March 1 is the 50th year commemoration of the Bravo thermonuclear test. At 15 megatons, the equivalent of 15 million tons of TNT, Bravo was the largest hydrogen bomb ever tested by the U.S. The people of Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands had given up their home to become the test site in 1946 – “for the good of mankind and to end all world wars,” they were told by Commodore Ben H. Wyatt, the military governor of the Marshall Islands. (1) Fallout from Bravo fell most directly on 64 people on Rongelap Atoll and 154 people on Utrik Atoll, 23 Japanese fishermen, and 28 U.S. military weather personnel on Rongerik Atoll. (2)
Having been involved in delivering medical care to Marshallese people who were exposed to fallout, I found it difficult to gain the trust of patients who have long wondered whether or not the main intent of the U.S.-government-provided medical program was to study them. In a summary of their findings published in 1997 (3), the government doctors describe the acute radiation sickness that occurred initially. An infant exposed at one year of age died at age 19 of leukemia. They describe thyroid cancer peaking 12 to 14 years after the radiation exposure.
As the people of Rongelap were the most heavily exposed, followed by the people of Utrik, they were made the subjects of the U.S. government medical program. But fallout from Bravo was detected around the world. Naturally other areas of the Marshall Islands received fallout, and elevated rates of thyroid nodules and thyroid cancer have been found throughout the country.(4,5)
Were they victims of human medical experimentation? It was known that the wind would carry the fallout over populated islands. (6,7) The U.S. personnel at the weather station knew to stay inside and were evacuated on March 2. The people of Rongelap were evacuated on March 3, after 51 hours; the people of Utrik on March 4, after 78 hours. (8) People were moved back to Rongelap in 1957 they stayed there until 1985, when it was determined that food grown on there was unsafe to eat. In a nod to what counts as evidence in medical studies, the medical program followed the radiation-exposed people together with a control group of unexposed people.
Between 1961 and 1966 physician researchers from Brookhaven National Laboratory conducted experiments on Marshallese people utilizing the radioactive agents chromium-51 and tritium. (9) Presumably the researchers reasoned that they had been exposed to radiation already. Formerly classified correspondence among the researchers, their offhand remarks preserved for posterity, is now freely available on the internet. Below a list of experimental subjects, one researcher discusses running out bourbon during his tour in the Marshalls. (10) In one letter from 1961 regarding the tritium-labeled water studies to determine total body water, Dr. Robert A. Conard, the director of medical research at Brookhaven, suggests, “I suppose we could try it on the unexposed people.” (11)
The people followed by the medical program were thus certainly justified in questioning whether they were being cared for or they were the subjects of a research program. I am from Hiroshima. My family members had the same sorts of questions about the U.S.’s Atom Bomb Casualty Commission there.
These questions are parts of larger questions. Japanese are wont to wonder if the first atom bomb to be used in warfare would have been used on a population of Caucasians. Why is it that the bulk of the megatonnage of U.S. nuclear weapons took place in the Pacific? While Bravo was the largest U.S. test, it was only one of 105 tests that took place in the Pacific – the Marshall Islands, Christmas Island, and Johnston Atoll – between 1946 and 1958. (12) The obvious answer is low population density in the Pacific. But small numbers of people are still people. And so, part of the logic for dropping bombs where they are dropped involves a judgment that “they” don’t matter, that “they” are beyond the pale of humanity.
Even now, weapons are tested in the Pacific. France last tested a nuclear device in Polynesia in 1996. Intercontinental ballistic missiles are launched from California toward the Marshall Islands, from where extra-atmospheric kill vehicles are launched to shoot them down – the essence of the ballistic missile defense program. When the people of Rongelap were evacuated after Bravo, they were taken to Kwajalein Island in the Marshall Islands, to be decontaminated and examined. Kwajalein is now the home of the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site. Over fifty years ago, Marshallese people gave their homelands in the name of peace. We must admire them for this. In an Orwellian twist, they were then subjected to the world’s most awesome instruments of destruction. How much longer must they continue to give their lands for the development of weapons? When will the promise to them – to end all wars – be kept?
1. Jack Niedenthal. A Short History of the People of Bikini Atoll. http://www.bikiniatoll.com/history.html
2. Ann C. Deines, David I. Goldman, Ruth R. Harris, Laura J. Kells. Marshall Islands Chronology 1944 to 1990. http://worf.eh.doe.gov/ihp/chron/
3. E.P. Cronkite, R.A. Conard, V.P. Bond. Historical Events Associated with Fallout from Bravo Shot – Operation Castle and 25 Y of Medical Findings. Health Physics 1997;73(1):176-186. Available at: http://tis.eh.doe.gov/health/marshall/marsh/journal/ The authors were three Navy radiobiology research physicians assigned to the original Department of Defense/Atomic Energy Commission medical team that cared for and studied the victims of fallout. All three were subsequently involved in long-term medical surveillance at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island.
4. T.E. Hamilton, G. van Belle, J.P. LoGerfo. Thyroid Neoplasia in Marshall Islanders Exposed to Nuclear Fallout. Journal of the American Medical Association 1987;258:629-636.
5. Tatsuya Takahashi, et al. The relationship of thyroid cancer with radiation exposure from nuclear weapon testing in the Marshall Islands. Journal of Epidemiology (Japan) 2003;13:99-107.
6. Colin Woodard. Generations of Fallout From Nuclear Tests. San Francisco Chronicle 7 Dec 1999, p. A10. Available at: http://www.bikiniatoll.com/SFChronicle.html
7. Nuclear Testing in the Marshall Islands: A Chronology of Events. http://www.rmiembassyus.org/nuclear/chronology.html
8. Deines, Goldman, Harris, & Kells.
9. Human Radiation Experiments Information Management System. http://search.dis.anl.gov/plweb-cgi/iopcode_mhrex.pl Search terms: “Marshall Islands” “tritium”
10. Page 21603004.
11. Page 21603001.
12. S.L. Simon, W.L. Robinson. A Compilation of Nuclear Weapons Test Detonation Data for U.S. Pacific Ocean Tests. Health Physics 1997;73(1):258-264. Available at: http://tis.eh.doe.gov/health/marshall/marsh/journal/