From the Archives: August 1983

ON MARCH 1, 1954, at 6:45 a.m., the U.S. government detonated a 15-megaton hydrogen bomb in the Bikini Atoll. Within a few hours, the ash-like radioactive fallout from the “Bravo” test explosion began to descend on the nearby inhabited atolls of Rongelap and Rongerik. An Air Force witness said the fallout resembled “a snowstorm in the middle of the Pacific.”

A two-inch-deep layer of radioactive dust accumulated on Rongelap, contaminating its food supply and drinking water. Children playing in the powder experienced skin eruptions on their arms and faces. By the end of the day, the residents of Rongelap had begun to exhibit the symptoms of acute radiation exposure: burns, severe vomiting, diarrhea, and hair loss.

The islanders were not evacuated from Rongelap until two days after the blast. They and other Marshallese people have suffered the insidious long-term effects of radiation exposure because of the contamination of their land and the cumulative effects of radiation on their bodies. For example, the rate of stillbirths and miscarriages among Rongelap women who were exposed to the fallout rose to more than twice the rate in unexposed Marshallese women for the four years following the Bravo detonation. ...

More than 2,000 Marshallese people were contaminated with radiation, becoming unwilling laboratory specimens for the U.S. government’s gruesome nuclear experiments. 

Liane Rozzell was a Sojourners editorial assistant when this article appeared.

Image: Nuclear mushroom rising over the land, Dariush M / Shutterstock.com

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