(September 26, 1997) Rongelap leaders are proposing to launch construction and rehabilitation work at their uninhabited home atoll aimed at setting the stage for full-scale cleanup work. Rongelap has been uninhabited since 1985 when the islanders evacuated their atoll fearing continued radiation exposure as a result of nuclear tests.
(478.4750) WISE Amsterdam -There have been some 66 atmospheric nuclear tests on the Marshall islands between 1946 and 1958 (see WISE NC 454.4498: Marshall Islands 1946 - 1996). Not on the Rongelap atoll itself, but on Islands close to it like Bikini and Eniwetok.
On March 1, 1954, Bravo, the largest thermonuclear bomb at 15 megatons, was exploded at Bikini. Despite an incomplete and somewhat alarming report concerning the winds above Bikini, the decision was made to proceed with the test.
Winds from sea level to 55,000 feet were generally heading in the direction of Rongelap and other inhabited atolls. Four to six hours after the blast, a white, snow-like ash began to fall on the people living on this atoll. The white dust soon formed a layer on the island. The fallout was also carried into the drinking water catchments.
Later that day, personnel went to Rongelap, found the radiation levels dangerously high, and told the people not to drink the water. They then left to report their findings. Five days later many of the exposed people, having all been evacuated to Kwajalein two days after they were exposed to the radioactive fallout, began experiencing symptoms of acute radiation attack like itching and burning of the skin, eyes and mouth nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
After three years of exile on Ejit island in Majuro Atoll, the Rongelap inhabitants moved back, because Rongelap was declared safe for habitation by the US Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) "...inspite of slight lingering radioactivity" In 1971 a Japanese medical survey, which examined the Rongelap people, concluded this was a great mistake. In their examination they had actually found out that "...The body burden (of radiation) on the `unexposed group` of Rongelap is higher than that on the people of other islands. This means that the people of Rongelap who were not exposed to the fallout received a considerable amount of radioactive nuclides from the environment. Consequently, the 'unexposed' group actually became an 'exposed' group..."
Thyroid tumors began appearing among the radiation-exposed Rongelap people about 10 years after the "Bravo" explosion. A higher-than-average level of growth retardation among young Rongelap children was also found. A 1974 study by the US Brookhaven National Laboratory states that almost half of the persons irradiated on Rongelap have developed thyroid abnormalities. The study also noted a significant growth of retardation among Rongelap children. Later, in 1977-78 the US Congress appropriated more than $1 million in compensation for the inhabitants of Rongelap and Utirik whose thyroid problems and cancers had appeared since 1963.
In 1985 a delegation of Rongelap people went to Washington to demand aid to move from their contaminated island. They requested about US$27 million for resettlement to a new community on Mejato island. Eventually they were brought there by the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warriorafter the US had refused to transport them despite promises of US officials to do so.
Now the cleanup of Rongelap for resettlement is expected to start in the near future. Consideration is being given to building a dock, field station and improving the airport -- all facilities to support a cleanup effort. The Rongelap trust fund currently has US$32 million, with an extra US$8 million available as counterpart funds. Estimates for the cleanup costs run to US$80 million.
- Marshall Islands Journal 10 August 1997 (cited in: Pacific News Bulletin, August 1997)
- WISE News Communique 454, 21 June 1996
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