by Giff Johnson
Why is it that as we approach the 60th anniversary of the Bravo hydrogen bomb test at Bikini Atoll on March 1, 1954, the U.S. nuclear legacy continues to vex relations between the Marshall Islands and Washington? Bravo, at 15 megatons, was America’s largest hydrogen bomb test. A thousand times more powerful than the atom bomb that killed 100,000 people in Hiroshima, Bravo spewed radioactive fallout on unsuspecting Marshall Islanders, U.S. servicemen monitoring weather conditions on Rongerik Atoll, and Japanese fishermen who had the misfortune to be fishing near the Bikini test site.
From day one, the U.S. government covered up the actual fallout impact not only of the Bravo shot but of all six of the large bombs tested at Bikini in 1954. The cover up went like this:
• The massive dose of radioactive fallout delivered to Rongelap Islanders, and to a lesser extent to those living on Utrik was the result of an ‘unexpected wind shift.’
• At 15 megatons, Bravo was two-to-three times greater than the anticipated power of the explosion. The power of Bravo, as shown in recently declassified documents, was known in advance.
• Only Rongelap and Utrik were exposed to Bravo (or any other) test fallout.
All of these statements have been proven false by the release of formerly ‘secret’ and ‘classified’ U.S. government documents. Most significantly is the fact that 18 other inhabited atolls or single islands around the country were contaminated by a minimum of three and most by all six of the bombs tested in Operation Castle, which included Bravo, in 1954.
But the myth of only four ‘exposed’ atolls (Bikini, Enewetak, Rongelap and Utrik) has shaped U.S. nuclear policy toward the Marshall Islands since 1954, limiting medical and scientific follow up, and compensation programs.
In 1982 and 1983, when U.S. State Department and Marshall Islands negotiators were working out the details of a nuclear compensation agreement to be included in the Compact of Free Association, Marshall Islands leaders had no access to classified U.S. government documents that showed the extent of the fallout exposure in their islands. With the U.S. withholding pertinent nuclear fallout data, Marshall Islands leaders signed off on a compensation agreement that was felt to be the best deal that they could achieve — but the US$150 million trust fund was a far cry from the billions of dollars in value of lawsuits pending in the U.S. court system in the early 1980s that U.S. government officials wanted to eliminate with the Compact’s nuclear compensation provisions.
And eliminate it they did. Once the Compact was signed and ratified as U.S. law by the Congress, U.S. courts said they could no longer hear the nuclear damage claims because the Congress had approved a political settlement. This settlement included the establishment of a Nuclear Claims Tribunals whose mandate was to adjudicate all claims, both personal injury and land damage/cleanup/loss of use. Marshallese claimants were told by an American judge that the Congress had provided an alternative compensation mechanism — the Tribunal — and therefore U.S. Courts could not hear their claims.
• The Tribunal awarded US$96.6 million for personal injuries, but had funds to pay only US$73.5 million.
• The Tribunal awarded US$2.3 billion to Bikini, Enewetak, Rongelap and Utrik for loss of use, hardship, and nuclear clean up, but had funds to make only token payments to Bikini and Enewetak amounting to about US$3.9 million.
As the Tribunal’s situation was proving — for lack of U.S. funding — to be unresponsive to compensation awards approved, the Bikini and Enewetak communities refiled their lawsuits in U.S. courts in 2006. These were subsequently dismissed by the U.S. Federal Claims Court in late 2007, and an appeals court upheld the ruling. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the cases, so Marshall Islanders have no standing to bring further legal challenges in the U.S. courts, a development that takes pressure off the U.S. Congress to address the situation.
Yet outside groups have consistently called on the U.S. government to pay the awards of the Tribunal. This includes a detailed review of the compensation situation by Harvard Law students that resulted in the report, ‘Keeping the Promise: An evaluation of continuing U.S. obligations arising out of the U.S. nuclear testing program in the Marshall Islands,’ published in 2006, and the 2012 report by a United Nations Special Rapporteur for the UN Human Rights Council, which among many recommendations called on the U.S. government to pay off the awards issued by the Nuclear Claims Tribunal.
While American ‘Downwinders’ — people living in Nevada, Utah and Arizona who were exposed to nuclear test fallout from U.S. nuclear tests at the Nevada Test Site — receive 100 percent of their compensation payments, not a single one of the more than 2,000 Marshall Islanders who received awards from the Tribunal were paid 100 percent of their compensation because of lack of funding.
The so-called “changed circumstances” section of the compensation agreement in the Compact of Free Association allows the Marshall Islands to petition the U.S. Congress for additional compensation if it can demonstrate that after approval of the compensation agreement in the mid-1980s, circumstances changed so as to render the compensation provided ‘manifestly inadequate.’
The Marshall Islands submitted just such a petition in 2000 and resubmitted it in 2001. Except for two U.S. Congress hearings held in Washington, D.C. in 2005, and a Bush Administration report stating the U.S. government was not legally required to pay additional compensation, there has been no other official response from the Congress.
My own observation is that quite simply the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission report entitled, ‘Radioactive Debris from Operation Castle — Islands of the Mid-Pacific,’ issued on January 18, 1955 but not publicly released until May 1994, nearly 40 years after it was issued, constitutes ‘changed circumstances.’ This report, on page 38, provides a list of 20 inhabited atolls and single islands that were exposed to radioactive fallout from most of the six tests in the Castle Series in 1954. It explodes the myth created by the U.S. only four atolls that has been perpetuated by the U.S. government since 1954. This document, like thousands of other ‘secret’ U.S. reports on its nuclear testing in the Marshalls, was withheld from Marshall Islands negotiators when the compensation agreement was negotiated in 1982-1983. The U.S. State Department negotiated the compensation agreement in bad faith. If Marshall Islands leaders had access to the treasure trove of secret U.S. reports on fallout exposure, they would have sought and likely held out for considerably more than the US$150 million trust fund put on the table by the U.S., as well as expanding health care and environmental monitoring programs to additional islands.
I have detailed this, including reference to many formerly classified documents, in my recently published book, Don’t Ever Whisper. But the ongoing disconnect is problematic for the Marshall Islands. Despite the release of documents that prove that many more than four atolls were affected by radioactive fallout, U.S. government officialdom maintains the fiction of the four atolls.
Moreover, a key issue that has never been properly studied and evaluated is the question of the impact of long-term, low-dose exposure to radiation of people living and eating food grown in fallout-contaminated islands. U.S. doctors and scientists who, from 1954-1998 studied Rongelap and Utrik islanders, zeroed in largely on thyroid problems, while discounting the impact of low-dose radiation and such concerns as miscarriages and stillbirths. Because these areas have not been adequately investigated, there is a lack of ‘evidence.’
There are many areas of the U.S. nuclear legacy that need serious engagement. The UN Special Rapporteur, among many recommendations, said the Marshall Islands should, ‘Carry out an independent, comprehensive radiological survey of the entire territory and, in this regard, request relevant United Nations agencies to undertake a study similar to the one conducted by IAEA on testing sites in other countries.’ He also called on the U.S. to provide ‘full access’ for the Marshall Islands to U.S. government information and records ‘regarding the environmental and human health ramifications of past and current United States military use of the islands, as well as full access to United States medical and other related records on the Marshallese…’
Yet, 55 years after the last test was conducted, many documents remain classified, which prevents the Marshall Islands from understanding the full ramifications of the 67 nuclear weapons tests conducted at Bikini and Enewetak.
What does the future hold? Unless the Marshall Islands takes up the challenge to gain U.S. Congress support for expanded compensation and medical programs with an organized and systematic campaign of action, there is little hope that the U.S. Congress will ever on its own resolve the U.S. government’s nuclear test legacy that continues to be a black mark on the relationship between the two countries.