Scars of nuclear colonialism in the Marshall Islands

By Bedi Racule | Ecological and Climate Justice Program with the Pacific Conference of Churches

Marshall Islands. Wikimedia photo

A remote group of tiny islands that are isolated and sparsely populated… This is how U.S. officials viewed the Marshall Islands when they chose them as testing sites for their nuclear weapons testing programs. This perspective vastly differs from the way that Marshallese view their home – a massive network of low lying coral atolls that are connected by the currents of a vast and vibrant ocean, filled with an abundance of life. This unfortunate difference of perspectives resulted in nuclear violence which has spanned decades, and has caused destruction to health, environments and the well-being of multiple generations.

The Republic of the Marshall Islands is situated north of the equator between Hawai’i and Australia. It is made up of 2 island chains consisting of 29 low lying atolls and 5 islands. Marshallese people are well known throughout the world as seafaring people with skilled canoe makers and navigators. They are also renowned in the Pacific for their beautiful and intricate weaving culture – which is still widely practiced by Marshallese women today.

Between 1946 and 1958, the U.S. tested a total of 67 known thermonuclear weapons in the Marshall Islands, which at the time were placed under U.S. administrative authority by the United Nations between 1947 and 1979. On March 1st, 1954, a hydrogen bomb codenamed Castle Bravo was detonated on Bikini atoll. It was the U.S.’s largest nuclear weapon ever to be tested and the largest nuclear weapon ever to be detonated in the Pacific. Castle Bravo was the size of approximately 1000 Hiroshima bombs. The fallout from Castle Bravo had an immense reach (studies show that the fallout went as far as the U.S. East Coast). The most violent consequences were experienced by the residents of the nearby Rongelap atoll. Survivors from Rongelap recall ashes drifting into their homes and water supply. Their children began to play with it, believing it might be snow. They put it in their hair like soap and ate it. Lemyo Abon recalled, “Our drinking water turned yellowish and the food was bitter and tasteless.

Consequences of the fallout included:

  1. Violent illness (vomiting, fever, diarrhea etc.)
  2. Hair falling out
  3. Skin and organs poisoned from radiation
  4. Birth defects (babies who were born without eyes or bones, who died just hours after birth, dubbed “jellyfish babies”)
  5. High rates of miscarriages
  6. High rates of cancers including thyroid cancer, breast cancer and leukemia
  7. Food poisoning caused by reef damage and toxic algae


Mushroom cloud with ships below during operation crossroads nuclear weapons test on Bikini Atoll. LOC’s public domain archive photo.

The people of Bikini, whose large lagoon was used for several of the tests, believed that they would return home in just a few days or weeks after the testing took place. U.S. Commodore Ben Wyatt sat with the villagers and told them that the testing would be done “for the good of mankind.” Decades later, the Bikinians still live in exile because their home is completely radioactive. Some of these islanders were displaced to a smaller island with no lagoon for fishing – one which also experiences extreme king tides. Others were placed in crowded settlements with poor facilities which lacked adequate provisions for food, water, sanitation and health. When sanitation problems affected their health, they were denied access to quality health care facilities at the adjacent US military base causing some of them to pass away, including children.

US officials hid their malicious intent to experiment on the Marshallese people and made many claims to cover up the true consequences of nuclear weapons. For example, it was reported that an unexpected wind shift caused the fall out to spread beyond the intended areas to Rongelap; however, now declassified US documents reveal that testing officials were briefed about the wind patterns that day and still went ahead with the tests. After the detonation of Castle Bravo, residents of Rongelap recall U.S. officials visiting the island for a brief period, then leaving. They did not evacuate the community until 3 days later. They eventually returned the people to Rongelap claiming it was safe but the people felt correctly that that wasn’t true. It was eventually revealed through more declassified documents, that the Marshallese people were used as test subjects under Project 4.1. The National Brookhaven Library stated in a report that leaving the people of Rongelap on the contaminated atoll would “afford valuable radiation data on human beings.” The people of Rongelap were victims of a plethora of experiments which included being injected with radiation, fed irradiated food and being observed like animals. They pleaded for 30 years to be evacuated until they were finally assisted by Green Peace’s Rainbow Warrior.

In 1977, the US buried over 100,000 cubic feet of radioactive waste from their nuclear tests on Runit island in Enewetak atoll. They did not share that some of the waste was carried over from their Nevada testing sites. The Marshallese were told that this would be a temporary solution, yet the dome remains on Enewetak till this day. The U.S. continues to refuse to take responsibility for the Runit Dome, claiming that it is now the problem of the Marshallese people. Speaking of the dome, former President and now Senator Dr. Hilda Heine stated, “How can it be ours? We don’t want it. We didn’t build it. The garbage inside is not ours. It’s theirs.” A study by Columbia University shows that the dome is currently leaking radiation and the risk of rising sea levels due to climate change on the low-lying island threatens another nuclear disaster.

77 years after the first nuclear test in the Marshall Islands, the Marshallese people are still seeking reconciliation, reparations, and remediation for the scars caused by the nuclear tests. In the meantime, the nuclear legacy continues to manifest itself in many more harmful ways.

Continued impacts include:

  1. Marshallese who have fled to the US have been found to be disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 because of pre-existing chronic illnesses and inadequate provisions for health insurance. In northeast Arkansas, Marshallese accounted for 19% of COVID cases despite representing only 2.4% of the population.
  2. For displaced communities, a lack of food security causes overdependence on imported and processed foods leading to higher rates of non-communicable diseases.
  3. Despite having some of the highest rates of cancers in the world, the Marshall Islands still lacks adequate resources and facilities for cancer treatment, forcing many patients to endure a rigorous process which includes applying for compensation from the now depleted funds, providing proof that the cancer is a result of the testing, and then traveling overseas to the Philippines or U.S. for treatment.
  4. Marshallese people continue to face legal and political obstacles to obtaining full compensation for the loss and damage caused by the tests. The compensation fund was created without the Marshallese people being informed of the full impact of the nuclear tests and covers only 4 atolls rather than the true area of the fallout reach.
  5. Loss and damage to intangible resources like cultural knowledge and the sacred connection to one’s island and the ocean have been severed due to displacement.


The list goes on, yet it is important to understand the impacts of nuclear weapons are ongoing and inter-generational. These consequences combined with the vulnerability due to climate change becomes a double threat for the people of the Marshall Islands.

It is no secret that nuclear colonialism in the Pacific is underlined with a lack of regard for the environment and dignity of Pacific peoples. Stories of racism during nuclear testing operations permeated through other parts of the region like Fiji and Kiritimati atoll where indigenous peoples were treated like second class citizens. In total, over 315 nuclear weapons were tested by the U.S., U.K., and France within the Pacific. Immediately after the Hiroshima bombing, US. President Harry Truman said about nuclear weapons, “It is a terrible weapon, and it should not be used on innocent men, women, and children.” Yet, the US government began testing nuclear weapons in the Marshall Islands just one year later.

The same attitudes which viewed these islands as a nuclear playground continue today and perpetuate new nuclear threats like nuclear waste dumping by nuclear energy companies and nuclear submarines deployed under the pretext of “regional peace and security.” If we are to truly provide justice for Marshall Islands, we must begin by seeing their environment as they do. They are not insignificant and faraway islands, but large ocean states connected to all through the web of life.

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