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The Radiological Legacy of Nuclear Testing in the Marshall Islands

The radiological legacy of U.S. nuclear weapons testing in the Marshall Islands remains to this day and will persist for many years to come. The most severe impacts were visited upon the people of the Rongelap Atoll in 1954 following a very large thermonuclear explosion which deposited life-threatening quantities of radioactive fallout on their homeland. They received more than three times the estimated external dose than to the most heavily exposed people living near the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986. It took more than two days before the people of Rongelap were evacuated after the explosion. Many suffered from tissue destructive effects of radiation and subsequently from latent radiation-induced diseases.

In 1957, they were returned to their homeland even though officials and scientists working for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) determined that radiation doses would significantly exceed those allowed for citizens of the United States. The desire to study humans living in a radiation-contaminated environment appeared to be a major element of this decision. A scientist in a previously secret transcript of a meeting where they decided to return the Rongelap people to their atoll stated: ”While it is true that these people do not live, I would say, the way Westerners, or civilized people, it is nevertheless also true that they are more like us than the mice.”

By 1985, the people of Rongelap fled their atoll, after determining that the levels of contamination were comparable to the Bikini atoll where people were re-settled in 1969 and evacuated by the early 1970’s after radiation exposures were found to be excessive. They fled for good reason. In 1981, a policy was secretly established by the Energy department during the closing phase of negotiations between the United States and the nascent Republic of the Marshall Islands over the Compact of Free Association to eliminate radiation protection standards, so as to not interfere with the potential resumption of weapons testing. Within a year, this resulted in a sudden and alarming increase in radiation doses to the Rongelap people.

These circumstances were subsequently uncovered in 1991 by the U.S. Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs. As a result, the U.S. Congress terminated DOE’s nuclear test readiness program in the Pacific and in 1992 the U.S. Departments of Energy and Interior entered into an agreement with the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Local Rongelap Government that re-established radiation protection standards as a major element for the re-settlement of Rongelap. This agreement was reviewed by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 1994 and found to be viable. According to the Academy:

“A crucial provision of the MOU is that resettlement will occur only if no person returning to Rongelap and subsisting on a native-foods-only diet will receive a calculated annual whole-body radiation dose equivalent of more than 100 mrem above background.”

In 2006, a radiological expert for the people of the Rongelap Atoll reported that the 100 millirem limit would be exceeded based on a local food only diet, if potassium fertilizer were not repeatedly applied. Apparently, this was not done for the southern islands of the atoll where local food is obtained. Despite this warning, the Departments of Energy and Interior did not take steps to ensure this would be done, in accordance with the 1992 agreement. Give the long and unfortunate legacy of nuclear testing it appears that this critical element of safety was lost in the shuffle.

Moreover, the 100 millirem limit stipulated in the agreement, should have a safety margin, in which the doses fall beneath this limit to encompass uncertainties. Keep in mind that the limit set for the general public in the U.S. by the EPA is 15 millirems. DOE is self-regulating and has a public exposure limit nearly 7 times greater. However, DOE is required under the Superfund program to meet the 15 millirem limit as it proceeds with cleanup of weapons sites. As it now stands, if forced to return to their homeland, the Rongelap people could receive radiation doses about 10 times greater than allowed for the public in the United States.

Until the U. S. Government can assure that steps to mitigate doses to the same levels that are protective of American people are demonstrated, current efforts to force the Rongelap people back to the home by members of Congress and the Obama administration is unjustified and unfairly places the burden of protection on the Rongelap people. It appears that DOE and Interior have quietly crept away from the 1992 agreement without verifying that its terms and conditions to allow for safe habitability will be met.

Over the past 20 years, the U.S. Congress has enacted legislation to compensate to residents living near DOE’s Nevada Test Site uranium miners, nuclear weapons workers, and military personnel for radiation-related illnesses. These laws provide for a greater benefit of the doubt than for the people of the Marshall Islands where 66 nuclear weapons were exploded in the open air.

In 2005, the National Cancer Institute reported to the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources that an estimated 500 cancers would result from radioactive fallout among the 14,000 inhabitants who live in the Marshall Islands. The risk of contracting cancer for those exposed to fallout are greater than one in three. The people of the Marshall Islands had their homeland and health sacrificed for the national security interests of the United States. The Obama Administration and the U.S. Congress should promptly correct this injustice.

ROBERT ALVAREZ, an Institute for Policy Studies senior scholar, served as senior policy adviser to the Energy Department’s secretary from 1993 to 1999. www.ips-dc.org

This article is adapted from Alvarez’s May 20 testimony before the House Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific and the Global Environemnt.

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