60 years after nuclear tests, Marshall Islanders still waiting to return home

February 27, 2014

By TARO NAKAZAKI/ Staff Writer

Banjo Joel fondly recalls his return home to Bikini Atoll after the U.S. government provided assurances that radiation from nuclear bomb testing no longer posed a threat to health.

He said the wind gently blew over the tranquil island surrounded by pristine beaches and azure water. But despite the government’s safety declarations, the wind was carrying an invisible threat that later forced Joel and other islanders to flee once more in the 1970s.

Close to three years after the meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, thousands of evacuees are waiting for word on when they can safely return home.

For former residents of Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands, the wait has continued for decades.

Bikini Atoll, located about 4,000 kilometers southeast of Tokyo, consists of 23 coral islets arranged in the shape of a necklace. On the northwest corner of the atoll lies a huge depression commonly known as Bravo Crater.

The crater was created on March 1, 1954, when a 15-megaton bomb was detonated as part of the U.S. Castle Bravo project. The bomb was 1,000 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, and it blasted a hole about 2 km in diameter and about 80 meters deep.

Before the hydrogen bomb test, all 167 residents of Bikini Atoll were forced to move to other parts of the Marshall Islands.

Since 1991, the U.S. government has worked with the Bikini local government on decontamination measures as part of a plan to have islanders return to their homes.

But with the 60th anniversary of the hydrogen bomb test just two days away, there is still no indication of when the former residents can return.

In 2010, UNESCO designated Bikini Atoll a world cultural heritage site. Although plans were drawn to use the designation to attract tourists, no specific progress has been made.

The Bikini local government is still using offices in Majuro, the capital of the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

Jason Aitab, 63, a Bikini council member, said the radiation on Bikini Atoll made it impossible to return.

He also expressed distrust of the United States and recalled escorting U.S. scientists to the atoll on a number of occasions. None of the scientists would touch the local food prepared at welcoming receptions.

The Bravo test spread radioactive materials over such a wide area that the fallout reached islands where residents had not been evacuated beforehand.

One such island is Rongelap Atoll, where decontamination work has started. Plans have been made for the former residents to return home, but not one has done so.

When islanders were moved from Bikini Atoll, they were told the hydrogen bomb test would be “for the good of mankind and to end all world wars.”

Some Bikinians relocated to Ejit Island, about 600 kilometers to the southeast. Now, all 280 or so residents of Ejit are Bikinians or their family members.

The United States conducted 67 tests of nuclear weapons in the Marshall Islands, the site of the U.S. Pacific Proving Grounds, between 1946 and 1958. In 1968, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson declared Bikini Atoll safe and encouraged former islanders to return.

About 100 of them returned to Bikini, including Banjo Joel, now 63, who stayed there for five years from 1974.

In 1977, radioactive strontium-90 exceeding U.S. environmental standards was detected in well water. The following year, the U.S. Interior Department said cesium-137 levels on the atoll were so high that residents could not permanently live there. That forced the islanders to once again leave the atoll.

Joel, who lives on Ejit, said he wants to return again, but he does not believe it is safe.

His older brother, Korent, 65, lives on the outskirts of Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands. Korent still regrets that his family returned to Bikini. At that time, he was an itinerant worker in the Philippines.

After returning to Bikini, Korent worked as a captain of a ship that was on a secret mission to measure radiation levels in the Marshall Islands. Around Bikini, the levels went beyond the limit of the dosimeters.

Korent said he only realized how much radiation remained when he saw the measurements with his own eyes. Had he known about the radiation, he would never have allowed his family members to return.

He has nine children but he feels young people should not return to Bikini because no one knows if the radiation has disappeared even 60 years after the nuclear tests.

SLOW REPATRIATION PROCESS

About 180 km east of Bikini Atoll lies Rongelap, where plans are slowly moving forward to have residents return permanently.

Soil contaminated with radioactive materials 60 years ago was dug up and buried under the runway on Rongelap.

Newly paved roads wind through coconut palm forests before reaching what appears to be an exhibition ground for new homes. One neighborhood has about 40 white buildings with silver-colored tin roofs. The 50 or so people now living on Rongelap are in charge of maintaining and managing the social infrastructure needed for the return of residents.

To generate jobs, experimental hog and chicken farms have been set up on the island.

Decontamination work has continued since 1998. The United States contributed $40 million (about 4 billion yen) toward a fund for the decontamination work. Coconut trees were cut down and topsoil removed using bulldozers. Still, only about 0.15 square kilometer of land has been decontaminated, or just 2 percent of the island’s area.

Construction of housing was completed last year, but many still stand empty.

A total of 86 Rongelap islanders, including some in their mother’s womb, were exposed to radiation from the Bravo test. The United States moved residents to other islands, but many returned home after Washington declared Rongelap safe in 1957.

However, those residents again left the island in 1985 after an increase in miscarriages, stillbirths and thyroid gland disorders.

Kenneth Kedi, 42, represents Rongelap in the Marshall Islands Senate. He said the history of spreading health damages by having residents return must not be forgotten.

A former senator, Abacca Maddison, 47, said the United States wanted to wash its hands of the issue by completing the permanent return of residents.

ISLAND WITH REPATRIATED RESIDENTS

Enewetak Atoll, one of the Marshall Islands that was also used as a nuclear testing ground, has seen a return of former residents.

Like Bikini and Rongelap, the United States set up a fund for decontamination work on Enewetak. Residents began moving back en masse in 1980.

The northern part of the atoll is still off-limits because of high radiation levels. There are also restrictions on consuming food taken from that area.

Neil Flores, 44, the city manager of the atoll, proudly states that about 800 people, including children, have returned to Enewetak. He said only a few of them are still worried about radiation.

Pointing to the fact that many people now live in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Flores said it was pointless to be afraid of unseen dangers.

Enewetak is also home to an unusual site.

Visible from the sky are two adjacent circular shapes, one blue and the other gray. The shapes were originally craters with diameters of about 100 meters created by nuclear tests.

The crater that appears blue from the water has been left untouched.

But for the other crater, soil removed in the decontamination work was poured in and covered with concrete. The crater, which had a depth of about 9 meters, has turned into a gray dome about 7 meters in height.

By TARO NAKAZAKI/ Staff Writer
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The 80-meter-deep Bravo Crater was created by a hydrogen bomb test on March 1, 1954. (Kenta Sujino)

The 80-meter-deep Bravo Crater was created by a hydrogen bomb test on March 1, 1954. (Kenta Sujino)

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  • The 80-meter-deep Bravo Crater was created by a hydrogen bomb test on March 1, 1954. (Kenta Sujino)
  • Banjo Joel doubts he will ever be able to return to Bikini Atoll. (Taro Nakazaki)
  • Many newly constructed homes on Rongelap Atoll stand empty. (Kenta Sujino)
  • Concrete covers decontaminated soil buried in a crater created by nuclear testing on Enewetak Atoll. (Kenta Sujino)

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