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  • By Mar-Vic Cagurangan

Radioactive fallout alert

While North Korea renews its nuke strike threat,

Guam renews its call for radiation exposure compensation

Three weeks after carrying out a powerful nuclear test in its own testing site on Sept. 3, North Korea warned it might detonate a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific Ocean. If Pyongyang makes good on its constant threats, civil defense officials say, residents will have 14 minutes to duck and/or run for their lives. The Office of Civil Defense has thus renewed its guidelines on how to survive a possible nuclear strike, giving the community a crash course on the danger of exposure to radioactive elements. “Do not look at the flash or fireball—it can blind you. Take cover behind anything that might offer protection. Remove your clothing to keep retroactive material from spreading,” state the guidelines.

If North Korea’s hydrogen bomb detonation did come about, it certainly wouldn’t be the ocean’s first nuclear blast.

Without exactly dismissing this threat, Robert Celestial, president of the Pacific Association of Radiation Survivors, reminds islanders that radioactive contamination on Guam is old news “We have been breathing contaminated air, but no one is paying attention,” he says.

Celestial is headed to Washington D.C. on Jan. 30 to testify before the Judiciary Committee, which is set to hear the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act Amendments of 2017 that would extend the program that compensates individuals who contract cancer or other diseases as a result of their exposure to radiation during nuclear testing undertaken by the United States during the Cold War. Two bills in Congress, S.197 and H.R. 2049, also propose to increase the compensation offer and expand the affected area to include Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico and Guam.

“I am hopeful this time. We have been in communication with the Judiciary committee’s staff. Hopefully, nothing else goes crazy in Washington D.C.” Celestial says.

It has been more than a decade since the National Research Council declared Guam’s eligibility for compensation under the RECA program. In 2005, the council released a report concluding that “Guam did receive measurable fallout from atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons in the Pacific” between 1946 and 1958. The council recommended that people living on island during that period be compensated under RECA “in a way similar to that of persons considered to be downwinders.”

As of 2017, the Justice Department had awarded more than $2 billion in ‘compassionate compensation’ to eligible claimants under RECA, which provides up to $150,000 to victims of radiation. No one from Guam has received a cent from this program. The RECA program expires in 2022, but the justice department will stop receiving applications in 2020 to allow a two-year period to process the compensation.

“That’s only years from now,” says Celestial, who served in the Army from 1975 to 1983. “If they still don’t include Guam after this hearing, I don’t know what we will do. After over 14 years of lobbying with local leaders, U.S. Congress and the Office of the President, we continue to fight for inclusion in RECA and for compensation to those affected by the nuclear fallout.”

In 1977, Celestial was assigned to the 84th Engineers Battalion in Hawaii and attached to Enewetak Atoll and stationed on Lojwa Island to clean up post-war debris. “We were there to build a large dome on the island of Runit and fill it in with tons of radiated debris (soil). In the process of complying with this directive, many in my battalion got sick on a weekly basis, presumably from exposure to the highly radioactive soil; however, this immediate physical reaction to radiation poisoning is nothing compared to the long-range devastating effects that many of my fellow army colleagues have suffered from.”

About 67 nuclear devices were detonated by the Atomic Energy Commission in or around the Marshalls between 1946 and 1962. “The radiation emanating from these explosions severely affected those who lived in the Marshall Islands, resulting in everything from cancers to birth deformities. However, the radioactive fallout didn't stop there: it extended downwind over 1,000 miles away to Guam,” states the council’s report.

The 2005 study established that Guam did receive radioactive debris from fallout during the nuclear-weapons testing in the Pacific Ocean. The report, along with other studies, have established a correlation between the nuclear testing and high incidences of cancer in Guam, which is the second leading cause of death locally.

Data from aerial surveys in Guam before and after detonation of nuclear test Mike in Marshall Islands during Operation Ivy indicated that the external dose received by local residents from the test “was about 20 percent of the annual effective dose received from natural background radiation in the continental United States and about 50 percent of the annual effective dose received from current values of natural background in Guam.”

At the request of the Guam Legislature in 2010, a congressional blue ribbon panel was formed to study in-depth radioactive contamination in Guam between 1946 to 1958, which covered the period the U.S. military was conducting nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands. In November 2012 the blue ribbon panel completed an action report that determined the military "put the population of Guam in harm's way knowingly and with total disregard for their well-being.” The impact of nuclear testing in the region, according to the report, “was the largest ecological disaster in human history."


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