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Nuclear survivors fearful of US demand to return home

Fifty-six years after a US hydrogen bomb blast exposed Pacific islanders on Rongelap Atoll to radioactive fallout and forced them from their homes, the United States has given them an ultimatum to return.

world Updated: Mar 04, 2010 13:08 IST

Fifty-six years after a US hydrogen bomb blast exposed Pacific islanders on Rongelap Atoll to radioactive fallout and forced them from their homes, the United States has given them an ultimatum to return.

Washington wants the roughly 400 islanders living in a "temporary" community on Kwajalein Atoll, also part of the Marshall Islands, to return by October 2011 and has threatened otherwise to cut off their funding.

But as much as they want to go back to their necklace of coral islands in the Western Pacific, the Rongelap people say the risk of radiation poisoning means it is not yet safe to do so.

"I don't want to return to Rongelap," says Lemeyo Abon, the 70-year-old president of the nuclear survivors group.

"I am afraid. If we go back it will be our death. Is it the United States' intention to eliminate us?"

Abon heads Erub, an acronym for the four nuclear test-affected islands Enewetak, Rongelap, Utrik and Bikini, and in Marshallese, the word "erub" means damaged or broken.

On March 1 each year, the Marshall Islands mark Nuclear Victims Day, a national holiday on the anniversary of the 1954 Bravo hydrogen bomb test.

When the 15-megaton Bravo was detonated at Bikini Atoll there was no warning for the people on Rongelap and other islands downwind of the blast.

A snowstorm of radioactivity exposed the unsuspecting islanders to a near lethal dose of radiation, causing vomiting, skin burns and their hair to fall out -- classic symptoms of high-level radiation exposure.

The majority of islanders have had thyroid tumors and cancers and many of their children were stillborn or with defects and other health problems.

They were evacuated 48 hours after the Bravo test but returned three years later and remained at Rongelap until 1985, when they evacuated the atoll.

Now, they are being told by the United States to go home for good.

Over the past 10 years, Washington has paid 45 million dollars to build a power plant on Rongelap, install water desalination equipment, pave roads and build nine of a planned 50 homes for resettlement.

On the advice of US government scientists, land where community facilities and houses are located has had the top 40 centimetres (16 inches) of soil scraped off and replaced by crushed coral.

Agricultural land has been doused with potassium fertilizer to prevent the roots of food crops drawing up radioactive cesium-137.

These measures would mean the radiation dose at Rongelap "would be less than the usual background dose in the United States and Europe," said Terry Hamilton of the California-based Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

With millions of dollars invested in the clean up, US congressional leaders want to see Rongelap resettled and the temporary settlement on Kwajalein Atoll, around 250 kilometres (150 miles) to the south, closed.

Patricia Worthington, who heads the US Department of Energy's health and safety office in Washington, says the department wants to set up a safety monitoring programme in partnership with the local Rongelap government.

But US assurances are questioned by the Rongelap islanders.

"It is very hard for me to trust and believe any word that is said by Americans after what the United States and the Department of Energy has done to us," says Abon. "What they did to us is criminal."

Rongelap mayor James Matayoshi, whose mother was on Rongelap during the Bravo fallout, questions the resettlement timeframe.

A successful resettlement required further US commitments to provide safeguards and assurances, and Rongelap people's acceptance of these assurances, he said.

Several of the 60 small islands in Rongelap Atoll were previously used for food production, but the nuclear clean-up has focused only on the main island.

Abon argues that because only a small area has been cleansed, resettlement is impossible as the population has grown significantly and they will need more islands than before to live on.

The availability of imported food was also a concern for the remote area, which receives visits from government ships once every three or four months.

If a supply ship is delayed the islanders "will be forced to eat off the land", says Abon.

"The poison is there even if you can't taste, smell or see it."