Earlier this month, President Joe Biden took one small step in the direction of reconciling the U.S.’s nuclear weapons legacy. One day before the 76th anniversary of the first-ever nuclear detonation conducted by the U.S. in New Mexico, Biden proclaimed July 16, 2021, as National Atomic Veterans Day.
The president noted how “our Atomic Veterans” participated in nuclear tests between 1945 and 1962 while others served or were held as prisoners of war near Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He pointed out that many of those veterans sacrificed and died, often without the recognition or the medical care and support they deserved.
Biden is not the first U.S. president to proclaim a National Atomic Veterans Day. On July 15, 1983, President Ronald Reagan issued Proclamation 5072, a similarly worded acknowledgement of (some) atomic veterans.
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Biden’s redux acknowledges injustice rooted in the U.S.’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, but neither he nor Reagan extended recognition to the forgotten “atomic cleanup veterans” who were given an impossible task: dispose of tons of radioactive waste and debris after a dozen years (1946-58) of nuclear weapons tests at Bikini and Enewetak Atolls in the Marshall Islands.
Between 1977 and 1980, an estimated 8,000 people — mostly military personnel, but some civilians, too — took part in cleanup and construction efforts to build an 18-inch-thick capped concrete dome large enough to hold 100,000 cubic yards of radioactive waste.
The Runit Dome (also called the Cactus Dome or simply “the tomb”) was built on top of an atomic blast crater on Runit Island by workers who lacked even basic protective equipment and hadn’t been told they were living and working in an environment polluted with plutonium, strontium-90 and cesium-137.
One of those atomic cleanup veterans is Ken Brownell of Saratoga County, New York. In 1977, at the age of 19, Brownell volunteered to join the Army as a 51B — an Army carpenter. After being deployed to Hawaii, his unit was sent to the Marshall Islands, a place most young American soldiers knew nothing about.
When Brownell arrived at Lojwa, one of two dozen tiny islets that make up the Marshall Islands’ Enewetak Atoll, all he knew was that he would be helping build a base camp for 500 soldiers. He had no idea that he and his unit would spend the next six months living on top of concrete pads made of radioactive aggregate. What’s more, Lojwa was smack dab in the middle of the northern islands where Enewetak’s 43 nuclear and thermonuclear tests were conducted.
Four decades after Brownell and thousands of others did their best to clean up the radioactive mess, he wants the U.S. government to accept responsibility for the damage it caused him and other veterans as well as the Marshallese people, whose islands were violently exploited to advance U.S. military ambitions.
When seeking help, Brownell and other atomic cleanup veterans have been told they were on a non-contaminated island and are therefore not eligible for compensation or certain medical benefits to treat the cancers and other ailments they say are a result of their time at Enewetak. Brownell recalls one close friend who served with him at Lojwa who died two years ago, sick with multiple cancers.
Brownell says Biden’s proclamation represents a “great day for those who truly deserve to be recognized.” But he asks: What about those who attempted to clean up after the U.S. nuclear tests? “We were exposed to high levels of ionizing radiation, but our own government will not admit or help those affected,” Brownell told Truthout.
After the Enewetak cleanup was completed in 1980, those veterans continued to serve or reentered civilian life. Forty years later, many have fallen ill or died, leaving behind bereaved families. Supporting bills have been introduced to Congress, but never passed.
“We served our country [and] never entered into a conflict but still found ourselves fighting for our lives,” Brownell says. “Our fight continues.”
Nuclear Weapons Are Immoral and Illegal
University of Washington Professor Holly Barker, whose work centers on Marshallese nuclear justice efforts, and who serves on the Republic of the Marshall Islands’ National Nuclear Commission, said that as a U.S. citizen, she appreciates Biden’s effort to increase awareness — but it’s not enough.
“The veterans and civilians who helped to contain radiation on Enewetak Atoll experience the same health conditions [but] do not receive adequate medical care or disability compensation for themselves or their families,” she says. Those individuals, Barker told Truthout, “deserve recognition and support for the hardships they endure.”
Barker points out that Marshallese civilians were also employed for cleanup efforts at Bikini Atoll, some 200 miles east of Enewetak. The atoll remains uninhabitable today, and many who worked there have had no access to cancer treatment and have since died. The Marshall Islands still has no oncologist or cancer treatment center.
The list of nuclear victims stemming from the U.S.’s meteoric rise as a nuclear power is as long as it is deadly. From Native American tribal nations and downwinder communities sickened by uranium mining and production, to civilians and military personnel killed by testing and cleanup, the cost of nuclear weapons is borne most heavily by ordinary people. For Marshall Islanders, the nuclear burden collides with climate change at Runit Dome where radioactive waste seeps into lagoon sediments and rising seas. In Hiroshima and Nagasaki, tens of thousands of Japanese civilians were incinerated on August 6 and 9, 1945, along with thousands more who died in the years that followed. All are all woven together in this nuclear web.
In Biden’s National Atomic Veteran’s Day proclamation, he said, “the horrors of nuclear destruction at Hiroshima and Nagasaki … opened our eyes to the truth that a nuclear war must never be fought.” Yet Biden’s words belie his administration’s own robust support for modernizing and replacing the U.S. nuclear arsenal at a cost of tens of billions of dollars, and ultimately more than $1.5 trillion over 30 years. The whole thing reeks of hypocrisy, raising the question: Why does the Biden administration continue to spend enormous sums of money and resources on weapons which, if ever used, would lead to unimaginable death and destruction?
Lofty declarations of praise and the bestowment of a national day of recognition may send patriotic spirits soaring, but an honest admission that nuclear weapons are immoral, illegal, and continue to cause grave harm and threaten all humanity, would be a far better way to demonstrate honor and respect.