The US Must Compensate Islanders For Pacific Nuclear Testing

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By Beverly Deepe Keever, the Honolulu Civil Beat

January 14, 2022

It’s high time for the United States to express its gratitude and pay its debt to Pacific Islanders who endured the infernos of its Cold War nuclear weapons tests.

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Gratitude is due because Bikini and Enewetak islands served as experimental sites vital for U.S. superpower status then and today.

These islands provided sites for nuclear tests too unpredictable and destructive for detonation in the 48 contiguous states and for tests enabling the transition in nuclear delivery systems from conventional bombers to intercontinental missiles.

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Time is also running out for the United States to pay its economic debt. The economic-funding agreement between the U.S. and these islands in the Republic of the Marshall Islands is set to expire next year.

Marshallese officials and some experts have also suggested negotiating issues related to U.S. compensation for nuclear-test related damages, remediation, and health care, a Congressional Research Service report states. Some members of Congress want the Biden administration to do the same.

For decades, Americans and islanders have been kept in the dark about the frequency, magnitude and cumulative effects of the unimaginable infernos these tests unleashed on Bikini and Enewetak, which are located 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii. Not until 1994 did the U.S. government release a report it calls comprehensive, giving the number and yield (explosive force) of 1,054 nuclear tests it had conducted worldwide from 1946 to 1992, when it ceased experimentation.

In a first of its kind, across-time investigation of these data, I found:

  • The yield of 86 U.S. nuclear weapons tests at Bikini, Enewetak and Johnston island, 800 miles from Hawaii, plus nearby Pacific waters equated from 1946 to 1962 to 8,580 Hiroshima-size bombs — or 1.4 per day.
  • These 8,580 Hiroshimas over 16 years were much more massive than all other U.S. tests elsewhere, comprising 73% of the total minimum yield through 1992.

These infernos were laced with plutonium, which has an irreversible radioactive existence of 500,000 years that is hazardous to humans for half that time. The tests’ effects on the health of islanders over the decades show high levels of thyroid abnormalities, stillbirths, numerous kinds of cancers plus environment degradation that turned the islands into wastelands.

Bikini town hall on Majuro Atoll. Mark Edward Harris/Civil Beat/2015

The U.S. has paid millions for islanders’ health care and related claims. But Marshallese have argued in petitions and lawsuits the compensation is inadequate — to no avail.

In a 1980 report titled “The Forgotten Guinea Pigs,” a House oversight subcommittee noted: “The greatest irony of our atmospheric nuclear testing program is that the only victims of U.S. nuclear arms since World War II have been our own people.”

But the report relegated to only a footnote the Pacific Islanders — who had experienced the most atmospheric tests while entrusted to U.S. care.

Unchallenged U.S. government secrecy withheld material facts from its own citizens, out-of-the-loop policymakers, service members and islanders, but hardly fooled its Cold War enemy, the Soviets, who were monitoring from international waters.

Not until 1994 did the Marshallese and the world know that some islanders were used deliberately for 40 years to research the effects of radioactive fallout in a medical surveillance program called Project 4.1.

In 1996 Congress was told that residents of two islands had been used in human radiation experiments in which they drank or were injected with radioactive tracers for which they had received no medical benefit nor given their informed consent.

Referring to Pacific Islanders, “their own medical records are only now being made readily available to them,” President Bill Clinton’s Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments noted in 1995.

Redwing detonations resulted in a yield equating to 1,388 Hiroshima-size bombs over 77 days.

After bloody fighting in World War II, the U.S. seized these islands from the Japanese and began to administer them under a United Nations-sanctioned trust agreement from 1947 to 1986. Then the U.S and the Marshall Islands entered into an agreement giving the U.S. strategic prerogatives in the Pacific in exchange for financial subsidies and federal assistance programs.

But, even as the U.S. was negotiating, it was withholding from the Marshallese records they had requested about the effects of the 17 H-bomb tests in Operation Redwing in 1956 at Bikini and Enewetak islands.

Redwing detonations resulted in a yield equating to 1,388 Hiroshima-size bombs over 77 days — or 18 explosions per day. These detonations generated heat equal to the center of the sun.

Current U.S. financial subsidies and federal assistance programs are set to expire in 2023 just as China — America’s newfound threat — expands into the Pacific.

But, like Vietnam, the U.S. may be misjudging the nature of this confrontation. The U.S. is pouring billions into a military buildup of equipment and infrastructure.

But China is using soft-power to win friends — diplomacy, loans, constructing sports facilities, bridges, government buildings.

China is modernizing the wisdom of ancient strategist Sun Tzu: “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”


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