On May 20, 2017, Professor Emlyn Hughes and eight undergraduate student-researchers from Columbia University’s K1 Project, Center for Nuclear Studies, boarded The Windward off the coast of Ebeye in the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), a country in the middle of the North Pacific Ocean. This was the beginning of a research voyage that would take them across the northern Marshall Atolls, ground zero for the 67 nuclear tests that the United States Government conducted in the 1940s and 1950s. The testing resulted in severe radioactive contamination of numerous islands, which continues to have impact on Marshallese society to this day. The 2017 trip was the third of a series of trips members of the K1 Project Center have conducted on the Marshall Islands, with the goal of better understanding the history and the consequences of the nuclear tests on the environment and well-being of their inhabitants.
The first research trip to the Marshall Islands, in 2014, focused on social and legal understanding, and culminated in the production, by K1 undergraduate students, of the documentary Marshalling Peace. This documentary is informed by testimonies of Marshallese people, Marshall Island government representatives, as well as US nuclear experts, including former Secretary of Defense, Bill Perry. It describes the legal battle the country undertook against nuclear-weapon states for their failure to comply with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and to engage in meaningful disarmament efforts. Through this experience the center became interested in ascertaining current radiological conditions on the affected islands, as a way of helping the Marshallese people in their decision-making on the issue of resettlement. At the same time, K1 members realized that the story of these islands and their people is an important one to continue to share with the world to help raise global awareness of nuclear issues.
The K1 Project team returned to the islands in the summer of 2015, with the goal of measuring external gamma radiation levels on some of the northern Marshall islands (Enewetak, Medren, and Runit on Enewetak Atoll; Bikini and Nam on Bikini Atoll; and Rongelap on Rongelap Atoll), all of which were exposed to high levels of radioactive fallout during the testing era. External radiation level measurements provide an estimate of the external radiation a person living on the islands is exposed to in a given year. Results from this first trip concluded that external gamma radiation levels were above the standard agreed upon by the government of the United States and the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) (100 mrem/y = 1 mSv/y) on the island of Bikini, but were below this standard in the other islands tested. These results, however, do not guarantee that the islands with lower external radiation levels are in fact below the agreed upon standard, since exposure to radiation can also occur through internal pathways, such as by ingestion of contaminated food, all which have to be taken into account when considering total exposure to radiation. This trip culminated in a research publication with five junior women student authors in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
K1 Project’s most recent trip, in the summer of 2017, aimed at addressing further questions to help evaluate options for island resettlement. Is the fruit, main food product grown in the Marshall Islands, contaminated by radiation, and to what extent? Is the soil from which the fruit get the nutrients and water contaminated? The K1 Project team measured radiation levels in fruit and soil in some of the islands of the Bikini Atoll, Utirik Atoll, Rongelap Atoll and Enewetak Atoll. Fruit collected included coconuts, pandanus and breadfruit, main components of the native Marshallese diet. Background gamma radiation levels were additionally measured in areas of interest not tested during the 2015 trip, such as Enyu Island and parts of Bikini Island, on Bikini Atoll; Ekuren and Japtan Islands on Enewetak Atoll; Naen Island on Rongelap Atoll; and Utirik, Aon and Elluk Islands, on Utirik Atoll. Prior to the 2017 trip, members of the K1 Project team were also trained to scuba dive with the goal of collecting ocean sediment for further radiation measurements. For instance, finding the depth of maximum radiation in the ocean sediment provides insight into the levels of radiation to which benthic species are exposed. Radiation found in the top layers of the sediment may travel through the food chain, thus having persisting effects on both the native ecosystem and the diet of the Marshallese people. Diving skills also allowed the team to explore hidden history, as they dove to some of the ships sunk as a consequence of the nuclear tests. The K1 Project conducted this research trip as an independent research group, not funded by the Marshallese or US Government. Research results will be published in peer-reviewed journals.
The K1 Project is planning another trip to the Marshall Islands in the summer of 2018. This time the team will focus on ocean coring, to expand our current measurements of radiation of the ocean sediment. In 2018, we are planning to focus on ocean coring and to measure radiation contamination of the ocean sediment.