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.
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.
In the 1960s, Washington told the people to Bikini and Rongelap that it was safe for them to return. But while background radiation had dropped to normal levels, radioactive elements remained concentrated in the soil, plants, fish, and fruit, and ultimately in the people themselves.
Doctors ordered a second evacuation of Bikini in 1978, and the environmental group Greenpeace evacuated Rongelap a few years later. "Now they tell us it will be safe for us to go back again, but the people are scared to believe them a second time," says Bikini mayor Tomaki Juda.
Waiting for safe return
For years, the affected islanders have been considering resettlement options. Experts demonstrated how radiation levels could be lowered to scientifically acceptable levels - an annual exposure of 100 millirems per person - as long as people avoided eating large amounts of local food.
"I'd read these reports over and over again, I was more or less comfortable with the 100-millirem level," says Jack Niedenthal, the Bikinian's American-born Trust Liaison, who has a Bikinian wife and children. "It did bother me that it always sounded like an experiment. I mean, how safe can you feel when every month or so you have to tell your eight-year-old daughter that it's time to go get into the whole body [radiation] counter?"
The community remained divided over the issue of whether it would be safe to return. Then last year Enewetak's Honolulu-based attorney, Davor Pevec, discovered that in 1997 the US Environmental Protection Agency had adopted a 15-millirem standard for the resettlement of radiologically contaminated sites in the US.
The standard has since been adopted by the Marshall Islands. One Washington official says while nobody contests that US standards should be applied to the cleanup, "There may be some serious sticker shock when they [Congress] see the numbers."
Mr. Pevec's case, pending before a special Marshallese court, calls for $115 million to remediate the northern half of Enewetak atoll. He's also asking for approximately $310 million for Enewetak's southern islets, resettled in 1979 after a $105 million US cleanup operation.
Bikini has already received $90 million from the US for cleanup and resettlement, but the new standards will require as much as $250 million more, according to Mr. Weisgall. The case, also pending before the Marshallese court, asks for several hundred million dollars in additional compensation for hardship. Similar claims from Rongelap and other atolls are expected to follow.
A ruling by the Marshallese court is expected this year, but the trust fund provided by the US to settle such claims already has been effectively exhausted. That means either the Marshall Islands government or the atoll's separate attorneys must appeal to Congress to pay.
Officials in the Marshall Islands make comparisons to the US cleanup effort at a contaminated nuclear site in Hanaford, Wash. "Congress has spent $12 billion at Hanaford without even putting a shovel in the ground," Weisgall says. "They ought to be over sticker shock by now."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society