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.