U.S. accused of radiating islanders deliberately

Published Feb. 25, 1994|Updated Oct. 6, 2005

The government was accused Thursday of deliberately contaminating hundreds of people with radiation 40 years ago by exploding a hydrogen bomb near the Marshall Islands in the Pacific.

U.S. officials over the years have acknowledged the fallout from the 1954 hydrogen explosion on the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean had exposed some Marshall islanders to radiation but claimed it was because of sudden and unavoidable changes in wind.

However, recently uncovered defense documents presented at a congressional hearing Thursday show that the government knew 12 hours in advance of the test that the wind direction was changing. The explosion proceeded anyway.

"The (bomb) shot was deliberately set off despite the fact that AEC officials knew exactly which way the winds were headed," Jonathan Weisgall, an attorney for Bikini Island inhabitants, told the House Natural Resources investigations subcommittee.

The documents, some of them declassified more than a decade ago but not widely made known, also indicated that the radiation fallout from the bomb test known as "Bravo Shot" extended over as many as 28 islands and atolls in the Marshall chain and may have affected thousands instead of the roughly 240 previously acknowledged.

Among those exposed were a small number of U.S. servicemen.

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the panel's chairman, said he considered the 1954 test akin to deliberately experimenting with humans, knowing they would be exposed to dangerous radiation.

The March 1, 1954, hydrogen bomb test was part of a series of detonations in the Bikini Atoll of the Marshall Islands as the United States sought to catch up to the Soviet Union, which had exploded a hydrogen bomb a year earlier.

The bomb's fallout was to have been directed north and northeast, away from the cluster of populated islands to the south and southeast, but 12 hours before the scheduled test meteorologists warned that winds were shifting and "conditions were getting less favorable," according to testimony and documents presented Thursday.

By midnight seven hours before the test shot, it was reported that the winds had continued to shift toward populated islands and that at least some islands "would be contaminated," according to the documents.

After the test, senior defense officials as well as the Atomic Energy Commission maintained the fallout on inhabited islands was minimal and it occurred because of an unforeseen shift of winds.

"We now know that this is not true," said Weisgall, who has researched the tests.

David Weiman, an environmental lobbyist who also has studied many of the documents related to the 1954 tests, said officials had specific procedures that would have allowed them to halt the tests once it became known the winds had changed.

Scientists have reported that the Marshall Islands have one of the highest rates of thyroid tumors _ rates of 100 times greater than normal _ in the world, apparently as a result of radiation exposure.

Thomas Hamilton, a clinical researcher at the Pacific Medical Center in Seattle, said that unusually high rates of thyroid tumors were found on a dozen atolls that the government previously had said were not exposed to radiation from the 1954 tests.

The United States has agreed to a settlement with the islands as a result of 66 bomb tests between 1946 and 1962. It paid $183.7-million in compensation in 1983.