The low-lying Marshall Islands are consumed by climate change. Increasing ocean inundations from rising sea levels and the specter that this atoll nation could be underwater later this century has pushed Marshall Islands leaders and young people to the forefront of the global climate movement calling for action to curtail a problem they had little to do with creating.
Just as climate threatens the well-being of the country, the Able atomic bomb test at Bikini Atoll 75 years ago this week set off a chain reaction of events that led to irradiation of thousands of Marshall Islanders, radioactive contamination of hundreds of islands, forced displacement and migration of islanders, and a litany of cancers and other health problems. But in today’s climate-focused world, most Marshall Islanders know little about the 67 American nuclear weapons tests at Bikini and Enewetak atolls, or the ongoing legacy this has created for many islanders.
In 1986, the US government provided $150 million in compensation for nuclear test damage through a treaty known as the Compact of Free Association. A Nuclear Claims Tribunal established by the same treaty later determined that over $2 billion in compensation was due. But the US government, in contrast with the way it has funded ongoing compensation needs of American radiation victims, has refused to provide additional compensation despite appeals from the Marshall Islands.
Lacking funds to complete clean up of nuclear test-affected islands, Bikini and Rongelap islanders are unable to safely return home, and Enewetak islanders live at the former nuclear test site in a radioactive environment with a nuclear waste storage facility known as Runit Dome that is leaking. Marshall Islands leaders have asked the US to expand health care services beyond the current four atoll populations served to include many islanders who the US government publicly refuses to acknowledge as radiation exposed while its Atomic Energy Commission, in a now declassified report on US hydrogen bomb tests of the 1950s, confirmed were exposed to nuclear test fallout.
“Climate change is a global problem that the whole world is focused on,” said Alson Kelen, 53, a commissioner on the Marshall Islands National Nuclear Commission and a Bikini islander who returned to his home island as a child in the 1970s after US scientists said it was safe only later to be evacuated from the nuclear test site after ingesting high levels of radiation in food on the islands. “The nuclear testing legacy is our unique problem and it connects us to climate change,” he said. “Climate change is the next step of what connects our past to our future.”
The Bikinians were relocated by the United States navy in 1946 for the first post-World War II nuclear weapons test on July 1 and today live on other islands in the Marshall Islands or have migrated to the US. Hundreds of islanders from other atolls live in exile due to radiation contamination of their home islands.
Already nuclear test refugees, today, living on islands barely a meter above sea level, all Marshall Islanders now face the possibility of becoming climate refugees. “Climate change is like another nuclear test that is forcing us to fight for our survival,” Kelen said. “Nuclear tests and climate change problems are affecting the Marshall Islands more than any other country in the world.”
Despite the global focus on climate problems, Kelen and Ariana Tibon, the education and public awareness director for the Marshall Islands National Nuclear Commission, believe it is essential to focus on finding solutions to the ongoing nuclear test legacy that continues to impact the lives of many islanders.
But Tibon, 25, admits that she knew nothing about the nuclear weapons test legacy growing up and that it is a hard sell to get younger people interested in their history and active on the issue. Until last year, this history has never been taught in Marshall Islands schools. Because of Tibon’s efforts the past several years to produce a nuclear test curriculum for middle and high school students, this past year was the first time that Marshallese students learned their own history in school.
“I truly didn’t know what it (US nuclear tests) meant when I was growing up,” she said. “I was clueless about how the nuclear testing affected every single Marshallese.” It wasn’t until she went to Hawaii and began studying and writing papers in university about the nuclear legacy that her passion for the issue was stimulated.
“The story is still relevant today,” Tibon said. “I feel like the nuclear survivors are outcasts, they are angry and frustrated. I understand it because nothing is being done to help them.”
It is a legacy that, with the exception of the country’s National Nuclear Commission, has largely taken a backseat to the nation’s focus on climate change.
This is why Tibon has focused on the schools and developing a curriculum about the country’s nuclear test history. But she feels it is equally important that American schools include in their history books the story of US nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands. “Once Americans know about it, they can help make change,” she said. “If people grow up learning about the legacy, they will care about it.”
But, she added, without Americans concerned about the continuing impact of the American nuclear tests of the 1940s and 1950s, “it is very hard for Marshallese to go to the United States for a few weeks to lobby the US Congress for action.”
The US used the Marshall Islands as a testing ground to develop global nuclear supremacy, said Kelen. “If I could speak to President Biden, I’d say, ‘The Marshall Islands is the reason the United States is able to talk to Russia and other countries (from a position of strength). Please just give us a little focus.’ We are the small picture that created the big picture. But we’re not on the agenda.”
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