Nuclear Savages

Are you wondering about the disconcerting contradictions in the nuclear news in recent weeks?

Following the release of a May 2012 report, newspapers around the world posted headlines announcing that the World Health Organization concludes that Fukushima radiation emissions pose minimal health risk. Based on an assessment of reported emissions of radioiodine and cesium up through September 2011, Japan’s nuclear meltdown poses no serious cancer risk, except for localized exposures around Fukushima prefecture, which may result in increased risk of thyroid cancer.

In the same week, Japanese press reported the alarming news that TEPCO’s assessments of total radioiodine releases were some 1.6 times greater than the Japanese Government’s assessment while, on the same day, the Japanese government issued a reassuring statement that “while gross releases of iodine-131 and cesium-137 are actually far greater than originally estimated, the public can rest assured, as  releases to the sea have not resulted in contamination beyond the plant’s immediate area because the mixing power of ocean currents has dispersed the substances beyond the limits of detection in seawater samples”

Meanwhile, the US press reported findings from a study published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences demonstrating that by August 2011, cesium-134 and cesium-137 from Fukushima was present in the tissue of Pacific blue fin tuna, as evidenced samples taken off the coast of San Diego, in Southern California. In the media storm that followed this report, government experts with the US Food and Drug Administration proclaimed no need for public panic, as radiation levels were detectable but simply too low to be hazardous and independent scientists explained why the presence, even at small levels, was so alarming and noted the need for additional monitoring.

As has been the norm in this most recent nuclear disaster, contradictory information abounds, with alarming news countered or contradicted by reassurances that muddy the water, yet achieve the goal of containing and controlling an impotent public.

We have been here before, in a world blanketed with nuclear fallout, where massive amounts of iodine, cesium, strontium and other radioactive isotopes moved through the marine and terrestrial food chain and the human body, in well-documented ways, with degenerative and at times deadly outcomes.  Yet, for many reasons, while the environmental and biomedical trajectory of such exposures are well documented, the human experience and associated public health risks are largely suppressed, classified, or simply and persistently denied.

Sometimes clarity is best achieved by stepping back, taking pause, and considering the historical antecedents and experiences that have brought us to these chaotic times.  A new documentary film by Adam Horowitz offers an opportunity to do just that. 

Premiering June 2, at 6:30 pm at the Lincoln Center in New York City, Nuclear Savage: The Islands of Secret Project 4.1  is a poignant, provocative, and deeply troubling look at lingering and lasting effects of nuclear disaster and the human consequences of US government efforts to define, contain, and control public awareness and concern. Nuclear Savage recounts the experiences of the Marshallese nation in the years following World War II, as they played host to the US’s Pacific Proving Grounds and served as human subjects in the classified, abusive pseudoscience that characterized the US government medical response to civilian exposures from the 1954 Bravo Test, the largest and dirtiest hydrogen bomb detonated by the United States. Detonated in the populated nation of the Marshall Islands.

Here is the story: Following World War II, the Marshall Islands became part of the Trusteeship of the Pacific, and in 1946 after the detonation of two atomic bombs in the Bikini lagoon, the United States was given the authority to administer the islands as a Strategic Trusteeship. The terms of this agreement included the US obligation to “Protect the inhabitants against the loss of their lands and resources” and “Protect the health of the inhabitants of the Trust Territory.”

Between 1946 and 1958 the United States tested 66 nuclear weapons on or near Bikini and Enewetok atolls, atomizing entire islands and, according to records declassified in 1994, blanketing the entire Marshallese nation with measurable levels of radioactive fallout from 20 of these tests. To consider the gravity of this history: the total explosive yield of nuclear militarism in the Marshall Islands was 93 times that of all US atmospheric tests in Nevada, and more than 7,000 Hiroshima bombs. Hydrogen bomb tests were especially destructive, generating intense fallout containing an array of isotopes, including radioactive iodine, which concentrates in the thyroid and can cause both cancer and other medical conditions.

All told, by US estimates, some 6.3 BILLION curies of radioactive Iodine‐131 were released to the atmosphere as a result of the nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands: 42 times greater than the 150 million curies released as a result of the testing in Nevada, 150 times greater than the 40 million curies released as a result of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. And, while comparison to the ongoing Fukushima meltdown is difficult as emissions continue, estimates to date have ranged from 2.4 to 24 million curies. Simply put, radioactive contamination in the Marshall Islands was, and is, immense.

Radioactive fallout from the 1954 Bravo Test not only blanketed a populated nation, but also severely harmed the 23 Japanese crew members of Daigo Fukuryu Maru (No. 5 Lucky Dragon) who were in Marshallese waters harvesting a school of tuna when fallout blanketed their vessel. The US provided antibiotics to treating doctors at the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission in Japan. One of the crew members,  Kuboyama Aikichi, died a few weeks later. In the Marshall Islands, residents of Rongelap and Rongerik Atolls who were evacuated in earlier weapons test but not informed nor moved before this largest of all detonations, experienced near fatal exposures.

News of the disastrous exposure of Japanese fishermen and Marshallese island residents fueled international outrage, prompting demands in the United Nations for a nuclear weapons test ban, a series of pacifying news releases from the US about the rapid return to health of exposed civilians.

What was not reported to an interested world public, is the news that the heavily exposed people of Rongelap, once evacuated, were immediately enrolled as human subjects in a top-secret study, Project 4.1, which documented the array of health outcomes from their acute exposures, but did not treat the pain or discomfort of radiation burns, nor utilize antibiotics to offset any potential infection.

Nor did the US make public the full array of findings from their extensive documentation of the character and extent of radioactive fallout during the 1954 and other nuclear weapons tests, which demonstrated the deposition, movement, and accumulation of radioisotopes in the marine and terrestrial environment of Rongelap and other northern atolls.

In 1957, the people of Rongelap were returned to their homelands with great fanfare, moving into newly built homes on islands still dangerously contaminated from prior nuclear weapons tests and clearly vulnerable to the fallout from the 33 bombs detonated in 1958. This repatriation of the Rongelap community was both planned and celebrated by scientists and officials at the US Department of Defense and the Atomic Energy Commission, who saw a significant opportunity to place a human population in a controlled setting to document how radiation moves through the food chain and human body. Annually, and then as the years progressed and degenerative health symptoms increased, biannually, the US medical teams visited by ship to examine, with x-ray, photos, blood, urine and tissue samples, the relative health of the community.

It is this story of human subject experimentation with unwitting subjects that forms the core of the Nuclear Savage film, illustrating both the abusive disregard and human consequences of experiments that violate US law, the Nuremburg Code, and Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which states that “no one shall be subject without his free consent to medical or scientific experimentation.”

Research conducted for the Marshall Islands Nuclear Claims Tribunal and recently submitted to a UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights adds more detail to narrative played out in Horowitz’s Nuclear Savage film.

The long term study of the human health effects of exposure to fallout and remaining nuclear waste in the Marshallese environment extended over four decades with a total of 72 research excursions to the Marshall Islands involving Marshallese citizens from Rongelap, Utrik, Likiep, Enewetak and Majuro Atolls. Some 539 men, women, and children were subject to studies documenting and monitoring the varied late effects of radiation. In addition to the purposeful exposure of humans to the toxic and radioactive waste from nuclear weapons, some Marshallese received radioisotope injections, underwent experimental surgery, and were subject to other procedures in experiments addressing scientific questions which, at times, had little or no relevance to medical treatment needs and in some instances involved procedures that were detrimental to their health. The United States Department of Energy acknowledged in 1994 administration of Cr-51 and tritiated water, and in at least three instances, Cr-51 was injected in three young women of child-bearing age. A 2004 review of declassified research proposals, exam reports, and published articles in support of a Marshall Islands Nuclear Claims Tribunal proceeding found that a broader array of radioisotopes were used — radioactive iodine, iron, zinc, carbon-14 — for a wide array of experiments including research demonstrating the linkages between radiation exposure, metabolic disorders, and the onset of type-2 diabetes.

Arguably, while these experiences were abusive, a broader public health interest was being served, as the results of such science could potentially influence government policy and actions to protect humanity from the adverse health outcomes of nuclear fallout. And indeed, significant scientific knowledge was accumulated. However, the bulk of these findings demonstrated varied degenerative health effects resulting from chronic exposure to low-level radiation in the environment, findings which threatened political (nuclear proliferation) and economic (nuclear energy) agendas. Such findings were buried in the classified files.

For example, the presence and bioaccumulation of radioiron (Fe-55) in fallout from the 1958 detonations of nuclear bombs was documented in terrestrial and marine environments, including lagoon sediments, coral reefs, and reef fish, with alarming levels in goat fish liver, but this knowledge was not shared with the larger scientific world until 1972, nor shared with Marshallese until the declassification process supporting an Advisory Commission on Human Radiation investigation forced bilateral disclosure to the Marshall Islands Government in the 1990s. The movement of cesium through the soils, and bioaccumulation in coconut crabs, trees, and fruit – a primary sources of food and liquid in the Marshallese diet — was also documented, with restrictions on the consumption of coconut crab periodically issued, without explanation. The movement through the food chain, bioaccumulation, and biological behavior of radioiodine in the human body was documented, and when thyroid nodules, cancers, and disease resulted, these conditions were studied and treated through various experimental means, though the relationship between though the relationship between nuclear weapons testing, fallout, contamination of the environment, and human subsistence in that environment was not explained until decades had passed.

In short, a wide array of other degenerative health outcomes were documented, including changes in red blood cell production and subsequent anemia, metabolic and related disorders; immune system vulnerabilities; muscoskeletal degeneration; cataracts; cancers and leukemia; miscarriages, congenital defects, and infertility…

However, when Marshallese residents suggested to US scientists that these and other unusual health problems were linked to the environmental contamination from nuclear fallout, their concerns were repeatedly and, because of the classified nature of the science, easily dismissed then. And, because time and the US power over the radiation health effects narrative is so immense and entrenched, they continue to be dismissed now.

The experiences of the Marshallese are particularly relevant to a world still coming to terms with the ulcerating disaster that is Fukushima, a point that is not lost to the members of United Nations Human Rights Council, which has been engaged in an effort over the past number of years to explore the varied means by which humans are unable to enjoy their right to a healthy environment, including the human rights abuses associated with movement and dumping of toxic and dangerous products and wastes.

Mr. Calin Georgescu (Romania), the UN Special Rapporteur for toxics and human rights, has a mandate that includes, among other directives, a country-specific mission to investigate these concerns in the Marshall Islands, especially the human rights consequences of environmental contamination pertains from nuclear weapons testing and other US military activities.  In March 2012, Mr. Georgescu visited the RMI, interviewing displaced members of the Bikini, Enewetak, and Rongelap Atolls and other Marshallese citizens whose health and other rights have been severely impacted by living in a contaminated environment.

In April he traveled to Washington DC where he interviewed US government officials, met with independent experts such as myself, and discussed his investigation with the Marshall Islands Ambassador and the RMI UN representative. The Special Rapporteur is now preparing a report that will be presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva during their September 2012 meeting.

Why should a world community care about Cold War nuclear militarism in the Marshall Islands and its varied ulcerating consequences, especially given the manuy urgent and all to current crises we now face?

The US knowingly and willfully exposed a vulnerable population to toxic radioactive waste as a means to document the movement and degenerative health outcomes of radiation as it moves through the food chain and human body. This human subject experiment extended over the decades with profound consequences for individual subjects and the Marshallese nation as a whole. The Marshallese have become a nations whose experience as nuclear nomads, medical subjects, citizen advocates and innovators is shared by many citizens, communities and indigenous peoples around the world. Their experiences, consequential damages, and their struggles to  restore cultural ways of life, quality of life, intergenerational health, and long term sustainability, are especially salient to a nation and to a world concerned with the lingering, persistent, and invasive dangers of a nuclear world.

With both the US and RMI participating in the UN Special Rapporteur’s investigation, there is an obligation for both governments to receive and respond to the report recommendations in timely fashion, and in subsequent reviews, to demonstrate truly meaningful remediation and reparation for their nuclear legacies in the Marshall Islands.

Furthermore, given the timing of the Human Rights Council review – when the US Presidential election cycle is in full swing – international scrutiny of Marshallese nuclear legacy issues may provide further fuel for the fires now raging over such questions as the effects of chronic exposure to low-level radiation, radiation monitoring, permissibility levels, who pays for the long term public health costs of nuclear energy, and absurd notion that a tactical strategic nuclear military is a sustainable and viable option.

And, finally, given the historical role of the United Nations in designating the Marshall Islands as a strategic trust, there is a moral and legal obligation for the United Nations community to assist in the remediation, restoration and reparation due to the environment, health, and dignity of the Marshallese nation. International attention to this history and experience is long overdue, and sadly and sorely relevant to a post-Fukushima world.

BARBARA ROSE JOHNSTON is an anthropologist and senior research fellow at the Center for Political Ecology. She is the co-author of The Consequential Dangers of Nuclear War: the Rongelap Report. Her most recent book, Water, Cultural Diversity and Global Environmental Change: Emerging Trends, Sustainable Futures? was copublished by UNESCO/Springer in 2012.  She is currently assisting the Special Rapporteur’s efforts to document the human rights consequences of nuclear militarism in the Marshall Islands, and supporting advocacy efforts to bring Marshallese citizens to Geneva so their own voices can be heard. Contact her at:



Barbara Rose Johnston is an environmental anthropologist and Senior Fellow at the Center for Political Ecology, an independent environment, health and human rights research institute based in Santa Cruz, California.