Bikini Atoll nuclear test: 60 years later and islands still unliveable

The Marshall Islands are marking 60 years since the devastating US hydrogen bomb test at Bikini Atoll, with exiled islanders saying they are too fearful to ever go back because of nuclear contamination.

Part of the intense cold war nuclear arms race, the 15-megatonne
Bravo test on 1 March 1954 was a thousand times more powerful than the
atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. It exposed thousands in the surrounding area to radioactive fallout.

Bikini islanders and their descendants have
lived in exile since they were moved for the first weapons tests in
1946. When US government scientists declared Bikini safe for resettlement some residents were allowed to return in the early 1970s. But they were removed again in 1978 after ingesting high levels
of radiation from eating foods grown on the former nuclear test
site.

The Marshall Islands Nuclear Claims Tribunal awarded more
than $2bn in personal injury and land damage claims arising form
the nuclear tests but stopped paying after a compensation fund was exhausted.

As those who remembered the day gathered in the
Marshall Islands’ capital of Majuro, along with younger generations, to
commemorate the anniversary, many exiles refused to go back to the zones
that were contaminated despite US safety assurances.

“I won’t move there,” said Evelyn Ralpho-Jeadrik of her home
atoll, Rongelap, which was engulfed in fallout from
Bravo and evacuated two days after the test. “I do not believe it’s safe
and I don’t want to put my children at risk.”

Islanders and descendants from Rongelap Atoll march in Majuro on the 60th anniversary of the nuclear explosion that led to their exile.
Islanders and descendants from Rongelap Atoll march in Majuro on the 60th anniversary of the nuclear explosion that led to their exile. Photograph: Isaac Marty/AFP/Getty

People returned to live on Rongelap in 1957 but fled again in 1985
amid fears, later proved correct, about residual radiation. One of the
more than 60 islands in Rongelap has been cleaned up
as part of a US-funded $45m programme.

US nuclear experiments in the
Marshall Islands ended in 1958 after 67 tests. But a United Nations
report in 2012 said the effects were long-lasting. Special rapporteur
Calin Georgescu, in a report to the UN human
rights council, said “near-irreversible environmental contamination” had
led to the loss of livelihoods and many people continued to experience
“indefinite displacement”.

The report called for the US to provide extra compensation to
settle claims by nuclear-affected Marshall islanders and end a “legacy
of distrust”.

It is not just their homes that have been lost, said Lani Kramer, 42, a councilwoman in Bikini’s
local government, but an entire swathe of the islands’ culture. “As a
result of being displaced we’ve lost our cultural heritage – our
traditional customs and skills, which for thousands of years were
passed down from generation to generation,” she said.

“After
they were exposed like that I can never trust what the US tells us
[about Bikini],” said Kramer, adding that she wants justice for the
generations forced to leave.

In Yaizu, Japan, a man holds a portrait of Aikichi Kuboyama at a march to mark the Bikini Atoll anniversary.
In Yaizu, Japan, a man holds a portrait of Aikichi Kuboyama, chief radio operator of a Japanese fishing boat who died from the effects of the Bikini Atoll nuclear test, at the head of a march to mark the anniversary. Photograph: Jiji Press/AFP/Getty

Also attending the week-long commemorations was 80-year-old
Matashichi Oishi – one of 23
fishermen aboard the Japanese boat Daigo Fukuryu Maru (Lucky Dragon), which was 60 miles from
the bomb when it exploded. “I remember the brilliant flash in the west,
the frightening
sound that followed, and the extraordinary sky which turned red as far
as I could see,” he said.

The plight of the crew is well known in Japan and on Saturday
nearly 2,000 people marched to the grave of Aikichi Kuboyama – the chief
radio operator of the boat – in the port city of Yaizu to mark the
anniversary. Kuboyama died of acute organ malfunction nearly seven
months
after the test, while 15 other crew members later died of cancer and
other causes.

The Marshall Islands’
president, Christopher Loeak, called on the US to resolve the “unfinished
business” of its nuclear testing legacy, saying compensation provided by
Washington “does not provide a fair and just settlement” for the damage
caused.

The US ambassador Thomas Armbruster said “words are insufficient to
express the sadness” of the 60th anniversary of the nuclear test, adding
that the US was continuing to work with the Marshall Islands
to provide healthcare and environmental monitoring of several affected
islands.

The US embassy in Majuro said on its website: “While
international scientists did study the effects of that accident on the
human population unintentionally affected, the United States never
intended for Marshallese to be hurt by the tests.”

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Bikini Atoll nuclear test: 60 years later and islands still unliveable
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