Govt too late in disclosing radiation data from H-bomb tests at Bikini Atoll
Can a recent lawsuit help uncover the damage caused by U.S. hydrogen bomb tests at the Bikini Atoll, which are still surrounded by so many mysteries?
The tests were conducted in the Bikini Atoll of the Marshall Islands in the central Pacific in 1954. A group of 45 people — including former crew members of fishing boats that were operating in waters around the test site and members of the families of deceased former fishermen — have filed the suit with the Kochi District Court to seek compensation from the state.
There were more than 270 cases in which fishing boats from Kochi Prefecture alone were operating in waters near the site when they were exposed to radiation from the six hydrogen bomb tests conducted from March to May that year. The government conducted surveys of the damage but did not disclose the results.
The plaintiffs claim that the government’s reluctance to disclose these records deprived them of the opportunity to seek compensation, and are demanding ¥2 million per person.
It is widely known that 23 crew members of the Fukuryu Maru No. 5, a tuna fishing boat from Shizuoka Prefecture, were exposed to radiation through one of the hydrogen bomb tests at the Bikini Atoll. One of the crew died half a year later.
However, the actual damage to other Japanese fishing boats remains unclear.
Regarding the Fukuryu Maru No. 5, the Japanese and U.S. governments reached a political settlement in January 1955, in which the United States agreed to pay $2 million in compensation to Japan, regardless of Washington’s legal responsibility.
The plaintiffs accuse the Japanese government of releasing the U.S. government from legal liability through the settlement. However, Japan reached the agreement very soon after regaining independence and the deal certainly reflected a high level of political judgement. There are elements of this settlement that do not allow us to judge it casually.
The problem is that the government did not disclose the records of its investigations for decades. It only made them public in September 2014 following a request for disclosure from a support group for the plaintiffs and other parties concerned. We can only describe the disclosure as too late.
The government’s documents, which were used by the plaintiffs as evidence of the harm they suffered, detail the investigations into 556 cases of the radiation exposure of fishing boats and their crew members.
It cannot be overlooked that the government had long denied the existence of those documents, most notably when it said these records “cannot be found” in response to a question posed in the Diet in 1986.
Asked why their whereabouts were suddenly known, the government said it discovered them “at a repository following an exhaustive search.”
The government cannot help but be suspected to have intentionally concealed the documents. It is understandable that former fishermen and bereaved relatives of deceased former crew members feel that way, because they could not even know whether they were exposed to radiation.
Most of the former crew members who have joined the lawsuit are now over 80 years old, and many of them say their health is deteriorating. More people could claim they were harmed as more details are discovered about radiation exposure from the hydrogen bomb tests.
According to the government’s documents, the doses of radiation experienced by former crew members and others from the hydrogen bomb tests were much lower than the permissible level set for accidents by the International Commission on Radiological Protection. Even so, the government has a responsibility to provide convincing explanations.
(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, May 15, 2016)