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Forgotten Fallout: The Unfulfilled Promise of Nuclear Justice for the Marshallese

With the renewal of the Compact of Free Association awaiting congressional approval, the slim window of opportunity to invest in nuclear remediation for the Marshall Islands is nearly shut. 

Words: Chloe Shrager
Pictures: Chloe Shrager
Date:

Mina Titus was six years old when she saw the light from a second sun come over her home on Rongelap Atoll. 

At first, she was excited. The radiant array of colors that instantly illuminated the sky was beautiful. Right away, it turned an angry blood-red, then softly faded through the rest of the color spectrum. Vivid pinks, bright greens, and deep blues painted the horizon of her tropical home. 

Titus and the other children watched the unnatural sunrise over their parents’ urgent shouts to get inside. They did not yet know if the alien light was something to be feared or revered.

The sound followed a few minutes later. Titus said the boom could be heard all over Rongelap. The pressure of the shock wave exploded the glass lanterns in her home. That is when she knew this was something to be afraid of.

Titus was unknowingly witnessing Castle Bravo — the United States’ largest ever nuclear bomb — detonate in her own backyard in the Marshall Islands.

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Mina Titus, 75, sitting in the backyard of her home on Majuro Atoll in the Marshall Islands. She is one of the last living survivors of the Castle Bravo nuclear explosion. Photo by Chloe Shrager, July 1, 2023.

Tucked away in the azure waters of the Northern Pacific halfway between Hawai’i and New Zealand, the remote chain of tropical islands, islets, and ring-shaped coral atolls seemed the ideal proving grounds for the United States’ Cold War-era nuclear testing program. Between 1946 and 1958, a total of 67 nukes were exploded in the Marshall Islands — the equivalent of dropping 1.6 Hiroshima bombs every day for a dozen years.

The twelve-year bombing campaign vaporized entire islands and dotted lagoons with radioactive bomb craters, forever displacing generations of Marshallese from their paradisiacal home turned nuclear wasteland.

Islanders received direct exposure to poisonous fallout, starved in exile on too-small islands with inadequate food supplies, and were later temporarily moved back to their irradiated homes to be unknowingly used as test subjects in human radiation experiments. Now, the resulting cancers and mysterious birth defects have been passed on to the children of nuclear victims.  

After decades of cover-up and secretly withheld information about radiation exposure, the United States still has not recognized the extent of the nuclear program’s impacts or paid out full compensation to its victims.

This year provided the Marshallese an opportunity to finally seek justice in the form of an apology and total financial reparation. Certain economic provisions of the Compact of Free Association — the key international treaty that determines the compensatory relationship between the Marshall Islands and the US — expired at the end of September. Its renegotiation gave room to rewrite the details of that relationship.

Both parties signed to renew the Compact and two other related agreements on Oct. 16, all of which are now slated for congressional approval. But according to Marshallese officials I spoke to, the new deal doesn’t satisfy the conditions of justice. They say that the new deal does not compensate the victims adequately, and it does not issue a formal recognition of and apology for the nuclear legacy. What began as a chance to address the Compact’s past failings has become nothing more than a reinforcement of them, and the Marshall Islands’ nuclear issue has fallen between the cracks yet again. 

You Will Always Be Family To Us

By the 1980s, exposed and uncompensated islanders had started taking matters into their own hands, hiring attorneys to sue the United States for its crimes. With some $7.1 billion in damage claims making their way through US courts, America offered the Marshallese a settlement deal.

In 1986, then President Ronald Reagan encouraged the people of the Marshall Islands to ratify the original Compact of Free Association, promising them that “you will always be family to us.” Trusting his words and still not totally informed of the full extent of what happened to them (thousands of government documents about their exposure were still classified at this point), the Marshallese signed, locking themselves into an ambiguously worded agreement full of legal loopholes that the US has repeatedly jumped through in the four decades since. 

The original Compact did three important things. First, it released the US from any pending legal claims, dismissing the $7.1 billion in lawsuits. Second, it established the Republic of the Marshall Islands as a sovereign nation in exchange for total US military control over Marshallese land and seas, headquartered at Kwajalein military base. Third, it granted $150 million in compensation and established the Nuclear Claims Tribunal as a “means to address past, present and future consequences of the Nuclear Testing Program.”

The international tribunal, created in partnership by both countries, was meant to conduct an objective assessment of the full extent of all nuclear-related damages in order to compensate victims, but it was severely underfunded.

Even though the tribunal evaluated personal injuries and loss of land damages totaling over $2.3 billion, the United States never appropriated more than the original $150 million payment. 

Today, the United States maintains that the 1986 agreement was binding in providing the full and final settlement for all nuclear-related claims, and it has declined to give more money to the managing nuclear tribunal since. The US State Department’s official stance is that it has provided more than $600 million to the affected communities — one billion in today’s dollars — which includes the original Compact payment in addition to the resettlement trust funds of the affected atolls and radiation-related healthcare program costs. Even so, these funds account for only a fourth of what the tribunal determined as the rightful reward.

“The US has been so guided by what we signed in 1986,” Ariana Tibon, Commissioner and Justice Envoy for the Marshall Islands’ National Nuclear Commission, said about the original Compact. “It’s hard to sway them we signed that without any knowledge that all of this would happen,” she said, referring to the unexpected health problems and classified information on the testing that would surface in the decades to come.

The terms of the Compact are renegotiated every two decades. The Marshallese hoped to use the 2023 renewal cycle to rewrite the Compact’s compensatory provisions to finally secure the billions still owed to the tribunal, but the State Department wouldn’t let US negotiators officially designate funds as nuclear legacy compensation.

“Our legal responsibility for nuclear liability has been met. It was settled in the 1980s,” Joseph Yun, the US Special Envoy to lead Compact negotiations, told a congressional hearing committee in July.

But Marshallese advocates say the US can’t simply wipe its hands clean.

“What about your moral obligation to me?” Kenneth Kedi, Speaker of the Nitijela, the Marshallese Parliament, responded to the US position in an interview in July. Kedi’s mother spent years of her life living among radiation on two of the nuclearly-impacted atolls, Rongelap and Bikini, where current-day radiation levels still significantly exceed that of  Chernobyl and Fukushima, according to a 2019 study from an independent Columbia University research group. She recently died of cancer, which Kedi attributes to her long-term exposure. 

Referencing President Reagan’s promise to care for the Marshallese as America’s own kin, Kedi asked, “am I not your younger brother?”

Yun accepts that the damages and effects of nuclear testing linger in the Marshall Islands in the form of displacement and cultural trauma. “The legal responsibilities have been met, but still, there are continuing problems,” Yun said in an interview. “We still have continuing, what I would call, moral and political responsibilities.” 

But considering how the US has historically dealt with the repercussions of its nuclear imperialism, it remains unclear if and how those moral and political responsibilities will be fulfilled. 

America’s nuclear legacy has been top of mind since this summer’s release of Oppenheimer, the blockbuster biopic of the physicist who spearheaded the building of the atomic bomb. Activism criticizing the film’s omission of nuclear victims’ experiences has resurfaced conversations about the United States’ treatment of Indigenous communities impacted by its nuclear testing, both inside its borders and beyond. Similarly to its treatment of the Marshallese, the US did not pay amends to even its own exposed citizens for decades.

Without any high-grossing film to draw legislative attention toward the Pacific, America’s decades-old promise to the Marshallese remains unfulfilled.

In response, President Biden has promised to finally compensate Native American downwinders of the world’s first atomic bomb test in New Mexico, codenamed Trinity. Meanwhile, without any high-grossing film to draw legislative attention toward the Pacific, America’s decades-old promise to the Marshallese remains unfulfilled.

Many considered Compact negotiations to be the last chance to secure compensation and recognition that America’s nuclear legacy continues to impact the Marshall Islands.

“We can’t wait another 20 years,” said Marshallese Ambassador to the United Nations Doreen deBrum. “There are too many people passing away, too many issues.”

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A street on Ebeye Island in Kwajalein Atoll flooded after a storm. Photo by Chloe Shrager, July 5, 2023.

Climate change is another. Rising oceans threaten to soon overtake the low-lying islands, where the highest elevation in most places is no more than six feet above sea level.

“If the nuclear legacy and its implications don’t kill us, climate change will,” deBrum said.

But it could end up being both. On Enewetak Atoll, one of the US weapons testing sites, the Runit Dome was built as a radioactive trashcan to hold three million cubic feet of plutonium-laced soil cemented inside a nuclear bomb crater. Due to rising sea levels, “the Tomb,” as locals call it, is now showing signs of erosion and leakage.

“What you are seeing in the Marshall Islands today are three of the most important events of the 20th and 21st centuries in one time and place: imperialism, nuclear, and climate change,” Jonathan Weisgall, who was the Bikinian peoples’ lawyer for more than four decades, said in an interview in April. 

For the Marshallese, the nuclear legacy does not sit idly in the dark and distant past, as it does for many in America. It is not something they can choose to ignore or write out of their textbooks. It has forced them out of the lands they’ve called home for millenniums. It lives inside of them, in some cases taking the shape of untreated cancers or mysterious birth defects.

Now, the Marshallese will be legally locked into place by this Compact — financially limited by the inadequate economic provisions they’ve agreed to — for at least the next two decades, watching as their nuclear past fades further into forgotten history.

“Justice will never be done,” Dennis Momotaro, Marshallese Senator of Mejit Island, said. “But this is the chance. Our last chance.”

Bombs over Bikini

A single commercial flight transports visitors to the Marshall Islands from their layover in Honolulu, taking over a day and multiple transfers to arrive from mainland America. Flyers time-travel as they cross the international date line between Hawai’i and the Marshall Islands, leaping forward a day into the future.

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On a hot July day, kids play in Majuro Atoll’s turquoise lagoon. Photo by Chloe Shrager, July 1, 2023.

From a bird’s eye view, the islands appear as thin, oblong bracelets encircling lagoons floating in the cerulean ocean. Nothing but water can be seen on all sides as the plane descends for landing. At the last seat-gripping moment, the runway seems to appear out of nowhere, taking up nearly the entire width of the narrow strip of land that holds it.

The 29-atoll archipelago was carved from the coral reefs that once grew on the rims of ancient volcanoes, spanning over 800 miles of the Pacific. Originally settled by Micronesians traveling by canoe in the 2nd century BC, and then again and again by a slew of colonial forces in the 16th through 20th centuries, the US is the Marshall Islands’ most recent foreign occupant. From 1947 until 1979, the Marshall Islands were a part of the United Nations Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, administered by the United States. It gained full sovereignty in 1986.

Like the imperial powers that came before it, the US characterized the island nation as isolated and insignificant, a reputation that seemingly justified and outlived the nuclear testing that took place there.

At a private 1969 meeting to discuss the forcible seizure of land from the locals for military purposes, then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said: “There are only 90,000 people out there. Who gives a damn?

This was years after the nuclear testing campaign ravaged the islands. 

Testing took place on two of the northernmost atolls, Bikini and Enewetak. Bikini Atoll, the namesake of the two-piece swimsuit, was host to 24 bombings. Enewetak took the other 43.

Produced by Chloe Shrager using Esri. Map sourced from GISGeography https://gisgeography.com/marshall-islands-map/

The earlier tests were less frequent, with nine nuclear detonations set off between 1946 and 1951.

Shot Baker, the second bomb to be tested in the Marshall Islands, exploded 90 feet underwater. It erupted through the surface like a geyser and created a 94-foot tsunami, sinking eight empty target ships and dousing others in radioactivity. The Baker shot produced so much contamination that then President Truman canceled the next planned test. Radiation expert and President of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research Dr. Arjun Makhijani called the test a “radiological disaster.”

Enewetak’s largest test was the Mike shot on November 1, 1952. Part of Operation Ivy, a series of tests that were a precursor to the hydrogen bomb, Mike was the first thermonuclear device ever detonated. It exploded with an unexpected strength of 10.4 megatons — 750 times greater than the Hiroshima bomb. It vaporized an island, Elugelab, that accounted for about eight percent of the total land mass of the atoll, leaving a crater a mile in diameter and 200 feet deep.

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United States Department of Defense, Library of Congress.

The majority of the tests took place during the latter half of the testing campaign, with 49 bombs detonated in the final two years.

Bikini was host to the most devastating test of all — Castle Bravo. The highly reactive lithium deuteride thermonuclear bomb was rigged with a fission-fusion-fission reaction that exploded with a force over a thousand times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. It was so big that it broke US beta radiation monitoring equipment, such that the full extent of Bravo’s damaging radiation is unknown.

Within seconds, Bravo’s fireball sucked up millions of tons of coral, water, and mud, pulverized it into dust, and flung it 25 miles heavenward. The mushroom cloud could be seen from hundreds of miles away, including by Mina Titus, the 6-year-old girl who saw it from her neighboring atoll. 

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Castle Bravo, 3.5 seconds after detonation, taken from a distance of 75 nautical miles from ground zero — the same distance as Titus on Rongelap — and from an altitude of 12,500 feet. Source Wikimedia Commons.

Hours later, she felt it, too.

Titus recalls opening the cement water catchment to drink later that day, the lid covered with a fine, white powder: radioactive ash. It snowed down on Rongelap for hours, coating islanders’ skin and homes, contaminating their food, and dissolving into their drinking water.

“On my skin, I had an itchiness,” Titus scratched her arms as she described the hours following the radioactive storm. “Then my hair began to fall off.”

After the fallout rained down upon them, the islanders remained on Rongelap for two days, starving or otherwise eating contaminated food which they did not yet know was radioactive. Government documents show that US military personnel came to evacuate the islanders to the military base at Kwajalein Atoll 50 hours after their exposure.

Many of the exposed arrived at Kwajalein with burns, hair loss, vomiting, and diarrhea. Titus recalls painful growths appearing on her raw skin. They were experiencing the effects of acute radiation poisoning.

Six days later, on March 11, 1954, the Atomic Energy Commission, the precursor to the Department of Energy, issued a statement that the US personnel and 239 Marshallese residents were transported to the Kwajalein base “as a precautionary measure” during “a routine atomic test.”  

“These individuals were unexpectedly exposed to some radioactivity,” it reads. “There were no burns. All were reported well.”

On Kwajalein, the exposed Marshallese were instructed to strip down naked in line next to their friends and family for sanitization, a deeply scarring experience for the religiously conservative islanders.

“They treated us like animals. They sprayed us,” Titus said of the US military personnel wearing hazmat suits and wielding hoses. “Even the Marshallese on Kwajalein didn’t want to come near us.”

They remained on the military base for months. “During that time, I felt extreme pain around my body, my skin,” Titus recalled. Weeping skin lesions comparable to second-degree thermal burns began to appear all over their bodies around two weeks after exposure. 

Titus is a demure, respected woman with jet-black hair that falls to her waist when it isn’t elegantly pinned back. The adults present when we met fell silent when she spoke. Her husband and a long-time friend, the capital city Majuro’s lieutenant police officer, gathered together around an old desk in the yard of her cinder-block home on Majuro where she now lives, listening intently to the story they’d heard many times before. 

Titus was one of sixty-four inhabitants on Rongelap who received the largest fallout exposure from the Bravo blast, “an estimated dose of 175 rads of whole-body gamma radiation, contamination of the skin sufficient to result in beta burns, and internal absorption of radioactive materials through inhalation and ingestion,” according to medical reports from the time. Nearly two hundred other islanders and 28 American servicemen on the nearby atolls of Utrik, Rongerik, and Ailingnae also received significant doses — up to 7,000 times greater than your average chest x-ray.

Dr. Makhijani has a Ph.D. in nuclear fusion and over 40 years of experience on radiation-related issues. He says that 175 rads is a huge exposure, further pointing out that this measurement excludes internal radiation. “Very often, the internal doses are more important because they go to specific organs,” he said. 

For the Marshallese, the nuclear legacy does not sit idly in the dark and distant past, as it does for many in America. It is not something they can choose to ignore or write out of their textbooks. It has forced them out of the lands they’ve called home for millenniums. It lives inside of them, in some cases taking the shape of untreated cancers or mysterious birth defects.

At this level of exposure, “you’re not talking about just cancer risk, you’re talking about all kinds of risks to your entire system,” Dr. Makhijani said. “You’re talking about the compromise of your immune system. You’re talking about the loss of pregnancy. You’re talking about pretty serious multi-generational impacts potentially.” 

He added that these things can occur at “much lower levels of radiation than 175 rads.”

Even so, independent scientific analysis concluded that the government’s numbers were a severe underestimation. In congressional testimony from a 2005 oversight hearing, independent researchers Sanford Choen & Associates estimated that the people of Rongelap actually experienced a dose of 300 to 400 rads at the time of the Bravo test.

Rongelap was not warned or evacuated prior to the Bravo blast. Going against scientists’ recommendations that Rongelap and other neighboring atolls be included in the “danger” zone, US Interior Department and Atomic Energy Commission officials drew the boundaries precisely to exclude them, according to “Operation Crossroads: The Atomic Tests at Bikini Atoll,”  a book by Weisgall, the Bikinian peoples’ long time lawyer.

The US has always chalked the islanders’ exposure to Bravo up to one big accident. They claimed to only have predicted a 5- to 6-megaton explosion and were thus nowhere near prepared for the 15-megaton blast that actually took place, but a declassified document from six days before the test recommended positioning one monitoring aircraft “on the basis of a twenty-megaton yield” and two others “on the basis of a twelve-megaton yield.” 

In other words, the memo suggests that officials knew the bomb could explode with a yield of up to 20 megatons, putting Rongelap well within the fallout danger zone. The precise maximum possible yield prediction is redacted from the document.

“They seem to have actually positioned those aircraft based on the higher yields, not as simply a safety factor,” nuclear historian Alex Wellerstein wrote in an email analyzing the document. “There are other indications that they thought the maximum possible yield would be more than 12 megatons.”

For example, a US Department of Defense Threat Reduction Agency final report found that the commander of Bravo’s scientific task force predicted “an upper-limit larger than 15 [megatons].” The United States’ stance has always been that the unexpectedly high yield came as a surprise to weapons designers and testers, but the report concludes that “the 15 [megaton] yield was not a total surprise.” 

Wellerstein thinks the human exposure to Bravo’s fallout was absolutely avoidable. He called it a result of US scientists’ negligence in planning and reliance on assumptions that were “totally unjustified and were totally disprovable” if they had done their due diligence. 

“One cannot just say they had no way of knowing, because they did,” have a way of knowing the total risk, Wellerstein wrote in an email. “But they screwed it up, and then lied about the cause of the problem, making it seem like an act of God or Nature, rather than the limitations of man.”

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A group of teenagers carry freshly caught fish and squids on Ebeye Island in Kwajalein Atoll. Photo by Chloe Shrager, July 6, 2023.

Titus is one of the eighteen survivors from Rongelap still alive today. All these years later, she still remembers the pain of her acute exposure. “I could not sleep because of all of the pain from the stuff that grew all over my skin,” she said.

After three months on Kwajalein, Titus and her family were temporarily moved to Ejit Island in Majuro Atoll, where they remained for three years with the other displaced Rongelapese. The tiny island had no lagoon for fishing and hardly any coconut or breadfruit trees, the main staples of the Marshallese diet. 

“They starved on Ejit,” Jemlok Titus, Mina’s husband, said for her as she fell quiet to remembering.

In 1957, the Atomic Energy Commission declared Rongelap safe for re-habitation. Mina Titus was overjoyed. She could go home.

What the islanders didn’t know was they were to be used as radioactive guinea pigs. 

Beginning in 1954 after the Bravo shot, Project 4.1 was a dual-focused medical and scientific initiative by the US government to monitor the health of islanders living in a radioactive environment. During deliberations over the decision to repopulate Rongelap for the study, Brookhaven National Laboratory concluded that “the inhabitation of these people on the island will afford valuable ecological radiation data on human beings.” The US proceeded with resettlement, keeping its experimental motives secret from the Marshallese.

“Data of this type has never been available,” Merril Eisenbud, director of the US Atomic Energy Agency’s health and safety laboratory, said at a January 1956 meeting about the decision to move islanders back to Rongelap and Utrik. At the time of the meeting, Eisenbud referred to the northern atolls as “by far the most contaminated place on Earth.”

“While it is true that these people do not live, I would say, the way Westerners do, civilized people, it is nevertheless also true that they are more like us than the mice,” Eisenbud said, articulating the profound racism that underlay the decision to use the residents of the Marshall Islands as unconsenting test subjects.

Every March for the next twenty-two years, Dr. Robert Conard and others from the Atomic Energy Commission came to check up on the Rongelap islanders. In addition to a full body medical exam, Titus said the doctors would take biopsies from the arms and necks of the islanders, cutting samples and placing them in vials for later testing. The long-serving Marshallese parliamentarian Tony deBrum told a congressional committee in 2004 that US doctors pulled healthy teeth of islanders without their consent for use in cesium, strontium, and plutonium studies. 

“Even in the mid-1990s, islanders were unsure whether they were being cared for or studied by US medical personnel,” deBrum said in the congressional record

As part of the experiment, US officials took over 200 people who were not on Rongelap during the Bravo shot and moved them to the atoll during the resettlement process to use as an unexposed control group — “an ideal comparison population for the studies,” Brookhaven decided. They got sick, too, but to this day the US has not included this group as part of the exposed population. As a result, they were not eligible for the subsidized medical care later set up by the Compact of Free Association.

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Rinam Kalles, 63, at her daughter’s home on Ebeye in Kwajalein Atoll. She spent twenty years of her life as a radiation test subject on a contaminated Rongelap. Photo by Chloe Shrager, July 5, 2023.

Rinam Kalles was one of those people. She stayed on Rongelap from the time she was five years old in 1965 until 1985, and has lived in exile on the small island of Mejatto ever since.

“I really want to go back to Rongelap,” Kalles said. “Life on Mejatto is not easy.”

Kalles, 63, remembers Rongelap fondly, with its spacious land and fertile soil abundant with breadfruit trees and coconut palms, but she also remembers a poisoned world.

When they walked barefoot on the sand, she says, they would get rashes on the bottoms of their feet. “Every time we ate taro,” Kalles said, “our lips would feel numb.” She reported the same about coconut crab. The visiting doctors did little more than warn them not to eat crab before leaving again, she said.

“There is an old lady that was one of the victims,” Kalles said with tears in her eyes. The woman has since passed away. “She said, ‘Those people are murderers.’ She’s right.”

Titus, too, recalls the painful, full-body allergic reactions to eating fish and crab from Rongelap’s contaminated lagoon, but those living on Rongelap at the time weren’t the only ones exposed. In response to lawsuits from the Marshallese in the 1970s, the US Trust Territory government brought in US troops and Marshallese contractors to clean up Bikini, Enewetak, and Rongelap. Six US servicemen reportedly died in the cleanup and hundreds more developed cancers.

“We turned out to be part of the experiment and didn’t know it until later,” said Jerry Kramer, who managed the company that provided the contracted Marshallese workers. They weren’t told about radiation and wore no protective gear.

“I don’t think anybody that worked for me on Bikini or Enewetak is alive today,” Kramer said.

It was during this time that the women living on Rongelap also began having reproductive problems. The rate of miscarriages on Rongelap, including among those who were not originally exposed, was more than twice that of women who had never endured such high levels of radiation. 

Titus had one miscarriage. Other women had more, she said.

When children were born, birth defects were commonplace. The Marshallese coined the term “jellyfish babies” for these children born with translucent skin, visible organs, and no distinguishable limbs or bones. They usually lived for a day or two before they stopped breathing.

One of Titus’s aunties gave birth to a baby she described as a bunch of grapes. Another birthed a child with a clear skull. Other deformed children were compared to octopi. Her little brother was born with an oversized body and too-small limbs — he passed away a few days later.

Titus also gave birth to one of these children. Her daughter, Katini, was one of the luckier: she lived a year before dying from breathing problems. 

Then the cancers began to appear.

In 1972, a teenager who had been exposed to the tests on Rongelap at the age of one died of leukemia, marking the first death due to radiation-induced cancer.

Thyroid cancer was the largest concern. Radioactive iodine, a chemical element distributed in large quantities by Bravo’s fallout, is destructive to the thyroid gland. Nearly 40% of the exposed population developed thyroid issues in the years that followed. 

By 1974, all but two of the 19 Rongelap children under the age of 10 years old at the time of exposure were diagnosed with thyroid nodules, according to a 2007 report for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Titus was one of them. 

During the 1960s, Brooklyn National Laboratory began taking islanders to the US to remove their thyroids, paying nearly $3 million to as many as 117 Marshallese who received the surgery, including Titus. A quarter of the surgeries were performed on “unexposed” people.

Titus, like other hypothyroidism patients, is now dependent on the Department of Energy for lifesaving medicine that produces the vital hormones her dysfunctional thyroid no longer can.

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Mina Titus, 75, and her six-year-old granddaughter, Meltha Titus, in their shared home in Majuro. Photo by Chloe Shrager, July 1, 2023.

“They take us and they check us and they will assure that ‘everything is okay, it’s okay.’ But we know it’s not,” Titus said. “I feel the pain.”

She still goes to Honolulu every year to get check-ups under the Compact’s healthcare program for exposed populations. There are no chemotherapy centers or oncologists in the Marshall Islands.

“You would think they would be after bombs,” Nitijela Speaker Kedi said. “None.”

In 2004, the National Cancer Institute released an expedited report prior to peer-review that linked 530 cancers in the Marshallese population to the nuclear tests, more than half of which had not yet appeared, indicating they were to surface in future generations.

“It’s probably a lot more than 530,” Dr. Neal Palafox, a former employee of the Department of Energy’s healthcare program in the Marshall Islands and a long-time doctor of the Marshallese people, said.

Of that estimate, the report predicted that 40% of thyroid cancers had yet to manifest, undermining American scientists’ earlier claims that thyroid cancer was not a concern in the Marshall Islands.

“It looked very bad,” for the US, Dr. Palafox said about the study. 

Citing its rushed nature, the US ordered a redo of the study, released in 2010. It reduced the number of expected cancers to 170, but Palafox says that didn’t actually change much. “It gave different numbers, but it says essentially the same thing,” — that many of the cancers caused by the nuclear testing would show up in future generations.

The scientific link between cancer and radiation exposure has long been imperfect, but Palafox says that new epigenetics technology can identify damaged DNA that can be inherited, revealing that some cancers can be passed down. 

“The epigenetics mechanisms can be intergenerational for at least three generations,” he says.

But modern science is simply playing catch up with what the Marshallese have known for decades. Chris deBrum’s now 16-year-old son, Christian deBrum, was born with hypothyroidism, the same hormone disorder Titus developed as a result of her thyroid removal. He is three generations removed from nuclear testing. Neither of his parents experienced any thyroid problems over the course of their lives.

Marshallese Ambassador to the United Nations Doreen deBrum (unrelated to Chris) has lost four members of her immediate family to cancer in the past decade — both her parents, her 3-year-old granddaughter, and most recently her own 33-year-old daughter. 

“My fight for nuclear justice is personal,” she tweeted last October.

The US frames these issues in the past tense, but “we live it every day,” Ambassador deBrum said in an interview. “Everybody has been affected in one way or another. Every family knows a family member that has passed because of cancer or a family member that has fertility issues or a friend or family member that has had a jellyfish baby.”

Titus’s story, unfortunately, is not unique. She echoes the pain of hundreds of exposed Marshallese, pain that did not end when the bombs did. 

“We need help,” Titus said. “We still need help. We are struggling and the poison is still in our bodies.”

A Dried-Up Compensation Fund and a Radioactive Lie

Seventy-year-old Emma Gulibert sits alone at her desk in the claustrophobic attic of Majuro’s international conference center surrounded by piled-high boxes of unfiled nuclear damage claims collecting dust. She is the only remaining employee of the Nuclear Claims Tribunal — the fund that once compensated the victims of nuclear testing.

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Emma Gulibert, 70, is the sole remaining managing employee of the Nuclear Claims Tribunal.

Gulibert started working at the tribunal in 1991, four years after its inception, and has continued to work there long after its death. The fund has been empty for 15 years.

The dead tribunal is kept up — by the most barebones definition of the word — by the National Nuclear Commission, which adopted control of the tribunal in 2018 and pays Gulibert as its sole employee.

The Nuclear Claims Tribunal was established in the late 1980s under Section 177 of the Compact of Free Association as “means to address past, present and future consequences of the Nuclear Testing Program.”

The deal gave the Marshall Islands $150 million as nuclear compensation, to be split between radiation clean-up and resettlement efforts, healthcare programs for a limited population of nuclear victims, and individual settlements, but it wasn’t enough. The international tribunal later evaluated the full extent of damage caused by the nuclear testing at $2.3 billion.

Hypothetically, if this amount were to be found “manifestly inadequate,” the Marshall Islands could apply for more money through a so-called changed circumstance petition, as outlined in the Compact, but the US denied the only petition ever filed in 2004. The fund ran out of money four years later.

Gulibert’s main job is to process nuclear victims’ individual claims. Every day for over three decades, she has read testimony after testimony of people just like Titus.

“It’s really awful… You know when you work that long you get the feeling,” Gulibert trailed off and motioned to her heart, indicating the burden of the weight it bears. “Sometimes I read them and I just cry.”

She remembers one applicant, a young girl with brain cancer from Mili, a small outer island far away from the testing grounds. Gulibert waited for a year for the girl to receive her compensation. The girl died before she got it.

“You know the money they gave us? It was not enough,” Gulibert said matter-of-factly.

No one ever received their full compensation. Most received around 80% of their claim in their lifetime, Gulibert says, but some received as little as 1%. 

Individuals in the Marshall Islands could apply for a range of nuclear compensation awards under five categories: personal injury (which were mostly cancer claims from a pre-approved list of cancers thought to be radiation-linked), damage to or loss of land, death, loss of personal property, and other claims, but the fund ran out before they even got through the personal injury awards.

The amount awarded to each individual for personal injury claims ranged from $12,500 for those who suffered acute radiation sickness or thyroid problems that did not require surgery to up to $125,000 for cancer patients with various diagnoses — for example, leukemia and stomach cancer patients were awarded more than thyroid cancer patients.   

Titus was one of those who used to receive small, yearly payments from the tribunal for her hardships, but those payments stopped when the fund dried up in 2008.

Previously sitting in its own cushy office space above the Bank of the Marshall Islands in Majuro, the tribunal has since been moved to the attic of a temporary government building. Now, one has to navigate through a dusty service hallway to a lonely stairway that leads up to the narrow, fluorescently-lit room reminiscent of Harry Potter’s broom closet.

Only Gulibert, one woman past the age of retirement, still tends to the old files. Plenty of nuclear victims are still waiting for their payments to come through; many others died before they ever saw a dime. Now, she hears that even more claims are set to arrive from the Marshall Islands Embassy in Washington DC. She waits to add them to the abandoned piles.

Of the over 3,000 people who applied for claims, Gulibert thinks more than half of the applicants died before they ever received any compensation at all. A whole other filing cabinet contains applications from the living that were abandoned when the tribunal ran out of money. She doesn’t know whether they are still alive now or not, but she has vowed to keep working at the tribunal until it is refunded and she can fulfill the claims.

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Gulibert sifts through a filing cabinet of applications that were abandoned when the tribunal ran out of funds in 2008. Photo by Chloe Shrager, July 17, 2023.

What is especially curious is the geographic layout of applicants. Every year from 1991 to 2008, the tribunal’s annual reports show that there were more cancer claims — Gulibert estimates around three-fourths of the total — from places outside of the four atolls that the US have recognized as exposed.

Since the Bravo bomb in 1954, America has sewn a narrative of limited impact. The US government exclusively recognizes Bikini, Enewetak, Rongelap, and Utrik — coined the ‘four atolls’ — as exposed to radiation and fallout, inadvertently drawing a line between those places and the rest of the Marshall Islands. 

Islanders from all other atolls are excluded from the remediation initiatives afforded to the four atolls through the Compact, most notably the Four Atolls Healthcare Program that provides primary health care to people of Bikini, Enewetak, Rongelap and Utrik. The program is now funded by annual discretionary grants from the Department of Interior after running out of Compact funding in 2001. The Department of Energy’s Special Medical Care Program only for Rongelap and Utrik people that grew out of Project 4.1 in the immediate aftermath of the Bravo test is not funded by the Compact. 

The now-dead Nuclear Claims Tribunal was the only way for impacted islanders from outside the four atolls to get compensated for their medical expenses.

“They say the four atolls are the ones who suffer the most, but in our claim listings, the most are from Jaluit and Mili and other islands,” Gulibert said. Jaluit and Mili are some of the southernmost atolls in the Marshalls, hundreds of miles away from even the mid-range group. “I think the radiation is all over the Marshall Islands, not only the four atolls.”

A 2008 Senate bill sought to increase compensation and extend Compact healthcare benefits to include victims of the six mid-range atolls — Ailuk, Likiep, Wotho, Wotje, and Ujelang Atolls and Mejit Island — but it died on the floor, never receiving a vote.

Original Map sourced from GISGeography.

Many Marshallese echo Gulibert’s belief, and experts agree. In 2004, the same National Cancer Institute study that predicted yet-to-develop cancers also notably stated that they would come from all over the Marshall Islands, not just from the four atolls. This was the first time a government agency admitted to widespread exposure.

“It actually looked terrible for the US  because they were playing it down,” Dr. Neal Palafox said about the study. “The US position was undermined.”

Dr. Makhijani, the radiation scientist, also says that the government’s radiation measurements were all around underestimates and that independent research groups have produced assessments much higher — on Utrik, for example, the Sanford Choen & Associates scientists estimated doses up to twenty times greater than the government’s numbers, according to Makhijani’s data.

“Rongelap was probably the worst exposed inhabited atoll, but the entire Marshall Islands was exposed,” Dr. Makhijani said.

Rongelap and Utrik did receive the highest — in some areas lethal — doses from the Bravo fallout, but they were far from the only atolls contaminated. A new study released in late July before peer review used state-of-the-art modeling technology to find that the fallout from the Trinity test, the first ever atomic bomb, detonated in Los Alamos, New Mexico, reached all but two of the continental United States, Canada, and Mexico within ten days of detonation.

Bravo was 600 times bigger than Trinity. 

And it was just one bomb. There were 66 others, some with explosive yields up to two-thirds the size of Bravo. 

“That would be the American scientists and the military that decided that there were four atolls,” Speaker Kedi said. “If you look at the whole of the tests and the new declassification documents and new reports that we saw, it looked and sounded like four atolls was a myth somebody just created.”

Sure enough, declassified documents that have surfaced over the last two decades have started to crack that myth. 

A previously-secret January 1955 AEC report shows that ten populated atolls received fallout exposure that exceeded the US National Commission for Radiation Protection standard of 500 millirems adopted in 1957, and twenty of the inhabited atolls exceeded the International Committee for Radiological Protection maximum permissible level of 170 millirems set two years later in 1959. Allowed US radiation level maximums further decreased to 100 millirems in 1990.

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Boxes of unorganized nuclear damage claims pile high in the attic where the tribunal is housed. Photo by Chloe Shrager, July 17, 2023.

When testing took place in the mid-20th century, little was understood about radiation. Since then, knowledge has increased and radiation protection standards have gone up, and it is clear that what was considered safe in the 1950s no longer is.

In some cases, though, safety standards may have been skirted entirely.

A declassified Department of Defense document from April of 1954 confirmed that the residents of Ailuk Atoll received a fallout dose comparable to the Utrik people. The report states that the “only other populated atoll which received fallout of any consequence at all was Ailuk.” While Utrik was evacuated after the Bravo test, Ailuk’s 400 residents were not, due to the “effort required.”

Dr. Makhijani said this does not come as a surprise. “There were lots of other indications of very dangerous radiological conditions. They violated the safety rules” throughout the tests, he said.

Nonetheless, tests continued both in the Marshall Islands and on US soil. Over the latter half of the 20th century, the US conducted over a thousand above and below-ground nuclear tests in Nevada. But even though the explosive yield of the Marshall Islands’ nuclear tests was 93 times that of the atmospheric tests in Nevada and the release of radioactive iodine from fallout in the Marshall Islands was 42 times higher, the US government recognizes a much larger test-affected area domestically — spanning Nevada, Utah, and Arizona — compared to in the Marshall Islands.

Graphic Source: the Nuclear Claims Tribunal.

According to the US Justice Department, claimants from the Nevada test site have received more than $2.4 billion as of 2021, while the Nuclear Claims Tribunal had only paid out $73.5 million to victims by 2008 when it ran out of money. (The rest had been awarded to the four atolls’ resettlement and healthcare funds.) 

The average individual payment for American claimants was nearly double that of Marshallese applicants, approximately $63,000 to the Marshallese’s $35,000 per person.

“The southern atolls, which are considered to be relatively unexposed, have higher thyroid doses than the highest exposed county average in the United States,”  Dr. Makhijani said. “It gives you a technical measure of the continuing injustice of the position of the United States that only a few atolls were affected.”

America’s Pacific Stronghold

On a calm Sunday afternoon in February of 1946, Commodore Ben Wyatt, US Military General to the Marshall Islands, gathered the islanders on Bikini Atoll after church and moments before they left their home forever. He sat on the swollen base of a palm tree and convinced the Bikinians to evacuate their atoll so that it could be used to test the United States’ nuclear weapons. 

“Would you be willing to sacrifice your island for the welfare of all men?” Commodore Wyatt asked. Speaking to the Bikinians across language barriers through a translator, he told them they’d be leaving “for the good of mankind and to end all wars.”

What was lost to translation may never be fully known, but believing they would be only temporarily relocated and then returned to their rehabilitated home after the tests, the Bikinians left, trusting the promise the military man made to them.

“We will go believing everything is in God’s hands,” the Bikinian leader King Juda responded for his people.

Commodore Wyatt told the religious Marshallese islanders they would be like their biblical ancestors, the Israelites, who wandered the desert in exile and sacrificed to bring peace to the world. 

That, at least, he did not lie about. Simon Jamore, King Juda’s grandson, was born into exile. 

“It has been 77 years, but still we haven’t gone back to our home,” Jamore said.

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Simon Jamore, 70, is the grandson of the Bikinian leader who was convinced by a US Commodore Ben Wyatt to let the US use Bikini Atoll as a nuclear test site in 1946. Photo by Chloe Shrager, July 11, 2023.

Jamore, 70, sat on the balcony of the Flame Tree Hostel restaurant on Majuro, the capital city of the Marshall Islands, overlooking the skinny atoll’s single road to the lagoon on the other side. He spoke for hours over his favorite dish — ramen with a fried egg — as the sun set around him, the gold-tinted shadows slowly descending over his kind face.

Jamore was born in 1953 on Kili Island, the temporary home to nearly 600 displaced descendants of Bikini’s original inhabitants. The desolate, under-resourced cay is thousands of miles from their home on Bikini and couldn’t be more different.

“We are in a state of peril, us Bikinians,” Jamore said. “We’re stranded on a small island. We don’t have fish, we don’t have bird, we don’t have turtle, we don’t have lobster, anything that we could have had in Bikini Atoll. And this is because we listened to your requests to use our island as a show of arms.”

To compound their perilous state, local Marshallese leaders mismanaged and drained a $59 million Bikini resettlement trust fund that was meant to support the residents of Bikini Atoll affected by US nuclear testing. The fund, which usually pays for Bikinians’ living costs, is now depleted, temporarily leaving them without money for food, rent, and electricity.

“We have nothing now,” Jamore said. “We don’t have food. We don’t have money. We really need your help. We are in a state of exile, living in a place that is not even habitable.”

The trust fund was drained after the US broke open the spending safeguards on the account, giving Bikinian leaders unregulated access to the money.

Jamore said that in 1946, Commodore Wyatt promised his grandfather, King Juda, that “they would take the Bikinian people as their own children and then they would give them whatever they need,” that “wherever they are, they would meet their needs.”

“Why not give us the things you promised us?” Jamore begged.

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Teenagers on Ejit Island in Majuro Atoll where the descendants of displaced Bikinians remain living forever in exile. Photo by Chloe Shrager, July 17, 2023.

The Compact of Free Association is the bedrock of much of US policy in the Pacific Island region. It establishes and governs the relationships of free association with the Republic of the Marshall Islands as well as with Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia and ensures economic aid to these three nations (the freely associated states) in exchange for exclusive US military authority over a strategically critical area of the Pacific the size of the continental United States, sometimes called the Blue Continent.

This is the location of America’s invisible empire in the Pacific. Between its bases in Guam, Hawai’i, and the Marshall Islands’ own Kwajalein Atoll, military control over the Pacific Island region gives the US the upper hand in fending off China’s growing global influence. 

Increasing Chinese aggression in the region has made a smooth renewal of this treaty more important to US security interests now than ever before, giving the Marshall Islands new leverage in discussions, but their negotiating power didn’t last.

Until late July, Compact talks between the US and the Marshall Islands had been in a months-long deadlock over the nuclear issue. Marshallese negotiators were pushing for $3.8 billion — a number that reflects the unpaid compensation from the 1980s adjusted for inflation. But cornered at the time by the Compact’s fast-approaching Sept. 30 expiration date, they were urged by Congress to abandon their strict “no nuclear, no Compact” stance and sign the deal, a document that incidentally mentions the word nuclear exactly once. 

The deal was signed by both parties’ negotiation teams in mid-October and is awaiting government approval.

“The problem is they don’t acknowledge the nuclear legacy,” Justice Envoy Tibon said about the new deal. 

It grants $1.5 billion in general aid over the next 20 years — including the continued funding of healthcare, education, and postal services — and an additional $700 million to a separate Compact trust fund for unspecified use, totaling $2.2 billion altogether. The only amount explicitly earmarked for legacy-related issues is $15 million for a nuclear history museum and improving document archives.

The funding has not kicked in yet. The Compact received a unanimous approval vote on Nov. 8 in the House Resources Committee but has not yet received a vote from the House or Senate. Congressional approval is expected by late December, but the Nitijela will not conduct its vote until January, when the Compact will come before a newly inaugurated government following their Nov. 20 elections. In the absence of its usual aid (the Compact’s economic packages expired on Sept. 30), the Marshall Islands has been forced to dip into its trust fund to keep its government in operation, according to  Giff Johnson, the editor of the Marshall Islands Journal.

“In regards to parliament’s decision on adopting any Compact legislation, nuclear injustice will have to be address[ed] properly for it to gain support before [it’s ratification],” by the Nitijela, Kedi wrote in an email in November.

While generous, the problem with this pending economic aid package is that none of it is designated for nuclear compensation. There has been public discussion over whether the $700 million Compact fund investment will be put toward nuclear remediation, but as of right now, the intended use of the funds has not been specified. 

“The only thing we’ve agreed is that it will reflect the [Marshallese] government’s wishes,” Yun said about the money, but he also suggested that if the Marshall Islands wanted to make the $700 million available as recompense funding for nuclear legacy issues, the United States would not approve.  

Yun said that revisiting the tribunal’s funding at this point would require a new changed circumstance petition (the only other petition filed was denied in 2004). The Marshallese have expressed their desire to submit another petition with new evidence, said Yun, but if history acts as any example, there is little guarantee the outcome would be any different.

Now, it is unclear if any of the money promised to the Marshall Islands in the renewed Compact deal will go toward nuclear issues. According to Marshallese chief negotiator Phillip Muller, “friends in Congress” have said talks to iron out the details will continue, but even if they keep their word, the Marshallese have no leverage in a petition.

“The bigger issue is the US forcing the [Marshall Islands] into this situation as a negotiating strategy to put pressure on the [Marshall Islands] to adopt the Compact,” Johnson wrote in an email. “It’s another demonstration of the totally imbalanced playing field. Anyone who thinks the islands have leverage and negotiating power need to look beyond the superficial geopolitical environment to what is the result in the [Marshall Islands] Compact.”

The Compact is the Marshall Islands’ best chance of seeking justice. The Pacific soft power war between China and the US gave the Marshallese at least the semblance of negotiating strength in Compact discussions, but in a changed circumstance petition, the people of the Marshall Islands will have nothing more than the moral argument on their side.

Many think morals should be enough.

“You can’t continue to have this colonial power,” Nitijela Speaker Kedi said. “Just to know that you have the ability and the resources, you have the means. And it’s not difficult. You could do it in three seconds. But you’re not doing it.”

Now, the best some are hoping for from the US is an honest apology. 

“That’s just a general universal common knowledge and kindness,” Kedi said. “They cannot do the [bare minimum], sensible, humanly action that you would expect from them: ‘We’re sorry.’ ”

A joint resolution to formally apologize for the nuclear legacy was introduced on the House floor in March of last year. Congresswoman Katie Porter continues to advocate for the legislation, but no further action has been taken since its submission.

Yun said he hopes that the joint resolution passes. “My personal view is that it is something that we should do,” he said.

Many feel that this last chance to talk about the nuclear legacy. While younger generations of Marshallese are rallying to take their buried history into their own hands, this generation of American lawmakers marks the last who truly know what happened. Many already don’t.

Kedi hopes that one day, the nuclear legacy will be taught in American schools, that “it won’t be something that is hidden.”

“This is part of US history,” that needs to be known, he said.

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Student art projects memorializing the nuclear legacy are displayed in the Nuclear Archives at the Marshall Islands College. The painting on the right reads “Love for all without discrimination.” Photo by Chloe Shrager, July 13, 2023.
Nuclear Nomads In an Exile That Outlives Them

When his mother died, James Matayoshi, the mayor of Rongelap, buried her in his backyard in Majuro. She had been one of the exposed on Rongelap, pregnant at the time of the Bravo bomb. 

In the last few years of her life, Almira Matayoshi, like many other exiled elders, begged to return to Rongelap so she could live out her final days there and be buried on her home atoll. She never got the chance. Her grave sits with three other family members — James’s auntie, cousin, and brother — on Majuro, hundreds of miles away from their home.

“There’s a word we say, kabit bokan aelõñ, and it is very sacred to us,” Alson Kelen, Chairman of the National Nuclear Commission, explained. “Kabit bokan aelõñ is when you’re dead, you’re buried there, so the flesh will turn into the soil so you’re part with the mother nature, with your land.”

There are now thousands like her, victims and descendants of victims who, in both life and death, are forever astray from their ancestral home.

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An overgrown Bikinian graveyard on Ejit Island in Majuro Atoll. July 17, 2023.

“That concept US citizens will never understand,” Speaker Kedi said. “Your very vein as a Marshallese, the fabric of yourself is interwoven to that land. You are that land. Take that away from them, and you are killing their entire beings as Marshallese. Psychologically, socially, and everything else.”

Maybe even more so than the inherited health issues, every future generation carries this cultural trauma, Kedi says. Generations of Marshallese have had their land taken away. Underfunded clean-up efforts in the 1970s that failed to totally rid the contaminated atolls of residual radiation have ensured few returners. Though small a population of caretakers exists on Enewetak to upkeep the Runit dome, scientists hold that residents should not return to Bikini and Rongelap until thorough clean-up efforts are completed. The cleanup efforts were begun in the 70s but later abandoned, leaving residents in permanent limbo.

“We are nomads.” Mina Titus’s husband, Jemlok Titus, said. “No home.”

Mina Titus sits outside her house in Majuro, remembering her real home an ocean away. Her grandchildren play nearby under the low-hanging leaves of an ancient breadfruit tree. They have never even known a place to miss.

“I really miss the beauty of Rongelap,” Mina Titus said. “Over there we had freedom. It’s been our home.”

She paused for a long moment. “I know I cannot go back.”

This story was reported with the aid and contributions of Hilary Hosia from the Marshall Islands Journal.

Correction issued 12/5/2023: This piece was updated to reflect that Utrik was evacuated after the Bravo test.

Chloe Shrager

Chloe Shrager is a breaking news intern at the San Francisco Chronicle and a freelance writer at Stanford University, where she studies nuclear policy and journalism. She will graduate with a B.A. in Political Science this year. Her previous work has been published in the Stanford Daily, the Peninsula Press, and the Menlo Park Almanac. She told this story thanks to the funding she received as a Steve Steinberg Reporting Award recipient.

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