The Australian Broadcasting Corporation & Mark Willacy / ABC News – 2017-12-13 19:59:53
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation
Rising seas caused by climate change are seeping inside a United States nuclear waste dump on a remote and low-lying Pacific atoll, flushing out radioactive substances left behind from some of the world’s largest atomic weapons tests.
(December 13, 2017) — The program Foreign Correspondent on Australia’s ABC TV has produced a new documentary entitled “The Dome.” The program examines the toxic legacy of the Runit Dome, an 18-inch-thick concrete dome constructed by the United States in the Republic of the Marshall Islands. The dome contains highly toxic waste from many of the United States’ 67 nuclear weapons tests conducted in the Marshall Islands from 1946-58.
The concrete dome, which was intended to last for hundreds of years, is already cracked and leaking. Rising sea levels and the increased intensity of storms due to climate change threaten an even greater catastrophe.
To watch the complete 41-minute documentary, click here.
(December 5, 2017) — Runit is a far-flung coral speck surrounded by shimmering blue lagoons, a tiny outpost of the Marshall Islands.
It’s also Ground Zero of the South Pacific or, as one Marshallese calls it, “a big monument to a giant American fuck-up”.
Runit is dominated by what’s called the Dome. It looks like the work of extra-terrestrials. But this is a man-made, sprawling concrete circle that encases tonnes of nuclear waste including about 400 lumps of plutonium, one the deadliest substances known to science.
Now the Dome is cracking and leaking. Storm tides flood over it. Seawater is inside it. The fear is that a typhoon will break the whole thing apart and spew its radioactive contents into the ocean.
As reporter Mark Willacy discovers when he journeys to remote Runit, the Dome is a literal concrete example of America’s cavalier treatment of the Marshall Islanders. Bikini is seared into history for the 23 atomic bomb tests carried out there. Yet at least 40 more were done at Enewetak atoll, which includes Runit, and other Marshalls atolls in the 1940s and 1950s.
Displaced Marshallese can’t go home to contaminated islands. Many were burned by the fluttering fallout they called “snow”. Despite a US$2.3 billion compensation award, a mere US$4 million has been paid out.
We’re disposable. Our lives don’t matter. War matters. Nuclear bombs matter â€“ Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, poet and activist
Not only the Marshallese feel disposable in Washington’s eyes. When a bomb test at Runit misfired, leaving clumps of plutonium scattered over the island, someone had to clean it up. The job fell to US servicemen like Ken Kasik and Jim Androl in the late 1970s.
I was told I was going to a tropical paradise. I didn’t know it was radioactive â€“ Jim Androl
My whole vision in life was to live on a deserted tropical island. We were lied to â€“ Ken Kasik
Kasik and Androl say the clean-up teams shifted radioactive muck for months on end without radiation-protective clothing. For years they have battled cancers which they blame on the clean-up, and which they say also affect a disproportionate number of Runit vets.
But they can’t get extra help with medical bills because the US Government won’t recognise them as atomic veterans.
The government put us in the middle of a danger zone. Our boys worked six-month tours on a dirty island and the government says ‘You were never there’ — Ken Kasik
A Poison in Our Island
(November 27, 2017) — “We call it the tomb,” says Christina Aningi, the head teacher of Enewetak’s only school. “The children understand that we have a poison in our island.”
It’s “Manit Day” on Enewetak Atoll, a celebration of Marshall Islands culture when the Pacific nation’s troubled past seems a distant memory.
Schoolchildren sit cross-legged on the coral sands as they sing of the islands and atolls, the sunshine and the breeze; “flowers and moonlight, swaying palm trees”.
They were born decades after the last nuclear explosion ripped through the warm Pacific air with a thunderous roar. But it’s hard to escape the long echo of the bombs.
“Gone are the days when we live in fear, fear of the bombs, guns and nuclear,” they sing. “This is the time … this is my country, this is my land.”
But those old fears, thought to be long buried, are threatening to reawaken in their island paradise.
â€¢ KEN KASIK: “My whole vision in life was to live on this deserted tropical South Pacific island. Watch out what you tell the Lord!” [laughs]
MARK WILLACY: America tried to bury its toxic legacy here on a remote coral atoll.
MICHAEL GERRARD: They covered it over with an 18-inch-thick dome and left.
MARK WILLACY: Now the sea is rising and the dome is leaking and the men who tried to clean it up, are dying.
KEN KASIK: “It was a total secret. We didn’t even know. The guys didn’t know. We were lied to”.
MARK WILLACY: Tonight, we journey to one of the most contaminated places on earth and we meet the people fighting back.
KATHY JETNIL-KIJINER: “You know if you accept that you’re doomed then what is left to fight for? You know where are you going to find hope?”
ALSON KELEN: ‘We need the world to help us. Whatever the world is doing, please look at us”.
GFX: The Dome
REPORTER: Mark Willacy
MARK WILLACY: We’re halfway between Australia and Hawaii, in the middle of a seemingly endless Pacific Ocean. Below us, chains of mostly uninhabited islands that together form the nation of the Marshall Islands.
[on the plane] “Well we’ve just passed Bikini Atoll, known around the world for 23 atomic tests during the 1940s and 50s. But where we’re going is much more remote â€“ a place where nearly twice as many tests were carried out, some of the biggest in human history”.
Spread over two-million square kilometres of the central Pacific, the Marshall Islands is a scattering of more than a thousand islands and islets. Few people have heard of Enewetak, but it’s the ground zero of US nuclear testing in the Pacific.
The welcome sign hints at what we’ve come to see, but when you know what it really is, few would want to visit this place. This atoll is a ring of 40 islands, so remote that there’s no regular transport in or out. It’ll be a week before our plane returns â€“ if we’re lucky.
It’s a stunning place, but its beauty holds a dark, dirty secret.
CHILDREN SINGING: [subtitle] “Gone are the days when we live in fear, fear of the bombs, guns and nuclearâ€¦”.
MARK WILLACY: This is a place whose atomic past is seared into its present. The people of Enewetak were forced into exile by the atomic fallout. Allowed to return after three decades, a new generation is learning about the traditions and customs of this place.
CHILDREN SINGING: [subtitle] “So let’s work together”.
MARK WILLACY: They’ve also been taught about America’s toxic legacy and how it lies under a giant dome.
CHILDREN SINGING: [subtitle] “This is my country. This is my land”.
CHRISTINA ANINGI: [Enewetak School] [subtitle] “They understand. Somehow they understand that we have a poison in our island, that is what they call poison. They know that there is a tomb because they have been there”.
MARK WILLACY: “So the dome, you call it the tomb?”
CHRISTINA ANINGI: “Mm we call it the tomb”.
MARK WILLACY: We set out the next morning to see for ourselves. To do that, we need guides who know how to navigate the reefs and the World War II wrecks that lie in Enewetak’s shallows.
[on the boat] “To get to where we’re going we have to cross the world’s second largest ocean lagoon formed by the rim of an ancient volcano. It’s a 1,000 sq km of the Pacific”.
After nearly two hours, we approach one of Enewetak Atoll’s 40 islands, a tiny, scrubby rise called Runit. What we’ve come to see is hard to spot from the beach, only from the air can you get a true sense of the size and the scale of what the United States military calls “the dome”.
The dome is actually a dump. It contains the toxic leftovers of some of the most powerful atomic bombs in history, America’s Cold War legacy.
MICHAEL GERRARD: [Columbia University] “It is a tomb of nuclear waste. The dome is completely unlabelled. There’s no fence, there are no guards there. People can go there if they want and there’s nobody to stop them”.
MARK WILLACY: Like other former nuclear test sites in the Marshall Islands, Runit Island is officially off limits, but there’s no one here to stop us when we visit. This place is just too isolated to guard.
ARCHIVE â€“ ATOMIC TEST FILM
MARK WILLACY: From 1946 to 1958 the United States detonated dozens of atomic bombs in the Marshall Islands. And while Enewetak is hardly known, its closest neighbour 300 km to the east became synonymous with nuclear fallout. Its name is Bikini.
ARCHIVE â€“ ATOMIC TEST FILM
ALSON KELEN: [subtitle] “I’m from Bikini Atoll. Right now I don’t think I’ll be able to go back. I mean it is not clean enough for us, it’s not safe”.
MARK WILLACY: One of the country’s last traditional navigators, Alson Kelen is adrift, living in exile because he’s not allowed to return home to Bikini. Ahead of the atomic testing there in the 1940s, the United States told Alson Kelen’s family and the 167 people of his atoll that they had a duty to the world to leave their island. It was a moment filmed by the military’s PR Unit.
ARCHIVE FILM â€“ MILITARY LEADER: “All right now James will you tell them that the United States Government now wants to turn this great destructive force into something good for mankind and that this experiment here at Bikini are the first step in that direction”.
ARCHIVE FILM â€“ JAMES: [subtitle] “They say ‘everything’s good’ and they’re willing to go and everything is in God’s hands”.
ARCHIVE FILM â€“ MILITARY LEADER: “Well you tell them and King Juda that everything being in God’s hands cannot be other than good”.
ARCHIVE FILM â€“ VOICEOVER: “And here by the way you hear them singing their Marshallese version of You Are My Sunshine. The Islanders are a nomadic group and are well pleased that the Yanks are going to add a little variety to their lives”.
MARK WILLACY: Alson Kelen’s 93-year-old aunt was one of those who was put on a boat and taken off her island. Seven decades later, the pain of forced exile has not eased.
ALSON KELEN: [Community leader] “Every day she says, ‘When are we going back?’ And I keep saying, “Oh one day. I don’t know when, but one day’. But I know, I know for a fact, that we’re not going back. So it’s really, really made me sad because I don’t know what to tell her. Should I lie to her? I mean it’s not her fault, but I don’t want to lie to her”.
MARK WILLACY: Hundreds of Marshallese were shifted off their islands by the United States. Some, like Lemeyo Abon, after it was too late. In March 1954, her island was enveloped in the fall-out from one of the Bikini blasts. Codenamed Castle Bravo, it was the biggest nuclear test ever carried out by the United States – a 1000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb.
LEMEYO ABON: [subtitle] “The earth shook. When we saw the bright light and the loud sound, most of us were very afraid, we were afraid and we just sit down and see what will happen next”.
MARK WILLACY: A few hours later, 14-year-old Lemeyo noticed white powder falling from the sky.
LEMEYO ABON: [subtitle] “Some of the kids they didn’t know what snow is. So they named that, ‘Oh, the snow’s fell down’. This is the first time we saw this”.
MARK WILLACY: The snow was highly radioactive fallout from the Castle Bravo bomb. It took days for the Americans to evacuate them. The survivors remain nuclear refugees to this day.
ARCHIVE FILM: “The meteorologists had predicted a wind condition which should have carried the fall out to the north of the group of small atolls lying to the east of Bikini. The wind failed to follow the predictions, but shifted south of that line and the little islands of Rongelap, Rongerik and Uterick were in the edge of the path of the fall out. The medical staff on Kwajalein have advised us that they anticipate no illness, barring of course diseases which may be thereafter contracted”.
MARK WILLACY: Jack Niedenthal washed up here in the Marshall Island’s capital Majuro more than 30 years ago and never left. Now the head of the country’s Red Cross, he has spent decades fighting for nuclear justice for the people of Bikini Atoll, even taking their fight for compensation to Washington.
JACK NIEDENTHAL: [Red Cross] “As children you don’t open up your history books and see a word about Bikini and the nuclear testing out here, even though it’s my belief the Cold War was literally fought and won on the shores of Bikini. I mean there were 23 weapons tested up there, 20 of them were hydrogen bombs. I mean the people of Bikini did do a lot for mankind.
I mean even now these days you have the North Korean leader talking about exploding a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific like it’s nothing. The idea that they’re even playing around with words and notions like that is so insulting and so infuriating to the people who live out here and have been through this and have suffered for since the 40s and 50s, it’s really awful for us to hear that”.
ARCHIVE FILM: “I understand the experiment’s an entire success, a success in destruction. As the smoke rises on Enewetak, the curtain rises on the scenes of man’s oblivion”.
MARK WILLACY: The impacts of 12 years of nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands included increased rates of thyroid and other cancers, and the permanent exile of people from their home islands.
In 1986, as part of a deal to give the Marshall Islands independence, the US paid 150 million dollars. Later, an independent tribunal awarded more than two billion dollars to victims of the testing program. Less than four million was ever paid. The tribunal office in the capital Majuro is no longer operating, with most claims unresolved, sitting in files gathering dust.
GIFF JOHNSON: “The US Government policy on the nuclear weapons legacy in the Marshall Islands, is to simply downgrade and dismiss health hazards as non-existent or insignificant”.
MARK WILLACY: Giff Johnson is the publisher of the Marshall Islands’ journal, the country’s only newspaper. For three decades he’s been a passionate advocate for the local people. His wife, Darlene Keju, was a famous nuclear survivor and Marshallese leader who died of cancer aged just forty-five.
GIFF JOHNSON: “It really makes us wonder if Marshall Islanders will ever get justice from the nuclear weapons tests that were conducted here and justice is the right word. It’s really important to understand that a lot of nuclear contaminated material was tossed into a crater leftover from a bomb test, a coral atoll essentially and a coral atoll by its nature is porous”.
MICHAEL GERRARD: “When the US was getting ready to clean up and leave in the late 1970s, they picked the pit that had been left by one of the smaller atomic explosions and dumped a lot of this plutonium and other radioactive waste into the pit and covered it over with an 18-inch thick dome and left”.
MARK WILLACY: That dome lies 1100 km to the west of the capital, Majuro. Like Bikini Atoll, this place is deemed too hot in radioactive terms for human habitation.
JACK NIEDENTHAL: “People in the United States would not tolerate something like this in their own backyard right now â€“ or any time. That’s why it’s up there. It’s astounding that it is there. But when you go out there, it’s very surreal. I mean to me it’s like this big monument to America’s giant fuck up”.
MARK WILLACY: The dome was never meant to be anything but a temporary solution to the problem of atomic waste. At almost every stage of its construction, safety was sacrificed to save money. Michael Gerrard is a US climate change specialist who’s visited the dome.
MICHAEL GERRARD: “The bottom of the dome is just what was left behind by the nuclear weapon’s explosion. It’s permeable soil. There was no effort to line it and therefore the seawater is inside the dome, already the sea sometimes washes over it in a large storm, and the United States Government has acknowledged that a major typhoon could break it apart and cause all of the radiation in it to disperse”.
MARK WILLACY: You can see why Runit’s remoteness made it seem like a good place for the dome and its contaminated contents, but like most of the islands of the Marshalls, Runit is barely a metre above sea level at its highest point.
[standing on beach with dome] “When this dome was built in the late 1970s, there was no factoring in sea level rises caused by climate change. Now, every day when the tide rolls out as it is now, radioactive isotopes from underneath the dome roll out with it”.
ALSON KELEN: “That dome is the connection between the nuclear age and the climate change age. It’ll be a very devastating event if it really leaks and we’re not talking just the Marshall Islands, we’re talking the whole Pacific Ocean”.
KATHY JETNIL-KIJINER: “I think it’s really telling that the ocean is rising and it is making this nuclear waste leak out because in a lot of ways this climate change issue has also been revitalising a lot of conversations about our nuclear legacy. Every time someone talks about climate change you can’t ignore our nuclear legacy as well. It’s linked”.
MARK WILLACY: Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner is a poet and climate activist. She’s proud of her Marshallese heritage.
KATHY JETNIL-KIJINER: “It’s my home, it’s where I’m from, it’s where my family’s from, my ancestors, they’ve been here for thousands of years and there’s also just nothing like it anywhere else and it’s a part of who I am”.
MARK WILLACY: A rising leader of her nation, Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner was invited to the 2014 United Nations Climate Change summit in New York to speak about how the Marshall Islands is on the frontline in the battle against rising sea levels.
KATHY JETNIL-KIJINER: [UN speech] “The Marshall Islands encompasses more than 2 million sq km of ocean”.
[on her island] “I mean it’s the United Nations, these are world leaders from all over and it was the first time that I was able to share something that I cared about, you know something about our islands”.
MARK WILLACY: And what she shared was a poem about climate change, a poem addressed to her infant daughter.
KATHY JETNIL-KIJINER: [UN speech] “You are a 7-month-old sunrise of gummy smiles. You are bald as an egg and bald as a budda. You are thighs that are thunder, shrieks that are lightning so excited for bananas, hugs and our morning walks along the lagoon. Dear Matafele Peinem, I want to tell you about that lagoon, that lazy, lounging lagoon lounging against the sunrise. Men say that one day that lagoon will devour you. They say it will gnaw at the shoreline, chew at the roots of your breadfruit trees, gulp down rows of sea walls and crunch through your island’s shattered bone”.
[on her island] “Dear Matafele Peinem, don’t cry. Mummy promises you no one will come and devour you. No one’s drowning baby. No one’s moving. No one’s losing their homeland, no one’s going to become a climate change refugee”.
MARK WILLACY: In a place known for sober speeches and poker face diplomacy, Kathy Jentil-Kijiner’s pledge to her daughter to fight climate change moved many to tears.
KATHY JETNIL-KIJINER: “I mean when they all stood up I kind thought they were just being polite but I just found out later that that’s not, that doesn’t happen all the time”.
MARK WILLACY: Some estimates put the sea level rise here in excess of 60 cm by the end of this century. That’s enough to inundate three-quarters of the country.
KATHY JETNIL-KIJINER: “Now we’re on alert every time there’s a high tide because the water will come over and flood our houses, you know crashing in homes, it will destroy homes. It’ll dry the crops and, you know, that didn’t ever happen before. You know we’re getting a lot more extreme weather like drought too and so it’s just gotten a lot worse in the past couple of years”.
ALSON KELEN: “It will kill our reef. If it kills our reef, it kills our fish, kills our food and you know Marshall Islands have very, very limited land so there’s really nothing for us to survive on. So I would, you know I would say a very, very short time â€“ I cannot give you the year but we will gradually probably start moving out soon”.
MARK WILLACY: “So the clock is ticking before you have to relocate?”
ALSON KELEN: “It is, it is ticking”.
JACK NIEDENTHAL: “I drive my grandson to school every day. He’s eight years old, and we talk about this stuff”.
[in car/subtitle] “Why do you think the climate’s changing? Why do you think things are so different now?”
GRANDSON: [subtitle] “The ice?”
JACK NIEDENTHAL: “Yeah, the ice is melting. Yeah and that’s causing the seas to rise and the Marshall Islands are very low”.
MARK WILLACY: Jack Niedenthal argues that rising seas are a bigger threat to his island home and to his grandson’s future than atomic bombs ever were.
JACK NIEDENTHAL: “I’m telling him your life is going to be really hard, a lot harder than my life was and the place that you love is going to be slowly disappearing and it’s going to be up to people of your generation to fight back on this and he, he gets that”.
KATHY JETNIL-KIJINER: “Everywhere is the coast because there are some parts of the island that are so thin that there’s ocean on either side of you. We’re just surrounded by ocean and I don’t think the ocean has ever looked as big to me until I came back home after living back in the States”.
MARK WILLACY: In recent years, later winter king tides have swept over some islands, choking crops with salt and even wrecking homes. The flooding could contaminate the country’s shallow freshwater aquifers and sewerage filled tides threaten outbreaks of fever and dysentery. And according to the locals, it’s becoming much more frequent.
GIFF JOHNSON: [Marshall Islands Journal] “We would go years in between seeing big, big inundation incidents and since about 2008, it’s increased with regularity to the point where I mean we’ll have six, eight of these in a year”.
MARK WILLACY: Not even the dead have been spared. Here graves have been smashed and washed out to sea. In 2014, a state of emergency was declared when 5 metre swells smashed over the shoreline. The US Geological Survey warns that many Pacific atolls like those in the Marshall Islands, will be uninhabitable within decades.
MICHAEL GERRARD: “The Marshall Islands are in grave danger. There are already a lot of people who are leaving the Marshall Islands, a lot of them go to Hawaii or to mainland United States, some of them go elsewhere, but the long-term future of the Marshall Islands is not bright”.
ALSON KELEN: “I would say that our country is sinking. Our country is a front line so we’re facing the devastating effect of climate change and we need the world to help us. People of Bikini got relocated from their atolls because of nuclear, today we’re about to get relocated not from our island, but from our country. So, whatever the world is doing, please look at us”.
MARK WILLACY: For many Marshallese, the dome on Runit Island remains a potent symbol of the threat of climate change. It may be made from half-metre thick concrete panels, but as we’ve seen elsewhere, the ocean is likely to win out over concrete every time.
The radiation levels of the people of Enewetak are supposed to be monitored here in this space-aged US built lab on the main island. But when we visit, the machine for assessing radioactive exposure isn’t working. The US Government prohibits the export of food from Enewetak because of the concerns about contamination. Fish from here is also banned.
But this atoll surrounds a calm lagoon, and the lure of fresh fish is too much to resist, despite the lingering radiation. And as we’re about to find out, it’s not just the people of the Marshall Islands who are living with the fallout from what happened here all those years ago.
[standing on the dome] “This was the site of the largest nuclear clean up in United States’ history. 4,000 young soldiers toiled here for years to fill in the bomb crater underneath this dome. Among the more than 80,000 cubic metres of contaminated soil and debris was plutonium, one of the most toxic substances on the planet. For many of the young soldiers who worked here, there was a high price to pay”.
Those young men are now in their 50s and 60s and few in the United States know their story.
[driving in a car] “From the islands and atolls of the Marshall Islands, I’ve come to the desert of Nevada, another place where the United States tested many of its atomic weapons. In fact, you could see the mushroom cloud from the Nevada test site a 100 km away in Las Vegas. And that’s where I’m headed today, to meet one of Enewetak’s atomic clean up veteran”.
The suburban sprawl of Las Vegas feels like another world away from the remote emptiness of Enewetak Atoll, but the dome is something former US soldier Jim Androl can never forget and neither can he forgive.
JIM ANDROL: “I’d never even heard of Enewetak. I never knew that there were 43 nuclear tests out there. I didn’t know it was radioactive. They didn’t tell us till we landed. Everybody kind of pretty much flipped out when they found out”.
MARK WILLACY: “Because it was radioactive?”
JIM ANDROL: “Because it was radioactive. I was told I was going to visit a tropical paradise for the last 6 months of the service”.
MARK WILLACY: A specialist in the Army’s 84th Engineer Battalion, Jim Androl was one of thousands of US soldiers sent to help clean up Enewetak Atoll in the 1970s.
ARCHIVE NEWS STORY: “A thousand workers from the US armed forces are giving the northern islands a face lift, striving to dig and scrape away the radioactive soil and debris”.
MARK WILLACY: This US news story shows soldiers on Enewetak wearing radiation suits, but Jim Androl says this was just a show for the TV cameras”.
JIM ANDROL: “There was no special gear issued. We were just issued our normal warm weather gear, which would have been shorts, t-shirts, hats and jungle boots and that’s it”.
MARK WILLACY: “And were you given radioactive decontamination training?”
JIM ANDROL: “No, none whatsoever”.
MARK WILLACY: “Was there any safety equipment?”
JIM ANDROL: “No”.
ARCHIVE NEWS JIM UPSHAW: [NBC News] “If people do come back to Runit Island, they’ll be risking perhaps the hottest radiation on earth. This island won’t be fit for human habitation again for at least 24,000 years”.
MARK WILLACY: On Runit Island, site of the dome, soldiers were exposed to one of the most toxic substances known, the result of a bomb test gone wrong.
MICHAEL GERRARD: “One of the attempted nuclear weapons explosions didn’t work and so the plutonium, rather than having a nuclear blast, was just broken apart by the conventional explosions, leading to about four hundred little chunks of plutonium that were spread all over around the atoll”.
MARK WILLACY: Those four hundred chunks were put in plastic bags and tossed into the crater underneath the dome.
JIM ANDROL: “Well they had us walk around and pick up loose pieces for instance and just gather up whatever we could, throw it in a pile and I never had any clue that dust could literally get into your lungs, but these guys were dealing with that every day, all of us were, we all were”.
MARK WILLACY: Declassified US Government documents reveal that Washington knew that troops would be exposed to plutonium on Runit Island. This secret cable from 1972 talks about the existence of solid plutonium bearing chunks on the island surface. It warned that the quantity of plutonium was undoubtedly large and that it presented a new and serious concern.
MICHAEL GERRARD: “Many of the US soldiers in particular who worked at Enewetak have since come down with illnesses that they say were caused by their work there”.
MARK WILLACY: Jim Androl is one of those soldiers. For years he’s suffered from a myriad of complaints he says are linked to his service on Enewetak.
BEV ANDROL: “He had his gall bladder out, shortly after that they found a seven-and-a-half-pound tumour, cancerous tumour in his abdomen”.
JIM ANDROL: “I suffer from roughly 40 to 45 residuals from the cancer. I’ve got pancreatitis. I’ve got a spot on my liver that they’re watching, kidneys”.
MARK WILLACY: The problem for former clean-up workers like Jim Androl, is that unlike the other US soldiers involved in the atomic tests, the government does not recognise them as atomic veterans. This means the 4,000 cle an-up veterans have no special healthcare coverage. Many are lumbered with crippling medical bills. Washington argues safety precautions on Enewetak were exemplary, that worker’s radiation exposure fell below recommended limits and that their illnesses and the time they spent on Enewetak are not linked.
GIFF JOHNSON: “I mean these people were in the army. What choice did they have? They were told go clean up Enewetak. They went. I think mostly they’re trying to get health coverage, medical care because they’ve got, some of them have terrible bills, really high bills from hospitals because of their treatment”.
MARK WILLACY: There has never been a formal study of the health of Enewetak workers, but one informal survey reported that hundreds suffered problems such as cancers, brittle bones and birth defects in their children.
KEN KASIK: “Hi mate, how’s it going?”
MARK WILLACY: [walking into hospital room] “I didn’t think I’d be seeing you in hospital, are you okay?”
KEN KASIK: “Yeah, a little better”.
MARK WILLACY: “Yeah? Take a seat, sit down mate. How are you feeling?”
KEN KASIK: “Strange. I might have had some damage done to another part of my body when they were putting in the stomach aneurism”.
MARK WILLACY: Enewetak veteran, Ken Kasik, knows all about hospital bills. We meet in Hawaii, although by the time I arrive Ken has been rushed to intensive care with a brain aneurism. As a 24-year-old he was working at a US air-force base in Hawaii where he was asked if he was interested in running the military exchange on an idyllic pacific atoll called Enewetak.
KEN KASIK: “Oh sign me up, that’s it I’m going. My whole vision in life was to live on a deserted tropical South Pacific island. What out what you tell the Lord. It came true”.
MARK WILLACY: This would be no posting to paradise. Not long after arriving on Enewetak, Ken Kasik realised he was living and working in the middle of a massive nuclear clean up, one centred on the dome on Runit Island.
KEN KASIK: “it was a very dirty operation and the same vehicles that transported this filthy, filthy, filthy horrible atomic waste to Runit, the boys are on these boats. You can see this crap going on their faces and on their bodies. You know you cannot get away from it”.
MARK WILLACY: Like Jim Androl, Ken Kasik says he was never given any safety gear or training. He says the thousands of young men sent into the clean-up, had no idea of what they were exposed to.
KEN KASIK: “It was a total secret. We didn’t even know. The guys didn’t know. None of those guys would be in an area that’s so contaminated if they knew about it. We were lied to and our boys worked 6-month tours on a dirty island and the government said you were never there”.
MARK WILLACY: Ken Kasik has undergone nearly 40 surgeries for cancerous lesions which he blames on his time on Enewetak. But he and Jim Androl count themselves lucky, saying many of their comrades died young and in terrible pain.
KEN KASIK: “The radiation is killing everybody”.
JIM ANDROL: God there’s been so many. We just lost one two weeks ago. We lost one about six months before that. They told me I’d be dead by now. Kenny is supposed to have been dead by now”.
MARK WILLACY: Jim Androl’s wife Bev is now helping the Enewetak veterans battle for justice, both in the corridors of Washington and on social media.
BEV ANDROL: “Most of these men we have never met in our lives but they’re like our brothers. We love these guys and you know they’re dying before they’re 60. It’s ridiculous”.
KEN KASIK: “There’s nobody trained in the atomic waste. There’s people trained in the actual making of the bombs, testing the bombs and all like that, but not picking it up. You cannot get rid of this. The island should just be destroyed”.
MARK WILLACY: Wherever his work took him around the world, Ken Kasik always returned here to his Hawaiian home. These days restricted to a hospital bed, he rarely gets to enjoy its beauty and lifestyle.
It’s been four decades since he first left here for his adventure on Enewetak, and Ken Kasik is haunted both mentally and physically by the dome.
KEN KASIK: “America dumped all of their worst rubbish to the Marshallese and abandoned them with it, and we don’t want to hear about it. It’s a disgusting shame and itâ€¦ it ahâ€¦ it makes us look bad”.
ARCHIVE FILM: “And as the natives express to the people of the United States their welcome, and their simplicity and their pleasantness and their courtesy, they’re more and willing to cooperate although they don’t understand the world of nuclear energy any more than we do”.
MICHAEL GERRARD: Runit Dome embodies injustices in many different ways. The fact that all these weapons were exploded there; the fact that this plutonium was left behind; the fact that the workers who worked there have not been compensated and very importantly the fact that the entire nation is endangered by sea level rise which is caused mostly by the greenhouse gas emissions of the major emitting countries of which the US was historically number one. These are an accumulation of injustices”.
JACK NIEDENTHAL: “The last couple of years when people would come and they wanted to talk about the nuclear legacy, I said the nuclear legacy is not as devastating and it’s almost not as important as climate change. Because if I’m a Marshall Islander and I have an island that has radiation on it and has the hope of some day being mitigated or rehabilitated, if I have a choice between that island and one that’s underwater forever, I’ll take the radioactive island every time because there’s still hope in that. Once these islands go underwater, they aren’t coming back”.
MARK WILLACY: The Marshall Islands may be damned either way, because Michael Gerrard says even if the dome is smashed apart in a Pacific storm, it may make little difference to the environment outside.
MICHAEL GERRARD: “I’m persuaded that the radiation outside the dome is as bad as the radiation inside the dome and therefore it is a tragic irony that the US Government may be right that if this material were to be released, that the already bad state of the environment around there wouldn’t get much worse”.
MARK WILLACY: The Marshall Islands’ isolation made it ideal for a super power to test the most destructive weapons in history, and now its survival is threatened yet again by the actions of much larger nations thousands of kilometres away.
KATHY JETNIL-KIJINER: “These are situations where the Marshallese people are almost either guinea pigs or they’re just seen as disposable. We’re seen as disposable in both of these situations. We’re disposable, our lives don’t matter the war matters, nuclear bombs matter. Our lives don’t matter, oil matters, money matters, gas matters you know profit matters”.
MARK WILLACY: Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner is determined that her child will not become a climate change refugee.
KATHY JETNIL-KIJINER: “See I don’t think we’re doomed and I also can’t accept that. You know if you accept that you’re doomed then what is left to fight for? You know where are you going to find hope? A lot of people describe our islands as drowning but we like to say that, you know, we’re fighting we’re not just drowning”.
[reciting poem] “And there are thousands out on the streets, marching hand in hand chanting for change now and they’re marching for you baby, they’re marching for us. Because we deserve to do more than just survive. We deserve to thrive. Dear Matafele Peinem, your eyes heavy with drowsy weight. So just close those eyes and sleep in peace because we won’t let you down. You’ll see”.
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