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Critical Resources on the United States’ Nuclear Legacy in the Pacific Islands Amidst Calls for Climate Change Reparations

October 31, 2022

The United Nations Human Rights Council recently voted to adopt a resolution to address the human rights implications of the United States’ nuclear legacy in the Marshall Islands. The October 7th resolution came just days after residents of the Marshall Islands, Fiji, Nauru, Samoa, and Vanuatu, called for redress from colonial powers for the consequences of nuclear testing as their homes continue to be threatened by rising sea levels and nuclear waste deposits. The United States was among the nuclear powers to criticize the resolution, arguing that the Human Rights Council was not the appropriate forum to raise the issue, despite commissioning its own study to investigate the effects of rising sea levels on military assets in the Pacific Islands. 

The Archive is highlighting a selection of the most relevant primary sources from our Nuclear Vault and Environmental Diplomacy projects to provide essential, timely context for the reparations debate. Events covered in these sources include: 

  • The July 1946 Army-Navy joint task force that staged atomic tests in Bikini Atoll, which were the first tests since the 1945 bombings in Japan. Of the two nuclear weapons tests, the “Baker” test was the most catastrophic, contaminating nearby test ships with radioactive mist. The Archive’s July 22, 2016, posting Bikini A-Bomb Tests July 1946 sheds light on “Operation Crossroads,” and features a selection of key declassified documents, videos, and photographs on the radiological crisis. Even U.S. military personnel were apprehensive of the consequences of the tests, as seen in General Thomas Farrell’s December 1945 memorandum to Major General L. R. Groves, which advised against underwater atomic tests because it would involve “so many major hazards” including heavy contamination to the island and marine life.
  • The U.S. Navy’s removal of Bikinians from their native home. This event is well documented, as is the Bikinians’ impression that their resettlement would be temporary. Photos from the Archive’s 70th Anniversary of Operation Crossroads Atomic Tests in Bikini Atoll, July 1946 posting show Commodore Ben Wyatt, the military governor of the Marshall Islands, “consulting” with the Bikinians about their planned evacuation. This meeting was also captured in unedited video footage, which shows Bikinians “plainly unhappy with the situation,” and concludes with the islanders having their last church service on the atoll. In a message to the Pacific Fleet’s Commander, Wyatt remarked how “happy” the islanders were to be leaving their home. What’s not captured in this message is that the Bikinians felt they had “no choice but to obey the Americans,” writes Jonathon M. Weisgall in Operation Crossroads. Today, the islands remain uninhabitable due to subsequent nuclear testing in the atoll.
  • The 1954 Castle Bravo nuclear test, which was the worst of the nuclear weapons tests conducted by the United States between 1946 to 1958. In the Archive posting marking the 60th Anniversary of Castle BRAVO Nuclear Test, selected documents detail the horrifying effects of nuclear fallout on the Marshall Islands and Japan. Two 1995 memorandums from the Special Assistant to Secretary of State for Atomic Energy Matters indicate that an immediate return to Rongelap Atoll was impossible, first indicating that islanders could go back to the atoll only if they “restrict themselves to the southern islands” and “do not eat too many shellfish,” but then later backpedaling that it would still “take another year” before residents could return. Islanders returned to Rongelap in 1957, but the island remained seriously contaminated, forcing the islanders to leave in 1985. Several Japanese fishermen and the tuna catch that was on the Lucky Dragon were also contaminated. The posting also includes the 1954 petition by Marshall Islanders for an end to nuclear tests in the area, as well as internal U.S. government consideration of compensation to the Japanese government and the Marshall Islands for losses from nuclear testing. 

The United States has obscured the longstanding environmental impacts of its nuclear past. A 2019 LA Times review of government documents found that the U.S. government withheld key pieces of information about the nuclear storage dome located at Runit in the Marshall Islands ahead of the 1986 compact signed by the two countries. This treaty released the U.S. government from further liability—and is up for renegotiation in 2023.

While the United States and other nuclear powers appear cautious against opening the door to the rights-based litigation that the U.N. resolution may bring, they are aware of the security implications that come with rising seas and nuclear waste deposits in the Pacific Islands. In February 2018, the Department of Defense’s Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program published a report on DoD military installations “most vulnerable to sea-level rise and associated impacts over the next 20 to 50 years” on Roi-Namur Island in Kwajelein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Not only will sea level rise and “annual wave-driven flooding” have a serious impact on freshwater availability, but the report also found that, if the impacts are not adequately addressed, “significant geopolitical issues could arise” as it becomes “necessary to abandon or relocate island nations.” How this will influence U.S. policy remains to be seen.

For more reading on the history of nuclear testing in the Pacific Islands, see Jonathan M. Weisgall’s 1994 book Operation Crossroads and Walter Pincus’s 2021 book Blown to Hell: America’s Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders. For a better understanding of the longstanding radiation effects in the Marshall Islands, see the 2019 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) study Background gamma radiation and soil activity measurements in the northern Marshall Islands.

Rachel Santarsiero is a Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow at the National Security Archive

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