August 22, 2009
In 1956, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) turned to Brookhaven National Laboratory to continue a program of medical evaluation and care of Marshall Islanders accidentally exposed to radioactive fallout following a U.S. nuclear weapons test at Bikini atoll on March 1, 1954. Brookhaven Lab was not involved in the weapons test.
On that day, according to government reports, the wind shifted unexpectedly toward inhabited atolls just before detonation and the explosion produced higher amounts of fallout than predicted. As a result, Marshallese on the atolls of Utirik, Rongelap, and Ailinginae; American servicemen at a weather station on Rongerik Atoll; and Japanese fishermen on the vessel Lucky Dragon were all exposed to high levels of radiation.
In the aftermath of this disastrous accident, the AEC and Department of Defense dispatched an emergency medical team to the area and then continued follow-up visits. Over the next two years, several Naval physicians from that team joined the staff at Brookhaven Lab, leading to the 1956 AEC request that Brookhaven take over the medical program.
Robert Conard became head of the program, and he and colleagues made trips to the Marshall Islands every year to treat radiation-related illnesses, collect samples for laboratory analyses, and measure radiation levels in the environment. Study results were shared in scientific journals. Twenty years later, when the Department of Energy (DOE) came into being in 1977, Brookhaven was asked to maintain the program under contract to DOE.
The program ended for Brookhaven Lab in 1998. Today, DOE continues to provide annual medical screening to the Marshallese at medical clinics in the Marshall Islands and in the United States.
DOE reports annually to Congress on the health care program for the remaining members of the Marshallese population exposed to radiation resulting from the 1954 Bikini nuclear weapons test.
2009-1002 | Media & Communications Office