LONDON -- The Greenpeace environmental movement has begun evacuating 260 people from the Marshall Islands in the South Pacific to escape contamination from a 30-year-old U.S. nuclear bomb test on Bikini atoll, the group said Wednesday.
The population of tiny Rongelap atoll turned to Greenpeace for help because the U.S. government turned down an appeal from the islanders to move them to a safe island, George Pritchard of London's Greenpeace office said.
In Washington, the State Department had no immediate comment on the report.
Greenpeace's converted trawler, the Rainbow Warrior, and its 12-man crew reached Rongelap Sunday in the South Pacific after a more than 8,000-mile voyage from the eastern seaboard of the United States, he said.
Greenpeace estimated it would take at least four trips to move the 260 inhabitants, their dismantled huts, schoolhouse, assorted belongings and pigs and chickens to the uninhabited island of Mejato, 100 miles away, he said.
Pritchard said Rongelap was contaminated by a 15-megaton hydrogen bomb in the Bravo nuclear tests of 1954 on the nearby uninhabited Bikini atoll. Winds carried the nuclear fallout north over Rongelap and the United States evacuated the residents within days, he said.
But the evacuated islanders were returned to Rongelap in 1957 and told it was safe, he said.
In 1979, the U.S. government told the islanders who were complaining of a high number of birth defects and thyroid disease that it was unsafe to eat Rongelap's coconuts and fish -- the two main staples of their diet, he said.
Since then, Pritchard said, the United States has shipped food to Rongelap to keep the islanders alive but rejected their petition to move them to a safer home.
'Scars on the necks of the islanders from where they have had thyroid operations and deformed and sick children' still remain from the 30-year-old nuclear fallout, Greenpeace said.