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“Nuclear Colonialism” (US atomic bomb tests in Bikini and Enewetak Atolls), Marshall Islands

Sixty years after the last nuclear weapons tests in the Marshall Islands, their legacy reverberates in the form of health problems and people living in exile due to the radioactive contamination of their islands.


In the post-war period, between 1946 and 1958, the US military carried 67 nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands, a United Nations trust territory under its administration which becase independent some years later. The explosive yield dropped in the Enewetak Atoll (44 bombs) and the Bikini Atoll (23 bombs) during the 12-year period was equivalent to the daily detonation of 1.6 Hiroshima bombs. The strongest of these bombs, Castle Bravo (detonated in 1954 in Bikini) caused fallout radiation that also affected other inhabited Atolls.

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Basic Data
Name of conflict:“Nuclear Colonialism” (US atomic bomb tests in Bikini and Enewetak Atolls), Marshall Islands
Country:Marshall Islands
State or province:Marshall Islands
Location of conflict:Bikini and Enewetak atolls
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)
Source of Conflict
Type of conflict. 1st level:Nuclear
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Landfills, toxic waste treatment, uncontrolled dump sites
Nuclear waste storage
Specific commodities:Nuclear tests
Project Details and Actors
Project details

-The Pacific Island region was used as a United States and European nuclear weapons laboratory and intercontinental ballistic missile testing range for over fifty years. Nuclear activity—consisting of hundreds of nuclear detonations—occurred almost continuously from 1946 to 1996. As a result of the testing, six islands were vaporized and fourteen others were left uninhabitable (Kuletz 2002, 127­–28).

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Type of populationSemi-urban
Affected Population:around 53,000 almost all the population of Marshall Islands
Start of the conflict:1946
Relevant government actors:US Department of Defense, US Defence Nuclear Agency (DNA) , Rongelap Atoll and Enewetak Atoll; The Government of the Republic of the Marshall Islands; The Government of the United States of America
The Nuclear Claims Tribunal; U.S. Court of Federal Claims; US National Cancer Institute.
U.S. Supreme Court; United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
U.S. Congress
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:The people of Bikini Atoll (Bikini Council) and people of Enewetak
Conflict & Mobilization
IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stageMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups mobilizing:Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Bikini islanders
Forms of mobilization:Development of a network/collective action
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Street protest/marches
Appeals/recourse to economic valuation of the environment
Creation of a "Nuclear Claims Tribunal"
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Food insecurity (crop damage), Soil contamination, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Other Environmental impacts
Other Environmental impactsRadioactive contamination with Plutonium-239 and Cesium-137; Sea contamination; high levels of radiation from eating foods.
Health ImpactsVisible: Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Malnutrition, Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide, Deaths, Other environmental related diseases
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Displacement, Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Militarization and increased police presence, Violations of human rights, Land dispossession, Loss of landscape/sense of place
Other socio-economic impactsDouble burden: The destruction of a centuries-old lifestyle have to lead to both a diabetes epidemic and regular bouts of starvation on the island. This apart from radiation ilnesses.
Project StatusStopped
Conflict outcome / response:Compensation
Institutional changes
Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
Technical solutions to improve resource supply/quality/distribution
Development of alternatives:-decontamination
-sustainable life projects
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Not Sure
Briefly explain:Some communities received monetary compensation under trusts while the Marshall Islands were a Trust Territory. As described, the Nuclear Claims Tribunal created after independence had little impact in terms of compensation and the trust fund is depleted and has not been reinforced. Communities are still claiming for a thorough decontamination of affected Atolls in order to be able to safely return to their lands and re-engage in sustainable life projects. The U.S. Government keeps denying the Marshallese people fair compensation for decades of nuclear colonialism.
Sources & Materials
References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

DeLoughrey, Elizabeth. “The Myth of Isolates: Ecosystem Ecologies in the Nuclear Pacific.” Cultural Geographies 20 (2013): 167–84.

“The Movement for Environmental Justice in the Pacific Islands.” In The Environmental Justice Reader: Politics, Poetics, & Pedagogy, edited by Joni Adamson, Mei Mei Evans, and Rachel Stein, 125–42. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2002.

Offshoring American Environmental Law: Land, Culture, and Marshall Islanders’ Struggles for Self-Determination During the 1970s
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Johnston, Barbara Rose. 2015. “The Marshall Islands Experience and Lessons for a Post-Fukushima World.” In Global Ecologies and the Environmental Humanities : Postcolonial Approaches, edited by DeLoughrey Elizabeth, Jill Didur, and Anthony Carrigan, 140–61. New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

NCI Dose Estimation and Predicted Cancer Risk for Residents of the Marshall Islands Exposed to Radioactive Fallout from U.S. Nuclear Weapons Testing at Bikini and Enewetak
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Cancer, reproductive abnormalities, and diabetes in Micronesia: the effect of nuclear testing. PACIFIC HEALTH DIALOG Vol 11. No. 2. 2004
[click to view]

Links to general newspaper articles, blogs or other websites

Nuclear colonialism
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Marshall Islands / Toxic waste: first fact- mission by UN human rights expert on hazardous waste
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Bikini Atoll nuclear test: 60 years later and islands still unliveable
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No Justice for the Marshall Islands In Nuclear Weapons Contamination Case
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Bikini islanders still deal with fallout of US nuclear tests, 70 years later
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A Short History of the People of Bikini Atoll
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This dome in the Pacific houses tons of radioactive waste – and it's leaking
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The poison and the tomb
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Despite High Court Denial, Battle Over Bikini Atoll Bombing Endures
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Diving the Nuclear Ghost Fleet at Bikini Atoll
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How a tiny paper in the Marshall Islands has given voice to victims of nuclear testing
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Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

A Time-Lapse Map of Every Nuclear Explosion Since 1945 - by Isao Hashimoto
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Other comments:“Nobody could say her cancer was caused by the nuclear testing, but it could have been. She lived in a nuclear testing zone.”
“I won’t move there,” said Evelyn Ralpho-Jeadrik of her home atoll, Rongelap, which was engulfed in fallout from Bravo and evacuated two days after the test. “I do not believe it’s safe and I don’t want to put my children at risk.”
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Contributor:ENVJustice Project
Last update18/08/2019
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