Advertise - Print Edition

Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

When God played with matches

Published: February 2, 2007
Section: Arts, Etc.

Yokwe yuk! (Love to you.)
–Marshallese greeting

Pandanus roots grab deep through sand to hold firmly.
–Marshallese proverb

I. Death, Creator of Worlds

You never forget the sight of a remote atoll in the mid-Pacific. Who could live on such a world? Just a thin ring of land surrounding an insanely turquoise lagoon;

a broken necklace of white coral sand in a vast, awesome sea of blue.

Eons of lapping waves erode the flanks of an oceanic volcano, dispersing its ancient soil into the surrounding sea. In these shallows grow coral reefs, the product of trillions of tiny organisms leaving behind limestone deposits when they die. When the volcano washes away, the coral ring is left surrounding a glassy lagoon. A world has emerged.

The lagoons shelter. A coconuts precious fluid. Vital nutrients from pandanus, taro, and breadfruit. Ingredients necessary for a civilization

II. Wave Interactions

They settled these atolls, finding their way by charts made of sticks tied together. The people of the Marshall Islands invented three kinds of stick-charts: The mattang and medo, depicting the wave patterns around island clusters;

and the rebillit, showing the positions of islands relative to each other. They populated two parallel island chains, which they called Ratak and Ralik: Sunrise and sunset.

III. Establishing the Trust

Our nation was awarded administrative control of far-flung Micronesia by the United Nations in 1947 after the islands liberation from Japanese forces. Named the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, the region was given with a mandate to promote economic development and self-government among its inhabitants.

IV. Static Overpressure

Bikini Atoll acquired notoriety far beyond becoming the namesake of the two-piece swimsuit when our nation, after relocating the local population to nearby Rongerik Atoll, began a long series of atomic tests in 1946. It would be temporary, the Bikinians were told, and for the benefit of mankind. And so they left, thus beginning the fragmentation of a tight-knit community. But their new home was too small, and they soon faced near-starvation. The establishment of the Trust Territory obliged the US to again relocate the Bikinians to Kwajalein Atoll, and later to Kili Island.

V. The Scattering of Particles

Nagasaki was obliterated by a fission bomb utilizing the energy stored in a mere grapefruit-size ball of plutonium. But the atoms true power is found in thermonuclear (hydrogen) bombs;

harnessing the power of fusion, some possess a thousand times the magnitude of those dropped on Japan.

Nuclear reactions liberate all their stored energy as gamma- and x-rays within a thousandth of a second. A fireball forms from surrounding air heated millions of degrees to blinding incandescence. An expanding blast-wave exceeding the speed of sound propagates outward, flattening buildings, and rupturing eardrums and internal organs. Ionizing radiation also disrupts DNA, causing heritable mutations. The fireball, meanwhile, rises, drawing up air beneath it in a mushroom-shaped dust-cloud. Extending into the stratosphere, it dumps radioactive particles into the jetstream, the high-altitude air-current encircling the globe.

VI. Ratak

On 1 March, 1954, eight years following the start of testing in the Marshalls, the largest American thermonuclear device, dubbed Castle-Bravo, was detonated at Bikini. Its fireball ascended at 300mph, and within a minute, its cloud topped 50,000 feet. It peaked at 130,000 feet, with a mushroom stem fully four miles wide. Superheated hurricane-force winds incinerated trees on islands miles away. The 15-megaton blast obliterated three islands, leaving a lagoon crater over a mile wide.

VII. Ralik

Two inches of radioactive ash fell on nearby Rongelap Atoll like snow, contaminating the drinking water. Kids played in it. Though they had seen the light and ash-cloud over the horizon, nobody understood its significance. Acute radiation sickness set in that night, causing nausea and skin burns among the inhabitants. Panic spread as peoples hair fell out. They were evacuated for treatment two days later. Days have turned into decades, yet they have offered no cure for the cancers and birth defects that remain the bitter fate of the Rongelapese.

VIII. Roots Holding Firmly

Bikinis former inhabitants and their descendents still remain on Kili, a tiny, overcrowded island with no lagoon for fishing. Generations live together in exile, dependent on canned food, awaiting the day when fish and crops on Bikini will again be safe to eat. America has yet to fund a full land decontamination project.

IX. The Critical Mass

Last April, Bikinians filed a $500 million lawsuit against the US Government as compensation for loss of their land, actually just the latest episode in an ongoing suit. In 2001, after a seven-year legal claim, the Nuclear Claims Tribunal ruled in the islanders favor;

the tribunal, however, lacked funds to pay the award (equal to two days expenditures on the current war effort), and so the people of Bikini continue their battle. In December the US filed a motion for a one-month extension. That period ended last Tuesday.

X. How Far the Distant Shore

Many of the plaintiffs are gone now. Closure, when it comes, will of course be too late. On this journey for justice, the ancient stick-charts will be of little help to the Marshallese. I have no words of conclusion, as this sad story still awaits an end. A moral debt remains to be paid for the time when America played God, and like a curious child, picked up a match and set a distant world on fire.