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The Legacy of Nuclear Testing in the Marshall Islands

Robert Alvarez

The radiological legacy of U.S. nuclear weapons testing in the Marshall Islands remains to this day and will persist for many years to come. The most severe impacts were visited upon the people of the Rongelap Atoll in 1954 following a very large thermonuclear explosion which deposited life-threatening quantities of radioactive fallout on their homeland. They received more than three times the estimated external dose than to the most heavily exposed people living near the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986. It took more than two days before the Rongelap people were evacuated after the explosion. Many suffered from tissue destructive effects, such as burns, and subsequently from latent radiation-induced diseases.

In 1957, they were returned to their homeland even though officials and scientists working for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) determined that radiation doses would significantly exceed those allowed for citizens of the United States. The desire to study humans living in a radiation-contaminated environment appeared to be a major element of this decision. A scientist in a previously secret transcript of a meeting where they decided to return the Rongelap people to their atoll stated an island contaminated by the 1954 H-Bomb tests was "by far the most contaminated place in the world." He further concluded that,

"It would be very interesting to go back and get good environmental data... so as to get a measure of the human uptake, when people live in a contaminated environment...Now, data of this type has never been available. ...While it is true that these people do not live, I would say, the way Westerners do, civilized people, it is nevertheless also true that they are more like us than the mice."

By 1985, the people of Rongelap fled their atoll, after determining that the levels of contamination were comparable to the Bikini atoll where numerous nuclear devices were detonated. The Bikini people were re-settled in 1969 but had to evacuate their homes in1978 after radiation exposures were found to be excessive. The Rongelap people fled for good reason. In 1982, a policy was secretly established by the energy department during the closing phase of negotiations between the United States and the nascent Republic of the Marshall Islands over the Compact of Free Association to eliminate radiation protection standards, so as to not interfere with the potential resumption of weapons testing. This resulted in a sudden and alarming increase in radiation doses to the Rongelap people eating local food.

These circumstances were subsequently uncovered in 1991 by the U.S. Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs. As a result, the U.S. Congress terminated DOE's nuclear test readiness program in the Pacific and in 1992 the U.S. Departments of Energy and Interior entered into an agreement with the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Local Rongelap Government that re-established radiation protection standards as a major element for the re-settlement of Rongelap.

Apparently, this was not done for the southern islands of the atoll where local food is obtained. Despite the long and unfortunate aftermath of nuclear testing in the Marshalls, it appears that this critical element of safety was lost in the shuffle.

As it now stands, if forced to return to their homeland the Rongelap people could receive radiation doses about 10 times greater than allowed for the public in the United States.

Until the U. S. Government can assure that steps to mitigate doses to the same levels that are protective of American people are demonstrated, efforts to force the Rongelap people back to the home by Members of the U.S. Congress and the Obama Administration is unjustified and unfairly places the burden of protection on the Rongelap people. It appears that DOE and Interior have quietly crept away from the 1992 agreement, without verifying that its terms and conditions to allow for safe habitability will be met.

Over the past 20 years, the U.S. Congress has enacted legislation to compensate to residents living near DOE's Nevada Test Site uranium miners, nuclear weapons workers, and military personnel for radiation-related illnesses. These laws provide for a greater benefit of the doubt than for the people of the Marshall Islands where 66 nuclear weapons were exploded in the open air. In 2005, the National Cancer Institute reported that the risk of contracting cancer for those exposed to fallout was greater than one in three.

The people of the Marshall Islands had their homeland and health sacrificed for the national security interests of the United States. The Obama Administration and the U.S. Congress should promptly correct this injustice.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Robert Alvarez

Robert Alvarez

Robert Alvarez, an Institute for Policy Studies senior scholar, served as senior policy adviser to the Energy Department's secretary and deputy assistant secretary for national security and the environment from 1993 to 1999.

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