Imagine trying to win public approval for the following scenario: detonate a hydrogen bomb in a remote region of the Pacific that has little contact with the outside world, in meteorological conditions guaranteed to spread radioactive contamination for hundreds of miles, then refuse to evacuate those affected for days finally taking the affected communities to research facilities for extensive and intrusive testing.
Then a few years later, dump the test subjects back on their irradiated island with false promises that all the mess has been cleaned up. Then study them some more, charting the long-term effects of nuclear exposure on the human body all in the name of “national security”.
You might think that such a proposal would be condemned as plainly immoral. Surely no civilised nation with claims to an ethical foreign policy would ever indulge in such a cold, calculated act of mass human experimentation.
Yet this is precisely what the United States imposed on the Marshall Islands, part of Micronesia in the Pacific Ocean, with the “Castle Bravo” event 60 years ago.
After wresting the islands from the occupying Japanese in World War II, the US kept control of the territory. It quietly cordoned it off from international scrutiny in preparation for a series of atomic tests that lasted from 1946 to 1962.
A total of 67 blasts took place in and around the once-pristine and idyllic Bikini Atoll. This left it the most radioactive site on earth.
The tests condemned the indigenous inhabitants — described as “savages” in official US newsreels of the era and still treated with thinly-veiled contempt by Washington today — to decades of displacement, intense physical suffering and profound mental anguish.
The forced moving of entire population groups began with the first tests in 1946. This led to starvation as islanders were re-located to barren atolls unfavourable for human habitation.
It was a human rights scandal that shocked some US observers who witnessed it first hand. Few Americans heard what was going on, however, thanks to the efficient Cold War propaganda and censorship machine.
Then came the “Day with two suns” on March 1, 1954 the day of Castle Bravo, the code name for the US test a dry fuel hydrogen bomb. Before the detonation, a deliberate decision was made to excise certain areas from the fallout danger zone, including the atolls of Rongelap, Rongerik and Ailinginae.
Although weather reports were indicating that high altitude winds would carry the fallout eastward from Bikini over inhabited areas, the test went ahead anyway.
With an unexpectedly high yield of 15 megatons (about 1000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima blast), Bravo was the most powerful device ever exploded by the US.
A few hours later, millions of tons of pulverised coral and other debris started to fall on Rongelap in the form of a fine powdery ash. The entire island was coated in a highly radioactive layer nearly five centimetres thick.
US military personnel were rapidly evacuated from nearby Rongerik, but there was no immediate evacuation of the Rongelap community of nearly 250 people.
For the next two days, no warning was given to the residents, who were often exposed to this unnatural nuclear “snow” as they went about their business.
Soon, there was uncontrollable vomiting all over the island. Rashes and burns developed, hair started falling out in thick clumps.
Without their knowledge or consent, the men, women and children of Rongelap had been turned into human guinea pigs. A government-sponsored experiment had swung into action. It was called Project 4.1, described by its creators as “The Study of Response of Human Beings Exposed to Significant Beta and Gamma Radiation Due to Fallout from High Yield Weapons”.
The existence of such an experiment has led to claims the exposure of the Marshall Island inhabitants to radiation was deliberate. The US government, which has done everything it can to suppress public knowledge of Project 4.1, continues to claim it was accidental.
In the years that followed, the scientifically valuable test subjects of Rongelap were intensively studied in locations in the Marshall Islands and abroad. The emphasis was always on study, not treatment.
The effect was dehumanising. Frequently, the studies worsened the suffering of affected individuals.
By the late 1950s, the Rongelapese (most of whom had originally been displaced from Bikini during Operation Crossroads in the '40s) were returned to their island under the mendacious pretext that radiation levels had fallen to safe levels. An epidemic of miscarriages, infant mortality and cancer ensued.
In the 1970s, the people of Rongelap, who realised they were being slowly wiped out, requested another evacuation. The US government refused to provide help. Only in 1985 were the people taken to another island by a Greenpeace ship.
The devastating legacy of Castle Bravo continues today. In September 2012, Lemyo Lebon, who was 14 at the time of the Castle Bravo test, testified before a United Nations investigative committee.
““To this day,” she reports, “women in the Marshall Islands give birth to jellyfish babies … with no bones in their bodies and translucent skin … you can see the blood moving through their bodies before they die.
“We give birth to babies with missing limbs, or their organs and spinal cords on the outside of their bodies. We never experienced these types of births before the US testing program.”
Lebon said: “For those that survive, we have few resources to provide a life with dignity. Today in the Marshall Islands there is no oncologist to treat the many cancers that have become too common in our lives.
“Chemotherapy or radiation treatment for cancer does not exist … so we have to leave the country for treatment. Because the US denies that our radiation exposures have affected [us], only a very few people are eligible for government-funded medical treatment.”
The voices of those affected by nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands have long been suppressed. The US media establishment, deeply infiltrated by the all-pervasive nuclear industry, has recently been involved in yet another cover-up of the truth.
Adam Horowitz’s multi-award winning 2012 documentary Nuclear Savage, which details the abuses carried out under the auspices of Project 4.1, was scheduled for broadcasting on PBS in May last year. At the last minute, however, the screening of this acclaimed film was abruptly cancelled.
No adequate explanation has yet been provided for this decision. This leads to obvious speculation that the nuclear industry, which provides funding for organisations like PBS, conspired to pull the plug.
With billions of dollars of public subsidies at stake, the last thing the US nuclear establishment wants is greater public awareness of its historic crimes against humanity.
Ironically, the 60th anniversary of the shocking event that was Castle Bravo has coincided with a huge US Department of Energy-sanctioned expansion of the domestic nuclear industry.
In February, the Obama administration authorised a US$8.3 billion federal loan guarantee to partially cover the building costs of two new reactors by Atlanta-based Southern Co. These will be the first new reactors built in the US for 30 years, “just the first of what we hope will be many new nuclear projects”, a White House adviser said.
With the administration planning to hand out over $50 billion in assistance to the industry, a “nuclear renaissance” has begun in the US.
The nuclear industry receives increasingly generous taxpayer-funded subsidies, but the victims of its activities in the “nuclear proving grounds” of the Pacific continue to suffer from decades of official neglect.
Although the US has provided some money for environmental re-mediation, this occurred only after decades of painful and bitterly-contested litigation. The compensation provided so far falls far short of the billions required to even partially redress the balance of justice.
Ultimately, the funding anomaly that today privileges the perpetrators of nuclear crimes at the expense of their victims offers further proof of the structural hypocrisy that underlies all US rhetorical posturing about international law and morality.