Most people in the world associate Hiroshima and Nagaski with nuclear devastation. We can imagine the buildings that were leveled, and the incineration of all living things – images we should never forget as they are reminders of the destructive capacity of human nature.
But here in Washington, some of our neighbors are living reminders that, in the 1940s and 1950s, nuclear bomb testing in the Pacific left a debt that the United States is still not willing to pay. For twelve years, the Marshall Islands experienced the equivalent of 1.6 Hiroshima-sized bombs every single day. Many people assume that the Islands were deserted during the tests, but the nearly 1,000 Marshallese who settled here in Washington State can tell you differently.
In terms of radioactive iodine alone, 6.3 billion curies of iodine-131 was released to the atmosphere as a result of the nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands – an amount 42 times greater than the 150 million curies released by the atmospheric testing in Nevada, 150 times greater than the estimated 40 million curies released as a result of the Chernobyl nuclear accident, and 8,500 times greater than the 739,000 curies released from Atomic Energy Commission operations at Hanford, Washington.
After the deployment of atomic weapons during World War II, the United States needed to learn more about the capabilities of its newest weapon – more information than the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagaski provided. The United States decided to make a proving ground out of its small islands in the northern Pacific Ocean that the U.S. acquired as part of a United Nations trust territory following the war. As the trust territory administrator, the U.S. promised to safeguard the well-being of its inhabitants.
On the atolls of Bikini and Enewetak in the Marshall Islands, the United States detonated 67 atmospheric atomic and thermonuclear weapons from 1946-1958. From nuclear weapons tests in the Marshall Islands, the U.S. learned how its naval fleet would survive a nuclear attack. In 1946, U.S. researchers anchored navy vessels, including the Japanese flagship captured at the end of WWII, the Nagato, in Bikini’s lagoon. Test Baker, an underwater shot, debilitated and sunk many vessels that remain on the bottom of Bikini’s lagoon today.
Also in the Marshall Islands, the United States detonated its largest weapon ever tested, the Bravo shot of March 1, 1954, the equivalent of 1,000 Hiroshima-sized bombs. Bravo exposed the crew of a Japanese fishing boat near Bikini, Marshallese residents downwind from Bikini, and U.S. servicemen to levels of radiation that caused death, and lifelong illness. Following Bravo, U.S. government researchers evacuated some of the islanders and enrolled them in a secret medical experiment, called Project 4.1, to study the effects of radiation on human beings. Later, the U.S. government resettled the unwitting participants in this program on an island highly contaminated with radiation to learn first-hand how human beings ingest and absorb radiation from their environment.
During the Cold War, the United States made immeasurable political strides as nuclear superiority guaranteed status as a superpower, and ushered in a period of nuclear deterrence. This political advancement of the United States did not come without a price for the Marshallese, however, whose health and environment continue to display the scars of U.S. achievements.
Recently the U.S. National Cancer Institute predicted that the Marshallese will experience hundreds more future cancer cases directly linked to the U.S. nuclear weapons testing program. The radiological illnesses from the testing program continue to overwhelm the capabilities of the public health infrastructure in the Marshall Islands. Beyond the participants of Project 4.1, the U.S. government contributes only $7 per patient per month for the communities most affected by the testing program and for people with confirmed radiogenic illnesses, such as cancer.
Despite the radiation levels released in the Marshall Islands, the indisputable link between cancer and radiation exposure, and the recent NCI predictions, there is no oncologist in the Marshall Islands, no chemotherapy, no cancer registry, and no nationwide screening program for early detection of cancer. This is abhorrent considering that the United States was the only governing authority of the Marshall Islands when it used the islands to test its weapons.
The Marshall Islands currently has a petition before the U.S. Congress for additional assistance, primarily to create the capacity to respond to the healthcare burdens resulting from the U.S. nuclear weapons testing program. The Senate Energy Committee that Senator Cantwell sits on and the House Resources Committee where Representative Inslee is a member have jurisdiction for the Marshall Islands and are the committees that must consider the petition by the Marshall Islands. Congressman Inslee attended a House hearing about this subject in May. The House hearing was jointly convened by the Subcommittee on Asia and Pacific of the House International Relations Committee of which Adam Smith is a member.
The Marshallese who live and work here in Washington contribute to our communities through church, school, and service projects – like the Marshallese in Lynnwood who organize to feed the homeless twice each month.
The people of the Marshall Islands deserve our appreciation for the monumental sacrifices they incurred during the Cold War, as well as our assistance to address the persistent problems caused by radiation exposure. Senator Cantwell, Representative Inslee, and Representative Smith, please extend your leadership to help the people of the former U.S. trust territory who do not have a voice or representative in the U.S. Congress.
Holly M. Barker, Ph.D. is a Seattle resident, advisor to the government of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and a guest lecturer at the University of Washington.
This article appeared as an guest op-ed in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on August 10, 2005.