Nuclear Guinea Pigs

Cover image for Nov 9, 2011

Mahalo to Beverly Keever for her intrepid reporting on the secret history of nuclear colonialism in the Pacific and the plight of nuclear survivors and refugees from the Marshall Islands.  Here article “Nuclear Guinea Pigs” was the cover story of the Honolulu Weekly. Here are excerpts:

In the old-timey section of Kalihi, tucked between auto repair shops and boarded-up storefronts, Maza Attari, a Marshall Islander, lived with four family members in a one-bedroom apartment barely bigger than a ping-pong table. When visited by this reporter last summer, Attari had been unable to find steady work since being flown to Honolulu 12 years ago for back surgery that had left him with a severe limp and weakened muscles.

Attari’s circumstances exemplify the far-reaching impacts of nuclear testing upon irradiated, exiled or dislocated Marshall Islanders. From 1946 to 1962, their home atolls served as experimental grounds where the US detonated nuclear weapons and tested delivery systems in the transition from conventional to intercontinental bombers. In all, the US exploded 86 nuclear bombs in the Marshall Islands, which are situated 3,000 miles west of Honolulu. Those 86 bombs equated to 8,580 Hiroshima-size bombs–or 1.4 weapons per day for 16 years.

A one-time magistrate and mayor on Utrik, Attari said last summer that he doubted he would be able to return there, prophesying instead, “I’m going to stay here until I die.” He died in September of this year, without ever receiving the reparations that he and other nuclear victims have claimed.

The debt

It is a debt that is not only owed them, but that has compounded over time. Because these nuclear weapons experiments were too dangerous and unpredictable to be conducted on the US mainland, Attari and other Marshallese are part of the reason for America’s superpower status today. A half-century later, the Marshall Islands continue to serve as a crucial part of an outer defense periphery for the US heartland–6,000 miles away. That periphery includes the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site, where for more than three decades missiles fired from 4,000 miles away (at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California) have crashed near Kwajalein Atoll, horribly frightening the indigenous inhabitants and leaving them unsure of where the debris will fall.


The British government, between 1957 and 1958 conducted nine atmospheric tests, yielding the equivalent of about 12,000,000 tons of TNT, and the French carried out 193 Pacific nuclear tests yielding the equivalent of about 13,500,000 tons beginning in 1962 and ending on Jan. 27, 1996. The British and French data were recently gleaned from hard-to-find sources and compiled by University of Hawaii botany professor Mark Merlin and graduate student Ricardo Gonzalez, enabling them to reveal for the first time a pathbreaking, half-century panorama of the environmental consequences of Pacific nuclear testing conducted by all three nations.


Guinea pigs

Not until 1994, 40 years after Bravo’s fallout, did Attari and other exposed islanders learn they were used as human subjects to research the effects of radioactive fallout and of livin. Within days after Bravo, while still at the naval base to which they had been evacuated, Rongelap and Utrik Islanders were incorporated into Project 4.1. They were neither asked for nor gave their informed consent, nor were told the risks of the studies for which they gained no benefit.

Titled the “Study of Response of Human Beings Exposed to Significant Beta and Gamma Radiation Due to Fallout from High Yield Weapons, the document was classified “Secret Restricted Data.”

I am reminded of Henry Kissinger’s infamous statement about the Marshall Islands that revealed his genocidal indifference to the nuclear crimes of the U.S.: “There are only 90,000 people out there. Who gives a damn?”   We give a damn.

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