The Poison and the Tomb via Mashable

Between 1946 and 1958, the U.S. nuked the Marshall Islands 67 times: The effects could be compared to dropping 1.6 Hiroshima bombs every day for 12 years. When the tests ended in 1958, forced displacement and radiation poisoning had already changed the nation irrevocably. The Marshallese had no words then for the horrors that would result, like poison and cancer. Now, they face a new problem: the Armageddon of rising sea levels due to climate change. Yet another deluge of scientific terms washes over the islanders –some simply call it the “changing clouds.”


“We’re just taking a leap of faith and trying to do what we think is best,” says Brooke, nauseous and drowsy from seasickness pills. “Of course I have fears about bringing my young children to a place that may not be suitable. Am I putting them in harm’s way? Most likely, but I also think that that harm is already inside both my husband and me.”

On Enewetak, she’ll research the atoll’s traditional ways of passing on knowledge — what’s left of it, 43 nuclear bombs later — for her doctorate degree in sustainable education at the University of the South Pacific. An activist at heart, she has visions of addressing the United Nations about the injustices committed here.

“Of course, I’m scared of radiation, but it’s a tradeoff,” Brooke had said a few days earlier, seated in a waiting room of the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) lab in Majuro, studying the charts and graphs of radionuclide levels in populations across the nation. “We need to go back to bring the world’s attention to Enewetak and to the rest of the Marshall Islands.”


Enewetak Atoll was just what the Americans had been looking for in a nuclear testing site: sparsely populated, equipped with a gigantic Japanese-built airstrip, and sufficiently far from major shipping lanes while still close enough for supplies from Hawaii.

While bombing Bikini, VIPs, American politicians, and the media treated the tests like a Hollywood spectacle. Seen as a small price to win the Cold War, Americans celebrated it as a manifestation of the nation’s greatness: Cakes were baked in the shape of mushroom clouds, Miss Atomic beauty contests were held, and a new scandalous bathing suit was named after a nuclear testing site. In Enewetak, the Americans didn’t bother asking for permission.


As money ran dry, the clean-up efforts came to an end prematurely — only three out of 40 islands were deemed safe for human resettlement. Enjebi, another island in the north of the atoll and one of Enewetak’s former population clusters, was left half-finished, though its heirs were offered the chance to return anyway, with restrictions: eat only one coconut a day, elevate cookhouses to at least two to three feet above ground, constantly wear rubber boots. Resettlement plans were indefinitely stalled when the islanders refused. Though Aati and Aapo are the rightful heirs to the land, Brooke doesn’t dare take them there.

 The plutonium isotopes (Pu-239) that contaminate the atoll have a half-life of 24,100 years. This is another contrast to the so-called Pacific Proving Grounds’ two test-sites: Whereas Bikini’s radioactive contamination consisting mainly of Cesium (Cs-137) will have decayed within a generation, Enewetak’s plutonium will be hot for much, much longer.


Though Runit contains a multitude of deadly radioactive isotopes, Brooke’s Geiger counter, a gift from a friend, stays silent as she brushes it over plants and rocks. The alpha-radiation of plutonium — Enewetak’s biggest problem — is best monitored via soil or urine samples.

Plutonium (Pu-239) is not a very mobile radionuclide, it mainly clings to sediments and likely doesn’t end up in Enewetak’s drinking water or wells. It’s also not as likely to end up in the food chain as cesium. Instead, Pu-239 enters the human body primarily through inhalation of irradiated dust, where it is stored in the lungs, liver, and skeleton for a lifetime of wreaking havoc.


Though Buesseler and his team only tested soil that’s underwater, he’s still concerned about people digging in contaminated grounds on the islands: “For people digging for copper there, that’s exactly what you don’t want to do is inhale dust with plutonium. I certainly would not want to be digging around.”

The DOE’s contracted scientist, Hamilton, who visits the atoll regularly, reassures the local population that Enewetak’s plutonium levels are normal; that living with a leaking nuclear waste site in your backyard doesn’t pose any health risks. Yet, the DOE, according to local employees, keeps separate lists of those they know dig for copper.


Enewetak’s trees are dwarfed. Every palm or breadfruit tree is younger than 38 years old: The trees that survived the bombings were cut down in the Big Scrape, the three-year cleanup process that started in 1977 and culminated in the construction of the Dome. When the Americans finished, they gave the islanders a tour of the lingering debris, Takaji remembers, asking if they still wanted to return or settle on new, clean land in Hawaii. The islanders voted to stay.

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