“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“Nuclear Colonialism” (US atomic bomb tests in Bikini and Enewetak Atolls), Marshall Islands
CountryMarshall Islands
ProvinceMarshall Islands
SiteBikini and Enewetak atolls
Accuracy of LocationMEDIUM regional level
Source of Conflict
Type of Conflict (1st level)Nuclear
Type of Conflict (2nd level)Nuclear waste storage
Landfills, toxic waste treatment, uncontrolled dump sites
Specific CommoditiesNuclear 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
Potential Affected Populationaround 53,000 almost all the population of Marshall Islands
Start Date1946
Relevant government actorsUS 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 organisations and other supportersThe people of Bikini Atoll (Bikini Council) and people of Enewetak
The Conflict and the Mobilization
Intensity of Conflict (at highest level)MEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
When did the mobilization beginMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups MobilizingIndigenous groups or traditional communities
Bikini islanders
Forms of MobilizationDevelopment 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
OtherRadioactive 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-economic 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
OtherDouble 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
Pathways for conflict outcome / responseCompensation
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 as a success?Not Sure
Why? Explain briefly.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 and Materials

“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.

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

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.

Cancer, reproductive abnormalities, and diabetes in Micronesia: the effect of nuclear testing. PACIFIC HEALTH DIALOG Vol 11. No. 2. 2004
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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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Offshoring American Environmental Law: Land, Culture, and Marshall Islanders’ Struggles for Self-Determination During the 1970s
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Marshall Islands / Toxic waste: first fact- mission by UN human rights expert on hazardous waste
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Nuclear colonialism
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How a tiny paper in the Marshall Islands has given voice to victims of nuclear testing
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Bikini Atoll nuclear test: 60 years later and islands still unliveable
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This dome in the Pacific houses tons of radioactive waste – and it's leaking
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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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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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Media Links

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

Detonation of the nuclear device during Operation Ivy in the Marshall Islands in 1951. Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis
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Photo courtesy of Library of Congress
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Bikini people leaving the Island in 1946 Source: US Military
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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
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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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ContributorENVJustice Project
Last update20/12/2018