The effect of U.S. nuclear testing on the Marshallese

By Hugh Gusterson | October 27, 2007

Five decades after its final nuclear test in the Marshall Islands, Washington still refuses to appropriately compensate those harmed by the tests.

What do you owe another country when you explode 67 nuclear weapons on its territory, wreaking havoc upon the health and environment of its people? Not much according to the Bush administration.

Between 1946 and 1958, the United States used the Marshall Islands–a U.N. Trust Territory administered by the United States–as nuclear proving grounds, especially for weapons considered too big to test in the continental United States. The largest of these weapons was the 1954 Bravo shot (at 15 megatons about 1,000 times the strength of the Hiroshima bomb). These tests forced the relocation of all the inhabitants of the Bikini and Enewetak atolls and spread plumes of radioactivity across the entire cluster of 33 atolls. They released 6.3 billion curies of radioactive iodine-131 alone–42 times the amount released by atmospheric nuclear testing in Nevada.

The National Cancer Institute has predicted a 9 percent increase in cancers for the Marshallese as a result of nuclear testing in the Pacific. Since the Marshallese number about 55,000, roughly 500 extra cancers are expected. The anthropologist Holly Barker, who has devoted her life to helping the Marshallese deal with the aftermath of nuclear abuse, reports an epidemic of birth defects, cancer, mental retardation, thyroid disorders, and suicides among the local population. U.S. officials should be forced to read her account of a Marshallese mother watching one son die shortly after birth as his skin peeled off and nursing her second, missing the back of his skull, gently holding his brain in as he ate.

The Marshallese lack the basic medical infrastructure to deal with this disaster. In Barker's words, "There is no oncologist in the Marshall Islands, no chemotherapy, no cancer registry, and no nationwide screening program for early detection of cancer."

In the early 1990s, Barker worked her way through thousands of pages of documents declassified when Hazel O'Leary was energy secretary. According to Barker, the documents show that U.S. officials hid from the Marshallese the full extent of their contamination while subjecting many to painful medical tests designed more to generate information for U.S. nuclear experts than to provide medical care for those sickened by U.S. nuclear testing. The full story is told in Barker’s book Bravo for the Marshallese and Dennis O'Rourke's documentary Half-Life.

So far the Marshall Islanders have received scant compensation for their suffering. In 1986 when the Marshall Islands signed the Compact of Free Association with the United States, they gave Washington the right to use their atoll at Kwajalein for target practice for intercontinental ballistic missiles launched from California. In return for this and past suffering, they received a paltry $150 million to pay damages through a Nuclear Claims Tribunal. That fund has now been exhausted. The United States also agreed to fund medical treatment for residents of four of the 33 atolls (Enewetak, Bikini, Utrik, and Rongelap). These four atolls were the closest to the Bravo test. Clinging to the fiction that residents of the other 29 atolls were not affected by 67 nuclear weapons detonated in their neighborhood, despite ample evidence to the contrary, the U.S. program does not reach beyond the four chosen atolls. Perversely, those from the atolls that were most damaged consider themselves lucky, since they at least get U.S.-subsidized health care. This care, provided at a rate that has not been adjusted for inflation since 1986, is funded at a risible $7 per patient per month.

The Senate is now considering Senate Bill 1756, which would increase U.S. funding for the Marshallese from the paltry to the merely pitiful. This legislation contains four provisions. First, it would place a nuclear waste site on the Marshall Islands under Energy oversight. Second, it would mandate a National Academy of Sciences study of the nonradiogenic health effects of nuclear testing on the Marshallese–the effects of forced relocation, changed diet, and so on. Third, the amount of money available to fund health care would double to about $2 million a year and be indexed to inflation. Finally, Marshallese who cleaned contaminated sites under U.S. supervision would be compensated for consequent illnesses just like the U.S. Energy workers who also cleaned these sites. At present, although Marshallese fight in Iraq wearing U.S. uniforms, Washington says they are not eligible for the same compensation as Energy workers because they are not U.S. citizens. Now they're American, now they're not.

Although the bill's provisions are laughably modest, the Bush administration opposes this legislation. We can afford more than $130 billion a year for the Iraq War, but not $2 million a year to provide rudimentary medical care to innocents we have harmed.

On September 25, I dropped by a Senate hearing on the bill. The lawyer for the Marshallese, Jonathan Weisgall, was eloquent and impassioned. The man in a suit sent by the administration spoke in a gray monotone about intricate bureaucratic regulations and processes that made the Marshallese request impossible to fulfill. New Mexico Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman, who chaired the meeting, mispronounced the name of the president of the Marshall Islands and seemed mostly to be going through the motions. The only other senator who bothered to show up, Lisa Murkowski (a Republican from Alaska), actually showed a lively interest in the plight of the people dying today from the weapons we tested two generations ago. Even the anti-nuclear nongovernmental organization community, which usually crowds congressional hearings on nuclear weapons issues, was absent–with one exception. The audience facing the largely empty dais for the senators consisted almost entirely of Marshallese, sitting quietly as their fate was discussed.

The Marshallese do not have armies of lobbyists (though they did briefly hire Jack Abramoff); they cannot sway the outcome of a presidential election; they do not make big campaign contributions; their embassy is a modest house that many Washington lobbyists would find inadequate for their families; and they die conveniently out of sight. But surely we can find a little extra change to set right what we did wrong.

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