In Pa­cific, in­creas­ing ten­sions evoke nu­clear legacy

Bikini Atoll still con­tam­i­nated by ra­di­a­tion from tests

Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend - - NATION & WORLD -

WELLING­TON, New Zealand — As a young boy grow­ing up on Bikini Atoll, Al­son Ke­len spent idyl­lic days play­ing on the beach and fish­ing.

His grand­fa­ther built ca­noes and his fa­ther tended the land. With fewer than 150 peo­ple on the re­mote Pa­cific is­land it was a close com­mu­nity, he says, with few signs of the for­mer

U. S. nu­clear test­ing pro­gram other than the con­crete bunkers he was told to avoid and the sunken ships in the la­goon.

But in 1978, when Ke­len was 10, of­fi­cials re­lo­cated every­body. It turned out they’d been pre­ma­ture in declar­ing the Mar­shall Is­lands atoll safe again for hu­mans. Ra­di­a­tion lev­els were still dan­ger­ously high.

More than 70 years af­ter the first tests, the atoll re­mains con­tam­i­nated to­day. It’s part of a trou­bling nu­clear legacy that con­tin­ues to af­fect is­lands and peo­ple across the Pa­cific long af­ter the U. S., Bri­tain and France stopped their test­ing pro­grams there.

As nu­clear ten­sions rise in the Asia- Pa­cific re­gion, and in the South Pa­cific in par­tic­u­lar, Ke­len and oth­ers are re­flect­ing on that legacy anew.

North Korea has dis­cussed test­ing a hy­dro­gen bomb in the Pa­cific af­ter ear­lier fir­ing a mis­sile over Ja­pan and threat­en­ing Guam. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has threat­ened to “to­tally de­stroy North Korea” if pro­voked and called leader Kim Jong Un “Rocket Man.” The dic­ta­tor has re­sponded by call­ing Trump a “men­tally de­ranged U. S. dotard.”

Ke­len says that if the threats do es­ca­late to a nu­clear test or even an at­tack, “it would be a huge, huge dis­as­ter.”

The 49- year- old says he has no idea if his ex­po­sure to ra­di­a­tion dur­ing the four years he lived on Bikini as a boy has af­fected his health. He says sci­en­tists used to test him and his family reg­u­larly, but stopped within a cou­ple of years of them leav­ing the atoll.

Sci­en­tists have cal­cu­lated that about 1.6 per­cent of all can­cers de­vel­oped by Mar­shallese peo­ple ex­posed to ra­di­a­tion can be at­trib­uted to the nu­clear tests. For some is­lan­ders who were close to the blasts, the rate rises to 55 per­cent.

The nu­clear tests ex­acted an enor­mous so­cial toll on Bikini res­i­dents and their chil­dren, who are now scat­tered across the Mar­shall Is­lands and be­yond and have been left with­out a home­land. Ke­len says they’ve lost the an­ces­tral land that’s cen­tral to their iden­tity.

“Ninety per­cent of Bikini­ans have never seen Bikini. It’s a leg­end; it’s a fairy tale,” he said. “They know more about Hawaii and the U. S. main­land than Bikini.”

The U. S. gov­ern­ment first asked Bikini res­i­dents to leave tem­po­rar­ily in 1946. It then con­ducted a series of tests over a dozen years, in­clud­ing det­o­nat­ing a mas­sive hy­dro­gen bomb hun­dreds of times more pow­er­ful than the nu­clear bombs the U. S. dropped on Ja­pan dur­ing World War II.

The in­hab­i­tants were moved to other is­lands that proved in­hos­pitable. Ke­len’s family even­tu­ally ended up in Ma­juro, the cap­i­tal. He says his par­ents al­ways planned to re­turn to Bikini but got to spend just four years there be­fore be­ing told to leave again. Ke­len’s fa­ther died two years ago and his mother, now 93, is too old to travel.

“They told us we were re­lo­cated from Bikini for the good of mankind, to bring peace to the world. But I think nu­clear is the same as cli­mate change,” Ke­len said. “It ben­e­fits the big coun­tries and ru­ins the small coun­tries.”

Bikini res­i­dents have re­ceived some com­pen­sa­tion from the United States. But many peo­ple, in­clud­ing Mar­shall Is­lands Pres­i­dent Hilda Heine, say it’s not enough.

Heine said in a speech this year that the re­moval of the Bikini res­i­dents pro­duced “in­con­solable grief, ter­ror and right­eous anger” that hadn’t di­min­ished in the seven decades since, and had been ex­ac­er­bated by the U. S. be­ing dis­hon­est about the ex­tent of the ra­di­a­tion and its ef­fects.


A huge mush­room cloud rose above Bikini Atoll in the Mar­shall Is­lands af­ter an atomic test blast on July 25, 1946. Nu­clear tests by the U.S., Bri­tain and France con­tinue to af­fect is­lands and peo­ple across the Pa­cific.


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