Nuclear Fallout in the Marshall Islands

By |2014-04-02T20:31:27-07:00September 13, 2012|

The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (NAPF), an international non-profit, non-partisan international education and advocacy organization, welcomes the discussion about the conditions and consequences of nuclear fallout from U.S. nuclear weapons testing in the Marshall Islands, an island country composed of 34 coral atolls.

Beginning in 1946, Bikini, Enewetak, Rongelap and Utrik and other atoll communities in the Marshall Islands were subject to fallout and severe radiation from the US nuclear tests. In the most serious incident of fallout, the March 1, 1954 launch of the Bravo hydrogen bomb at the Bikini Atoll, the detonation occurred in spite of weather forecast reports that the winds were blowing towards the populated atolls of Rongelap and Utrik. As a result, residents immediately downwind were exposed to dangerously high levels of radiation, which have caused a great number of severe long-term health problems, including cancer and thyroid problems.

Reassessment of radiation released in the Bravo test by the US scientists concluded that the people of Rongelap absorbed more that three times the estimated dose in the most heavily exposed individuals near the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986.

The total tonnage of US tests in the Marshall Island was 100 times greater than the total tonnage of US atmospheric nuclear tests at the Nevada Test site, and by the 1980s, the health effects of fallout and radiation exposure from a total of 67 bombs dropped in the Marshall Islands were evident with cancer rates among the Marshallese that were 2-30 times higher than among U.S. citizens, as documented in a 1985-1989 independent health survey by Dr. Rosalie Bertell and the International Institute of Concern for Public Health.  By the mid-1990s, when doctors from Tohuku University in Japan conducted several medical surveys, an unusual high amount of thyroid disorders were documented as occurring throughout the Marshall Islands, not simply in the northern atoll communities of Rongelap and Utrik where US scientists had focused their medical research efforts.

Fallout and bioaccumulation in the food chain has forced residents of a number of severely contaminated atolls to leave their home islands, effectively becoming nomads in their nation. Bikini people were evacuated from their homes in 1946, moved to Rongerik Atoll where lack of resources created brought them to the brink of starvation, were relocated again to Kili where, by 1955 lack of access to critical resources again resulted in near-starvation .In search of food and water, a portion of the community moved to nearby Jaluit Atoll in 1957.

By the 1960s, with assurances that conditions were safe, the US announced plans to return Bikini people to their home islands. In 1972, people began to move back to a “rehabilitated” island. By 1975, alarming levels of plutonium were found present in urine samples from Bikini people.  However, after several more years of tests and findings of high-levels of strontium, cesium and other isotopes in the water, environment, food chain and human body, Bikini was again evacuated.

In 1985, scientists determined that the levels of contamination in the Rongelap Atoll were comparable to Bikini atoll. Thus, the citizens of Rongelap were forced to evacuate their atoll after, without the assistance and support of the US government.

As an indigenous island nation, the Marshallese enjoyed a self-sufficient sustainable way of life before nuclear weapons testing. US compensation and remediation has been insufficient to fully attend to the healthcare and socioeconomic needs of the Marshallese people.

Due to the inadequate response from the U.S. government, it has been difficult for the Republic of the Marshall Islands to uphold the indigenous people`s human rights obligations related to environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and waste.  These rights include the following:

  • Right to adequate health and life
  • Right to adequate food and nutrition
  • Right to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation
  • Right to the enjoyment of a safe, clean and healthy sustainable environment

These rights are elaborated in the Report of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights obligations related to environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and waste as contained in A/HRC/21/48.

Because there are persisting unresolved problems related to the U.S government`s treatment of the indigenous citizens of the Marshall Islands, NAPF aligns itself with the U.N. Special Rapporteur’s suggestion that the international community, the United States, and the Government of the Marshall Islands must develop long term strategic measures to address the effects of the nuclear testing program and specific challenges in each atoll. As such, it is imperative that the U.S. government and the international community implement human rights measures to provide adequate redress to the citizens of the Marshall Islands.