It’s more than just a street name. “Enewetak Drive” represents a piece of Lab history and
recognizes a culture.
For many decades this road on campus has been spelled “Eniwetok Drive.” This past year, the Lab officially changed the street signs to Enewetak Drive. This is the preferred spelling of those indigenous to the Pacific atoll where the Lab had a significant presence during the nation’s weapons testing period.
As part of the Lab’s recognition of Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, the National Security Research Center (NSRC) and the Asian Pacific Islander (API) Employee Resource Group (ERG) together unveiled the new sign after partnering to correct the spelling.
“Changing the spelling shows how much support the Lab’s ERGs receive from the highest levels of leadership and that our Lab values diversity and inclusivity,” said Roseanne Cheng, co-chair of the API ERG and a Lab physicist. “For the API ERG, this event shows that the Lab is listening to us and that cultural integrity is important.”
Shared history, linked cultures
Like many street names at Los Alamos, such as Trinity Drive and Bikini Atoll Road, Enewetak Drive is a nod to aspects of the Lab’s earliest days.
Like Bikini, Enewetak Atoll is part of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific. The Lab conducted nuclear weapons tests in the Marshall Islands from 1946 through 1962 at what would become known as the Pacific Proving Grounds.
During a 10-year period, 43 nuclear devices were tested on Enewetak Atoll, including Ivy Mike, which was the first demonstration of the principles underlying the hydrogen bomb.
“Enewetak—and the Marshall Islands—are an important part of the nation’s testing history and, in particular, the Lab’s legacy of scientific achievement,” said Lab historian Roger Meade, who traveled to Enewetak with the Lab’s weapons program staff in the 1980s and early 2000s and has written extensively about nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands.
The Marshall Islands’ official language is Marshallese (called Ebon by the locals), and English is also spoken there today. The origin and meaning of “Enewetak” is not certain, though at least one scholar has suggested it may mean “land between East and West,” according to the 2004 special report “CASTLE BRAVO: Fifty Years of Legend and Lore,” by Thomas Kunkle and Byron Ristvet.
It’s also uncertain when the atoll’s name was first westernized to the Eniwetok spelling and by whom, according to Meade. After years of European influence, followed by a Japanese occupation, the Marshall Islands were captured by the United States during World War II. The United Nations allowed the U.S. to retain control of the islands, which enabled Enewetak and other atolls to be used for nuclear testing.
Approximately 150 Enewetak residents were relocated in December 1947 to nearby Ujelang Atoll in preparation for the nuclear tests that would begin the following spring. The first test on Enewetak was called X-ray and took place on April 14, 1948. The last test on Enewetak Atoll, called Fig, took place in August 1958. The Lab’s weapons testing outside the Marshall Islands continued until an October 1958 moratorium suspended nuclear tests.
After years-long decontamination efforts, residents eventually were able to return, though part of the atoll is still uninhabitable. Today’s population is just under 700, according to the most recent estimations available.
Eniwetok to Enewetak
In 1974, the U.S. government changed its official spelling of Eniwetok to Enewetak in an effort to better reflect the pronunciation of the name by Marshall Islands natives, according to Elements of Controversy: The Atomic Energy Commission and Radiation Safety in Nuclear Weapons Testing, 1947-1974.
At Los Alamos, “this idea to change the spelling of the street sign has been discussed through the years,” said senior historian Alan Carr. Carr is part of the Lab’s National Security Research Center, which houses millions of classified records from the weapons testing era, including those from the Pacific Proving Grounds.
“By changing the name on Lab street signs,” says Cheng, “we’re showing we’re aware of and respect the identity of the Enewetak people, their culture and their pronunciation.”
Carr and Meade agree.
“Enewetak is incredibly important in our country’s history,” says Meade, “and it’s right for the Lab to be appreciative and respectful of the Marshallese."