Sign of the times

A street name captures the Laboratory’s evolving relationship with its past and future.

By Jake Bartman | November 28, 2022

Abstracts Enewetak Opt
API ERG co-chairs Arnold Eng (left) and Roseanne Cheng hold the new Enewetak street sign. Los Alamos National Laboratory

The change might seem small: a thoroughfare at Los Alamos National Laboratory renamed from Eniwetok Drive to Enewetak Drive. But in adopting the spelling preferred by inhabitants of Enewetak Atoll, the road’s namesake, the change reflects larger shifts in how Los Alamos approaches diversity and inclusion, and how the Laboratory relates to its past.

“We can be proud of our history and what we’ve done,” says Roseanne Cheng, a physicist at the Laboratory and co-chair of the Asian Pacific Islander (API) employee resource group (ERG), which spearheaded the sign change. “But if we can also acknowledge what happened to the people of Enewetak and the Marshall Islands, we’re in a better place here at the Laboratory.”

The histories of Los Alamos and Enewetak have been intertwined since 1947, when Darol Froman, a physicist at the Laboratory, chose the Marshall Islands to serve as the site of America’s largest nuclear tests. Located 2,400 miles southwest of Honolulu, Enewetak Atoll—which comprises 40 small islands—seemed suitably remote. Like the rest of the Marshall Islands, Enewetak had been placed under U.S. control by the United Nations after the end of World War II.

In late 1947, 136 Enewetak natives boarded American ships and left their homes behind. “We hated to go, but we obeyed,” the atoll’s natives told anthropologist Jack Tobin in 1954. “We want to cooperate with the Americans all the time.”

Between 1947 and 1958, the United States conducted 43 nuclear tests on Enewetak Atoll, amounting to some two-thirds of the 67 total tests that the country would conduct in the Marshall Islands. The world’s first thermonuclear device, codenamed Ivy Mike, was detonated on Enewetak in 1952, vaporizing the islet Elugelab.

Because the tests in the Marshall Islands were either atmospheric (aboveground) or underwater, radiation from the explosions wasn’t contained the way it might have been if the tests were conducted underground. As a result, much of Enewetak was left highly radioactive.

Despite a large-scale cleanup, half the atoll’s islands remained uninhabitable; however Enewetak’s natives were permitted to return home in 1980. Around that time, the U.S. government ceased spelling the atoll’s name “Eniwetok” and instead adopted the natives’ preferred spelling, “Enewetak.” But for four more decades, the old spelling remained on a street sign at Los Alamos.

“Think how many people pass that street sign on a daily basis,” says Alan Carr, senior historian at Los Alamos’ National Security Research Center (NSRC), which maintains tens of millions of documents dating back to the Manhattan Project era. “It’s kind of been a splinter in my side for a long time.”

A few years ago, Carr mentioned the street name to Riz Ali, director of the NSRC. Ali, in turn, discussed the issue with the API ERG, which brought the misspelling to the attention of Laboratory management. Lab officials were eager to correct the street’s name.

“How often do we have a legitimate opportunity to correct our place in history?” said Bret Simpkins, the Laboratory’s associate director for Facilities and Operations, during a ceremony at which a new street sign was installed. “This event represents the Laboratory taking a significant step in supporting diversity and inclusion.”

Cheng notes that although the name change might seem small, to make the correction required coordinating many different parties, including Los Alamos County. In that sense, Cheng says, the change shows how many groups can work together toward the shared goal of making Los Alamos a more inclusive institution. “It really takes everyone,” she says. ★

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The API ERG leadership team gathers in front of the newly hung Enewetak sign. Front row, from left: Kumkum Ganguly, Bernadette Guillermo, Arnold Eng, and Roseanne Cheng.  Back row, from left: Riz Ali, Mark Anthony, Bret Simpkins, Cesil Alex, and Roger Meade.