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Atomic Veterans: Enewetak Atoll

History Page Type:
Monday, June 17, 2019
Eniwetok Atoll

The Marshall Islands in the Pacific were subjected to 67 nuclear tests from 1946 to 1958.[1] Some of the most notable operations included Operation Crossroads, which examined the effects of nuclear explosions on Navy ships; Operation Greenhouse, which focused on reducing the size and weight of an atomic bomb and decreasing the amount of fissile material used, while increasing the yield of the weapon; Operation Ivy, which tested the Teller-Ulam design for thermonuclear weapons; and Operation Castle, which tested the first deliverable hydrogen bomb.

In advance of Operation Crossroads in 1946, the US government evacuated Bikini and Enewetak Atolls, claiming to do so for “the good of mankind and to end all wars.”[2] They promised to allow the inhabitants of Bikini and Enewetak to return to their homes one day. In 1962, these former residents of the atolls sued the US government, demanding either compensation for being forced from their homes or to be allowed to return.[3] The United States then began plans to clean up the evacuated islands.[4] In 1972, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), the Department of Defense (DoD), and the Department of the Interior met to discuss the US approach to the cleanup. The meeting concluded with the AEC taking responsibility for conducting a radiological survey of the islands, the DoD conducting the cleanup operations, and Interior rehabilitating the land and resettling the people of Bikini and Enewetak.[5]

The main focus for cleanup was Enewetak, where 43 of the 67 nuclear tests were conducted. Bikini Atoll was deemed too radioactive to clean and rehabilitate at that time.[6]

The cleanup of Enewetak Atoll began in 1977 and ended in 1980.[7] The original estimate for the cleanup was $40 million, but Congress only allocated $20 million and stipulated that “all reasonable economies should be realized in the accomplishment of this project through the use of military services’ construction and support forces, their subsistence, equipment, material, supplies, and transportation.”[8] As a result, approximately 6,000 servicemen from the Navy, Army, and Air Force participated[9] in what would become “the first comprehensive project to clean up and rehabilitate a former nuclear‐test site.”[10] The Navy was responsible for operating ships and creating waterways to less accessible islands; the Air Force was tasked with communication, air supply operations, and health facility operations; and the Army Corps of Engineers handled the actual cleanup of the islands.[11]


Decontaminating Enewetak Atoll

The focus for cleanup was on two areas: debris and soil contamination. The debris mostly consisted of military equipment and concrete left over from the nuclear tests. Jim Androl from the US Army’s 84th Engineer Battalion recalled that they were ordered to “walk around and pick up loose pieces, and just gather up whatever we could, throw it in a pile.”[12] As for the soil contamination, there were two types: transuranics, or any element with an atomic number greater than 92 on the periodic table and long half-lives, and suburanics, or any element with an atomic number less than 92 and short half-lives.[13] Examples of transuranic elements include plutonium, neptunium, and americium, and examples of subranic elements include strontium and cesium. All the islands of Enewetak Atoll, except Runit Island, had transuranic contamination in the top layers of the soil. Since suburanic elements are soluble and move more easily through the environment, they were dispersed deep within the earth. As such, the United States focused on removing the transuranic elements from the soil.[14]

All the debris and soil were moved to Runit Island, which was declared too contaminated with plutonium to ever be made habitable. They were dumped into a 300-foot-wide crater, called “Cactus Crater,” on the north end of the island.[15] Essentially, the soil was mixed with cement to create a “concrete matrix” that would be placed in the crater. This matrix then surrounded the debris. After filling the crater, a concrete dome cap was placed on top to “remove any resuspension and inhalation threat.”[16] Over the course of three years, an estimated 85,000 cubic meters of soil, concrete, and military equipment were cleaned from the island chain.[17]



According to several reports conducted by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), servicemen received proper briefings on the potential risks associated with working on the cleanup of and living on Enewetak Atoll. These briefs covered a range of topics, including the dangers of radiation, sunburns, swimming, and fishing. Additional training that covered risks and safety procedures was provided to servicemen who were directly engaged with cleanup.[18] For example, personnel who were on-site during earth-moving operations were trained to stay upwind to minimize the risk of inhaling plutonium.[19] Furthermore, a sprinkler system was in place to prevent the soil from becoming airborne during these types of operations.

These reports also claimed that the servicemen were provided with personal protective equipment, such as full-face mask respirators that would prevent the inhalation of radionuclides, and that the safety procedures early in the cleanup process were “necessarily conservative.”[20] However, in later operations, the requirement that servicemen wear full-face mask respirators was loosened for two reasons. One, the full-face mask respirators posed a potential occupational health hazard, because the servicemen would have to wear the heavy respirators in hot weather. Second, the air samples taken indicated that the air was clean enough that the full-face mask respirators were deemed unnecessary, except on the island of Runit.[21]

However, the atomic veterans who worked on Enewetak Atoll tell a different story. John Baenen, an Army veteran, barely recalled the safety briefing he received when he first arrived. In fact, he said, “The first thing they were supposed to do when we got on the main island was give us a safety briefing. I remember some kind of briefing, but the only thing I remember is ‘watch out for sharks.’”[22] Army veteran Robert Celestial remembered catching and eating local fish, lobster, and octopus. Only months after initially arriving were he and others told that the seafood could be contaminated.[23]

Veterans disputed the claim that they received adequate personal protective gear. Paul Laird, an Army veteran who operated a bulldozer that moved the contaminated soil,[24] remembered begging his superior officer for a paper mask on a daily basis, but they “couldn’t even get a paper dust mask…[His] lieutenant said the masks were on back order so use a T-shirt.”[25]

With regards to clothing, they were issued warm weather gear, such as shorts, tee-shirts, hats and jungle boots, to wear during the cleanup. While special protective gear, such as suits and respirators, was available, the servicemen did not wear the gear for the majority of the time they were there. The only time they would wear the suits and respirators was during “special occasions.”[26]

Tim Snider, an army veteran, recalled in an interview with the New York Times that upon arriving, he was ordered by Army officials to put on a respirator and a protective suit. After a few photos were taken, he was ordered to take off the protective gear. After his first day on Enewetak Atoll, he “never saw one of those suits again” and only wore shorts and a hat.[27]

The lack of protective gear available stemmed from two problems. The first was the limited budget allocated to the cleanup..[28] The second was the heat. Baenen recalled that he and other servicemen:


were supposed to be in yellow suits, and they said so, but it was 132-degree daytime temperatures and guys were falling over. You don’t get the job done with people dropping over, so everybody wore jungle fatigues cut off into shorts, T-shirts, combat boots, sunglasses and maybe boonie hats — that was basically our safety equipment.[29]


Outside of the actual cleanup, the servicemen essentially lived on the islands they were cleaning. They pitched their tents on contaminated ground and used local water to wash their clothes.[30] These activities increased the likelihood of inhaling or ingesting dangerous byproducts of nuclear explosions such as plutonium-239. Jim Androl summarized his experience as: “You breathe [contaminated dust], you drink it, you eat it, you swim in it. Every day for six months, 24/7.”[31]



As a part of the operation, the DoD had a program to monitor potential exposure to radiation, especially from inhalation and ingestion. Being in the presence of plutonium does not necessarily cause harm to a living organism, since it undergoes alpha decay. During alpha decay, alpha particles (atoms with two protons and two neutrons) are released. These alpha particles cannot penetrate the skin. However, if plutonium is inhaled or ingested, then it can lead to health complications, such as cancer, tumors, and infertility.

The first method of monitoring was taking air samples to determine the risk of inhaling plutonium. The air samplers were placed downwind of the earth-moving operations to assess the potential hazards of contaminated dust becoming airborne. The samplers themselves had filters that were taken out every two hours and sent to laboratories for analysis.[32] However, at least in one instance on the island of Engebi in 1978, the air samplers broke. According to protocol, there needed to be at least one air sampler during the earth-moving operation. However, the operation continued without air monitoring.[33] During this particular operation, only one-third of the air samplers were functional.[34]

Another method was collecting potential gamma radiation, using film badges. While plutonium undergoes alpha decay, some of its daughter nuclides (the element that results from the decay of another element) release gamma particles when it decays. Film badges would pick up the radioactivity of daughter nuclides such as americium-242. The servicemen who went to the more contaminated northern parts of Enewetak Atoll wore these film badges on a monthly basis. However, the heat and humidity caused them to fail. For example, from September 1978 to January 1979, there was a failure rate of 90% to 100%.[35] Due to this, the DoD also issued thermoluminescent dosimeters (TLDs) that measured ionizing radiation as a back up to the film badges.[36] In a survey conducted by the Atomic Cleanup Vets, an organization founded by veterans who cleaned up Enewetak, an anonymous veteran recalled that “[i]n formation [he and others] were told high levels were being detected on film badges & dosimeters but not who had the high levels.”[37] In Congressional testimony in 2016, Keith Kiefer, a US Air Force veteran, testified that he never received a film badge or dosimeter while working on Enewetak Atoll.[38]

Lastly, a biodosimetry program, which included taking blood and urine samples, was implemented to monitor exposure to radiation. For personnel who stayed on Enewetak Atoll for a longer period of time, a urine sample was taken at the end of their tour.[39] David Phillips, a correspondent with The New York Times, stated in his article “Troops Who Cleaned Up Radioactive Islands Can’t Get Medical Care” that he requested the records for the biodosimetry program through the Freedom of Information Act. However, these records could not be found.[40]

In 1980 and 2016, DTRA conducted two studies to determine potential exposure to radiation. Both studies concluded that the servicemen on Enewetak Atoll were not exposed to high levels of radiation due to the “structured and effective radiation protection program they worked in”[41] and that “the controls in place were effective in protecting the workers from internal contamination.”[42] The 1980 study looked at 12,000 film badges, finding that 83% of them did not show exposure to gamma radiation, and more than 5,000 air samplers, half of which showed zero transuranic element activity.[43] The 2016 study stated that the “highest of the estimated upper-bound total effective radiation doses for any of the included sample assessments is 0.21 rem (2.1 mSv),”[44],[45] which is less than the radiation dose from a chest CT scan (approximately 5-8 mSv).[46] A 2018 DTRA fact sheet showed 99.97% of urine samples were negative for plutonium intake.[47] The studies based their conclusions on the data from the monitoring program and the DoD safety procedures.


Health Complications and Receiving VA Benefits

After their six-month tours on Enewetak Atoll, many veterans suffered from cancer and brittle bones. Some have even claimed that their children suffered from birth defects as a result of their time in Enewetak Atoll.[48] In some cases, the veterans developed multiple forms of cancer. For example, Paul Laird discovered that he had kidney and bladder cancer at 52 and developed another form of kidney cancer a few years later.[49] Jim Androl had seven-and-a-half pound malignant tumor in his abdomen.[50]

The risks of exposure depended on where the servicemen were stationed. For example, most of the fallout affected the northern part of the islands, where the tests primarily took place.[51] The southern half, on the other hand, “remained relatively uncontaminated,” possibly in part due to being used as the base for the scientific task force that monitored the nuclear tests.[52]

However, receiving compensation for illnesses that resulted from their exposure to radioactive contamination was difficult. One problem was that the US government does not recognize the servicemen who cleaned up Enewetak Atoll as “atomic veterans.” This means that they cannot receive radiation exposure compensation from the VA under this designation.[53]

Atomic veterans who cleaned up Enewetak Atoll can apply individually for radiation exposure compensation. However, the VA bases its decision to award compensation on the veterans’ military records.[54] Since many of the military records stated that the atomic veterans were not exposed, many of the claims are denied. For example, army veteran Paul Laird[55] sought free veterans’ health care for radiation. However, his applications were denied, because “[h]is medical records from the military all said he had not been exposed” to radiation. However, some of the medical records may not accurately reflect the risk of radiation exposure. For example, David Roach was an Air Force technician who conducted scans of servicemen who transported debris and soil to Runit Island. He claimed that the high-level readings were never recorded.[56]

In response to the atomic veterans who cleaned up Enewetak Atoll’s experiences with the VA, VA spokesperson Ndidi Mojay wrote in an email to Bangor Daily News in 2015: “The data accumulated over the three years of the project do not indicate any area or instance of concern over radiological safety. All doses, internal and external were minimal.”[57]

Congress has made several attempts to compensate the atomic veterans who cleaned Enewetak Atoll from 1977 to 1980. Representative Mark Takai from Hawaii introduced H.R.3870, or the Atomic Veterans Healthcare Parity Act, in the House of Representatives in 2015. The bill would have allowed these atomic veterans to receive compensation for certain health complications related to radiation exposure. The bill was referred to the Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, but beyond that, no other action was taken.[58] Senator Al Franken introduced the Senate version in April 2016. Two months later, hearings were held before the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.  However, the bill never received a floor vote.[59] Every year since then, the Atomic Veterans Healthcare Parity Act has been reintroduced before the House and the Senate, but the bill has not yet moved beyond the committee stage.[60]



Much like the atomic veterans who witnessed nuclear tests, the atomic veterans who cleaned up Enewetak Atoll feel ignored and betrayed. Some of them recalled being told that the radiation levels were low and would not cause any harm. Jeff Fortin, an Air Force veteran, remembered being told that “there was minimal danger,” and that “there was a low level, but it wouldn’t be anything that would affect [the servicemen] as individuals.”[61]

Ken Kasik, who worked as a civilian in the military exchange commission on Lojwa Island, summarizes this sense of abandonment: “Our boys worked six-month tours on a dirty island, and the government says, ‘You were never there.’ We were never acknowledged…we don’t exist.”[62]


Additional Resources:


“BIKINI RADIOACTIVE CLEANUP PUT AT $100 MILLION.” The New York Times. Published November 28, 1983.

Curtis, Abigail. “Belfast veteran seeks help 40 years after cleaning up nuclear test site.” BDN. Published March 24, 2015.

Curtis, Abigail. “Maine veterans facing cancer hoping that ‘atomic veteran’ bill becomes law.” BDN. Published April 3, 2016.

DAVIS, JEFFREY. “Bikini’s Silver Lining.” The New York Times. Published May 1, 1994.

Hodge, Mark. “HELL ON HIGH SEAS: Pacific death zone where nuke tests caused thousands of cancer fatalities 60 years after spreading radiation around the world.” The Sun. Published June 26, 2018.


“JUDGE REFUSES TO REJECT SUIT AGAINST U.S. BY BIKINI ISLAND.” The New York Times. Published October 11, 1984.

Lindsey, Max. “Forgotten Hero: Local veteran says he’s left out after serving on atomic cleanup tour.” KALB. Published December 13, 2018.

Mora, Kyla P. “Veterans share frustrations at hearing on Agent Orange, radiation resolutions.” Pacific Daily News. Published April 7, 2017.

Neal, James. “For many atomic veterans, the fight for benefits continues.” Enid News & Eagle. Published December 2, 2018.

Parseghian Cicely O., et al. “BRIEF OF AMICUS CURIAE FRIENDS OF THE EARTH IN SUPPORT OF APPELLANT, VICTOR B. SKAAR.” Attorneys for Friends of the Earth. Amicus Brief. Washington, DC. 2018.


Wernick, Adam. “Seawater is infiltrating a nuclear waste dump on a remote Pacific atoll.” PRI. Published February 19, 2018.

WILFORD, JOHN NOBLE, and SPECIAL TO THE NEW YORK TIMES. “Atom Waste: Worth Money To Bikinians? The New York Times. Published April 14, 1988.


WILFORD, JOHN NOBLE. “U.S. Resettles 75 on Pacific Atoll Evacuated for Bomb Tests in 40’s.” The New York Times. Published April 11, 1977.

Zak, Dan. “A ground zero forgotten.” The Washington Post. Published November 27, 2018.


[1] Testing in the Pacific stopped due to a trilateral moratorium on testing among the United States, Soviet Union, and the UK.

[2] “Commodore Ben H. Wyatt addressing the Bikini Island natives,” National Museum of American History, accessed June 3, 2019,

[3] Rosa Salter Rodriguez, “Veteran links health issues to Marshall Islands radiation,” The Washington Times, published May 30, 2015,

[4] “Islanders Returning to Nuclear Test Atoll After an Exile of 33 Years,” The New York Times, published April 6, 1980,

[5] “Enewetak Radiation Survey,” Atomic Energy Commission (Report, Washington, DC, 1973, 2.

[6] Michael B. Gerrard, “A Pacific Isle, Radioactive and Forgotten,” The New York Times, published December 3, 2014,

[7] “Radiological cleanup At Enewetak Atoll,” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, accessed June 3, 2019,

[9] “Radiological cleanup at Enewetak Atoll,” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Mark Willacy, “It was supposed to be a trip to paradise, instead it sealed their fate,” ABC, updated November 28, 2017,

[13] “Fact Sheet – Enewetak Operation,” Defense Nuclear Agency (Fact Sheet, Washington, DC, 1980, 3-4.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Dave Philipps, “ Troops Who Cleaned Up Radioactive Islands Can’t Get Medical Care,” The New York Times, published January 28, 2017,

[16] “Fact Sheet – Enewetak Operation,” 3-4.

[17]  Willacy, “It was supposed to be a trip to paradise, instead it sealed their fate.”

[18] “Fact Sheet – Enewetak Operation,” 9.

[19] Ibid., 10.

[20] Leidos, Inc., “Radiation Dose Assessment for Military Personnel of the Enewetak Atoll Cleanup Project (1977–1980),” DTRA (Report, Washington, DC, 2018, 29-30.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Paul Srubas, “John Baenen was exposed to massive radiation at a nuclear bomb test site. 40 years later, a medal,” Green Bay Press Gazette, published October 26, 2018,

[23] Meghan Swartz, “Atomic veteran continues fight for radiation compensation,” The Guam Daily Post, published July 30, 2018,

[24] “Paul Laird II,” Atomic Veterans Cleanup, accessed June 3, 2019,

[25] Philipps, “ Troops Who Cleaned Up Radioactive Islands Can’t Get Medical Care.”

[26]  Willacy, “It was supposed to be a trip to paradise, instead it sealed their fate.”

[27] Philipps, “ Troops Who Cleaned Up Radioactive Islands Can’t Get Medical Care.”

[28] Ibid.

[29] Srubas, “John Baenen was exposed to massive radiation at a nuclear bomb test site. 40 years later, a medal.”

[30] Ibid.

[31]  Willacy, “It was supposed to be a trip to paradise, instead it sealed their fate.”

[32] “Fact Sheet – Enewetak Operation,” 10.

[33] Philipps, “Troops Who Cleaned Up Radioactive Islands Can’t Get Medical Care.”

[34] Ibid.

[35] GENERAL GRAYSON D. TATE, JR., “VISIT, ENEWETAK. ATOLL,” Defense Nuclear Agency (Factbook, Washington, DC, 1979 10.

[36] “Fact Sheet – Enewetak Operation,” 10.

[37] Girard Frank Bolton, III, “Health Challenges Survey Report,” Atomic Veterans Cleanup, accessed June 3, 2019,

[39]“Fact Sheet – Enewetak Operation,” 10.

[40] Philipps, “ Troops Who Cleaned Up Radioactive Islands Can’t Get Medical Care.”

[41] Leidos, Inc., “Radiation Dose Assessment for Military Personnel of the Enewetak Atoll Cleanup Project (1977–1980),” 123.

[42] “The Radiological Cleanup of Enewetak Atoll,” Defense Threat Reduction Agency (Fact Sheet, Washington, DC, 2018, 4-5.

[43] “Fact Sheet – Enewetak Operation,” 10.

[44] Leidos, Inc., “Radiation Dose Assessment for Military Personnel of the Enewetak Atoll Cleanup Project (1977–1980),” 123.

[45] Rem and milliSieverts (mSv) are both units of radiation dosage.

[46] Dominik Fleischmann, “Radiation Dose and Radiation Risk” (Presentation, Stanford University, Stanford, 2018,

[47]  “The Radiological Cleanup of Enewetak Atoll,” 4-5.

[48]  Willacy, “It was supposed to be a trip to paradise, instead it sealed their fate.”

[49] Philipps, “ Troops Who Cleaned Up Radioactive Islands Can’t Get Medical Care.”

[50] Willacy, “It was supposed to be a trip to paradise, instead it sealed their fate.”

[51]  “The Radiological Cleanup of Enewetak Atoll,” 2.

[52] “Fact Sheet – Enewetak Operation,” 2.

[53]  Willacy, “It was supposed to be a trip to paradise, instead it sealed their fate.”

[54] Philipps, “ Troops Who Cleaned Up Radioactive Islands Can’t Get Medical Care.”

[55]  “Paul Laird II,” Atomic Veterans Cleanup.

[56] Philipps, “ Troops Who Cleaned Up Radioactive Islands Can’t Get Medical Care.”

[57] Abigail Curtis, “Veterans battle VA for atomic designation,” BDN, published April 6, 2015,

[58] H.R.3870 – Atomic Veterans Healthcare Parity Act, 2015,

[59] S.2791 – Atomic Veterans Healthcare Parity Act, 2016,

[60] For more information on the bills introduced, please follow the links:H.R.5980,

 H.R.632, S.2821, S.283, H.R.1377, S.555.

[61] Jane McCarthy , “Post Falls man wants to be ‘Atomic Veteran,’” KREM, published March 2, 2016,

[62] Chad Blair, “Nuclear Victims: Will We Help Vets Who Cleaned Up After Atomic Blasts?” Civilian Beat, published January 6, 2016,