Hidden in the middle of the Pacific Ocean lies an American secret – a tomb containing radiation equivalent to 1000 times that of Chernobyl…
Now it’s leaking into the Pacific.
After World War II, the United States tested 67 nuclear weapons on the Marshall Islands and left the victims to suffer from intergenerational illness, food insecurity, and psychological trauma. Over years of combating radiation, the Marshallese have chosen to remain on their island. Because of the rising seas, they may finally be forced to leave.
When I first heard that the United States had exploited the Marshall Islands for nuclear testing, I was shocked. This seemed like an entire chapter in a US History textbook, but it was somehow left out of mine. The more I learned about the injustices done to the Marshallese, the more I wanted to be able to help.
Through my page, I hope to bring awareness to this urgent issue.
Background: Nuclear Testing on the Marshall Islands
After World War II, the United States joined the race for nuclear superiority. In its grasp for power, the United States began testing nuclear weapons to determine the effects on the environment.1 The Marshall Islands, then a US Trust Territory, was selected for testing because of its isolated geography and because of the United States’ history of discrimination against them.2
The Marshall Islands is made up of a series of 30 atolls stretching between Australia and Hawaii. It has a population of 69,747 and it’s an average of 6.5 feet above sea-level.3 Two fully inhabited islands, Bikini and Enewetak, became the testing ground for the 67 nuclear explosions.
Prior to the testing, the US military forcefully relocated Bikini and Enewetak islanders to other nearby islands, some just 100 miles away. Then between 1946 and 1958, the United States performed 67 nuclear tests on the Marshall Islands. Despite the relocation, Marshallese citizens suffered from many short-term and long-term health effects due to the far-reaching of radiation, including various cancers, birth defects, and reproductive problems.4 The United States continued testing even after health issues began to arise.
Just 16 years after nuclear testing, residents were relocated back to Bikini atoll, where the tests had taken place. A few years after that, the US military declared the radioactive environment unsafe, leading many Marshallese to believe that they were not just testing the effects on their environment, but that the United States was using Marshall Islanders as human guinea pigs for their own experiment.5
“I still think that they knew the radiation wasn’t really settled, but they moved us there just to learn a little bit more about the radiation effect on human beings.”
– Alson Kelen, who was relocated when he was six.
The radiation also contaminated the Marshall Islands’ food supply. They were no longer able to grow traditional food such as fish, coconuts, breadfruit, and pandanus. Instead, they became reliant on imported food from other countries, which consisted of mostly canned goods. In turn, this led to a variety of health issues, such as diabetes and obesity.6
After the testing ended in 1958, the United States dumped the radioactive waste into a crater and sealed it with 18 inch-thick concrete. The cleanup crew was made up of United States military who were not provided proper equipment for the cleanup despite the United States’ knowledge of the radiation.7
“I had never even heard of Eniwetok. I had never even heard that there were 43 nuclear tests out there. I didn’t know it was radioactive – they didn’t tell us when we landed. Everybody kind of pretty much flipped out when they found out because it was radioactive. I was told I was going to visit a tropical paradise for the last 6 months of the service.”
– Jim Androll, member of the cleanup crew.
Watch a short film poem about the Marshall Islands search for justice by poet and activist Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner
The tomb contains one of the most toxic elements on earth: plutonium-239, which has a half-life of 24,100 years. The rising waters have caused cracks in the tomb, causing radiation to seep into the Pacific Ocean. Studies show that the radiation outside the tomb is equal to the inside, implying that the damage has already been done.8
The United States gave the Republic of the Marshall Islands a provision of $150 million to stop them from taking legal action against the US. The United States continued to give the country $150 million every year for the next 20 years, which has done little to reverse the intergenerational health effects and irreversible environmental damage.9 Under the 1986 Compacts of Free Association, the United States government also provided the Marshall Islands independence and allowed Marshallese citizens to live in the United States without a visa. However, this Compact will end in 2023.10
The Marshall Islands have experienced unforgettable trauma because of the United States. Their homes, cultures, and legacy have been irreversibly taken from them. Their children and grandchildren live with illnesses, food insecurity, and the radioactive history placed on them by the United States in the 1940s.
Today: The Rising Tide
– Kathy Jetñil-Kiljiner
“First through wars inflicted on us, then through nuclear waste dumped in our waters… and now this.”
Watch 18-year-old activist, Selina Leem, explain the urgent situation in the Marshall Islands.
Marshallese culture is tied to its land. The United States already used it as a nuclear testing ground and did little in terms of compensation. Now it is being washed away… Will we turn our backs once again?
In 2015, 188 nations were brought together in response to climate change to learn to adapt to its outcomes. Ultimately, the Paris Agreement agreed to limit average temperature increase to 2° C.11 For many around the world, this was a sign of hope. However, for the Marshall Islands and other climate vulnerable countries, this was a death warrant.
Oceans are rising as a result of climate change, and the Marshall Islands are already experiencing the effects. Droughts, flooding, and health emergencies have already become large problems.12 At only 6.5 feet above sea-level, with no hills or mountains, the rising ocean poses a very real threat to these islands. If the world limits its temperature increase to 2° C through 2030, there would be irreversible effects and would most likely eventually render the islands uninhabitable.13 However, according to their national weather service, if the world is able to lower the temperature rise to just 1.5° C, the Marshall Islands would not have to worry about going underwater until nearing 2090.14
“At a climate change conference , a colleague tells me 2 degrees is an estimate. I tell him, for my islands, 2 degrees is a gamble. At 2 degrees, my islands, the Marshall Islands, will already be under water.”
Now a real fear for the Marshall Islanders is that they will become climate refugees. Though the Republic of the Marshall Islands makes up just 0.0003% of carbon emission of the world, they are bearing a disproportionate burden of the effects.15 The following organizations are committed to saving the Marshallese from the effects of climate change:
- After the 2015 Paris Agreement, the Marshall Islands joined with the African and Caribbean governments, EU member states, the US, Mexico, Canada and Brazil, together to create the High Ambition Coalition. Their focus is to keep temperatures below 1.5 degrees C.16
- Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner is a poet and activist for the Marshall Islands. She speaks out against the injustices done by the United States and the effects of climate change. She has attended many climate conferences, including opening for the 2014 United Nations Climate Summit.
- The Canoes of the Marshall Islands is an organization whose goal is to maintain Marshallese culture. They teach Marshallese citizens the traditional ways of building canoes from breadfruit trees. The director of the organization, Alson Kelen, hopes that by deepening their culture, it will “keep the people of the Marshall Islands afloat even if their land may one day be underwater.”17
Call to Action: How Might we Make Amends?
To members of our government:
I ask you to support the renewal of the Compacts of Free Association. The Compact ends in 2023. If not renewed, Marshallese climate refugees will be forced to migrate outside of the United States and will not be allowed to apply for asylum. Our government has the resources. After exposing them to a history of forced nuclear radiation, it is the responsibility of the United States to make amends and continue the Compacts of Free Association. This renewal does not allow Marshall Island citizens to take advantage of our system, but rather acts as a relief and allows Marshallese citizens to have a “country B.”
I challenge you to spread the word. People need to know more about this. You and your community can support the welcoming of climate refugees by making your stance known. Right now, if your local community announces support, the government will be pressured to take action.
I challenge you to support people and organizations that help maintain Marshall Island culture and keep temperature rise under 1.5° C. You can elect leaders who recognize the urgency for action against climate change or you can donate to organizations to increase their potential.
I challenge you to lessen your carbon emissions if you have the resources. The sea-levels are rising, and time is running out for the Marshall Islands and other climate-vulnerable countries.
As the last challenge, please consider sending the a call to action to your local state congressional and senate leaders.
I would love to hear your ideas and feedback. Please leave a comment in the comment section below my citations!
- (Sun Han, 2020)
- (Peter Rudiak-Gould, 2017)
- (Milne 2020)
- (Sarah Alisabeth Fox, 2014)
- (Sun Han 2020)
- (Ingrid Ahlgren, 2014)
- (Mark Willacy, 2019)
- (Ingrid Ahlgren, 2014)
- (Mackenzie Fielder, 2020)
- (Dan Zak, 2017)
- (Milne 2020)
- (Ikenna Ubgoaga, 2017)
- (Rowling Megan 2019)
- (Rudiak-Gould, Peter, 2017)
- (Ed King, 2016)
- (Mackenzie Fielder, 2020)