During the 1954 Castle Bravo test over Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands, America executed its largest nuclear detonation, a thousand times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Nuclear fallout rained down on inhabitants of atolls more than 100 miles away, including Rongelap.
What follows is an excerpt of Blown to Hell: America’s Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders, where Dr. Robert A. Conard, a former Navy doctor who was among those who first examined the Marshall Island natives after Bravo, discovers a new impact of the radioactive fallout on children. Beginning in 1956, as an employee of the Atomic Energy Commission’s Brookhaven National Laboratory, Conard led annual medical examinations of the Rongelapese.
Over the years, Dr. Robert A. Conard and pediatricians he brought with him to Rongelap carefully watched the slow development of several children who had been exposed to the 1954 fallout. In the survey done in March 1963, the doctors’ attention was initially focused on two boys who had been one-year-olds at the time of the fallout.
Both showed early signs of cretinism, a condition of stunted physical and mental growth owing to a deficiency of a thyroid hormone often related to iodine deficiency.
Also of particular interest was the development of a palpable nodule in the thyroid gland of 13-year-old Disi Tima, a fisherman’s daughter, who had been exposed to the Bravo fallout when she was four years old.
Conard believed the findings about the three children possibly represented the first signs of long-term radiation effects, and he sent the thyroid nodule for laboratory examination. He also had called for an AEC restudy of the initial estimate of radiation dosage absorbed by children—an estimate that had been made from radiochemical analysis of a collective urine sample taken on Kwajalein in 1954, 15 days after the fallout began.
That first study, nine years earlier, had detected low levels of radioactive iodine, but missed some shorter-lived iodine isotopes. Conard’s restudy put the radiation dose to a child’s thyroid gland at 1,050 rads, a level high enough to cause eventual trouble.
The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland, slightly less than an inch in adults and smaller by half in children. It rests on either side of the windpipe and is attached below the larynx by a thin tissue. The thyroid is one of several glands that regulate the chemical content of blood, its principal job being to pick up iodine that enters the bloodstream and use it in making the thyroid hormone called thyroxin.
An excess of thyroxin results in over-activity—fast heartbeat, high blood pressure, and rapid cell growth. A deficiency of thyroxin is marked by sluggishness, slow speech patterns, a thickening of the skin, and, in children, cretinism.
The two Rongelap boys both showed delayed growth patterns and an inability to concentrate on work, whether at school, as was the case with one boy, or at home, as was the situation with the other.
Early in 1963, Rep. Wayne Aspinall (D-CO), chairman of the House Interior Committee, had introduced a Kennedy administration compensation bill for the Rongelapese that called for the establishment of a trust fund of $1 million with each of the 82 exposed Rongelap people having an equal share.
Under the legislation, an individual would receive each year the interest accrued on his or her share. It also said that a recipient could withdraw his or her share of their principal if needed upon special request to the secretary of Interior, at that time Stuart Udall, who under the draft legislation would control the overall trust fund.
In formulating that draft of the legislation, Interior Department officials considered the obvious problem of giving roughly $11,000 directly to men, women, and children who had no experience in handling that amount of money and whose society did not normally deal in cash. The approach followed what had been done six years earlier, in 1957, for the Bikini people. There, a $300,000 trust fund had been established six years earlier to pay the Bikinians for use of their atoll for nuclear tests. That trust fund’s interest yielded an insignificant $15 per person, per year.
While the 1963 medical survey was still under way on Rongelap, Kennedy administration officials in Washington pressed for quick passage of the Rongelap compensation bill.
On March 14, 1963, Assistant Secretary of the Interior John A. Carver Jr. sent a statement to the House Interior Committee that said, “There is, to date, no evidence of leukemia or of radiation illness. Further, whether or not the radiation has any life-shortening effects is not yet apparent.”
Carver did point out that bone development in some Rongelap children might have been restrained and there had been “somewhat greater incidences of miscarriages and stillbirths among the exposed women” than normal. Correctly, Carver noted, “We cannot say with any certainty that there will be no future illness or death and no diminution in life expectancy which can be attributed to the 1954 fallout.”
The draft legislation also said, “A payment made under the provisions of this act shall be in full settlement and discharge of all claims against the United States arising out of the thermonuclear detonation on March 1, 1954.” In the administration’s presentation to the House Committee, the fallout from the Bravo test was always described as an accident which occurred when the winds changed. No negligence or error on the part of Joint Task Force Seven officials was ever hinted, and no legislator asked questions about the original cause of the radioactive fallout that reached the Marshallese on Rongelap.
A week after Carver’s testimony, the bill passed the House Interior Committee and on March 21, 1963, it was unanimously approved in the House by a voice vote and sent to the Senate. The State Department wanted quick action before the subject of Rongelap was to be discussed by the UN Trusteeship Council during its May 1963 session.
Excerpted from Blown to Hell: America's Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders by Walter Pincus. Copyright © 2021 Walter Pincus. Printed with permission of the publisher, Diversion Books. All rights reserved.