Jeban Riklon is a senator in the Republic of the Marshall Islands.
By Giff Johnson
Posted: September 28, 2012
MAJURO, RMI -- Jeban Riklon traveled half way around the world to be present during the United Nations Human Rights Council’s hearing September 13 on the human-rights impact of US nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands. Riklon, now a senator in the Marshall Islands Nitijela representing Kwajalein, was a two-year-old on Rongelap when the Bravo hydrogen bomb was exploded at Bikini on March 1, 1954, dumping high-level radioactive fallout onto Rongelap and other downwind islands.
“I was only two at the time and I don’t remember the test,” he said in earlier this month. “As I grew up, I learned about March 1 from my grandmother, from reading documents and talking with Department of Energy officials. My grandmother told me that we were all very sick, with diarrhea and hair falling out.”
Riklon joined with Rongelap survivor Lemeyo Abon, who also attended the Human Rights Council session in Geneva. Riklon does remember returning to Rongelap with his family in 1957 — when US officials told Rongelap Islanders their atoll was safe for re-habitation, but at the same time said in a report: “Even though the radioactive contamination of Rongelap Island is considered perfectly safe for human habitation, the levels of activity are higher than those found in other inhabited locations in the world.The habitation of these people on the island afford most valuable ecological radiation data on human beings.”
Riklon wouldn’t read this passage until many years later. In the meantime, his family in the 1950s settled on an island in the northern section of Rongelap, the most heavily contaminated by the Bravo fallout cloud in 1954, living by eating fish and the fruits of the land that were laced with cesium 137 and other radionuclides from Bravo and other nuclear tests.
“Dr. Robert Conard (the American medical doctor who supervised medical care and studies of Rongelap from 1954 until the early 1980s) told me my life span would be short,” said Riklon, now 60. “I’m very fortunate to be alive today.”
In contrast to the large percentage of the 82 people and four unborn babies who were on Rongelap during the fallout in 1954, Riklon has not had surgery to remove thyroid tumors. He called himself “lucky,” noting that he has only one serious health problem: a headache so severe that it induces him to vomit and cause serious muscle pain. It has reoccurred for many years. Doctors at a Hawaii hospital checked the problem and “told me that it will never go away,” he said. “I don’t know the cause of it. It will go away for a while, then suddenly return.”
In 1985, Rongelap islanders self-evacuated their atoll out of concern for radiation-caused health injuries, and remain exiled to this day. But a US-funded nuclear cleanup of the main island in Rongelap in recent years has put a return to Rongelap on the front burner. Riklon believes people are not ready to go back and should not be pressured to return to Rongelap.
“People, especially the younger generation, don’t understand the consequences of contamination,” he said. “We who were under the fallout, we know. We experience it mentally and physically.”
He said there is a need for much more consultation and dialog with the United States government on the issue of Rongelap’s safety — a concern that the UN Special Rapporteur highlighted in his report to the UN as a “legacy of distrust” from the nuclear testing period in the 1950s.
“We want to go back home — that’s the bottom line,” Riklon said. “There is no place better, it’s my home.” But before people return, Rongelap Atoll must be safe and Rongelap people must be fully aware of all the issues involved in resettlement, he said.
Copyright 2012 The Marshall Islands Journal