Acceptance speech – Senator Jeton Anjain / The Rongelap People

Anjain has set the stage for the Rongelap people to regain the dignity that has escaped them since [atomic tests] became part of their lexicon, unleashing a nightmare that has lasted nearly 40 years.

On behalf of the People of Rongelap, I humbly thank you for having honored us with the 1991 Right Livelihood Award. It is a great honor; one that we shall cherish forever.

I will share with you the story of Rongelap and our struggle ‑ a struggle which has just recently born fruit. However, I will ask before this story begins that the Right Livelihood Foundation and those gathered here this evening in Stockholm understand that the Rongelap story, the Rongelap peoples’ fight for justice is not over. We have many fights still ahead.

Because of the ongoing nature of our struggle, the significance for Rongelap in having been honored by the Right Livelihood Award is that it empowers us to continue in our efforts for justice, for freedom, and for a safe return home for our children one day.

Our story:


The Marshall Islands
“Bravo” and the Early Years

In 1954 eighty‑two people of Rongelap Atoll in the Marshall Islands were exposed to high (near lethal) radiation fallout doses from the “Bravo” nuclear weapons test. “Bravo” was the first “deliverable” hydrogen bomb test by the U.S. It was also the largest nuclear weapons device ever exploded by the U.S.

The “Bravo” hydrogen bomb was unique in at least two other respects: It was encased in plutonium; and it was especially designed to maximize fallout.

Immediately following “Bravo”, the Atomic Energy Commission labeled the exposure of Marshallese downwind as an “accident” that had resulted from an “unexpected” shift in the prevailing wind patterns. HOWEVER, in a Defense Department document released in 1982, it was revealed for the first time that the winds did not suddenly shift at the last minute, but that at the upper levels they were known at the time to be blowing directly toward Rongelap! In the words of that DOD report:

“The midnight briefing indicated less favorable winds at 10,000 to 25,000 foot levels. Winds at 20,000 feet were headed for Rongelap to the east. At 0430 ‘no significant changes’ in the winds had occurred.”

Two hours later “Bravo” was detonated.

The people were removed from Rongelap several days after “Bravo”. They were returned in 1957, along with approximately two hundred additional Rongelapese who had not been on Rongelap in 1954. The people were assured that Rongelapwas now “safe”.

The Return to Rongelap

“Safe” it was Not

Serious questions have surfaced, based upon review of now declassified AEC documents, about whether Rongelap was in fact safe, or whether the AEC had other objectives in mind at the time the decision was made to return the people in the mid 1950’s.

During discussion of the Marshall Islands fallout problem in January of 1956, one of the leading scientists with the AEC Advisory Committee on Biology & Medicine (a Dr. Merrill Eisenbud) made the following remarks:

“We think that one very intriguing study can be made and plans are on the way to implement this [concerning Rongelap and Utrik (which is slightly further to the east)]
“[I]t will be very interesting to go back and get good environmental data, how many per square mile; what isotopes are involved and a sample of food changes in many humans through their urine, so as to get a measure of the human uptake when people live in a contaminated environment.
“Now, data of this type has never been available. While it is true that these people do not live, I would say, the way Westerners do, civilized people, it is nevertheless also true that these people are more like us than the mice.” (emphasis added)

When finally the decision was made to return the Rongelap people to their homeland in 1957, the only expressed reservation of the AEC’s scientists and doctors was focused on the possible adverse impact a subsequent re‑evacuation might have on the military’s nuclear weapons testing program:

“It is the opinion of the ACBM [AEC’s Advisory Committee on Biology & Medicine] that if it should become necessary to re‑evacuate because of further tests, there would result world opinion unfavorable to the continuation of weapons testing.”

Since their return, the AEC (now the U.S. Department of Energy) has done exactly what Dr. Eisenbud proposed in 1956 ‑ they have studied the environmental and health effects of this tragedy.

There has been a significant increase in thyroid problems, particularly among the Rongelap children, a number of cancer deaths, and previously unexperienced difficulties for many of the women in giving birth to normal children.

The AEC/DOE has repeatedly assured the people that their problems are not caused by radiation and that their homeland is safe. The DOE is supposed to be providing medical assistance. However, a great deal of mistrust of the DOE has developed among the Rongelap people, particularly after a leukemia death of one of the children in the mid‑’70’s.

The Question Having Haunted Rongelap for Almost 40 years,
The People Moved into Exile.

Ever since they were relocated back to Rongelap in 1957, the people have repeatedly asked, “Is Rongelap Atoll Safe?”.

Finally, in 1983 Rongelap was presented with the results of the a DOE 1978 radiological survey of the northern Marshall Islands. All we needed to see was the center fold‑out and our worst fears were confirmed! Rongelap Island, our principal island of residence since our return in 1957, had been assigned a level “3” of contamination ‑‑ the same as had islands of Bikini and Enewetak which the AEC/DOE had previously declared unsafe for human habitation.

Our people became alarmed.

We asked to be removed to safety.

We requested an independent radiological study.

Nothing happened.

The only thing we heard was (again) DOE assurances that Rongelap was “safe”; that there was no cause for alarm.

In 1985, with neither help nor studies forthcoming, the Rongelap people moved into exile. This was by no means an easy decision, for our people knew that it might mean they and their children would never again know life on their ancestral homeland of the last 4,000 years. But the safety of our children and the unborn was more important; so we moved.

When we moved, we were damned. Especially were we damned by those within DOE’s Office of Defense Programs and DOE’s Nevada Operations Office. We did not at the time know why. We were only trying to protect our children ‑‑ and nothing more. Even so we were accused of being unwitting “pawns” of antinuclear activists.

The Rongelap people entered self‑imposed exile on the belief that Rongelap was not safe, and that the Department of Energy was not telling us the truth about radiation ‑‑ either with respect to its contamination of the lands and environment of Rongelap Atoll, or as to its impact upon the people.

Our request to the United States at the time, and ever since, has been a simple one: We asked that Congress provide sufficient funds for an independent and comprehensive study of our lands, so that the truth as to what nuclear testing left on our lands might be determined.


The Beginning of A New Day for Rongelap

From 1980 until but recently, the DOE’s Marshall Islands radiation health and environmental programs was under the jurisdiction and management of DOE’s Office of Defense Programs. In response to Rongelap’s concerns, our efforts to protect our children, and our desire to learn the truth about the extent of the contamination of our ancestral homeland, DOE Defense Programs madly scrambled to produce one new DOE report after another “proving” that Rongelap was “safe”. At the same time, DOE’s Defense Programs sought to stifle every Rongelap initiative designed to gain an independent evaluation of this declaration.

Rongelap did not understand, nor could we comprehend WHY we were the focus of such determined DOE opposition; for it appeared to us that if Rongelap was as safe as Defense Programs declared, DOE would welcome independent verification. Then, in early 1990, we were made aware of the DOE “Safeguard C” defense readiness program in the Marshall Islands:

We learned that the Department of Energy, and the AEC in previous years, operationally subordinated all Marshall Islands radiation, medical and environmental programs, and all DOE laboratory programs to a defense readiness program for the resumption of atmospheric nuclear weapons testing, code‑named “Safeguard C”.

“Safeguard C”, according to a 1982 DOE memorandum, “requires the U.S. to maintain the capability to resume atmospheric nuclear weapons testing.” The DOE memorandum declared that, “much of the field effort in the Marshall Islands is an exercise of the expeditionary capability which is an important aspect of [DOE] Defense Programs’ Safeguard ‘C’.”

From this 1982 document and others since provided, it became apparent that the plight of the Rongelap People, as far as DOE Defense Programs was concerned, necessarily fell second to U.S. national security interests related to maintaining the “Safeguard C” program.

Upon this information being brought to the attention of the U.S. Congress, certain committees of the Congress initiated investigation. Senator John Glenn, in a September 14, 1990 submission to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, as part of that committee’s report on the Threshold Test Ban Treaty and the Treaty on Peaceful Nuclear Explosions, noted his concern about the adverse impact “Safeguard C” had had upon the Marshall Islands programs:

“The Marshall Islands medical program was integrated into this test readiness safeguard in 1982, raising serious policy and management questions. This integration resulted in the effective deregulation of radiation health and safety policies in the Marshall Islands.”

Fortunately DOE Secretary Admiral James Watkins and Members of the U.S. Congress (lead by Senator John Glenn), recognized the problem and took steps to correct it. In August of last year and at Rongelap’s insistence, the DOE’s Marshall Islands radiation health and environmental programs were statutorily transferred from the DOE Office of Defense Programs to the civilian side of DOE, to the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Environment, Safety and Health.

Rongelap is pleased to report that this transfer, which took several months to subsequently complete, has resulted in a new attitude by the U.S. Government towards the Rongelap situation ‑‑ one of responsibility and genuine concern.

As a result of the changes that have occurred with respect to the management of DOE’S Marshall Islands radiological programs, Rongelap has experienced a spirit within the Department of Energy of openness, cooperation, understanding and support.

Most importantly, Rongelap’s quest for truth has finally begun to bear fruit.

However, our quest is not over. We have gained U.S. Congressional support and funding for the independent radiological assessment we have these many years sought. We are now in the process of selecting our scientists. An independent and comprehensive study of our ancestral homeland, and of the people and the effect the radiation poison has had upon them, is about to commence.

However, only upon successful completion of that study will we know the complete truth.

Only then will we know whether Rongelap is safe, or whether it must be cleaned up in order to be made safe.

Only then can we rest assured in the promise that our children, and their children, will grow up knowing what it means to say, “I am Rongelap!”

Rongelap Community
att: James Matayoshi
P.O. Box 1766
Majur, MH 96 960