Hawaii Congressman Mark Takai pushes to compensate military personnel exposed to radioactive soil and debris in the Marshall Islands.
From 1946 to 1958, 67 nuclear weapons were detonated in the Marshall Islands. Enewetak Atoll and Bikini Atoll took the brunt of the damage, including evaporation of entire islands, long-term contamination of the soil and the forced evacuation of the Marshallese who lived there.
Bikini and Enewetak cancer rates among many islanders are far higher than elsewhere. The U.S. government paid the survivors about $270 million for injuries and property damage, although it’s estimated that adequate compensation would exceed $2 billion.
Military veterans like Androl, however, who were assigned to Enewetak to support the cleanup of the islands, received no additional compensation from the U.S. government.
As many as 8,000 Americans may have been exposed to radiation during the cleanup from 1977 to 1980. While they were issued personal film badges and dosimeters to monitor cumulative radiation doses from ionized radiation, Androl said the detectors were often faulty — for example, when exposed to the moisture and humidity that is typical in the tropics.
The service members (mostly Army along with some Air Force and Navy) were also not issued protective body suits. Because of the weather, they typically wore only boots and socks, hats, shorts and T-shirts or no shirts at all. And yet, many of them shoveled contaminated soil that was deposited into a large concrete crater later capped by an 18-inch-thick concrete dome.
“We did not really know the history of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so we didn’t know much about radiation,” said Androl. “We were young, and we believed our government.”
In November, legislation spearheaded by U.S. Rep. Mark Takai, a Hawaii Democrat and a veteran himself, was introduced to help the Enewetak survivors.
The Atomic Veterans Healthcare Parity Act calls for extending an existing law that elevated the status of care for “atomic veterans” — those who helped clean up nuclear sites in Japan and the Marshalls in the 1940s and ’50s — to include service members who participated in cleanup operations on Enewetak.
Takai’s office estimates that Enewetak cleanup veterans have a 35 percent cancer rate and are found across the U.S., including in Hawaii.
Still, veterans like Androl say it can be difficult to navigate all the requirements, especially proving that they were exposed while on the job.
Recent reports underscore that the dome and its surroundings on Enewetak remain dangerous.
For example, The Guardian reported in July that the dome, which holds 111,000 cubic yards of debris, is leaking. It also cites the World Health Organization, which said the dome was designed as a temporary fix — “a way to store contaminated material until a permanent decontamination plan was devised.”
In another report last year, by Public Radio International, visitors were monitored by the U.S. Department of Energy to determine if they were exposed to any radiation. The monitoring included urine tests. The DOE also provided face masks to “protect from the inhalation of irradiated dust particles” while a Geiger counter “would monitor for dangerous levels of radiation.”
Asked about the the “atomic veterans,” Thomas Armbruster, the U.S. ambassador to the Republic of the Marshall Islands, said via email, “I am aware of the group. I don’t have a comment on their campaign but here are a couple of things you can use if you like on Runit and the Nuclear Legacy.”
Read more at Nuclear Victims: Will We Help Vets Who Cleaned Up After Atomic Blasts?