Although I have not seen all the films yet, this year’s International Uranium Film Festival did not disappoint. Two films about the Marshall Islands stood out to me; “Children of Strategic Trust” and “Sea Gypsies: The Plutonium Dome.” It is clear that we have not fully acknowledged, apologized, or compensated the people our government coerced into becoming guinea pigs.
The Marshall Islands are in the Pacific Ocean, about halfway between Hawaii and the Philippines. Enewetak and Bikini atolls in the Marshall Islands were testing grounds for US atomic, hydrogen, and thermonuclear weapons between 1946 to 1962.
Nuclear weapons testing by the United States exposed the Marshallese people and US soldiers to radiation. While the United States evacuated residents of Bikini atoll before the bombing commenced, nuclear fallout reached people on nearby islands like Rongelap, where they suffered acute radiation syndrome (diarrhea, vomiting, hair loss, skin burns). The people of Rongelap were evacuated after the fact but allowed to return prematurely in 1957.
The results were devastating: increased miscarriages; stillbirths; babies born without bones; babies born with their brains exposed. About ten years after the first tests, people began developing thyroid tumors and leukemia. US scientists wrote, “The habitation of these people on the island will afford most valuable ecological radiation data on human beings.”
Regardless of the health impacts, the US government ignored appeals by Jeton Anjain, Senator and Health Minister to the Marshall Islands, to evacuate people from Rongelap. In 1985 with the help of Greenpeace, the people of Rongelap evacuated to Mejato island.
The US Government has also ignored Marshallese appeals for financial compensation. The 1990 Radiation Exposure Compensation compensates American civilians who were physically present in any “affected area” downwind areas during the periods of atmospheric testing at the Nevada Test Site.
Recently the House passed a two-year extension of RECA (the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act), which was to expire this year. It’s awaiting President Biden’s signature now. In this latest iteration of RECA, Enewetak and Bikini atolls are included but the eligibility requirements are very narrow. For the Marshallese nuclear test “participants” it states: “A person may be eligible for RECA benefits if he or she was present onsite and participated in an atmospheric atomic weapons test conducted by the United States and meets the specific geographic and participation requirements provided in the RECA regulations.”
Something tells me there aren’t too many people left who qualify, and it’s too little, too late. We need to do better if we want to claim to be the beacon of democracy and morality.