Thursday, September 17, 2009

Mean ends

"The habitation of these people on the island will afford most valuable ecological radiation data on human beings," (Dr. Robert) Conard wrote in a 1957 confidential internal memo. He added that "various radioisotopes present can be traced from the soil, through the food chain, and into the human beings." (Newsday)

If the Japanese or Germans had done that a dozen years earlier, we would have tried them as war criminals.

Dr. Conard is talking about the residents of Rongelap in the Marshall Islands, who were dosed with radiation by the 1954 'Bravo' hydrogen bomb test (One of 67 tests) on Bikini atoll 110 miles away. Officials claim the wind shifted and the exposure was accidental. A little local perspective: that's about the distance between Guam and Saipan. (A grain of salt for seasoning: at that time troops were sometimes intentionally exposed to nuclear tests. Still, I believe them.)

The quote is from "Cold War fallout for Brookhaven National Lab", subtitled "No one lives here anymore.", a Newsday article that accompanies the 32-minute narrative documentary "Fallout". They say your endocrine system produces less adrenaline over time when it's overused, and adrenaline junkies need higher doses to get the same effects. My outrage gland is like that, but this one got me going.

"I just don't feel that the term 'guinea pigs' is appropriate anywhere in these discussions," Dr. Victor Bond told Newsday in 2007. I dunno, I didn't get that memo.
The contamination forced the American government to evacuate the islanders. Many experienced vomiting and diarrhea, and their white blood cell counts plummeted - signs of radioactive poisoning. Two U.S. military doctors - Bond and Eugene Cronkite - advised other U.S. officials right after the blast that the United States should keep Rongelap's residents away from any more radioactivity from future tests for at least 12 years, if not the rest of their lives, determining they had had enough exposure for a lifetime, documents show. Newsday

After years of suffering, the residents left on their own, boarding the Rainbow Warrior in 1985. According to Newsday, the BNL 'scientists' were "stunned".

"Unfortunately, they were never able to understand very much about radiation and its effects on them," Conard wrote in his memoir. "They were afraid of this unseen, unfelt 'poisonous powder' and its effects, and this became a strong psychological factor. They continued to believe that every ailment and every death was somehow related to radiation exposure."

Then again, German scientist Bernd Franke found BNL urine tests showing toxic levels of plutonium. "I was totally stunned to see Brookhaven's tests were exceeding the limits," recalled Franke. "But they never told the Rongelap people living on the island. They left everybody in the dark and they violated the precepts of good science."

This all came up again when the Marshall Islands Nuclear Claims Tribunal awarded the islanders one billion dollars in damages in 2007. It's hard to put a dollar figure on human suffering, like an insurance company giving you $1,000 for the loss of your big toe, but they're certainly owed big time. President Bush wouldn't pay, will President Obama?

Some 117 people did get $25,000 apiece for having their thyroid glands removed. Talk about blood money. And BNL plays dumb:
At BNL, the lab's history in the Marshall Islands is one that officials say they can't address because all the main participants are dead and no records remain there. They also say they cannot find tissue samples - including thyroids - removed from Marshall Islands residents in exchange for large cash payments.Newsday

The article compares the Cold War fears that drove the research to some of the rampant paranoia after 9/11, a point that occurred to me rather quickly in reading the story. The ends justify the means? Not.

A sign prepared by BNL welcomed the islanders' home: "Greetings Rongelap People. We hope that your return to your atoll is a thing of joy and your hearts are happy."