Marshall Islands

Rongelap Revisited

 

In March 1954, the United States detonated a nuclear bomb on Bikini atoll 1,000 times more powerful than the one that incinerated Hiroshima. Radioactive fallout from the bomb landed on a number of neighbouring islands, including Rongelap atoll, 100 miles to the east. This atoll is still too contaminated to be inhabited.

 

           

Operation Bravo fireball

Map of the Marshall Islands with the shaded area indicating
the extent of the radioactive fallout which contaminated Rongelap

A deserted church stands as a stark reminder of
the people who once inhabited the beautiful atoll of Rongelap

Twelve hours before the Bravo blast, the United States officials realized that high-attitude westerly winds would drive the bomb's radioactive fallout over Rongelap atoll. Most Americans who were in danger of exposure were repositioned, however, the local Marshallese population was not.

Two days later with the area covered by the radioactive "snow", the United States government evacuated 82 people from Rongelap. The residents returned after three years having been told that the islands were now safe. However, in 1985 it became apparent that the islands were not safe and the Rongelapese again left the island. During this time, there were a disturbing number of abnormal bursts, thyroid problems and other radiogenic illnesses. The Rongolapese, assisted by the environmental group Greenpeace settled on other islands in the Marshall Group. Rongolap is now a radioactive contaminated ghost town. The main problem is Cesium 137 which permeates the soil and gets absorbed by plants and thus enters the food cycle affecting the people who eat these plants.

The United States government has accepted the responsibility for the damages to Rongelap Islands and has established a forty-five million dollar trust fund to restore the island so that it can again be resettled.

The good news is that the coral reefs and other aquatic life around Rongelap atoll appear to wear no visible scars from Operation Bravo. Flushed twice each day by the Pacific tides, no fishermen have worked these waters since the last evacuation of Rongelap in 1985. Fish appear to have flourished around Rongelap and sharks are plentiful.

   

Left: Crown of thorns cardinal fish can be found living among the spines of the star fish.
Right: The speckled eyes of a coral scallop

Despite the nuclear blasts that have impacted heavily on this region, there appears at least superficially to have been no long-term detrimental impact on the marine life. The extent to which this marine life may be contaminated is still unsure and local fishermen still avoid these waters.

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 (E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 18th December 2008)
      
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