Editorial: 60 years after the nuclear test on Bikini

No end in sight to harm caused by radiation

Tomorrow will mark sixty years since the United States conducted a nuclear test on Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands that contaminated the tuna fishing boat Daigo Fukuryu Maru (Lucky Dragon No. 5). What have we learned from the tremendous damage caused by that nuclear test in the central Pacific?

The 23 crewmembers of the boat were showered with a large amount of radioactive fallout, the so-called “ashes of death.” The boat’s chief radio operator, Aikichi Kuboyama, died six months later, and other crewmembers suffered from various illnesses.

Many islanders were exposed to radiation and forced to evacuate. Although some areas were decontaminated, many residents would not return home. Fear of residual radiation is not easily dispelled.

It will soon be three years since the accident occurred at the Fukushima No. 1 (Daiichi) nuclear power plant. A growing movement finds common ground between the incidents on Bikini and in Fukushima because, in both cases, there is concern about the future of those who were forced to leave their homes and live as evacuees.

Robbed of communities and lives

Radiation not only robs people of their health but also drastically alters their daily lives and the social lives of their communities. And there is no end in sight.

The residents of Rongelap, an atoll about 150 km from Bikini then under U.S. control, received no warning to evacuate and were exposed to radiation. They relocated just after the nuclear test was conducted and later returned to the atoll. Then in 1985 they had no choice but to submit to voluntary resettlement on an uninhabited island because many cases of cancer and thyroid disease had been found.

The U.S. conducted nearly 70 nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands between 1946 and 1958. At the time of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru incident, a total of 1,000 Japanese fishing boats were operating in the same waters. The tuna they landed was found to be contaminated with radiation, setting off a panic throughout Japan. The rising tide of opposition to nuclear tests spurred the movement to ban atomic and hydrogen bombs.

But in 1955, the year after the Daigo Fukuryu Maru was contaminated by radiation, the governments of Japan and the U.S. closed the curtain on the incident with the U.S. agreement to pay compensation. It was as if the government swept the situation under the rug out of fear of public resistance to the “peaceful use of nuclear power.”

Product of arms race

The hardships suffered by the Marshall Islands are the product of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, during which they vied with each other to see which side could build the most destructive nuclear weapon.

The hydrogen bomb used in the test that affected the Daigo Fukuryu Maru was 1,000 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were merely the prelude to the nuclear age. At the time, people trembled with the fearful realization that the world faced the risk of total destruction.

Even now, when the Cold War is a thing of the past, there are approximately 17,000 nuclear weapons in the world. Accidental limited nuclear war and the mistaken launch of a nuclear missile continue to be real risks.

Nevertheless the nuclear nations remain committed to these inhumane weapons, citing their ability to deter enemies from attacking.

But does it really work that way? Christopher Loeak, president of the Marshall Islands, now an independent nation, visited Hiroshima the other day. He said that countries that maintain nuclear arsenals are always thinking about using them someday and stressed that there must be no more victims. His remarks carry a great deal of weight.

The development of nuclear weapons must be completely banned. There is an urgent need to abolish them in order to ensure that they are not used. That is the only solution.

CTBT must be implemented

But progress is very slow. The Limited Test Ban Treaty prohibiting the detonation of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, in outer space and under water was concluded in 1963. Next is the long-awaited implementation of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. But some key nuclear powers, including the U.S., China and North Korea, have shown no indication of a willingness to ratify it. Japan must take the lead in exerting more pressure on them.

Tomorrow representatives of Japan’s anti-nuclear and peace groups and students from Hiroshima and Fukushima will gather in the Marshall Islands for a conference that will bring together youth delegates from nuclear-affected countries throughout the world and offer support to the residents. We would like the participants from Japan to learn about the harm that has been caused by radiation and to tell the people of Japan about it.

For the past few years there has been a growing international trend to regard the problem of nuclear weapons from the standpoint of their inhumanity. Learning about the harm these weapons have caused and the ongoing suffering that has resulted will naturally lead to growing momentum for their abolition.

Nuclear tests have caused serious harm in Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan, the primary test site for the Soviet Union, as well as other test sites such as the state of Nevada in the U.S. and France’s former colony of Algeria. How much interest has Hiroshima shown in the situations of victims of radiation around the world? We must take the opportunity of this anniversary to renew our determination to do so.

(Originally published on February 28, 2014)