nuclear weapons

[OPINION] The fates of Enewetak Atoll and its people after the nuclear tests

Kelvin S. Rodolfo

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[OPINION] The fates of Enewetak Atoll and its people after the nuclear tests

Screenshot from United Nations video

'By late 2019, only 650 people remained on Enewetak. Much of its soil and waters had been poisoned. Its vegetables are believed to be radioactive.'

The following is the 34th in a series of excerpts from Kelvin Rodolfo’s ongoing book project “Tilting at the Monster of Morong: Forays Against the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant and Global Nuclear Energy.

In 1947, to clear Enewetak for the bomb tests, the 145 dri-Enewetak people were exiled to Ujelong Atoll, some 300 kilometers to the south-southwest. With a much smaller lagoon and less than a tenth as big as Enewetak, Ulejong provided much fewer fish and vegetables. Besides hunger, the people suffered illnesses. But by 1973 their population had almost tripled anyway. They desperately wanted to go home.

In 1977 they were returned to their home atoll. The dri-Enjebi couldn’t really go “home,” of course; Enjebi will be lethally radioactive, essentially forever.   

When the last person ever born on Enjebi dies, the dri-Enjebi will be extinct.

The southern part of the atoll isn’t radioactive. Testing had been headquartered there because the trade winds almost always blew the radioactive clouds safely away westward. And so 75 dri-Enewetak refugees were resettled on Japtan Island, another 350 on nearby Enewetak Island.

Enewetak couldn’t support that many people, so about a hundred returned to Ujelang. But it was still inhospitable, so they returned to Enewetak in 1989. Ujelang is now permanently uninhabited.

In 1983, three years before the Republic of the Marshall Islands was granted independence, a “Compact of Free Association” had already given the Marshallese many American privileges except citizenship. The Compact includes free access to the US, so many moved to Hawaii. Surprisingly, about 15,000 now live in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. 

The US military didn’t entirely let go of the RMI; the Reagan Missile Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll is a key installation in its missile-defense network.

By late 2019, only 650 people remained on Enewetak. Much of its soil and waters had been poisoned. Its vegetables are believed to be radioactive. For the same reason, local dried fish and copra can’t be sold. No one remembers how to make korkor and tipnol, the fishing canoes.   

One source of income has been copper wire, scrounged from around Runit. The scroungers die young from cancer. As copper gets scarcer, a safer source of income is seashells that Chinese buy for mother-of-pearl jewelry.

Deprived of their traditional livelihood, the Marshallese must depend on the US. In 1988 the US and Republic of the Marshall Islands formed a joint Tribunal that assessed the $2.44 billion to compensate the Marshallese. But the US had paid out only about $4 million by 2019.

Each Marshallese gets only about $100 a year, so many are deeply in debt. Every several months a ship from the US arrives with flour, Spam and other canned goods. This alien diet causes obesity – and diabetes, now second only to cancer as the top cause of death.  

Like most Marshallese, many from Enewetak have relocated to two small urban areas. As of 2020, the Marshall Island population was 59,190. Of these, 25,400 were on Majuro Atoll in the southern Marshalls. Another 15,000 resided in the town of Ebaye on Kwajalien Atoll in the center of the country. 

Marshallese culture has been shredded as badly as the island ecology and environment. Replacing traditional ways of livelihood with a supplemental food program takes away dignity and sense of purpose. Urbanization entices the young with modern things like the internet, but offers no gainful employment. No wonder the Marshallese now have high suicide and alcoholism rates. 

Perhaps worst, being detached from the precious bits of land they used to pass down through the maternal line has badly damaged the status of women. In the urban centers Marshallese women are now victims of rape and sexual oppression.

Global warming, rising sea levels, and the fate of the Marshallese

After 15th century Spanish diseases, German copra monoculture, Japanese military colonization, World War II devastation, nuclear environmental and cultural destruction, and forced dependence on US food…what does the future have in store for the dri-Enewetak, other Marshallese, and all the other people widely scattered across Micronesia?

Micronesians have contributed hardly anything to the global warming that is slowly destroying their habitats. Reef-building corals need ocean-surface temperatures between 23 and 28° C. Even a little warmer for only a few weeks bleaches them.   

Corals owe their lovely pastel colors to algae that shelter within them and generate their food. Warming the seawater causes the corals to expel the algae. They don’t return if the warming lasts too long, so the corals starve and die.This series of photos were taken in American Samoa during an abnormal warm spell in 2015.

The greenhouse CO2 from fossil fuels that warms the globe attacks marine life in another way. A third of the fossil-fuel CO2 is absorbed by the ocean, making carbonic acid, which makes it ever more difficult for organisms like corals to extract calcium carbonate out of seawater for their shells. 

And so in our times the grand, slow-motion collaboration between geological and biological processes that began to build Enewetak Atoll 50 or more million years ago may well come to an end.

Global warming raises sea level in two ways. The first we all know: meltwaters from glaciers and polar icecaps flows into the ocean. The other is less known: about half of the rise is because water swells a little as it heats up.  

On average, global sea level rose 6.1 millimeters from 2018 to 2019, the fastest rate ever measured. In the warmer area of the Marshall Islands the rise is a bit faster – seven or eight millimeters per year.  

If sea-level rise were the only thing destroying the Marshalls, the islands could expect to survive at least through this century. But rising sea levels is not their only problem from climate change. The most intense typhoons are becoming more frequent; they bring storm surges and waves that wash entirely over the atolls, destroying houses and infrastructure.

For their water, the Marshallese have always dug shallow wells into island crests where rainwater soaks the soil and sands. Salt water from surges and waves are destroying this most vital resource.  

As things are going, Enewetak, all the Marshalls atolls – and indeed all of Pacific Micronesia – will no longer be habitable by about 2050.

But let’s end with a ray of hope. If humanity is to survive the Fifth Extinction brought about by the climate change of its own making, it will only be if the young people of the world successfully confront and overcome its addiction to fossil fuel and the global warming it feeds. One of its most persuasive European voices is Sweden’s Greta Thunberg.  

A Marshallese whose activism started a decade before Thunberg’s continues to flourish: Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner, she of the poem “Annointed” about Runit and its dome. At the opening ceremony of the United Nations Climate Summit in 2014, she read her poem addressed to her infant daughter, “Dear Matafele Peinem,” in defense of all the island people of Oceania, of Pacific Micronesia.

There is no better way to end this foray than to listen to what she has to say:

[OPINION] The fates of Enewetak Atoll and its people after the nuclear tests

Our next foray is about the threats that radioactive wastes pose for the distant future. –

Born in Manila and educated at UP Diliman and the University of Southern California, Dr. Kelvin Rodolfo taught geology and environmental science at the University of Illinois at Chicago since 1966. He specialized in Philippine natural hazards since the 1980s.

Keep posted on Rappler for the next installment of Rodolfo’s series.

Previous pieces from Tilting at the Monster of Morong:

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