Gwyn Kirk: Nuclear Survivors Remembrance Day

Nuclear Survivors Remembrance Day

Gwyn Kirk

March 1, 2010 is the 56th anniversary of the U.S. hydrogen bomb test code-named ‘Bravo’ at Bikini Atoll, a ring of tiny coral islands in the central Pacific. Commemorations in affected communities will feature testimonies from those living with the long-term effects of radiation sickness, many forms of cancer, and extreme social and cultural dislocation caused by imperialist nuclear experimentation. Alongside these testimonies are continued calls for just compensation for loss of life, land, and livelihood, as well as for the eradication of nuclear weapons worldwide.

The triumphally-named ‘Bravo’ detonation was 1,000 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima at the end of World War II. According to the New Zealand-based Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, the explosion “gouged out a crater more than 200 feet deep and a mile across, melting huge quantities of coral, which were sucked up into the atmosphere together with vast volumes of seawater” []. Particles of radioactive fallout landed on the downwind island of Rongelap (100 miles away) to a depth of one and a half inches in places, and radioactive mist appeared on Utirik (300 miles away). The U.S. navy did not send ships to evacuate the people of Rongelap and Utirik until three days after the explosion.

In February 1946,, Commodore Ben H. Wyatt, then U.S. military governor of the Marshall Islands, traveled to Bikini,–chosen because it was far from major air or shipping lanes—to ask the people if they would leave their atoll temporarily so that the United States could test atomic bombs for “the good of mankind and to end all world wars” []. They agreed to this lofty-sounding goal, but still cannot return to their homeland due to the continuing effects of radioactive contamination on the land, water, vegetation, fish, and shellfish. Bikini Atoll remains uninhabitable to this day.

Indeed, the radioactive legacy of 67 nuclear tests conducted by the United States in the Marshall Islands between June 1946 and August 1958 continues to wreak havoc on the health of Marshallese people and others in Micronesia affected by the fallout. In the years following the explosions many women miscarried; some gave birth to still born babies or to “jellyfish” babies, without heads, limbs or skeletons. Since then, survivors and their descendants have developed many forms of cancer. They have been shuttled from one overcrowded, makeshift home to another, without adequate support or livelihood. Some 3,000 Marshallese people live in Hawai’i where they seek medical treatment for cancer and other health issues associated with nuclear testing, loss of their traditional lifestyle, and displacement from their homeland.

Survivors are active in ERUB (the acronym for Enewetak, Rongelap, Utirik and Bikini Atolls impacted by the U.S. nuclear testing program). In the Marshallese language ‘erub’ means broken or shattered. Organizers say that it “symbolizes the breaking up of our once close-knit communities which were displaced due to the nuclear testing program” [].

In a recent speech at the National Defense University, Vice President Biden renewed the Obama administration’s stated commitment to reduction and eventual elimination of nuclear weapons, while noting that, in the meantime, the administration has increased funding to maintain the U.S. nuclear stockpile and modernize its nuclear infrastructure.

Biden acknowledged: “As both the only nation to have used nuclear weapons, and as a strong proponent of non-proliferation, the United States has long embodied a stark but inevitable contradiction” []. He noted that the United States has ”long relied on nuclear weapons to deter potential adversaries,” but argued that “as our technology improves, we are developing non-nuclear ways to accomplish that same objective” including an adaptive missile defense shield and conventional warheads with worldwide reach [].

The administration’s approach is to support a series of agreements for strategic nuclear arms reduction between the United States and Russia, a comprehensive test ban treaty, and a non-proliferation treaty. Important as these are, Barry Blechman, co-editor of Elements of a Nuclear Disarmament Treaty, calls such steps “piecemeal agreements,” and urges a much more comprehensive approach []. “Those possessing the largest arsenals — the United States and Russia — would make deep cuts first.” Nations with smaller arsenals “would join at specified dates and levels.” He claims that “International precedents already exist for virtually every procedure necessary to eliminate nuclear weapons safely, verifiably and without risk to any nation’s security.’”

The Non-proliferation Treaty Review Conference in New York in May this year will be a crucial test of the international community’s will and ability to unite toward this goal

President Obama will be there, together with government officials and members of non-governmental organizations from many nations. Among the crowds, atomic-bomb survivors from Hiroshima and Nagasaki will attest to their own ghastly experience of nuclear weapons, together with people from the Marshall Islands, including former senator Abacca Anjain-Maddison. She argues that the islanders’ experiences of the terrible long-term damage from Cold War nuclear experiments give them a unique and authoritative voice in this discussion.

President Obama should use all the power of his office to support her call for a world free of nuclear arms. What better day than Nuclear Survivors Remembrance Day to affirm and act on this conviction.

Gwyn Kirk is a founder member of Women for Genuine Security:

NOTE:  ERUB II along with the Consulate of the Republic of the Marshall Islands will sponsor a ceremony of remembrance of the nuclear survivors of the Bravo blast.

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