The following is a personal story submitted to Civilian Exposure and published as part of our new series: “Contamination Chronicles: Personal Stories of Exposure”. If you would like to submit your story, you may fill out our form here or send directly via email to [email protected]
Testimonial of a Former Enewetak Atomic Cleanup Worker
I am one of the civilians with “hands-on” participation in the Failed Enewetak Atoll Atomic Cleanup Mission of 1977-1980. Enewetak Atoll and Bikini Atoll were the Pacific Nuclear Proving Grounds, located in the most remote U.S. territories in the world…the Marshall Islands. The larger, yet less famous, of the atolls is Enewetak Atoll. With 38 small islands, it was the site of 43 atmospheric nuclear weapons tests equaling the nuclear energy of 3,133 Hiroshima sized Atomic weapons. Almost all of the nuclear weapons tests were conducted on a small group of the northern islands, if combined, consist of approximately 950 acres. That’s about the same size as New York City’s Central Park. Over 80% of all U.S. nuclear weapons testing when measured in megatons were conducted in the Marshall Islands. In 1956, the Atomic Energy Commission characterized the Marshall Islands as “by far the most contaminated place in the world.”
In preparation of the Atomic Cleanup, a radiological survey was conducted in 1977. The focus was the 18 small islands we were to “cleanup” there. It would have been 20, but two islands had been vaporized by hydrogen bombs. The results revealed astronomical levels of deadly radiation, even after 16 years had passed since the last nuclear weapons test. The radiation was measurably the same as if it had been just one day after the nuclear weapons test. This official report, titled “The Enewetak Fact Book”, reported the Atoll’s radiation level was at 128,729 Roentgen per hour (R/h). The most contaminated island was Runit at 62,849 R/h, where we were to build a massive concrete containment dome in a nuclear blast crater.
Compared to the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, the radiation level in the reactor building (the most contaminated area) was estimated to be 20,000 R/h.
Radioactive isotopes in nuclear fallout such as Plutonium-239 have a half-life of over 24,000 years. The small island of Runit, just 97 acres, was the site of 17 atmospheric nuclear weapons tests. This is where we built a massive concrete containment dome with over 110,000 square yards of radioactive soil and debris. It is estimated it will take 10 half-lives (240,000 years) for the concentrated amount of Plutonium-239 to be eliminated before the island would become inhabitable again. Today this island is under permanent quarantine. The other 17 islands including Lowja, the site of the atomic cleanup’s base camp, remain indefinitely uninhabitable.
Twenty years later, in 1998 the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) made a comparison study to compare the amount of radioactive Iodine-131 at four different radiation-polluted sites. The CDC team reported its finding on the atmospheric release of curies of Iodine-137. The Hanford nuclear processing plant was 739,000 curies; at Chernobyl the release was 40 million curies; at the Nevada bomb test site, 150 million curies; and in the Marshall Islands, 6.3 billion curies (more than 30 times as much radiation as all the other three sites combined).
But these facts were undisclosed and unknown to the young men tasked with the Atomic Cleanup. Our lives and health were apparently considered disposable. I had never heard of Enewetak Atoll. No written information was provided or made available to me. I was led to believe the natives had already safely returned to the islands. Indeed, some had, to just one southern island that had not been used for nuclear testing and was not known to have been contaminated. I went there believing my involvement was to be in the post atomic cleanup, collecting low level soil samples so the Atoll could be certified as safe. After arriving I found this not to be true. Instead, I was in the middle of the active atomic cleanup.
Prior to participating in the Atomic Cleanup, I was a laboratory technician at Eberline Instrument Corporation’s Albuquerque, NM Health Psychics Laboratory. I was hired by Eberline at the age of 18 directly after graduating high school, which, at the time, was my only level of education. In the two years I worked in the laboratory as a technician, I mostly prepared environmental and bio-assay samples for low level radioisotope analyses. This included urine samples for Strontium-90 from the Enewetak radiation workers. Upon official request these records were denied to exist. Besides laboratory work, I was not involved or trained in anything that would prepare me for the responsibilities that were placed upon me during the Atomic Cleanup.
Eberline was a Department of Energy contractor that continuously rotated employees in order to have two Radiation Specialists on the Atoll during the mission – a Soil Sampler Supervisor and a Nuclear Physicist. I was enticed to participate as a soil sampling supervisor. It was presented to me as a humanitarian mission and would be a great addition to my resume. My plans were to continue following a career in the atomic industry. It seemed too good to be true. I was to spend 5 days in Hawaii. Then, I would be on my way to where I was led to believe were the postcard perfect islands of Enewetak Atoll. I was not informed about the astronomically high levels of deadly radiation. I was not given any special training. I was not warned to take precautions. I was not provided basic radiation safety information. Recently, I read in the official final Atomic Cleanup report where it falsely claims that I would have received a five day training seminar in Las Vegas, NV, as well as while at the Nevada Test site. I did not receive that training.
I was stationed on the Air Force base on Enewetak Island. It had been abandoned decades earlier. A hastened and temporary attempt had been made to place the Air Force Base back into operation. The Atomic Cleanup Operation was a Joint Task Force mostly comprised of military members, with about 4% of that civilian. All of the civilians lived on base as there was nowhere else to live. I was issued a military drivers license but there was no need for a vehicle or anywhere to drive. Another island, Lowja, also had a temporary base with civilians stationed there. As poor as the conditions were on the Enewetak Island base, the Lowja Island base was worse. It resembled a forced labor camp and was on a small island literally in the middle of the contaminated zone. Both bases used desalination plants for fresh water, including drinking water that came straight out of the contaminated lagoon. The coconut trees, known as mother nature’s most efficient desalination plant, produced coconuts poisoned with deadly levels of radioisotopes such as Cesium-137 and Strontium-90. The amount of contamination in our water remains unknown or hidden.
Having limited knowledge, I was still concerned about being sent to work without any radiation protection or safety instructions. Once arriving on the contaminated islands with active cleanup operations, I was deceptively relieved to see that no one was wearing radiation protection, no one was using radiation safety measures, and there were no decontamination stations. The entire time I was there, I never saw anyone wearing a HAZ-MAT suit. Seeing there were not any radiation safety procedures in place, I deceptively believed the radiation levels were very low. I also found that as a young civilian I blended in and I was indistinguishable from the military personnel. I wore the very same uniform as the military; which consisted of a pair of shorts and a t-shirt. Most of the personnel used their t-shirts as I did – as a towel and as a dust mask.
So at 20 years old, I was the Soil Sampling Supervisor in charge of a military crew of seven. They were also young men ages 18-23 years old. I only had a basic awareness of radioisotopes. I certainly didn’t have the education or training required for my duties or to be placed in such a toxic place. My crew were designated as “Radiation Technicians”, yet they did not have any radiation training. They knew even less than I did. We worked six 10-hour days a week on the contaminated islands in brutal heat and humidity. We were not provided any radiation safety gear, not even a pair of ordinary garden gloves! We collected the toxic soil samples mostly with our bare hands. Our transportation hub was usually the Lowja base camp, where we were transported in what I can only describe as huge amphibious dump trucks. These were the very same vehicles used for hauling high-level radioactive waste earlier the same day.
As time passed on the Atoll, I encountered so many subtle clues from observations and conversations. I began asking questions. Some were answered, while other questions were not. My learning experience gradually turned my concern into fear as I became leery. The historical excitement of participating in the humanitarian mission and being at “Ground Zero” dissipated. While sitting alone at night, waves pounding in the background at my favorite hideaway, I became disillusioned and troubled about the invisible radiation and the potential dangers.
It was at that point that I made the decision not to pursue my career in the atomic industry. I just wanted to go home, to forget about this ominous place, and to quit my job at the laboratory once I got back home.
After returning home, I was not debriefed nor was I told of any reason for concern. I was left unaware of the astronomical levels of radiation I had been exposed to. I was not given the required physical, urine or blood analysis. I was not instructed to take any precautionary health care. I have never been given the required radiation worker’s five-year health follow-ups. Worse, I was not informed that the radiation worker’s exposure monitoring program had failed, leaving all of the atomic cleanup workers without accurate radiation dose exposure. Wrongful, if not criminal, the Department of Energy in their final report would twist the failed monitoring into their favor by falsely placing “administrative” radiation exposure readings of zero or near zero.
In 2015 while reminiscing the adventures of my youth, I was curious to read what history had to say and what had become of the massive radioactive dome we left behind. So I searched the internet. I found the Atomic Clean-up had been turned into an Atomic Cover-up. History had forgotten us. Using Google Earth, I found the dome is now hidden under a round gray circle. If not for foreign journalists, the dome too would have been forgotten. They reported the radioactive dome to be in a very deteriorated condition and was leaking. They included photographs. I experienced the power of a typhoon while I was on Enewetak and I believe the dome could be just one typhoon away from a breach.
My internet search also found a small survivor group. The word “survivor” jumped out and deeply became a previously unknown reality in my life. I joined the group in 2015 with only 238 survivors. It is organized though Facebook and our own website. Our story of being reunited though the internet in itself is a story. It gives us the format to reunite, discuss health issues, provide each other moral support, share photos and memoirs. Besides our health, we have invisible scars – our fears of an abbreviated life and the generational after-effects of the radiation poisoning.
Our group also became an information center, with members sharing documents obtained though the Freedom of Information Act including documents declassified in 1996. It was only then as documents were shared that the truth about our deadly toxic exposure was revealed. Over 8,000 men participated and after eight years of searching for survivors, we have only found about 500 of those 8,000 participants. Of these few survivors, most are suffering from severe health challenges from illnesses known to be caused by exposure to ionizing radiation. Our eight-year search for survivors has been thorough. It includes using numerous media outlets, such as a front page article in the New York Times and the front cover article of the American Legion Magazine. With reasonable certainty, we believe the failed mission has already taken the lives of thousands of the Atomic Cleanup workers. Within our survivor group, we lose 6 to 8 men each year to cancer and other radiation-related illnesses. As I write this testimonial, one of the men I worked with is now on his death bed.
Previous to finding our survivor group, I was unaware how deadly the Atomic Cleanup Mission was or how my own heath was adversely affected. I had been so oblivious that I didn’t even mention radiation exposure to my health providers. Invisible radiation is described as invisible bullets by the military veterans. We suffered invisible wounds, some so deep they damaged our chromosomes to wound even our children. They, too, now carry the invisible wounds of chromosomal damage, an open wound to be passed down to future generations.
My first symptom of radiation illness was intermittent bouts of diarrhea soon after returning home from the Atomic Cleanup Mission. Today my diagnosed medical conditions are all known in medical journals to be caused by ionizing radiation. These include a painful chronic intestinal disease of the small intestine, with bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). This results in an alteration and overgrowth of the bacteria that colonized the small intestine. I have osteoporosis with brittle bones limiting my life activities. My blood analysis appeared positive for Beryllium poisoning. I’ve had numerous pre-cancerous skin growths that have been removed throughout the years. I’ve also had lipomas which are benign tumors that consist mostly of fat cells (known to be caused by toxins the body is unable to process).
In 1997, I was given my first colonoscopy at 39 years old due to severe bleeding from the rectum. Several precancerous polyps were removed. Several unidentified calcified balls were flushed out from my intestine. My last colonoscopy (2015) again found a precancerous polyp. I also have early cataracts and deteriorating retinas. I can no longer drive at night and my eyesight continues to worsen. I have unexplained nerve damage on my knee and elbow. My wife and I suffered with infertility including miscarriages most likely caused by my damaged chromosomes from radiation exposure. This led to a costly divorce. My ex-wife remarried and soon had two healthy children, leaving me with the thought and pain of children whose lives would otherwise exist. Every adverse medical condition or illness I have had are known to be caused by ionizing radiation. Due to the latency period of radiation poisoning, as with most in our group, I fear the future will bring me an early death. Otherwise, I would be relatively healthy for a 59-year old man.
I applied for the health screening program provided by the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act. Carefully reading the requirements to qualify as a Department of Energy radiation worker, I found I met and even exceeded the prerequisites, yet I was denied this health care. I was informed that both the civilian radiation workers and the atomic veterans that participated in the failed Atomic Cleanup Mission are not recognized as either civilian radiation workers or atomic veterans.
I have sought assistance from so-called advocacy organizations, DOE ombudsmen, the Department of Labor, workers comp, and more. I have joined veterans groups and sought help from elected officials. Yet, I have not found any help or resources available. Together, our small survivor group also reached out and managed to get a bill before Congress in November 2015 and a companion bill before the Senate. Both bills failed to pass but have been reintroduced. Those bills are titled the Atomic Veterans Parity Act. It is till pending. If it were to be passed for being a civilian only, I would be left out.
It is a mystery how I am still alive today. I am not just a survivor of the “Failed” Enewetak Atomic Cleanup Mission. I am also an eyewitness to a horrendous wrongdoing.
Note from the Editor: The author currently resides in New Mexico. The account/editorial is verbatim from the author without edit, with only the omission of their name to preserve anonymity.