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The Marshall Islands
The Marshall Islands
The Marshall Islands, located in Micronesia, were the site of the Pacific Proving Ground while under United States control. Previously they were colonized by Spain, Germany and Japan, but in the conclusion of the World War II in the Pacific, the United States gained control of the Marshall Islands in the conclusion of the War in the Pacific. Far removed from normal air and sea traffic, the U.S. government quickly determined that the Marshall Islands would be an ideal location for nuclear weapons testing. From 1946-1958 the United States detonated 66 nuclear weapons on the islands.

Nuclear Testing in the Marshall Islands
Operation Crossroads was the first nuclear test conducted in the Marshall Islands. Bikini Atoll was a group of 23 islands clustered around a lagoon, and the home of 167 indigenous islanders. These residents were relocated to Rongerik, which was to serve as a temporary home until Bikini was safe for habitation.

The military intended to use Operation Crossroads to test nuclear weapons' capabilities in sinking sea vessels. 242 old ships were assembled, and parked in the 240 square-mile lagoon where the tests were to be detonated. Shot Able, the first test, occurred on July 1, 1946. The bomb missed its target by half a mile, and sunk only a few ships. The anti-climactic test would be more than made-up for with the detonation of Shot Baker on July 25, 1946. An underwater test (as opposed to air drop), Baker was immensely destructive. It distributed a fount of radioactive seawater over the ships, contaminating them instantly. Cleanup efforts were futile, and the operation ended in August of 1946, earlier than initially planned. A third test, Shot Charlie, was canceled.

Baker's initial blast destroyed 9 ships, and contaminated all other vessels in the lagoon, including the USS Saratoga, one of the first US aircraft carriers. The Navy attempted to decontaminate the vessels, but with no success. During these efforts, many Navy men were exposed to radioactivity. 15,000 men returned to the lagoon during the first day after Shot Baker. Men were assigned to scrub the decks of
Shot Baker, July 25, 1946
Shot Baker, July 25, 1946
vessels with little or no protective equipment. Unable to see the radiation for themselves, officers sometimes disregarded warnings about the danger of radiation and kept their men in areas of high radioactivity for much longer than recommended. These factors, paired with the fact that the operation's Geiger counters were inaccurate in the humidity and could not detect all forms of radiation, meant that many more American men were exposed to unknown amounts of radiation.

But Operation Crossroads was most devastating to the Bikinians themselves. The relocated people requested a return to their home after two months on Rongerik Atoll. Rongerik was a much smaller atoll, which had long been uninhabited because it was considered less fertile for marine life. Shots Able and Baker did nothing to improve the marine ecsystem. The Bikinians endured two years on Rongerik. By the time they were relocated in 1948, they were on the brink of starvation. Moved briefly to Kwajalein, they were permanently relocated to Kili, a single island without a lagoon. Without a lagoon or access to protected water, it was impossible to carry on the Bikinian lifestyle as before. Apart from a brief time in the late 1960's to early 1970's, they were never allowed to move back to their home. (For a map of the Marshall Islanders' series of relocations, click here.)

Nuclear testing affected other islanders and atolls as well. Operations Sandstone, Greenhouse and, most notably, Ivy, were all located in Enewetak Atoll. The first hydrogen bomb, Mike, was detonated on November 1, 1952 during Operation Ivy.

It was Operation Castle, however that had arguably the most tragic outcome of nuclear testing at the Pacific Proving Grounds. On March 1, 1954, the U.S. detonated its first deliverable hydrogen bomb (again in Bikini). The bomb was one thousand times more powerful than the bomb dropped at Hiroshima. The fallout from Baker blew from Bikini Atoll to Rongelap and Ailinginae Atolls, which had not been evacuated. Eventually this "snowstorm" reached Rongerik and Utrik Atolls. The exposed islanders, along with a few Americans stationed at Rongerik, suffered from acute radiation sickness. The government at first denied that the test had led to any serious contamination of the Marshall Island residents. It took the government two days to evacuate those on Rongelap, and 72 hours to evacuate Utrik (RMI chronology).

While the Utrik residents were allowed to return by May of that year, Rongelap residents were not allowed to return until July 1957. The government claimed that the islands were safe for habitation, but that radiation levels would by the highest of any inhabited part of the world. The same report referred to the rehabitation of Rongelap would be an opportunity to gather "valuable ecological data on human beings." (RMI chrono) Statements like this one have led some Marshall Islanders to believe that they were human guinea pigs rather than victims of a miscalculation. The government continues to claim that an unexpected shift in wind patterns carried the radioactive dust further east than intended, although evidence now shows that American weather stations had information on the wind patterns at least seven hours before the detonation of Bravo.

Nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands ended after Operation Hardtack in 1958. Studies claim that the total yield of the weapons "tested would be equivalent to the detonation of 1.7 Hiroshima-sized bombs every day for 12 years". Initially the government provided no compensation to the islanders for the destruction of their homes. In 1963, the residents of Rongelap who had been exposed in the 1954 Bravo test began to develop thyroid tumors. The U.S. provided this population with $950,000 in 1966, and provided no further compensation to Marshall Islanders until 1977, when they extended aid to Utrik and Bikini Atolls as well.

The Bikinians, as the first victims of testing, had a particularly long route to receiving compensation. While the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) claimed that the atoll was safe for habitation in 1969, many islanders suspected that the islands were still contaminated. In 1972, the Bikinians decided not to move back as a community but on a solely voluntary basis. The AEC began to suspect that contamination was greater than expected as well. The Bikinians demanded a comprehensive study of radioactivity on the atoll in 1975, and by 1978 all residents of the island were relocated. The Bikinians sued for $450 million in 1982. While they were not successful in attaining that sum, today it is estimated that the United States government have spent $837 million in 2003 dollars on health and environmental problems resulting from nuclear testing.

Currently the Bikini Islanders are fighting a legal battle for increased funds, which the U.S. government has typically denied on the same legal technicality - that there have been no "change in circumstances" that would warrant increased funds since the last sum was agreed upon. As of April 2008, the case was in the U.S. Court of Appeals, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands has requested $3 billion to cover medical care of its residents.

External Links
Bikini Atoll
Chart of yields in Marshall Islands nuclear tests
RMI Embassy Nuclear Issues
Video of Castle Bravo
Video of Shot Baker