It is the number of conical-cylindrical flask-shaped broiler stacks in China’s electric plants that sent shivers down our spine. We saw too many of them on a 40-hour train ride from Shenyang in Liaoning to Chengdu in Sichuan, and back. I have come to associate them with nuclear plant disasters in the Three-mile Island of the U.S., Chernobyl of the old USSR, and Japan’s Fukushima.
Our title is an upgrade of a 2009 book by Giff Johnson, editor of the Marshall Islands Journal, a local weekly out of Majuro, Nuclear Past, Unclear Future.
We had nodding acquaintance with the Republic of the Marshall Island’s Sen. Tony deBrum, an advocate for a nuclear-free republic, a foreign affairs minister, and now the president’s minister-in-assistance. In this last role, he pointed out this February before the UN Security Council the irony that while the U.S. tests missiles in his country to safeguard the skies, the atolls of the Marshall Islands are drowning as a consequence of climate change. There’s nothing unclear about RMI’s future; it is going underwater!
I did not know Giff Johnson personally, nor his wife, the late Darlene Keju who married him in her outer island home of Wotje in 1982, a year before she made her speech re the effect of the U.S. nuclear testing in Bikini and Eniwetok to the ’83 World Council of Churches meeting in Canada.
The determination of the U.S. military to get its imperial strategic occupation of the real estate in the northern half of the Pacific west of Hawai’i is bullish and unstoppable. RMI’s Kwajalein even goes by California’s day although it is across the international dateline. The Marianas’ Afghan death toll per capita is high, but that’s because enlistment and the GI Bill is one of the few recourse of the island youths’ upward mobility.
I was in despair in ’82 over the human development thrust of my group in the Marshall Islands. Our attempt to accelerate economic development from the bottom-up was not only costly but was just Band-Aid operation in the world’s top-down globalization. My colleagues knew all about that but we were stubborn. Our Chicago-based efforts were adding more to the culture of dependency on Uncle Sam, palliatives to the enormous challenge faced by the emerging political entities on the eastern end of Micronesia.
We were also spending our supporters’ life savings, all ordinary folks, without transparent accountability, as we poured more investments over bad ones just so we would look good to the microeconomic development community.
My despair is not the subject of this reflection, though I took a sabbatical from my group the year Darlene gave her WCC speech to serve the United Methodist Church in Guam. That was like oil splattering off the frying pan into the fire! Guam was, and still is, a U.S. military island beholden to a military-industrial complex that has the nation by the balls.
Giff Johnson added to his writings the biography of Darlene Keju, Don’t Ever Whisper, who died at the age of 45 while pursuing the truth regarding the extent of the damage caused by U.S. nuclear bomb tests done in her neighborhood.
Darlene’s biography relates her awareness of the limits and possibilities of her upbringing and circumstances; nonetheless, she decided to use her life to awaken others to painful realities of the way life is. “Yes, I did” (our characterization) is considerably a more valuable witness in the arsenal of the human spirit than all the protests we can muster against nuclear bombs.
The diminutive Marshallese girl conquered a language, the cultural ways of Jack and Jill, went up against mighty Uncle Sam’s militant posturing, and displayed an incorrigible act of self-determination.
Yes, we do mind the danger of nuclear power chosen as the energy source of Third World and developing countries, the bone of contention in the debates regarding Syria, Iran, and North Korea, the unclear disposal of the arsenal controlled by the U.S., England, France, China, India, et al, and the alleged ordnance held under the radar by Israel, South Korea, and Japan.
We live upwind from Fukushima. It was revealed that one of the reactors that went haywire after a tsunami hit was actually in the process of refining weapons-grade nuclear material. While there has not been any indication that the fish I eat from the Sea of Japan had been affected, nor radioactivity been detected in the fruits and vegetables I consume, we know that radioactive fallout had been detected as far afield as Indiana. This tells us that radiation knows no bounds when nuclear rain occurs on this planet.
Ironically, nuclear power is technically clean energy without the soot. Unfortunately, judgments on its use are made more from the profit side of ledgers rather than its potential in weaning us, with maximum safeguards, from the stranglehold of fossil fuel.
In our limited Marshallese, we remember “Yokwe,” which, like our Hawaiian “Aloha,” serves both salutation of “Hello” and “Goodbye.” Yes, “Yokwe” to Darlene’s memory, “Yokwe” to nuclear bombs loud and clear, but let us refrain from saying “Yokwe” to a drowning RMI. We shan’t dare whisper that last one either!
Jaime R. Vergara is an ordained minister of the United Methodist Church and was pastor of Saipan Immanuel UMC at the second millenium’s turn. He now writes from China.