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

The first tests occurred in the Bikini Atoll in 1946 and its residents were moved beforehand with the promise of only temporary displacement. Since then, the Bikinians have moved through different islands in the Marshall Islands, often facing malnutrition. They’ve eventually settled in the Kili Island. During the 1960s, the U.S scientific community deemed the Bikini Atoll safe and began arrangements for the return of Bikinians. Some families returned to Bikini in 1969 but the majority chose to stay in Kili due to contradictory information on the safety of the environment in their home Atoll. Nine years later, the returned families had to leave once again to Kili due to high radiation levels.

The people of Enewetak also had to leave their home and moved to the Ujelang Atoll. They also faced precarious conditions, but finally managed to return to Enewetak in 1980. Nonetheless, they live under permanent threat of contamination due to the presence of a nearby nuclear waste facility called the Dome, created only three years before their return. The structure – situated in one of the many inhabited islands of the Atoll – is already leaking and contaminating the soil around it with plutonium-239. Rising sea levels and the risk of a typhoon could augment the problem (scientists are warning that rising sea levels caused by climate change could cause 111,000 cubic yards of debris to spill into the ocean). 

Due to wind effects, the fallout of Castle Bravo affected people on Rongelap and Utrik Atolls. People from Rongelap were evacuated some days after Castle Bravo when people began to show signs of exposure. They returned in 1957 but fled again in 1985 amidst fear of residual radiation. In the 1990s, declassified documents have shown that the US used Rongelap inhabitants as unconsented medical subjects (Project 4.1). By returning them to the Atoll in 1957, they deliberately exposed people to radiation in order to study how it moved through the environment, food chain, and the human body. Marshallese people call themselves as "Nuclear nomads". 

The consequences of U.S. nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands have been remarkable and range from serious health problems to cultural and economic impacts. Project 4.1 described several degenerative health effects from exposure to radiation through inhalation of dust and food and water consumption: lower red blood cell counts and anemia; immune system disorders; miscarriages, congenital defects, and infertility; higher prevalence of cancer, particularly thyroid and leukemia. The U.S scientific community not only expected radiation effects to be present in the people directly exposed but that they would also be present in future generations.

The nuclear tests deprived entire communities of their homelands and contributed to the loss of their cultural heritage. The connection between people and their territory was particularly manifest in the Enewetak people legal actions against the US government to return to their Atoll. The economic impacts were probably the most significant: while the affected communities were able to subsist and maintain a decent quality of life in their home Atolls before the nuclear tests, displacement led to malnutrition, starvation, and debt. Once self-sufficient communities, they became dependent on U.S. food aid programs consisting mainly of processed foods, which led to soaring diabetes amongst the population.

The U.S. has used for many years the condition of Territory Trust of the Marshall Islands to deny legal protection to Marshallese claims for justice. This was the case of the Rongelap people claims to compensation for radiation injuries and contamination of lands caused by the Castle Bravo bomb. However, the enactment of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 has opened new channels for the affected communities. In 1973, the Enewetak managed to stop a new battery of military tests under the Pacific Cratering Experiments (PACE) project and obtained repossession of their lands. In 1975, the Bikinians required a radiation study in their Atoll, conducted three years later. In the early 1980s, they also managed to receive two trust funds from the United States government as compensation for the loss of islands during the nuclear tests.

In 1986, the Marshall Islands signed a Compact of Free Association agreement, thus leaving the condition of Trust Territory to become an independent Republic in free association with the United States. The agreement led to the creation, two years later, of a Nuclear Claims Tribunal to adjudicate claims for compensation for health effects from the tests. The tribunal awarded 563 million dollars to the Bikinians in 2001, of which they only saw 2.2 million due to inadequate funding. Five years later, the Bikini Council filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Government seeking the payment of the remaining sum. After several dismissals in lower courts, the U.S. Supreme Court refused the case in 2010.

By 2009, the Nuclear Claims Tribunal was severely underfunded and U.S. Congress seemed to have no intention to reinforce it. In 2012, a special rapporteur from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees visited the Marshall Islands and wrote a report stating the effects were long-lasting and near irreversible; they led to the loss of livelihoods and continued experience of indefinite displacement. It urged for fair compensation, but the U.S. Government dismissed many of the report’s claims.

Cristopher Loeak – Marshalls Islands’ former president – has pleaded the U.S. to act and solve the nuclear testing legacy since the country has no capacity to deal with the situation. Yet, the U.S. Government said the responsibility is now on the Marshallese Government. They never formally apologized for the nuclear tests.  

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).

-Over a 12-year period, the US exploded the equivalent of 200 kilotons a day (the bomb dropped on Hiroshima was 15 kilotons)

-In Enewetak Atoll, where the US military sealed 80,000 cubic meters of radioactive waste inside a dome in 1977. There are widespread concerns that rising sea levels or a typhoon could flush large amounts of this highly radioactive plutonium into the Pacific Ocean

-US nuclear experiments in the Marshall Islands ended in 1958 after 67 tests. But a United Nations report in 2012 said the effects were long-lasting.

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


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

Cancer, reproductive abnormalities, and diabetes in Micronesia: the effect of nuclear testing. PACIFIC HEALTH DIALOG Vol 11. No. 2. 2004

Links to general newspaper articles, blogs or other websites

Nuclear colonialism

Marshall Islands / Toxic waste: first fact- mission by UN human rights expert on hazardous waste

Bikini Atoll nuclear test: 60 years later and islands still unliveable

No Justice for the Marshall Islands In Nuclear Weapons Contamination Case

Bikini islanders still deal with fallout of US nuclear tests, 70 years later

A Short History of the People of Bikini Atoll

This dome in the Pacific houses tons of radioactive waste – and it's leaking

The poison and the tomb

Despite High Court Denial, Battle Over Bikini Atoll Bombing Endures

Diving the Nuclear Ghost Fleet at Bikini Atoll

How a tiny paper in the Marshall Islands has given voice to victims of nuclear testing

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

A Time-Lapse Map of Every Nuclear Explosion Since 1945 - by Isao Hashimoto

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.”

Meta information

Contributor:ENVJustice Project
Last update20/12/2018



Islanders and descendants from Rongelap Atoll march in Majuro on the 60th anniversary of the nuclear explosion that led to their exile.

Photograph: Isaac Marty/AFP/Getty

Detonation of the nuclear device during Operation Ivy in the Marshall Islands in 1951.

Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis

Photo courtesy of Library of Congress

Bikini people leaving the Island in 1946

Source: US Military