How US Nuclear Tests Devastated Marshall Islands

On August 29th, the UN General Assembly marked the International Day against Nuclear Tests. Let’s reflect on the Marshall Islands, a place that was used for testing American atomic weapons during the Cold War.

How US Nuclear Tests Devastated Marshall Islands

The Marshall Islands, found in the central Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and the Philippines, are made up of volcanic islands and coral atolls. Among these is Runit Island, which is now a site for US radioactive waste.

The Runit Dome, a wide cement structure about 115 meters thick, contains over 90,000 cubic meters of radioactive soil and debris. These materials are a result of the US’s secret Cold War nuclear testing program. However, the exterior of the cement structure has been aging and developing cracks, causing concerns about potential contamination.

How US Nuclear Tests Devastated Marshall Islands 2
Aerial view of the Runit Dome. The dome is placed in the crater created by the “Cactus” nuclear weapons test in 1958. © Photo : Public Domain

Between 1946 and 1958, the US conducted 67 nuclear bomb tests above ground and underwater near the Marshall Islands. Out of these, 23 tests were done at Bikini Atoll, while 44 were carried out near Enewetak Atoll. Unfortunately, the fallout from these tests spread across the islands, forcing the population to leave their homes.

Enewetak Atoll experienced the greatest impact from US Cold War military activities. Alongside nuclear explosions, the US conducted twelve biological weapons tests here and disposed of 130 tons of soil from their nuclear testing site in Nevada, as reported by the US media.

Bikini Atoll became famous for hosting the largest US nuclear detonation, known as Castle Bravo, on March 1, 1954. This explosion was even visible from Okinawa, located 2,600 miles away, according to US media sources. Castle Bravo was part of Operation Castle, a series of thermonuclear tests. Comparatively, it was over 1,000 times more powerful than “Little Boy,” the bomb dropped by the US Air Force on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.

What Enabled the US to Test Nuclear Weapons on the Marshall Islands?

The Marshall Islands, following years of colonial rule by Spain, Germany, and Japan, were designated by the UN as a “trust territory” through a 1947 Security Council Resolution. The United States was assigned as the “administering authority.”

According to UN Resolution 21 (1947), the US was responsible for “fostering the development of political institutions, promoting economic, social, and educational advancement” in the Marshall Islands. Unfortunately, the US exploited and polluted the region while pursuing its own Cold War goals.

“The testing of weapons that defined the course and consequences of the Cold War was itself a crucial dimension to the narrative. Further, the central question ‘Why conduct nuclear tests?’ was fully debated among American politicians, generals, civilians and scientists, and ultimately it was a victory for those who argued in favor of national security over diplomatic and environmental costs that normalized nuclear weapons tests,” Professor Joe Siracusa, author of book A History of US Nuclear Testing and its Influence on Nuclear Thought, 1945-1963 (2014) stated.

“The US chose to test these weapons in the Pacific atolls, distributed mainly between Eniwetok and Bikini. It was a disaster for the locals, as many indigenous Marshallese suffered severe radiation burns and later blood disorders. Those tests have been associated with radiological contamination, fallout, and health effects. The inhabitants and the American people were not told the truth at the time, but it eventually came out,” the professor continued.

US Nuclear Tests Uproot Marshallese People

Back in 1946, Navy Commodore Ben Wyatt gathered 167 residents of Bikini Atoll and demanded their relocation, leaving them no real choice. With a harsh irony, the native islanders were told their atoll was being taken over for the greater good of humanity, designating them as the chosen ones.

Following Wyatt’s declaration, the US military immediately prepared to move the inhabitants of Bikini Atoll to an empty Rongerik Atoll. However, life on Rongerik brought malnutrition due to scarce food supplies. Eventually, the former Bikini residents were shifted to Kwajalein Atoll in 1948. Here, they lived in tents close to the military airstrip.

Later on, they were transferred to Kili, a small island lacking a lagoon, a protective reef, and fishing areas. While some tried to return to Bikini between 1969 and 1972, they were forced to flee again in 1978 due to hazardous radiation levels.

Likewise, in 1948, the US government compelled the Enewetak Atoll population to leave as part of its nuclear testing expansion. Despite resettlement efforts on Rongelap, Utirik, and Ailinginae Atolls, the islanders couldn’t escape the nuclear aftermath, primarily stemming from the potent Castle Bravo test.

“The environmental impacts from the testing series totally decimated land and marine habitats, including lagoons and coral reefs, and made many of the islands uninhabitable. Nuclear debris and radioactive fallout into the atmosphere contaminated land and water supplies. People’s entire communities and livelihoods were lost,” Emily Spiller, PhD Candidate at RMIT University (Melbourne) and 2023-2024 Fulbright Scholar, said.

Spiller’s research delves into shifts in American nuclear policy and strategic thinking, focusing solely on the US president’s role as the key authority for decisions concerning nuclear weapons.

“Many people were displaced from their homelands due to the testing. Grave impacts on the physical health of those from the contaminated areas continue to exist across generations, including an increased risk of cancer and acute radiation poisoning. There were also immediate effects at the time, such as vomiting, hair loss, and skin burning,” Spiller continued.

Did the Marshallese Concerns Make a Difference?

The Marshallese individuals submitted a petition to the United Nations Trusteeship Council on May 6, 1954, to voice their grievances about the US nuclear tests:

“[I]n view of the increasing danger from the experiments with deadly explosives thousands of times more powerful than anything previously known to men, the lethal effects of which have already touched the inhabitants of two of the atolls in the Marshalls, namely, Rongelap and Uterik, who are now suffering in various degrees from ‘lowering of blood count,’ burns, nausea and the falling off of hair from the head, and whose complete recovery no one can promise with any certainty, we, the Marshallese people feel that we must follow the dictates of our consciences to bring forth this urgent plea to the UN, which has pledged itself to safeguard the life, liberty and the general well-being of the people of the trust territory, of which the Marshallese people are a part,” the complaint read.

According to the Marshallese, they were not just afraid of the lethal weapons, but also worried about the growing number of people forced off their land. They asked for an immediate halt to all experiments involving deadly weapons in their region.

The 1954 document suggests that the people of the Marshall Islands were desperate and held little hope that the US would completely cease its testing.

Their plea included a condition: if the weapon experiments were deemed absolutely necessary for the world’s collective welfare and couldn’t be moved due to a lack of alternatives, then steps should be taken to protect their remaining population from further fallout. The wording of the document reflects their deep fear and disheartenment.

Regrettably, the hazardous US nuclear tests persisted until 1958, worsening the island chains’ existing environmental crises.

“The political consequences of nuclear testing involved developing more and more sophisticated weapons which then helped to inform military strategy and doctrine, adding fuel to the nuclear arms race between the United States and Soviet Union at the time (and subsequent countries which acquired the bomb),” said Spiller. “From the American perspective, especially under President Eisenhower, the nuclear testing at this time raised the profile and idea of ‘bomb culture’ in American society. Where the development of the bomb had previously existed in the utmost secrecy under Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, nuclear weapons testing from 1946 and throughout the 1950s and early 1960s significantly shifted the public’s knowledge and awareness of the new force.”

In 1969, the US initiated a long-term plan to decontaminate the atolls of the Marshall Islands.

Impact of Nuclear Contamination on the Marshall Islands

Subsequently, as part of the 1990 Compact between the US and the Marshall Islands, Washington acknowledged “the responsibility for compensation owing to citizens of the Marshall Islands, for loss or damage to property or person of the citizens of the Marshall Islands, resulting from the nuclear testing program that the Government of the United States conducted in the Northern Marshall Islands between June 30, 1946, and August 18, 1958,” as documented by the UN.

As stated in a CRS Report, from 1954 to 2004, the United States allocated more than $500 million for nuclear test compensation and related aid in the Marshall Islands.

“Declassification of government documents relating to nuclear testing aids ongoing research into this which provides greater clarity on the extent of the humanitarian and environmental damage caused by the nuclear tests. There are studies which demonstrate elevated risks of thyroid cancers, radiation poisoning, and other serious long-term health issues that span generations. I don’t think the full extent of this is known just yet,” Spiller said.

In 2012, UN Special Rapporteur Calin Georgescu determined (read below) that the testing’s radiation led to fatalities and both immediate and persistent health issues. The report highlighted that the radiation’s impact was worsened by “almost irreversible environmental pollution,” which resulted in “loss of livelihoods and lands.” Furthermore, the special rapporteur cautioned about the ongoing displacement experienced by many individuals, as of 2012.

The report referred to the United States Department of Energy’s findings that “the development of thyroid disease, including thyroid cancer in the Marshall Islands, had been linked to the intake of radioactive iodine primarily as a consequence of ingesting hazardous fallout debris particles deposited on food surfaces, eating utensils, the hands, and the face, and of drinking contaminated water.”

“While radiation sickness is not generational – passed on – the same cannot be said for the soil on which the tests took place,” Siracusa remarked, adding that the people are continuing to suffer.

Has Washington Learned from Its Nuclear Past?

“Most recently, the Biden Administration has taken various measures to improve bilateral relations with the Marshall Islands, including signing a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on a new Compact of Free Association agreement and advising that it ‘remains committed to addressing the Republic of the Marshall Islands’ ongoing environmental, public health…and other welfare concerns’,” said Spiller.

“I think it is a positive sign to see ongoing research and action at high levels into the humanitarian, health, and environmental impacts of the historical nuclear tests. Needless to say much more needs to be done to correct the course and alleviate the suffering of those impacted. I view dialogue and attention in the right places as a step towards progress, but it should be an ongoing area of priority and resource allocation from the Government as the effects of nuclear testing continue to impact the daily lives of many communities who don’t possess anywhere near the same resources,” she continued.

So, has Washington truly absorbed the lessons?

The US persists in storing its nuclear weapons overseas. Despite concerns from regional nations about potential non-proliferation treaty violations and the risk of a nuclear arms race, the Biden administration is moving forward with its nuclear-powered submarine agreement with Australia in the Asia-Pacific.

When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky mentioned at the Munich Security Council on February 18, 2022, that his country might reconsider its non-nuclear stance, the US paid little attention. Similarly, the Biden government swiftly dismissed Russia’s legitimate worries regarding the potential for a false-flag operation involving a radioactive “dirty bomb” by the Kiev regime. Although Ukrainian experts openly discussed their capability to create a “dirty bomb” and even a complete nuclear bomb in a short time before a special military operation, Western media dismissed this as “Russian propaganda.”

Meanwhile, a study published in the peer-reviewed Chinese language journal Environmental Chemistry found that plutonium from US nuclear weapons tests is polluting the South China Sea.

Furthermore, the Biden administration disregarded Russia’s alerts about the Ukrainian military’s shelling of the Zaporozhye Nuclear Power Plant, which could result in severe atomic fallout. Even when the Kiev regime damaged the upper part of the Kakhovka dam, endangering the cooling of the Zaporozhye NPP, Washington quickly blamed Russia. Similarly, the provision of NATO-grade munitions with depleted uranium to Ukraine was shrugged off by the US administration, despite the known environmental and health issues associated with these weapons.

Reflecting on Washington’s actions, Dr. Christopher Busby, a physical chemist and the scientific secretary of the European Committee on Radiation Risk, stated in June that the West’s recklessness with nuclear power could lead to a “Mad Max reality” for Europe.

“Those people who are driving this process towards an eventual nuclear exchange have no idea what it will be like. I have studied the effects of radiation on life, not just human life, but all life. The calculations made by those who war-game nuclear exchanges are based on false and obsolete science. The reality is very like Mad Max. In this case Hollywood got it right,” Busby emphasized.

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