The evacuation of Rongelap

Page - October 6, 2006
In 1985 the residents of Rongelap in the Marshall Islands asked Greenpeace to help them relocate to a new home. Their island had been contaminated by radioactive fallout from atmospheric nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific.

Evacutaion of Rongelap Islanders to Mejato by crew Rainbow Warrior. Pacific 1985.

Since 1945 most of the world has lived in fear of nuclear war, but for many Pacific Islanders from 1948 to 1956, nuclear war was a reality. In the 8 years of atmospheric nuclear testing at Bikini Atoll, fallout from 66 fission and hydrogen bombs had rained down on their region.

On March 1, 1954, the United States exploded a hydrogen bomb, code named 'Bravo'. At 15 megatons 'Bravo' was a thousand times more powerful than "Little Boy" the bomb dropped on Hiroshima and after the explosion there was a marked increase in the level of background radiation measured around the globe.

The inhabitants of Bikini and Enewetak were evacuated from their island homes prior to the nuclear tests to avoid exposure to radioactive fallout. But the inhabitants of Rongelap 150 kilometres away, were not so fortunate.

Within four hours of the explosion, fallout from Bravo was settling on the island. A fine white ash landed on the heads and bare arms of people standing in the open. It dissolved into water supplies and drifted into houses.

Evacuation of Rongelap Islanders to Mejato by crew of the Rainbow Warrior. Rongelap was contaminated with radioactive fall out from American nuclear tests in the Pacific.

The snow-like debris fell all day and into the evening, covering the ground up to 2 centimetres thick. On the day after the blast, Americans wearing protective suits came to the island. They took readings with a Geiger counter from two wells and left after 20 minutes, without saying a word, according to the islanders.

Although American authorities knew of the fallout pattern and the strong winds that had been blowing towards Rongelap on the day of the test, they made no attempt to evacuate the Islanders for more than 48 hours. Many Marshallese believe the Rongelap Islanders were used by the US as 'guinea pigs' to study the effects of radioactive fallout on humans. Scientists at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York State stated that "The habitation of these people on the island will afford most valuable ecological radiation data on human beings".

The Rongelapese exposed to the tests had all the symptoms of severe radiation sickness: nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, itching and burning of the skin, eyes and mouth. They suffered from skin burns over much of their bodies, and lost much of their hair within two weeks of the Bravo explosion.

Thirty one years on, 95% of the population alive between 1948 and 1954 had contracted thyroid cancer and a high proportion of their children suffered from genetic defects.

The Rongelap people were returned to their island in 1957, in spite of the fact that it had been continually dosed with fallout from nuclear tests during their absence. No 'cleanup' of radiation was ever conducted and In 1979, an aerial radiation study of the northern Marshalls conducted by the US revealed high levels of residual radiation on Rongelap Atoll - in some places even higher than at Bikini itself.

But the US government representative to the Marshall Islands had ruled that Rongelap was still perfectly safe, as long as the people stay away from the northern islands and eat imported tinned food.

The Islanders pleas to the US government to be evacuated had always fallen on deaf ears. So at the request of Rongelap's representative to the Marshall Islands parliament, Greenpeace agreed to take on the task of evacuating the entire population to the safer island of Mejato 180 kilometres away.

'Operation Exodus' was a major departure for Greenpeace, this was not a traditional Greenpeace Style protest, there were no inflatables or banners to hang, there was just the logistic challenge of moving an entire population 180 kilometres in the Pacific.

When the Rainbow Warrior arrived at the seemingly idyllic tropical island on the 17th May, local women sailed out to greet the crew singing Marshallese songs. Other Rongelapese waiting on the beach held up banners that read, "We love the future of our kids."

With all they had heard and read about Rongelap, it was an overwhelming experience for the crew of the Warrior: the realisation that these people who had been living here for thousands of years would probably never see their homes again. For the next few days the Greenpeace crew and the islanders worked together to dismantle the houses and ferry the materials to the Warrior.

The ten day evacuation required 4 trips between the islands and in all, 300 Islanders and over 100 tons of building materials were relocated. When it was time to leave, most of the crew were devastated.  Their experience at Rongelap brought home to them the consequences of nuclear testing on these isolated South Pacific communities and stirred up powerful emotions.