Questions and answers about the island and the lab

In 1970, Dr. Robert Conard examines a young In 1970, Dr. Robert Conard examines a young woman's throat outside her home on Rogelap Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Photo Credit: Brookhaven National Lab

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What was Brookhaven National Laboratory's involvement in the Marshall Islands?

 

From 1954 through 1998, medical doctors from BNL were in charge of the care of hundreds of residents of the Marshall Islands in the South Pacific. Within this group were more than 200 residents of the island of Rongelap and other atolls who had been exposed to the radioactive fallout from the largest nuclear test explosion in U.S. history, the 1954 hydrogen bomb blast called "Bravo," which spread a cloud of radioactive ash across a wide expanse of ocean. Bravo was the biggest of 67 nuclear bombs tested in the Marshall Islands by the United States from 1946 to 1958 at the height of the Cold War.

Three U.S. military physicians who initially oversaw this medical program, Robert Conard, Eugene Cronkite and Victor Bond, brought it with them when they left the military and joined BNL in 1955. BNL's medical work in the Marshall Islands was sponsored by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and later the U.S. Energy Department, which owns and operates the lab. After years of complaints by the Marshallese about their medical care by the BNL doctors, the Energy Department replaced them in 1998 with another U.S.-funded team.

 

What was the BNL medical team's role?

 

Records show that while providing medical care, BNL doctors also focused on nuclear radiation's impact on the human body. The three doctors were part of a government program called "Project 4.1," whose purpose was to study the human effects from radioactive fallout caused by the Bravo bomb. Funded by the U.S. government, the Brookhaven project - officially called "Study of Response of Human Beings Accidentally Exposed to Significant Beta and Gamma radiation due to Fall-Out from High Yield Weapons" - was designed to do two things at once, documents show: provide quality medical care to the Marshallese exposed to radiation, and conduct a scientific study of the severity and health consequences of such contamination.

BNL's dual mission was made clear in a July 1956 report, authored by Cronkite, Bond and an AEC official, that stated that the federal government expected the Brookhaven team "to provide the best possible care of the exposed persons and to make a medical study of the exposed." This meant Brookhaven's team would mix twin duties for the next four decades - as scientists studying the effects of nuclear fallout on a human population, and medical doctors treating the sick.

 

Today how do the Marshall Islanders view the work of the BNL doctors?

 

In short: very critically. Many Marshallese see themselves as having been "guinea pigs" and "unwitting subjects" in a long-running research effort they believe was designed to study the impact of radiation on a human population at the expense of their health. Their bitterness toward the lab is reflected in hundreds of pages of official documents assembled by a little-known group called the Nuclear Claims Tribunal, whose documents are available to be read online at nuclearclaimstribunal.com.

The islanders say in these documents that the doctors failed to disclose to them that their homeland was contaminated, along with their food and water. Among a list of grievances, the islanders also said that the doctors found levels of plutonium in some patients' urine samples but never told the patients of that discovery. They say that medical procedures, such as the removal of thyroid glands, were done without their informed consent and that the doctors were far more interested in studying them rather than addressing their medical concerns. Many islanders told the tribunal that they felt humiliated and "dehumanized" by their treatment - such as being told to strip in front of others so they could be hosed down - and, moreover, that they were often not told why they were being sent to the United States for "unexplained" medical procedures.

Distrustful of the BNL doctors' work, the residents of Rongelap secretly fled their island in 1985 on a ship owned by Greenpeace, an international environmental organization - a move the BNL doctors later criticized as unnecessary. To date, they have not returned to their homeland, which today is empty of people except for crews working on U.S.-funded rehabilitation projects.

 

What do BNL and the Department of Energy say about the lab's role in the Marshall Islands?

 

BNL's doctors, who worked for 43 years with the Marshallese, have said in various forums that their treatment was appropriate as they responded to the unknowns of radioactive fallout during the years when Cold War tensions and fears were at their height. All three of the principle doctors are now dead, and the current managers of the lab say they will not discuss the lab's long history in the Marshall Islands. They say records of that work no longer exist, and thyroids removed from a number of islanders, once stored at the lab, cannot be found.

Conard, who retired from BNL in 1979 and died in 2001, wrote a 64-page report about the team's experiences called "Fallout," published in 1992 by the lab. He says contamination fears were exaggerated and the affected islanders overreacted.

"In carrying out these examinations, the medical teams were faced with many problems and dilemmas, some of which were unforeseen and unique to a medical group," Conard wrote. "Some of the problems were related to cultural differences, and to the lack of understanding by the Marshallese of radiation and its effects, resulting in unfounded fears and psychological effects."

Today, Energy Department officials say BNL's doctors performed admirably. "At the time Brookhaven delivered the services for us, they were world-class," said Patricia Worthington, the department's director of health and safety. "They were recognized for their expertise in understanding the health effects from radiation. They were liked by the Marshallese, and they were well-respected at that time."

Beyond the department, a U.S. presidential advisory panel ruled in 1995 that BNL's work in the Marshall Islands during the Cold War did not amount to human experimentation. However, the panel did say that BNL doctors injected radioactive substances into the bodies of some Marshall Islands residents for no legitimate medical purpose and also that the doctors' actions were taken without the consent of their patients.

"Because there was virtually no therapeutic benefit envisioned, it appears the primary goal of the study was to measure radiation exposures for research purposes, although the knowledge may have been helpful in the clinical care of the patient," the panel wrote.

In a Newsday interview in January 2007, a few months before he died, Bond said research on the Marshallese was justified because they had already been exposed to radiation from the Bravo blast and anything scientists might find would help save American lives in the event of a future nuclear war.

"Nobody - including myself, Cronkite, anybody concerned with it - did not regard this as, did not design, an experiment," Bond said. "The situation was produced by means other than our desire to do research. So no one had it in mind that they were dealing with this as a guinea pig situation."

One Brookhaven doctor who had a different view of the team's treatment of the Marshallese was Dr. Konrad Kotrady, who spent a year in the mid-1970s as the lab's representative in the islands. He told BNL officials that many islanders distrusted the lab and, in particular, that they objected to the doctors' decision not to tell patients about plutonium found in their urine samples.

"People indicated that they have complained of certain problems for years and the doctors always do nothing or tell them nothing," he wrote in a 1977 report to BNL. "Now if an American was to go through this process each year for 20 years, would he also not consider himself a research subject - a type of guinea pig, if you will?"

 

What is the Nuclear Claims Tribunal, and what did it say about nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands?

 

The Marshall Islands Nuclear Claims Tribunal, set up in 1988 by the U.S. and Marshall Islands governments, spent more than a decade investigating radiation contamination in the islands and then setting damages. Starting in 2000, the panel approved $341 million for damages and cleanup at the Enewetak atoll and a $560-million damages claim by Bikini, both "ground zero" sites where U.S. nuclear bombs were exploded.

In December 2006, the tribunal awarded $300 million in damages to Utirik, another contaminated island whose residents, like those on Rongelap, had been under BNL's care. In April 2007 the tribunal awarded the biggest amount - $1 billion - to Rongelap and its surrounding islands. Residents were initially evacuated after the 1954 Bravo blast but then, three years later, were allowed to return to their homes even though BNL and others knew the island was contaminated.

Of that $1 billion, $780 million was pegged to "past and future loss" of properties on Rongelap and the islands. This loss covered land but also lagoons, reefs, clam beds, turtle and bird nesting grounds as well as loss of use of personal sites such as family cemeteries. The tribunal awarded another $212 million for "remediation and restoration," which covered removal of contaminated soil.

Finally, the tribunal awarded $34 million to the Rongelap people for "consequential damages." Specifically, the tribunal cited the decision - approved by the BNL doctors - to allow the island's residents to move back to the island in 1957 even though the doctors had said such a move should never happen because of high levels of contamination. "Although the people were assured that it was safe to return to Rongelap in 1957, it was evident that the U.S. knew Rongelap was still contaminated at that time," the tribunal wrote.

Beyond this, the tribunal determined BNL and other U.S. officials knew of the threat of contaminated food consumed by the Rongelapese and did not immediately warn them so they could trace the flow of contamination through their bodies. Warnings against eating this food were "not implemented until several years after the people returned, and the resulting exposure allowed scientists to measure the amount of radionuclides present in human beings," the tribunal wrote.

One section of the tribunal's report included an exhibit that states that the residents of Rongelap and two other atolls "served as unwitting subjects in a series of experiments designed to take advantage of the research opportunities accompanying exposure of a distinct human population to radiation. . . . Initial findings from this and other biological research projects helped shape the goals and approach to an integrated long-term study on the human and environmental effects of nuclear weapons fallout that began in 1954 and was continued by Brookhaven National Laboratory until 1998."

The Bush administration opposed these damage awards, saying more than $530 million already had been spent over the years on various rehab projects and health compensation throughout the Marshall Islands. Attempts by the Marshallese to collect the tribunal awards in federal court actions have to date failed. What the Obama administration will do about these awards, if anything, is unclear, and they had no further word this past week.

 

What did the tribunal say about BNL's actions in the Marshall Islands?

 

In its Bikini decision, the tribunal cited the return of Bikinians in the early 1970s to their contaminated atoll as a reason for the award. The tribunal said U.S. doctors assured the residents that Bikini was safe when they knew otherwise. A film made at the time shows a confident Conard on Bikini promising residents they would be safe. On the video, he says that the people on Rongelap were also safe, even though BNL's own documents show health problems on the island were escalating at that time.

"We know from our experiences on Rongelap that the low levels of radiation there that persisted in the soil after the fallout were insufficient to cause any hazards to the Rongelap people," Conard said in the early 1970s film. "So I wouldn't expect there should be any hazard here."

In 1978, all the residents of Bikini were removed when radiation levels in their bodies rose sharply. In its March 2001 ruling, the tribunal said "a serious error and miscalculation had been made by the United States Government at the time endangering the health and welfare of the Bikinians who returned to Bikini." The tribunal linked the lymphoma death of an 11-year-old boy to radiation exposure from that return.

In the 2006 Utirik decision, the tribunal specifically cited testimony that BNL doctors ignored patients health complaints and that a "lack of trust stems from the doctors telling the people that 'everything is all right now' in juxtaposition with an increased number of radiation-related diseases in recent years."

BNL is also cited in the tribunal's Rongelap decision. Specifically, the tribunal, in questioning the 1957 decision to return 250 people to a still-contaminated island, said, in effect, that the goal of studying the human impact of radiation trumped medicine. In the tribunal's words, "the people came to feel like guinea pigs, used for experimentation by the U.S."

The tribunal also made it clear that "the long-term monitoring of the Rongelapese was given to a U.S. government facility, Brookhaven National Laboratory . . . "

The tribunal also wrote, "Ample evidence was presented as to the people's belief that their health was affected as a result of living in a contaminated environment." The tribunal went one step further and wrote that the Rongelap people living in such an environment "supported scientific research and military defense concerns" during the Cold War.

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