From a Tropical Paradise to a Nuclear Hell - pain from bomb testing rages on in the Marshall Islands
- Teresa Binstock <binstock@...>
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Mon, 01 Mar 2004
From a Tropical Paradise to a Nuclear Hell
Fifty years ago today, Bikini Atoll was blasted away. The pain from bomb
testing rages on in the Marshall Islands.
By JoAnn Wypijewski, who has written on Pacific issues since the
1980s for the Nation, the Los Angeles Times and Harper's.
March 1, 2004
"There's a story I can tell you," a fellow called Bruno Lat said to me a
few years back. "I was 13. My dad was working with the Navy as a laborer
on Kwajalein" -- an atoll in Lat's native Marshall Islands, controlled
by the U.S. military. "It was early, early morning. We were all outside
on that day waiting in the dark. Everybody was waiting for the Bravo."
That day was 50 years ago: March 1, 1954. Bravo was not the first, or
the last, just the worst of the American nuclear tests in the Pacific --
a fission-fusion-fission reaction, a thermonuclear explosion, an H-bomb,
the United States' biggest blast. In today's poverty of expression, it
would be called a WMD. Except that it was ours, and so real that days
after marveling at a sky alight with "all kinds of beautiful colors,"
young Bruno also took in the sight of refugees from downwind of the
blast at Bikini Atoll, miserable and burned and belatedly evacuated to
Kwajalein. The skin on their heads, he recalled, "you could peel it like
fried chicken skin."
In the standard histories, much of what happened that morning was "an
accident." That's the term Edward Teller, the bomb's designer, uses in
his memoir. The Navy said it had anticipated a six-megaton bomb, but
Bravo came in at 15. It expected the winds to blow one way; they blew
another. It had not evacuated downwinders in advance because the danger
was deemed slight, and anyway the budget was tight. It had not expected
that a Japanese fishing boat, the Lucky Dragon, would be trawling 87
miles from the blast. It had not expected that one of the fishermen
Officially, the Atomic Energy Commission claimed that the Bravo shot had
been "routine" and that among the evacuees "there were no burns. All
were reported well." A month later, AEC Chairman Lewis Strauss told
reporters that they were not only well but "happy" too. It is a simple
matter to find government reports acknowledging the opposite now that
that particular lie is unnecessary.
The Bravo blast, it is typically said, was equal to 1,000 Hiroshimas, as
if that were comprehensible. The Hiroshima bomb instantly killed 80,000
people, more or less. Bravo had the power to incinerate 80 million: 10
New Yorks; 26,666 Twin Towers, more or less.
The "stem" of its mushroom cloud was 18 miles tall, its "cap" 62 miles
across. That's a cloud five times the length of Manhattan, vaporizing
all beneath it, sucking everything -- in Bravo's case, three islands'
worth of coral reef, sand, land and sea life -- into the sky, and then
showering it in a swirl of radioactive isotopes across an area now
estimated at nearly 20,000 square miles.
The Marshallese on the island of Rongelap, 120 miles from ground zero,
had imagined snow from missionaries' photographs of New England winters.
That March 1, they imagined the white flakes falling from the sky,
piling up two inches deep, as some freakish snowstorm. Children played
in it, and later screamed with pain.
On other downwind islands, the "snow" appeared variably as a shower, a
mist, a fog. The Navy had a practice of sending planes into a blast area
hours after detonation to measure the "geigers," as radioactivity was
colloquially known among sailors, and the early Bravo readings are
staggering. Scientists didn't know in 1954 that, for example, a
radiation dose of 30 roentgens would double the rate of breast cancer in
adults. But they did know that 150 roentgens, noted in one of the
military's earliest ground-level estimates of Rongelap, was
catastrophic. Yet the Navy waited two days to evacuate Rongelap and
Ailinginae; three days to evacuate Utirik.
Nine years later, thyroid cancers started appearing in exposed
islanders, then leukemia. Even on "safe" atolls, babies began being born
retarded, deformed, stillborn or worse. In 1983, Darlene Keju-Johnson, a
Marshallese public health worker, gave a World Council of Churches
gathering this description: "The baby is born on the labor table, and it
breathes and moves up and down, but it is not shaped like a human being.
It looks like a bag of jelly."
The Marshallese say that Bravo was not an accident. In the 1980s, a U.S.
government document surfaced showing that weather reports hours before
the blast had indeed indicated shifting winds. In 1954, the United
States had nine years of data on direct effects of radiation but none on
fallout downwind; select Marshallese have been the subject of scientific
study ever since.
An accident, as the writer Alexander Cockburn once put it, "is normalcy
raised to the level of drama." Marshall Islanders endured 67 U.S.
nuclear tests between 1946 and 1958, their net yield the equivalent of
1.7 Hiroshima bombs detonated every day for 12 years. A full accounting
of the displacements and evacuations, the lies and broken promises would
fill pages. A full accounting of the health effect would fill volumes
and has never been done. Bruno Lat is not an official victim of any
test, so his thyroid cancer doesn't count; the same with his father's
stomach tumors. Of the broken culture and broken hearts, there can be no
Today what's left of Bikini Atoll is beautiful, its white sands
shimmering beneath the dome of blue, its coconut crabs skittering among
the palms, but what grows there is poison. It is not difficult in the
Marshall Islands to find people who have forever lost their home, who
believe that sickness awaits, that nothing is safe, but we don't call
On this 50th anniversary of Bravo, the Marshallese are petitioning the
U.S. Congress to make full compensation for the ruin of their lands and
their health. They want Congress to express "deep regret for the nuclear
testing legacy." Some had wanted an apology, but that, the majority
decided, the United States would never concede.
Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times
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