I was one of the young men and teenagers given the impossible task to clean up the nuclear fallout and debris during the 1977-1980 Marshall Islands Atomic Cleanup. During our failed attempt to decontaminate these radioactive islands we built a massive containment dome on Runit Island which sits in a nuclear blast crater. It is now known as the Runit Dome.
I served for over two years on this mission as a civilian with the Radiological Element of the Joint Task Force. As a radiochemist at Eberline Instrument Corporation, a Health Physics Laboratory, I performed the bioassay and environmental analysis of radioactive isotopes. In 1978 I was also "boots on the ground" serving as the soil sampling team leader in charge of a crew of eight servicemen.
Our crew collected over 10,000 soil samples. I would dig these soil samples with a small shovel without wearing a hazmat suit and only wore a pair of shorts and used my t-shirt as a dusk mask. All of the islands I worked on including the island I lived on were covered by nuclear fallout and debris. Often I was digging at "Ground Zero" – the very spot of a nuclear weapon test. My crew and I worked 10 hours a day 6 days a week on these contaminated islands.
I lived in a make-shift camp on Lowja Island in a metal shed that back then was called a hooch. Lowja Island was chosen as our military camp because it had not been the ground zero of any of the 43 nuclear weapon tests. However, Lowja Island had been incinerated many times by nearby weapon tests and was coved by nuclear fallout. If nuclear bombs were not enough… later I would discover our island home had been the epicenter for 12 biological weapon tests just nine years earlier.
The massive concrete containment dome we built contains 110,000 cubic yards of radioactive debris and soil. It was my work that determined what would be placed into the Dome's nuclear blast crater or what we would simply dump into the lagoon. The dome is on Runit Island where I had dug thousands of holes collecting radioactive soil. All of the islands I worked on including my island home are indefinitely quarantined and the Runit Island where we built the dome is forever quarantined.
Today, few of the men I worked with are known to be alive. Of the 32 soil samplers I am the only one who has signed our survivor roster. Those of us remaining are suffering from cancers and other disabling radiogenic-induced illnesses.
Today I am part of a small group of other atomic cleanup participants and have assembled a considerable database of information on the atomic cleanup. Together we have photos, shared memories, personal stories and the insight that only firsthand participants would have.
The Atomic Cleanup was designated a Humanitarian Mission. The Marshallese Islanders had been removed from their homeland for the atomic testing believing it was for the "Good of Mankind" and I volunteered for the good of the Marshallese. I believe my humanitarian service is not yet finished.
Cleaning radioactive fallout is "futile and dangerous", to quote the exact words that were used by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission in 1946 after Operation Crossroads, the first atomic bomb tests in the Marshall Islands. Yet even after this fact was known, nuclear weapon testing and production continued. During the atomic cleanup we would again learn this lesson as we did not cleanup the radioactive fallout: we just moved it around.
The aftermath and legacy remains. My mission continues.
Paul Griego, Survivor
Radiochemist, Health Physics Technician and Soil Sampler of the 1977-1980 Marshall Islands Atomic Cleanup.
New Mexico State Commander of the National Association of Atomic Veterans
Principal Researcher for the Return to the Atomic Cleanup