 2011.


Radioactive Borders (part 2)

January 14, 2012

Tales from the Nuclear Age

Copyright © 2012 by Charles Glassmire


Jan. 15, 2012

Radioactive Borders (part 2)

           On the morning of July 13, 2010, radiation inspector Enzo Montagna is summoned to the Voltri Terminal shipping dock near Genoa Italy. The dock manager has detected some suspicious cargo containers recently offloaded from cargo ships, and by Italian law, wants a radiation check of the containers before they may be opened. Enzo follows his normal routine and sets up a radiation counter some 60 feet from the stacked boxes. But he is surprised when the lo-range meter pegs off-scale. Then he quickly activates a high range meter which is able to detect dangerous amounts of gamma radiation, to find that it also alarms to the presence of high quantities of ionizing radiation bathing the dock, the surrounding area, and Enzo himself.

          Enzo knows we live in a radioactive world. Radiation is everywhere in the brick or stone walls of our homes, in our Truck being scannedbasements (Radon gas 222Ra), even in the bananas we eat for breakfast. It is not unusual for a truckload of bananas entering the U.S. from below the border to trigger radiation alarms as they cross the border, due to the radioactive Potassium 40 isotope in the fruit. We eat the bananas and the Potassium becomes part of our bodies, emitting small amounts of radiation to our cells.

          Cosmic radiation bombards the earth continuously from the Sun and outer space. These are extremely energetic particles (usually Protons) moving so energetically that some whiz right through the entire earth, passing through the spaces between atoms in our bodies and soil and doing no damage. Some cosmic rays collide with atoms in the upper Earth’s atmosphere, causing Radiation dose for U.S.showers of secondary particles to bombard the earth surface. The Earth’s atmosphere attenuates this radiation, protecting us living at the surface; but those radiations give someone living at a high mountain altitude many times the dose of someone living at sea level. Indeed, airline passengers traveling from New York to San Francisco at 35,000 feet can receive 60 times the dose to those living at the surface. These Cosmic radiations are probably also helpful to our evolution. During the millions of years of man’s evolutionary journey, they cause changes to individuals DNA, allowing the positive changes to survive, propagate and eventually to evolve into higher level life forms.  

          Do you smoke? The leaves of our Tobacco plants in the fields receive a light dusting of naturally occurring radioactive Lead 210 (210Pb). In the body, lead is deposited onto the surface of bones. It naturally decays to Polonium 210 (210Po), which is also radioactive and deposits in the liver, kidney and spleen(2). Smoking one-half pack a day can increase a smokers radiation dose by 44 percent over the annual dose received from natural background(1).

          Do you have a cat? The bags of kitty litter you have been emptying for years have trace quantities of active material which often set off the border inspection meters.

          Then there are our medical examinations, allowing early detection of cancers, tissue damage and other health threatening conditions. These systems use X-ray generators (similar to gamma rays) for things like chest X-rays, and high level isotopes like Cobalt 60 (60Co) encased in thick radiation absorbing containers, allowing release of small amounts only when an exposure is required for diagnosis. These medical exposures add about fifteen percent to our small annual dose (3).

          Do you watch television, or operate a computer with a CRT screen? These screens emit small amounts of X-rays into the bodies of those watching. Add about one percent to your annual background dose(4).

          So are we safe being exposed to background radiation? The table(1) shows some typical annual radiation doses to U.S. citizens. The unit is “mrem/year”. This unit, the rem, stands for “Roentgen equivalent mammal”. The mrem is a “millirem’. A millirem is one-thousandth of the rem unit. So how dangerous is a rem? U.S. radiation workers are limited by law to an exposure of 5 rem per year whole body exposure. This amount is deemed safe to show no medical effects even for someone exposed to radiation in his daily work. So the table tells us that the background dose to an average citizen is only 361/1000 of 1 rem, where 5 rem is still deemed a safe exposure.

          So Enzo knows that he can absorb a certain amount of this high radiation for a very short time, without showing ill effects. There are eleven cargo containers facing him on the dock. Which one can be the offender? More importantly, what contents could be causing this very high reading? The possibilities are ominous. Could it be a terrorist device – a nuclear weapon, or perhaps an RDD (Radiological Dispersion Device) – a “dirty bomb”? Whatever the contents, it is irradiating the surrounding area with a very dangerous gamma field. It must be dealt with as quickly as possible.

          Bravely, Enzo cranks the high range meter up to its maximum scale, and charges the stack of containers to get a closer reading, trying to locate the suspect container. Watching the meter dial he circles the stack of containers. He pauses beside a dirty rusty red container. Ominously, the meter is reading 50 rem per hour(5). This means, standing beside the container, in only 6 minutes he will receive the maximum allowable dose for a U.S. radiation worker for an entire year (5 rem). After 3 hours he would begin to vomit. If he stood there for 8 hours, the chances are 50/50 that he would die …

 (to be continued …)


(1)   Background radiation”, Washington State Department of Health.

(2)   “Fact Sheet Backgground Radiation…”, U.S. Office of Radiation Protection. www.doh.wa.gov. Oct. 2010.

(3)   Washington State Department of Health.

(4)   “Radiation Dose Chart”, American Nuclear Society, www.new.ans.org.

(5)   “Mystery Box”, Andrew Curry, Wired magazine, Nov. 2011.

Radioactive Borders

December 24, 2011

Tales from the Nuclear Age

Copyright © 2011 by Charles Glassmire


Dec. 24, 2011

Radioactive Borders

          The city of Genoa lies quietly at the northern-most tip of the Italian Mediterranean coastline. The historic center of this ancient city, home to winding narrow streets of fascinating architecture, Genoa Sculpturehosts a profusion of narrow passageways and charming staircases to be explored by the interested tourist. The robust city walls are interspersed with medieval gates, revealing the many hillside churches and a city center of aging hills.

          A few kilometers from this ancient center of Genoa rests one of the largest maritime ports in all of Italy. Since the 15th century, the city has sent sailors across the oceans, even training one navigator named Christopher Columbus. This seafaring tradition has generated a life-supporting business of ocean trade.

           One section of this port, at the western end, is named Voltri Terminal Europa. Built to receive the large shipping containers Voltri Container Terminaloffloaded there by the world’s commercial fleets, the seaport boasts an annual trade volume of over 58 million tonnes. The quay is routinely cluttered with the large cargo containers, each measuring 20 feet long by 8 feet square, stacked up like bricks in some gigantic fortress wall.

          It was on the morning of July 13, 2010, when inspector Enzo Montagna, a certified radiation inspector, set up his Geiger counter on the dock about sixty feet away from a stack of eleven cargo containers.

          He had been summoned there as an independent contractor, to do his usual routine check of those containers designated for inspection. Each day the dock supervisor examines the container manifests and decides which ones should be set aside for increased scrutiny and possible radiation testing. This is a government requirement before these units may be opened and their contents distributed throughout the country.

          The shipping cargo container has revolutionized the world’s commercial sea trade business, and made the distribution of foods such as grain, fast and economical. In the “old days” a group of stevedores would offload a ships cargo placing each item onto wooden palettes stacked alongside the docked vessel. This method could easily take one full week to unload a cargo ship.(1)  Today, in a staggering reversal of conditions, six men can use a crane to offload 24 containers per hour, emptying a ship of 3000 boxes in only a few days.(1)  It’s fast and incredibly less expensive.

          These sealed steel boxes arrive from distant ports all over the globe. During loading a list of the contents is declared, the container Shipping Container on Craneis then locked and sealed with a twisted wire and ceramic button, and the unit is then loaded aboard a vessel bound for ports around the world. Sometimes a unit is “transshipped”, meaning it is sent to an intermediate port, moved from one vessel to another which is bound directly to its destination port, without opening or review of its contents. This paper shuffle can sometimes obscure the originating port and/or the original shipping company. Once that container arrives at its destination port no one really knows what is inside, and only the box manifest contains any clue as to its contents.

          Philip Spayd, a former U.S. government security consultant, says

          “We know what’s represented on their documents, but those documents are easily faked…The only people who really know what’s inside are the ones who were there when the container was packed.”(1) 

          He says containers are used to smuggle every kind of contraband, including narcotics, cash, guns and, surprisingly – people. Not too long ago a foreign national was discovered in a cargo container shipped across the United States border. He had set up a living space inside the unit, complete with sleeping bag, inflatable mattress, food and water and a portable toilet. He had a [false] Canadian passport and had survived the journey nicely, until his unfortunate discovery by alert border officials. He did not show for his court hearing and has since disappeared from sight.

          The possibilities are ominous for the United States. Modern nuclear weapons have been reduced to a size easily carried in a heavy backpack. One could simply be concealed among the legitimate cargo items in one of these shipping containers; once inside the country it could be loaded onto a local trucking company vehicle and simply delivered to a pseudo company run by terrorists in any U.S. city. Estimates vary of the total number of shipping containers crossing the U.S. borders each day, running from 30,000 to 45,000 cargo containers per day entering the United States!(2) The U.S. maritime system consists of over 300 sea and river ports with more than 3,700 cargo and passenger terminals.(3)  

          Another possibility for terrorist attack is much simpler to transport in a shipping container. It’s called an RDD (Radiological Dispersion Device), or “dirty bomb”. This device is much simpler to execute than a full nuclear weapon. It’s just a radioisotope such as Cobalt 60 embedded with an ordinary explosive such as TNT. The (non-nuclear) explosive is detonated and radioactive material is scattered around a local area and disbursed by local winds, contaminating a small local area and causing terror.

           So now we return our story to our radiation inspector, Enzo Montagna, setting up his radiation detector on a windy morning in the Voltri Terminal in Genoa, in order to check out eleven cargo containers marked for special inspection. He is using a low range Geiger Counter, capable of detecting even small amounts of gamma radiation. At this distance (60 feet) only gamma rays could exist, since the particle radiations, alpha and beta particles, would be blocked by the thick metal sides of the shipping container.

          He sets the meter to the lowest most sensitive range and turns on the power. Surprisingly, the needle swings all the way to the right and pegs on maximum. No problem, this is a very small quantity detected, and he simply switches to the next higher scale (10 times higher) but is surprised to see the needle once again pegged at maximum. The device earphones are now emitting and ear piercing screech, where normally a single count is registered by a simple beep. On the highest range, 500 times greater – the needle is still pegged, indicating his body is being bathed by a radiation field far higher than normal background level. He runs to his vehicle parked nearby, and retrieves a high-range meter, capable of detecting dangerous levels of gamma radiation. This meter also sings out an ear splitting wail and on the lowest scale again pegs the needle.

          This seems to indicate a high radiation source of gamma rays bathing the dock and his body with dangerous amounts of ionizing radiation …

(To be continued …)


(1)     Mystery Box”, by Andrew Curry, Wired Magazine, November 2011, pp188.

(2)     “Incentives for private industry, risk-based inspection for cargo containers”, Homeland Security News Wire, 22 Feb. 2010 – 11:13.

(3)     “Port Security”, Wikipedia, 25 Mar. 2011.

Rongelap Future?

November 27, 2011

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.

November 7, 2011

Tales from the Nuclear Age

Copyright © 2011 by Charles Glassmire


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 …)


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

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 et.al., Study of Response of Human Beings Accidentally Exposed to Significant Fallout Radiation, Operation CASTLE – Final Report Project 4.1, Naval Medical Research Institute et.al, 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.


Rongelap Wanderings

September 22, 2011

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 et.al., 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.