The following is the 31st in a series of excerpts from Kelvin Rodolfo’s ongoing book project “Tilting at the Monster of Morong: Forays Against the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant and Global Nuclear Energy”.“
Perhaps the DNA shared across my half of Ilocano compels me to care so deeply about Enewetak and its people, to dwell so long on four forays to tell their story…
From 1946 to 1958, the United States conducted 67 nuclear weapons tests on Enewetak and Bikini atolls in the northwest Marshall Islands. Enewetak is 2,650 km east of Samar. What happened to all the radioactive debris should worry Filipino readers, as the North Equatorial Ocean Current flows westward at a slow but steady rate of one-third to one-half kilometer per hour through the Marshalls to the Philippines. In 2014, Chinese scientists discovered isotopes of plutonium during tests in the Pearl River estuary in Guangdong, northwest Luzon.
The green dots scattered throughout the western equatorial Pacific on this map are atolls, rings of shallow water with small islands. Each atoll is built by coral reefs that started growing in the shallow water surrounding a volcano in the middle of the ocean. Charles Darwin, the giant of biology, was also an excellent geologist. In 1842, he explained that the volcano was subsiding slowly enough for corals to form fast enough to continue living in the warm, sunny waters. Corals are animals that depend on pastel-colored algae to photosynthesize their food, and algae must have sunlight.
How did Darwin know? The construction of atolls is a process. The Pacific displays many examples of its various stages, the three basic stages in the upper panel of the illustration. Darwin’s simple but brilliant insight was to recognize that they represent steps in a process:
First, the corals attach themselves to a slowly subsiding volcano, in the shallow, sunny waters around it.
As corals continue to accumulate to stay on the sunlit surface, the volcano subsides until only its tip remains above the sea, enclosed in a shallow lagoon by a circle of offshore coral which we call a “barrier reef” because it protects the volcano from the waves.
When the volcano sank entirely under the sea, the coral reef became a real atoll, a shallow coral ring surrounding the lagoon. The summit of the ancestral Enewetak volcano began to be buried between 40 and 45 million years ago; now it sits under coral rock more than 4,500 feet thick! This equates to sinking, countered by coral growth at rates of about a quarter inch or half a centimeter per year.
Darwin did not know Why the volcanoes collapse; we only learned why in the late 1960s, with the theory of plate tectonics. We discussed this theory in Foray 8. Here, let’s just say that the “lithosphere”, the thick rocky crust of the Earth, is continuously splitting at an ocean ridge. There, molten magma rises from the Earth’s interior, cools and solidifies, adding to the lithosphere on both sides of the split. The two sides continue to move away from each other to make room as the process continues.
Volcanoes are the highest places in the hot new lithosphere. Some stick out of the water like islands. As new lithosphere moves away from the ridge, it cools, shrinks, and sags. And so the volcanoes sink, but slowly enough that the corals can keep up, growing upwards to stay sunny.
The people of Enewetak
A shallow oval about 40 kilometers long by 28 kilometers wide, Enewetak Atoll takes its name from the southernmost and largest of its 40 small islands. “Enewetak” means “island that moves”, probably due to a long-forgotten old sailing mishap.
The total area of all the Enewetak Islands is less than six square kilometers or 600 hectares – two and a quarter square miles. Enewetak Island has an area of about two square kilometres; Enjebi Island to the north is the second largest, with an area of just 0.7 square kilometers. The rest only average about 10 hectares or 24 acres.
Most of the inhabitants of the two largest islands were called the Dr Enewetak and dri Enjebi, dri meaning “the people of Like the Filipinos whom they closely resemble, the people of Enewetak Atoll migrated from Southeast Asia around 3,000 years ago, in waves over centuries. We have arrested in the Philippines; they continued to move east.
Long before Enewetak and the 28 atolls to the southeast were named the Marshall Islands after an English captain, their inhabitants called them Jolet Jen Anij, “the Gifts of God. And before Europeans visited the atolls, they were indeed close to heaven on earth.
Over millennia, peoples have established sustainable populations and lifestyles in harmony with their ocean environment. Land was very rare and prized. But her ownership was matrilineal – passed down from mother to daughter, even though the Iroij (leaders) and To the P (clan chiefs) were men.
I believe that a culture that respects its women tends to be more environmentally friendly and more peaceful, even though there are stories of deadly fights with foreign sailors due to cultural misunderstandings. For the most part, Marshallese are friendly and caring. They share freely among family and friends and welcome strangers warmly – values necessary for survival on small, widely separated islands.
Early photographs captured Marshallese in traditional attire. Now, of course, they dress a lot like Filipinos.
The ocean and the trade winds moderate the hot and humid climate. Typhoons visit Enewetak every year, but people clearly knew how to survive them.
Life was not easy; but after all, what would paradise be without meaningful, soul-satisfying work? It was getting up and picking up food. Fish and shellfish abounded in the lagoon and the reefs. People searched sustainably for fruits and vegetables, deftly navigating in their canoes among the tiny uninhabited islands separated by so many miles.
Coconut crabs and sea turtles were good sources of protein. Breadfruit trees, used to make canoes, also bore fruit that tasted like fresh bread when baked. Pandanus, bananas, papayas, taro, arrowroot and sweet potatoes were also grown. Coconut palms were everywhere, but weren’t used much for food. People raised chickens and pigs.
The first Europeans to visit the paradise island were 16 years oldand Spanish explorers of the century, who introduced unknown diseases that killed many natives. So much for paradise…
The Spaniards in the Manila Galleons plying between Mexico and the Philippines became familiar with the Marshalls. In 1874, Spain claimed them, but governed loosely, and in 1885 sold them to Germany.
German companies propagated coconuts on the Enewetak Islands in large commercial copra plantations. They used conscripted native labor; how humanly, I cannot say.
When World War I began, Japan wrested control of the islands from Germany, and after the 1920 war the League of Nations formalized its Japanese ownership. Preparing for World War II, the Japanese began building airfields on the Marshalls in the 1930s, including one on Enjebi.
In February 1944, American forces took Enjebi and Enewetak islands after bloody battles with the Japanese.
After World War II, the United Nations made the Marshall Islands and other Micronesian island groups the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islandsentrusted to the United States as trustee.
The United States has not “administered” well, we learn during our next incursion. – Rappler.com
Born in Manila and educated at UP Diliman and the University of Southern California, Dr. Kelvin Rodolfo has taught geology and environmental science at the University of Illinois at Chicago since 1966. He is has specialized in natural hazards in the Philippines since the 1980s.
Stay tuned on Rappler for the next episode of Rodolfo’s series.
Previous pieces of Inclination to Morong’s Monster:
- [OPINION] Inclination to Morong’s Monster
- [OPINION] Mount Natib and its sisters
- [OPINION] Burn, kill, annihilate: on flows and pyroclastic surges
- [OPINION] Under the waters of Subic Bay, an ancient pyroclastic flow deposit and numerous faults
- [OPINION] Propaganda on Faults, Earthquakes and the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant
- [OPINION] Discovering the Lubao Fault
- [OPINION] The Lubao Rift at BNPP and Volcanic Threats There
- [OPINION] How the Natib volcano and its 2 sisters were born
- [OPINION] More BNPP Threats: A Megathrust Earthquake in the Manila Trench and Its Tsunamis
- [OPINION] Shoddy, shoddy, shoddy: how they built the Bataan nuclear power plant
- [OPINION] Where, oh where, would BNPP’s fuel come from?
- [OPINION] “From megatons to megawatts”: real prices and costs of nuclear energy
- [OPINION] Uranium enrichment for energy leads to enrichment for weapons
- [OPINION] Presentation of the nuclear fuel cycle
- [OPINION] On uranium mining and processing
- [OPINION] Enriching and fabricating BNPP’s uranium fuel
- [OPINION] Dismantling of BNPP and storage of the radioactive dung of the nuclear dragon
- [OPINION] So how many greenhouse gases does nuclear power actually generate?
- [OPINION] Getting closer to the atom and its nucleus that powers nuclear power plants
- [OPINION] The nucleus and isotopes: why BNPP needs uranium 235, not uranium 238
- [OPINION] What you need to know about radioactivity
- [OPINION] Uranium mining waste and the strange idea of half-life
- [OPINION] How Nuclear Power Plants Work: Morong’s Hot Monster Piss
- [OPINION] What if there was a spent fuel pool accident at the Bataan nuclear power plant?
- [OPINION] Nuclear weapons, their radiation and human health
- [OPINION] What Chernobyl Could Have Taught Us, But Wasn’t Allowed To
- [OPINION] Activating BNPP would give workers and adults living nearby cancer
- [OPINION] Enable BNPP? You could increase childhood cancers in Bataan and beyond
- [OPINION] The Hanford site: where nuclear pollution began and still reigns