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Nuclear weapons and climate change: A double whammy for the Marshall Islands

14 July 2017
Emma Bastian

Emma Bastian

Emma Bastian recently completed eighth grade in Dubuque, Iowa. Her physical sciences class, taught by Peter Knutson, included an extensive unit on radioactivity, the nuclear age, and contemporary...


On May 30, an unarmed intercontinental ballistic missile launched from the Kwajalein Atoll military base in the Republic of the Marshall Islands collided with an interceptor launched from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base. Planned for years, the shootdown was the first live-fire test against an ICBM-class target of a system designed to defend the United States against enemy missiles. Although many areas of the Marshall Islands are threatened by radioactive contamination from US nuclear testing during the Cold War—and, more recently, by rising sea levels in a warming climate—the US military continues to use the Kwajalein Atoll for missile testing and other operations.

The United States is modernizing facilities in the Marshalls, just as it did during the age of nuclear testing. But these steps, seen largely as successes by the Pentagon and the American public, leave behind casualties. For the Marshallese, casualties came in the form of deadly radiation and displacement during the period when America was testing the most powerful weapons the world had ever seen. Today, islanders are faced with an equally harrowing issue, one that is only worsened by the testing done in the 1940s and ‘50s: rising seas that are threatening to destroy low-lying homes.

Nuclear testing and climate change together constitute a double whammy that is again forcing the Marshallese out of their homes. Because nuclear testing destroyed or irradiated much of the highest ground in the Marshalls, it left the Marshallese with ever-limited options of where to go to escape the flooding that now threatens their lifestyles.

A nation at risk. The United States began nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands in 1946, and the decades that followed saw fatal radiation, failed relocation, and the Atomic Energy Commission’s denial that radiation was an issue for the Marshallese. After forced evacuations from the Bikini, Enewetak, and Rongelap Atolls—the most populated original settlements—the Marshallese moved to smaller, lower-elevation islands. There they were poisoned by irradiated fish, starved, flooded, and finally told it was safe to go back. The Bikini islanders' attempt at resettlement failed: Not only did they suffer from ground-level external doses of radiation, but also from various forms of ingested nuclear particles. After settling again on Bikini, the islanders were forced to re-evacuate after they began to suffer many ill effects of radiation. Today, echoes of this radiation still remain on the atoll, making it unsafe for human habitation.

The Marshallese struggled for years to get compensation. Finally, in 1986, representatives of the United States and the Republic of the Marshall Islands signed the Compact of Free Association, and reparation was approved for nuclear testing damages. Since then, the United States has provided millions of dollars toward legal resettlement fees, illnesses related to radiation, and atoll rehabilitation. (The Nuclear Claims Tribunal established by the two governments has awarded additional compensation to the islanders, but the US Congress and courts have thus far turned down islanders' petitions for this funding.)

As part of the Compact of Free Association, the Marshallese are permitted to work and live in the United States without a visa. Many have taken advantage of this opportunity, settling primarily in Hawaii, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. For those left behind in the islands, it isn't all tropical beaches and sunshine. They must work hard to keep the waters at bay. According to a Marshallese local, the islanders have no choice but to repeatedly put up makeshift flood walls. Despite these precautionary measures, rising seas constantly damage houses and other buildings. Also, salt water that is invading the soil and underground stores of fresh water is causing a lack of sufficient drinking water and healthy crops. So why don't all the islanders move to the United States?

The situation is different for each family, but lack of money generally isn’t the primary reason for the Marshallese to remain on their home islands. By moving to America and leaving behind centuries of ancestry, the Marshallese endanger their unique island culture. Many islanders do not wish to uproot their entire families or leave behind close friends who aren’t making the move.

Nowhere to run. Would the Marshallese have to move if the United States had not used their islands for nuclear testing decades ago? Yes, eventually. But not so soon. Many geographical landmarks could provide safe haven today if not for nuclear testing. Bomb craters are an ever-present reminder of the damage—including a two-kilometer-wide, 50-meter-deep crater left by the first hydrogen bomb, “Ivy Mike,” and another crater covered by the “Cactus Dome,” a leaking 9,290-square-meter concrete dome on Runit Island built to contain nuclear debris. The “Castle Bravo” bomb test blew a hole through Bikini Atoll, and “Ivy Mike” not only vaporized an entire island but also produced waves that cleared surrounding islands of vegetation. These areas are now uninhabitable.

Radiation still plagues the Marshall Islands. Bikini Atoll remains the most radioactive area of all—at 184 millirems per year, nearly double the predetermined safe amount agreed upon by the United States and the Republic of the Marshall Islands. If not for this radiation, the Marshallese could be living on Bikini, an area with a greater land mass and higher elevation than other major atolls and islands in the Marshalls, such as the Kwajalein and Rongelap atolls. Instead, the Marshallese are trying to make a living on smaller, lower islands—the very places under assault by rising seas. The highest point in the Marshall Islands is only 10 meters above sea level. Meanwhile, the average elevation in the United States is more than 54 times that height.

The National Academy of Science has deemed other areas, such as the remote parts of Rongelap, safe because they meet predetermined radiation safety standards. Despite this assurance, many Rongelap residents are deeply fearful of radiation. Their alternative is Ebeye, the “slum of the Pacific” and the second most populated city in the Marshalls, an island where crumbling buildings, a cramped population, and sewage-filled streets are apparently seen as a better alternative than living near former test sites.

Ignoring the plight of the Marshallese is not good foreign policy. The United States is among the top polluters and carbon dioxide emitters in the world, and the Marshall Islands are suffering from those emissions. Islanders say it feels like they are living underwater already, and that is predicted to be their reality by the end of the century. The Marshallese regard climate change as an existential threat. When will the United States realize that the threat is as serious as nuclear testing once was?

With US President Donald Trump pulling out of the Paris Accord and proposing massive cuts to the EPA budget, the White House will do further harm to the Marshallese. The United States has presented the islanders with a double whammy: first nuclear testing forced them out of their higher-elevation settlements and made them sick with radiation, and now the US lack of action on climate change is forcing them off their islands again.

An American solution. On average, global sea levels are rising at about an eighth of an inch per year—although the rise varies from location to location, and some reports have estimated a rise of 11 to 38 inches by 2100. In the past century, the sea has already risen 4 to 8 inches. If this rate of rise continues, a temporary solution could come in the form of US-funded sea walls. Ideally, one-meter-high concrete walls with a curved, efficient design would last about 30 years, given maintenance and the durability of the material. This would be enough to cope with an estimated 3-inch sea level rise during that period, and to block most of an average weekly high tide, which can get up to 1.89 meters. If funds cannot be raised for the undoubtedly expensive concrete design, a lower-cost option can be considered: an earthen mound wall. While sea walls are not a long-term solution, they would at least buy some time for the Marshallese.

A common assumption is that the threat of flooding gives the Marshallese enough reason to move from their islands. However, the islanders need a bigger incentive before they will risk losing their culture. One solution would be to equip the most popular settlements—such as those already in Hawaii, Arkansas, and Oklahoma—with multicultural centers, giving former islanders the tools to preserve their unique culture and heritage. Many Marshallese traditions are rooted in the ocean: ancient methods of sea navigation and canoe-building, for example. Elders could host activities or lessons to teach younger generations old island traditions. They could learn about art, music, and cooking practices—and pass on these traditions to future generations. Funding for these centers could come from a nonprofit organization, or a parks and recreation budget. The United States cannot reverse what it has done when it comes to radiation and climate change, but it can fortify Marshallese borders and accept the islanders as its own.

Moving forward, it is crucial to remember the past. Finding similarities between earlier nuclear testing and today’s climate change isn’t difficult. Both situations are characterized by denial and a lack of action. Reversing the effects of a warming world isn’t realistic, just as reversing the effects of radiation back then weren’t realistic. America’s apologies cannot turn back the clock, but efforts can be made to improve the islanders’ daily lives with sea walls and cultural organizations. The United States can also do more to ameliorate climate change, the biggest threat to the Marshallese in the coming century.

Looking back at how the Marshallese were treated serves as a reminder that no country, no matter how powerful, should have the ability to decide another nation’s existence. The United States must be prepared to do everything possible to prevent this tiny island nation from disappearing beneath the waves.