The U.S. official position is that radiation is no longer a threat on the Marshalls atoll. But many islanders doubt that their radiation-exposed island of Rongelap is safe enough to live on.
Rongelap islanders say they fear for their health if they return home to the coral island that was exposed to the Bravo hydrogen bomb test that rained ashy fallout on their island 56 years ago.
Nuclear weapon test Bravo on Bikini Atoll, March 1, 1954. (Photo courtesy U.S. Dept. of Energy)
Bravo, the equivalent of 1,000 Hiroshima-sized bombs, was the first U.S. test of a dry fuel thermonuclear hydrogen bomb device, detonated on March 1, 1954, at Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands.
The inhabitants of Bikini and Enewetak were evacuated from their island homes before nuclear tests to avoid exposure to radioactive fallout. But the inhabitants of Rongelap, less than 100 miles away, were not.
Bravo was the most powerful nuclear device ever detonated by the United States. As a result of the blast, the radioactive cloud contaminated more than 7,000 square miles of the Pacific Ocean, including some of the surrounding small islands like Rongelap. But no cleanup of radiation on Rongelap was ever conducted. The U.S. government representative to the Marshall Islands maintained that Rongelap was perfectly safe.
On the atolls of Bikini and Enewetak in the Marshall Islands, the United States detonated 67 atmospheric atomic and thermonuclear weapons from 1946-1958.
For those twelve years, "the Marshall Islands experienced the equivalent of 1.6 Hiroshima-sized bombs every single day," Dr. Holly Barker, advisor to the government of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, wrote in the "Seattle Post-Intelligencer" in 2005.
"Many people assume that the Islands were deserted during the tests, but the nearly 1,000 Marshallese who settled here in Washington State can tell you differently," Barker wrote.
Thirty years later, 95 percent of the population alive between 1948 and 1954 had contracted thyroid cancer and a high proportion of their children suffered from genetic defects.
The island of Rongelap, one of the Marshall Islands (Photo by Stephanie Batzer)
The Islanders pleas to the U.S. government to be evacuated were ignored. So, at the request of Rongelap's representative to the Marshall Islands parliament, Greenpeace agreed to evacuate the entire population.
In May 1985, about 300 residents of Rongelap were transported to the safer island of Mejatto 110 miles away by the Greenpeace flagship Rainbow Warrior.
The U.S. provided Rongelap Atoll Local Government with a US$45 million resettlement trust fund to finance cleanup and rehabilitation work on Rongelap Island when studies after the islanders evacuated showed the atoll was still contaminated with high levels of radioactivity.
Since 2000, the atoll's local government has built a power plant, installed water-making equipment, paved roads and has completed nine of a planned 50 homes for a future resettlement.
This year, the 25th year since Rongelap Islanders' voluntarily evacuated their radioactive island, they are facing a U.S. ultimatum - move back to Rongelap in 2011 or face cutoff of funding support for the community at Mejatto Island in Kwajalein Atoll.
Allen Stayman, staff to Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman, the New Mexico Democrat who was a signer of the letter, told the "Mariana Variety" newspaper, "it is important to note that [the letter] was sent last October .
"Since then," he said, "congressional staff has had good communications with local government representatives and a target date for completion of resettlement and the closure of the facilities at Mejatto is to be set for the end of the next fiscal year, or October 1, 2011."
The U.S. Department of Energy is set to provide ongoing monitoring and support. "The DOE's position is we support resettlement if the atoll wants to do it," said Patricia Worthington, who heads the Office of Health and Safety in Washington.
"I don't want to return to Rongelap," said Lemeyo Abon, 69, a Rongelap survivor of the U.S. nuclear testing era.
"I am afraid," she told the "Marianas Variety" on Tuesday. "If we go back it will be our death," Abon said. "Is it the United States' intention to eliminate us?"
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