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.”
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.
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.”http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/02/bikini-atoll-nuclear-test-60-years