From 1946 through 1958 the United States conducted 67 nuclear tests on Bikini and Enewetak Atolls in the Marshall Islands. On March 1, 1954, the United States detonated its largest thermonuclear device, Castle Bravo, which at 15 megatons, was 1,000 times the force of the first tests on Bikini in 1946 and that of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan in 1944.
The Bravo test vaporized three islands on Bikini and swept the crushed coral, trees, marine life and sea water into the atmosphere, which fell as radioactive fallout on the inhabited atolls of Rongelap, Utrok, and Ailinginae. The explosion, seen across the Marshall Islands, also spread radioactive fallout throughout the Marshall Islands, though in less detectable amounts.
On March 1 in the Marshall Islands, this event is commemorated through a national holiday, Nuclear Victims Remembrance Day. Here, we refer to it as Nuclear Remembrance Day, or NRD.
Above, list of islands and atolls receiving fallout from tests. AEC document. (RMI Embassy, Nuclear Documents Collection)
Excerpt from a statement by US Rear Admiral Lewis Strauss, who minimized the impact of those who suffered from radiation poisoning after the Bravo test. (New York Times, March 31, 1954.)
Listen to Neisen Laukon's story
Witnesses describe the blast as turning the entire sky red. The late Min. Tony deBrum described the event as if you were standing under a glass bowl, and someone poured blood over it. Marshallese as far away as Namdik Atoll describe how three days after the blast, the plants turned brown and died.
For those exposed on Rongelap and Utrok, the signs of radiation exposure were evident. Not realizing that the white powder that fell was dangerously radioactive, children played in the substance like it was snow. It coated the ground, trees, water supplies, and Marshallese bodies. Within hours sickness set in: vomiting and diarrhea, and visible burns. It was 48-72 hours after the event before those exposed were picked up and transported to Kwajalein Atoll, the location of the U.S. military base. The 236 Marshallese were stripped naked and sprayed down before boarding the transport vessel.
It was only because of the exposure to a Japanese fishing crew aboard their vessel, Lucky Dragon, that news of the event was reported. After the crew returned to Japan and unloaded their cargo of tuna, it became evident that the men had been exposed to radioactive fallout, and the government of Japan demanded a response from the U.S. government. Initial U.S. statements regarding the Marshallese were that there "were no visible signs of exposure." On March 31st, Admiral Lewis Strauss reported that all "236 natives appeared to me to be well and happy" and that medical personnel had advised "they anticipate no illness." (See excerpt left)
After the Rongelapese were returned to the atoll in 1957, the lands were still heavily contaminated. Neisen Laukon, who was four years old when her family returned to the atoll, remembers people getting blisters on the feet from walking on the sand and in their mouths from eating native foods. Women gave birth to what they called jellyfish babies because of their translucent skin and lack of bone structure; other births appeared as grapes.
The inhabitants of Utrok and Rongelap Atolls who were exposed by the Bravo detonation were also unknowingly used as human experiments in Project 4.1, a secret U.S. Atomic Energy Commission study, which was authorized while they were being treated on Kwajalein and continued for years to monitor the effects of radiation on a human population. Subjects are still being monitored through health programs.
Today, the people of the Marshall Islands still suffer from the biological and ecological effects of radiation exposure, forced relocations, and loss of lands, which are still not safe for habitation despite U.S. cleanup efforts on small, targeted areas. Utrokese were returned to their atoll shortly after Bravo and have remained. The Rongelapese were returned in 1957, where they suffered from unknown illnesses and thyroid abnormalities. Greenpeace came to their aid and removed them in 1985, when the U.S. refused. Researchers have recently found that some areas in the Marshall Islands are, today, 10x more radioactive than Chernobyl or Fukushima.
Crater on Bikini Atoll left by Bravo detonation. AEC doctors checking women on Rongelap for thyroid abnormalities.
U.S. government documents declassified in 1994 under President Bill Clinton’s administration, including the list of affected atolls above, reveal that the exposure was more widespread than officially recognized by the US government. Those documents were subsequently redacted or reclassified altogether by the Department of Defense and by later administrations. Appeals by the RMI and atoll populations to revisit issues of compensation based on this evidence have been denied.
MEI supports the full declassification of all documents pertaining to the testing period and urges the U.S. Congress to review the evidence provided in the Marshallese petition.
Table from "Radiocative Debris from Operation Castle," a document declassified by the Clinton Administration. (RMI Embassy, Nuclear Documents Collection)
MEI Video from Nuclear Remembrance Day 2014: Reflect. Honor. Educate.
View RMI Climate Change Ambassador Tony de Brum’s speech for the 2015 Right Livelihood Award
We recommend the following books, articles, films, and websites that provide information about U.S. nuclear testing and its impact on the Marshall Islands.
Barbara Rose Johnston & Holly Barker, Consequential Damages of Nuclear War: The Rongelap Report (California: Left Coast Press, 2008).
Holly Barker, Bravo for the Marshallese: Regaining Control in a Post-Nuclear, Post-Colonial World, 2nd ed. (California: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2012).
Giff Johnson, Don't Ever Whisper: Darlene Keju, Pacific Health Pioneer, Champion for Nuclear Survivors, 2013.
Jack Neidenthall, For the Good of Mankind