On 1st March 1954 the USA detonated a hydrogen bomb (codenamed Castle Bravo) at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. This was just one of 23 nuclear devices tested by the USA at sites in Bikini Atoll alone over a 12-year period. Like other such atolls, Bikini is part of a coral reef.
Let me just repeat that. The USA detonated a nuclear device over a coral reef.
Every coral reef is an incredible ecosystem formed over thousands of years. They’re also very dangerous places to let off a nuclear bomb. That’s because they naturally break up into large-sized particles that come down to earth quickly before they’ve lost most of their radioactive energy. This is what happened in March 1954.
Bravo was a 15-megaton explosion, three times more powerful than its designers had predicted and 1,000 times more powerful than the weapons used against Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It created a vast fireball, and a mushroom cloud that rose to 130,000 feet and rapidly spread across several miles of ocean. The coral atolls that form the Marshall Islands are dispersed tens and hundreds of miles apart. The inhabitants of Bikini had all been evacuated before the tests started, but not so the other atolls:
“Later that day, the wind carried irradiated coral dust from a completely vaporized island at Bikini Atoll to the east and covered the atolls of Rongelap, Ailingnae, and Rongerik. Children played in the fallout because they thought it was snow. They ‘tasted it’ and ‘rubbed it in their eyes.’ Women used the white flakes as shampoo until their scalps burned and their hair fell out in large chunks. Men, women, and children became violently ill and ran into the lagoon for respite, but they could not sense it was dangerously radioactive.” 
It took the Americans 48 hours to evacuate the Rongelapese, who were the worst affected. And there was worse to come. For years afterwards the Rongelapese were used as human guinea pigs without their knowledge or consent. Project 4.1 was a research operation set up by the Americans immediately after Castle Bravo to study the effects of radioactive fallout on the Marshall Islanders, who were not told of the existence of the project or of the continuing risks to which they were being daily exposed.
The islanders only spoke Marshallese (a language that contains no word for radiation), so it was hard enough anyway for them to communicate with the visiting medical personnel. Their inability to control or even to understand what was happening to them was highly traumatising. They were subjected to many invasive medical procedures, the purpose of which wasn’t explained. There was a huge increase in miscarriages and birth abnormalities, but as the link to radiation exposure was never made clear the women felt that they were being punished for something. Musicologist Jessica Schwartz has studied how the Rongelapese women used song to deal with their situation. The power of song is deeply embedded in Marshallese culture, and traditionally women used to chant and beat drums in order to ward off ill fortune. As a result of the radiation poisoning most of the women developed thyroid cancer, and the ensuing surgery frequently altered their voices, making them reluctant to speak or sing in public. Eventually though they would find some release through song.
One of the songs that Schwartz analyses, 177, was named after a clause by which the United States government designated which Marshall Islanders were eligible for compensation for the nuclear testing programme. The song expresses what the nuclear legacy and radiation sickness means to the lives of the Rongelapese, succeeding in finding the words and the language to articulate experiences that are so alien to their culture. The final verse contains a question that is left hanging – “When will I be released from my sufferings that I still now do not understand?”
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