N-test affected islanders worry as US presses for resettlement
Tuesday, 02 March 2010 00:00 By Giff Johnson – For Variety
MAJURO — Fifty-six years after an American hydrogen bomb blast in the Pacific exposed hundreds of people to radioactive fallout, the U.S. Congress is pressing islanders to return home by next year.
March 1 is a national holiday that recognizes Nuclear Victims Day in the Marshall Islands. This year, which marks the 25th year since Rongelap Islanders’ self-evacuated their radioactive islands, islanders are facing a U.S. ultimatum: move back to Rongelap in 2011 or face cutoff of funding support for the “temporary” community at Mejatto Island in Kwajalein Atoll, where about 400 islanders have lived since their 1985 evacuation.
“I don’t want to return to Rongelap,” said Lemeyo Abon, a Rongelap survivor of the U.S. nuclear testing era who turns 70 on July 5. “I am afraid,” she said in reaction to the U.S. Congress’ push to have Rongelap resettled by 2011. “If we go back it will be our death — is it the United States intention to eliminate us?”
The U.S. provided Rongelap Atoll Local Government with a $45 million resettlement trust fund to finance cleanup and rehabilitation work on Rongelap Island when studies after the islanders evacuated showed the atoll still contained 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. Following advice of U.S. government scientists, land where community facilities and homes are located has had the top 15 inches of top soil scraped off and replaced by crush coral rocks, and land with food crops such as coconut trees has been doused with potassium fertilizer to block uptake of radioactive cesium-137 by the roots.
With millions of dollars invested in the cleanup of Rongelap, U.S. congressional leaders want to see Rongelap resettled and the “temporary” home of Mejatto closed by the end of next year. Last October, six leading U.S. senators and representatives issued a letter to the Interior Department critical of the slow pace of resettlement. The letter also directed the Interior Department to withhold partial funding for Rongelap Atoll Local Government for the current fiscal year until it submitted a report on the resettlement to the Congress.
Allen Stayman, staff to Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman who was a signer of the letter, said that “it is important to note that (the letter) was sent last October. Since then, 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.
While Rongelap local government is pressing ahead with building 40 more homes this year and next, Mayor James Matayoshi said Rongelap Islanders living on Mejatto have always wanted to return to their home islands, but questions about radiation safety continue to linger — despite U.S. government assurances of safety.
If contaminated soil around housing and community facilities is combined with potassium fertilizer treatment of agriculture areas, “the natural background dose plus the nuclear-test-related dose at Rongelap would be less than the usual background dose in the United States and Europe,” said Dr. Terry Hamilton of the California-based Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in mid-February.
“It is very hard for me to trust and believe any word that is said by Americans after what the United States and the Department of Energy has done to us,” said Abon. “What they did to us is criminal.”
When the 15-megaton Bravo test was detonated in 1954, no warning was given to people on Rongelap and other downwind islands. A snowstorm of radioactivity exposed unsuspecting Rongelap islanders to a near lethal dose of radiation, causing vomiting, skin burns and their hair to fall out — classic symptoms of high-level radiation exposure. In 1998, a U.S. Centers for Disease Control Radiation Studies Branch report on the Marshall Islands said that the 67 U.S. nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands spewed out 150 times more radioactive-iodine 131 than the 1986 reactive accident at Chernobyl. The majority of islanders exposed in 1954 have had thyroid tumors and cancers.
Rongelap’s local government is not ignoring the U.S. insistence on resettlement, but a resettlement appears unlikely in 18 months. “People are in high spirits about the possibility of resettling,” Matayoshi said. “But the practicalities are the challenge now.”
Rongelap islanders left in 1985 fearing radiation exposure, which subsequent independent studies confirmed. While there are more than 60 small islands in the atoll, many of which are used for food gathering, the nuclear cleanup work has focused only on the main island. For Matayoshi, a successful resettlement revolves around U.S. commitments to Rongelap to provide safeguards and assurances, and people’s acceptance of these assurances.
DOE’s Worthington said their department wants to partner with Rongelap Atoll Local Government to set up a monitoring program in order to reconfirm the decision made to resettle or to make any adjustments needed. Monitoring will involve doing “whole body counts” for people before they go back and then once they return and continuing in an ongoing manner to maintain assurance of safety, she said. A whole body counter checks for cesium-137 uptake, providing the person being monitored with information within 15 minutes.
But Abon sees resettlement of Rongelap Atoll as “impossible” because only a small part of the atoll has had its nuclear contamination cleaned, while the population has grown significantly, meaning they need to use more islands to comfortably resettle.
Availability of imported food, needed to reduce intake of cesium-137 from staple crops such as coconuts, breadfruit and pandanus, is also a big worry to islanders.
“I foresee problems with provisioning the island because Rongelap is so far away from the centers,” said Abon. Remote islands in this western Pacific nation that are scattered over 750,000 square miles of ocean area receive government ship visits once every three-to-four months. Abon said that unlike the other outer island communities, if a ship is delayed to Rongelap, islanders should not eat from the land. “We will be forced to eat off the land. The poison is there even if you can’t taste, smell or see it,” warns Abon.
Matayoshi, whose mother was on Rongelap during the Bravo fallout, believes that the people’s “livelihood will be well-served living on Rongelap because of the convenience and benefits (of power, water and housing) and their access to freedom as the owners of the atoll.”
He adds, however, “We are not forcing anyone to take our view. We’ll lay out what is possible, what the options are and the consequences if we continue to delay the resettlement process.”