Will Congress pay $250 million for Bikini?
Evacuated for US nuclear tests, residents of Bikini, Rongelap atolls
MAJURO, MARSHALL ISLANDS
Early one morning 45 years ago, 11-year-old Norio Kebenli was preparing to fish in the lagoon of Rongelap Atoll, a necklace of tiny, coconut palm-covered islands in the Pacific Ocean.Skip to next paragraph
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The sun was dawning in the east as Norio prepared a small boat for the day ahead. Then a second sun rose from the west. His life, like those of all Rongelapese, would never be the same.
"The light appeared in the western sky and became bigger and bigger," Mr. Kebenli, now an adult, recalls. "The light was so strong it hurt my eyes. It filled the whole western sky."
A few hours later, thick flakes of radioactive fallout began falling. By the time a US Navy destroyer arrived the next day to evacuate the atoll, people were exhibiting symptoms of radiation poisoning. A hydrogen bomb test on neighboring Bikini Atoll had gone awry, they were told; everyone must leave.
The survivors and their descendants are still waiting to return. The cold war may be over, but here in the Marshall Islands its legacy lives on.
To win the nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union, the United States conducted 67 above-ground nuclear and thermonuclear weapons tests here in the 1940s and 1950s. For decades, those displaced by the tests have fought to secure full compensation for the loss of their homes, health, and loved ones. And most important, for the funds to make their home islands inhabitable again.
Sometime this year, Congress is likely to be asked to do just that. A series of separate legal motions working their way through a special Marshallese court are expected to lead to a final appeal to Washington for the hundreds of millions of dollars the islanders say is required to clean up their atolls to US Environmental Protection Agency standards.
"The tests helped the US win the cold war with the Russians, but now it needs to clean up after itself so that these people can go back home," says Jonathan Weisgall, the Washington attorney who represents the people of Bikini.
The US captured the Marshall Islands from Japan in World War II, then ruled the region until 1986 as part of a United Nations trusteeship. In 1946, the people of Bikini and Enewetak atolls were evacuated to make way for nuclear tests and were told they could return once the testing was completed.
More powerful than Hiroshima
But as the cold war intensified, so did the atomic testing program. The bombs grew larger and more destructive, culminating in a 1954 hydrogen bomb test that rained fallout on neighboring Rongelap. That test, code-named Bravo, was 750 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan.
Detonated over Bikini atoll, the 15-megaton blast vaporized the test island and punched a mile-wide crater in the reef. For decades the Atomic Energy Commission maintained that the contamination of Rongelap was due to a last-minute change in wind direction. But when the relevant documents finally were declassified, they showed that AEC authorities knew the winds had shifted 72 hours before the test.