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Bikini DayAlson Kelen's Speech at International Forum
February 27, 2011 
2011 Bikini Day International Forum

Alson Kelen
Mayor, Bikini Atoll Local Government

   The 57th Anniversary of the Bravo Test

Mayor Shimizu and other honored guests: Thank you for inviting me here to commemorate the 57th anniversary of the Bravo shot – the largest U.S. nuclear test in history and one that brought the United States and Japan in conflict again less than 10 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is a sad anniversary for us, for our friends and relatives in the Marshall Islands, and for the people of Japan. That test, and that day – like radiation itself – still lingers in the Marshall Islands after 57 years, and, like radiation, it will not go away.

Like you, Bravo was not our first experience with nuclear weapons. Next Monday, March 7, will mark the 65th anniversary of the day that we were moved off our islands by the U.S. Government for its atomic weapons testing program.

The U.S. moved us three times in two years. At one atoll, Rongerik, we nearly starved to death. Our final move – in 1948 – was to Kili Island – 400 miles away from Bikini. Sadly, Kili remains home to most Bikinians, and life there remains difficult. Kili is a single island, while Bikini Atoll has 23 islands and a hug lagoon. Kili has no sheltered fishing grounds, so our skills for lagoon life are useless on Kili. In the past, we sailed our outrigger canoes to lands, fish and islands in Bikini atoll as far as the eye could see. Today, we are prisoners, trapped on one small island, with no reef and no lagoon. To make matters worse, our population is almost 20 times larger today than what it was in 1946.  

Meanwhile, between 1946 and 1958, the United States tested 23 atomic and hydrogen bomb at Bikini. It is hard to imagine the deadly force of the Bravo shot:

  • It was equal to the force of nearly 1,000 Hiroshima bombs.
  • It created a fireball four miles wide that vaporized the entire test island and parts of two others.
  • It was so powerful that it destroyed the buildings on an island 14 miles across the lagoon and caused the concrete detonation bunker on Eneu Island, 24 miles away, to move off its foundation.
  • At Kwajalein, 250 miles away, there were high winds and the buildings shook as if there had been an earthquake.
  • And, as we all know, there was a so-called “unexpected” shift in the winds, sending fallout east instead of north, right over Bikini Island, downwind to Rongelap and Utrik, and right over the Japanese fishing vessel, Lucky Dragon.
  • Even President Eisenhower said that U.S. scientists were “surprised and astonished” at the size of the Bravo shot.

To make matters worse, the U.S. covered up the Bravo shot immediately, and it has never been held accountable. The U.S. secretly evacuated the people of Rongelap and Utrik until a newspaper reporter broke the story a week later. At that point, the Atomic Energy Commission described Bravo as “a routine atomic test,” stated that some Marshall Islanders were “exposed to some radioactivity,” that they were moved “according to plan,” but that “there were no burns” and “all were reported well.”

That “some radioactivity” the Marshallese were exposed to equaled the amount of radioactivity received by Japanese less than three kilometers from ground zero at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “All were reported well?” Not true. Virtually all the Rongelapese were already displaying the classic symptoms of radiation poisoning – hair loss, skin lesions, and lowered white blood cell counts. There was later one leukemia death and 19 of the 21 Rongelap children developed abnormal thyroid nodules.

What did the U.S. Government say about the Lucky Dragon? The AEC Chairman, Lewis Strauss, accused it of trespassing, privately called it a Community “spy outfit,” and publicly stated that the crew’s injuries were “due to chemical activity of the . . . coral rather than to radioactivity.” He added that “the facts do not confirm” stories about “the widespread contamination of tuna and other fish,” even though tuna on the Lucky Dragon registered over 10,000 counts per minute on Geiger counters. 

But the real crime of Bravo is that there was no last-minute accidental wind shift. Documents that Bikini got declassified in 1982 showed that the U.S. Government knew full well that the winds were headed the wrong way. The midnight weather briefing six hours before the shot stated that winds were “headed for Rongelap to the east” and “it was recognized that . . . Bikini . . . would probably be contaminated.” With full knowledge that the wind was not headed north to the open sea but due east over Bikini, Rongelap and Utrik, the AEC proceeded to detonate the Bravo bomb.

The tragedy of Bravo continues to haunt our people today. In a government-to-government agreement between the U.S. and Marshall Islands, the United States “accepte[d] responsibility for compensation owing to” the people of Bikini and established a Nuclear Claims Tribunal to render “final determination upon all claims” arising out of the nuclear testing program. After more than seven years of litigation, our people received an award of more than $560 million. However, the U.S. Government never funded the Tribunal adequately, so it was only able to pay the Bikinians $2 million, or less than one-half of one percent of their award. The Bikinians’ efforts to get the U.S. courts or Congress to remedy this situation have fallen on deaf ears.
Fifty-seven years have gone by, but Bravo is still with us. From March 1, 1954 until today, our islands remain heavily contaminated with radiation. We wait and we wait, not knowing when we can return home. Thank you.