Bikini Atoll nuclear bomb tests still cast a shadow, 60 years on

60 years on from Bikini Atoll blast, exiles say they can never go home

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 March, 2014, 6:06am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 March, 2014, 6:06am


The Marshall Islands marked 60 years since the devastating US hydrogen bomb test at Bikini Atoll yesterday, with angry exiles saying they are too fearful ever to go home.

Part of the cold war arms race, the 15-megaton Bravo test on March 1, 1954 was 1,000 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

It vaporised one island and exposed thousands of people to radioactive fallout.

As those who remember that terrifying day, and their descendants, gathered in the Marshall Islands' capital, Majuro, to commemorate the anniversary, many exiles refused to go back to the zones that were contaminated, despite US safety assurances.

"I won't move there," Evelyn Ralpho-Jeadrik, 33, said of her home atoll, Rongelap, which was engulfed in fallout and evacuated two days after the test. "I do not believe it's safe and I don't want to put my children at risk."

People returned to Rongelap in 1957 but fled again in 1985 amid fears - later proved correct - about residual radiation.

One of the more than 60 islands in Rongelap has been cleaned up as part of a US$45 million, US-funded programme, but Ralpho-Jeadrik has no intention of going back.

"I will be forever fearful. The US told my mother it was safe and they returned … only to be contaminated again," she said.

It is not just homes which have been lost, says Lani Kramer, 42, a councilwoman in Bikini's local government, but an entire swathe of the islands' culture.

"We've lost our cultural heritage - our traditional customs and skills, which for thousands of years were passed down from generation to generation," she said.

Bikini islanders have lived in exile since they were moved for the first weapons tests in 1946, when Kramer's grandparents were evacuated.

When US government scientists declared Bikini safe for resettlement, some residents were allowed to return in the early 1970s.

But they were removed again in 1978 after ingesting radiation from eating food grown on the former nuclear test site.

The US has expressed regret about islanders' exposure to high doses of radiation.

"While international scientists did study the effects of that accident on the human population … the United States never intended for Marshallese to be hurt by the tests," the US embassy in Majuro says on its website. Acting US undersecretary of state Rose Gottemoeller joined remembrance activities.

Also attending the week-long commemorations was 80-year-old Matashichi Oishi - one of 23 fishermen aboard the Japanese boat Lucky Dragon, which was 100 kilometres from the bomb.

"I remember the brilliant flash in the west, the frightening sound that followed, and the extraordinary sky which turned red as far as I could see," he said. The crew became sick and many died.