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PC(USA) area coordinator for the Pacific explores the lingering effects of nuclear bomb testing in the Marshall Islands

Almost 70 years later, the environmental impact is still measurable

by Hery Ramambasoa | Mission Crossroads

A Fluegel Patriotic Cover commemorating the first atomic bomb test in the atoll of Bikini. (Public domain)

“Screams and hubbubs! The children were excited and happy to leave the huts and go play outside. The air was thick and full of dust and flakes falling from the sky. They thought it was snowing, something which never happened on their tropical island. They were surprised and curious. They run after the flakes, catching them with their hands, rubbing them in their hair and on their bodies,” an eyewitness recalled.

That day was March 1, 1954. The U.S. just tested a nuclear bomb in the atoll of Bikini, in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific. The visible fallout from the explosion continued to drop for several days. Islanders had been asked to leave for a couple of days, or a couple of months, depending on their distance from Bikini. What the defenders of the nuclear program are reluctant to admit, even today, is that the impact of such a test has remained for decades and has reached a radius of several hundred kilometers.

The Castle Bravo device, which detonated on March 1, 1954, in the Marshall Islands, was the largest nuclear test that the U.S. has ever carried out. The scientists who promoted the program could not anticipate the radioactive fallout of the tests. They persisted, and for the following two months, they conducted six nuclear weapon tests in the Pacific. Castle Bravo was 1,000 times more powerful than the nuclear bomb that destroyed Hiroshima in Japan during World War II. The U.S. continued the program in the Pacific until 1958 and completed 67 tests.

The “Baker” explosion, part of Operation Crossroads, a nuclear weapon test by the United States military at Bikini Atoll, Micronesia, on July 25,1946. (U.S. Department of Defense photo)

Seventy years later, only a few of these innocent children have survived. They had a firsthand encounter of this historical fact. Many of them died in their 50s with health complications. The majority were contaminated by radioactivity and suffered multiple cancers for the rest of their lives. Cervical, thyroid and skin cancers were the most common, but there were other forms of cancers that are still unknown. The two local hospitals for 40,000 Marshallese are not fully equipped with state-of-the-art oncology units. Most patients are supported by their families. A few are eligible to move to the U.S. Many suffer quietly and die with anger and resentment toward the power that imposed this situation on their lives.

The environmental impact is immeasurable. Studies and analyses abound to demonstrate the harmful effects on life under the sea and on the soil. Radioactivity was found in the air, in the dust and plants, and caused lasting effects on general health. Even today, radiation levels are two or three times higher than the limit. The radiation is carried on by the tides and contaminates the ocean ecosystems and sea life. Drinkable water becomes scarce. Radioisotopes are absorbed by plants and found in fruit like coconuts, a symbol of Pacific culture.

These threats constitute a vicious circle as they drastically alter the livelihood of the population. People are reluctant to work in their gardens or participate in fishing activities for fear of contamination. Cancer is the second-leading cause of death after diabetes. Today’s patients are no longer the survivors of the 1954 tests, but their children and grandchildren. The rate of cervical cancer is the highest in the world (74 per 100,000). Because of a lack of screening facilities, breast cancer is diagnosed only at later stages. Noncommunicable diseases are now very common, even among children. The population is reduced to consuming imported and heavily processed food like canned meat, frozen food and sugary drinks. Diabetes and kidney failure are rising at alarming rates.

The case of nuclear tests is not unique to the Marshall Islands. France conducted close to 200 tests between 1966 and 1996 in French Polynesia. Almost all of the population at the time were believed to have been affected by the tests. In the international arena, there are several treaties and conventions against the use of nuclear weapons. But despite the advances, nothing is certain that major countries that possess nuclear weapons will not use them.

It is at this stage that the Christian churches intervene by positioning themselves as an advocate for the voiceless and the most deprived. Flagrant cases of social injustice and the denial of fundamental rights have lasted for decades and are rarely considered by the powers that be. The rights of the populations directly affected by these nuclear tests are too often passed over in silence, and the changes are slow to happen.

The Pacific Conference of Churches (PCC) is an organization of about 27 member churches and 11 from the National Council of Churches. Since 1975, the ecumenical movement has called for reparation to the disenfranchised populations. The PCC is an interlocutor to governments and other multilateral organizations like the United Nations system to put the denuclearization of the region on top of the agenda. The Pacific Conference of Churches is a partner of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Hery Ramambasoa is World Mission’s acting coordinator for Asia and the Pacific.

 Mission Crossroads is published twice yearly to share news about personnel, partners and Presbyterians doing God’s mission in the world. For a free subscription, or to read the digital Spring 2023 issue in its entirety, click here.

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