Tackling nuclear legacies, 70 years after Bravo

Runit Dome on Enetwetak

On 1 March 1954, the US government exploded a thermonuclear weapon on Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands, codenamed Bravo. The test had an explosive yield of nearly 15 megatons, a thousand times more powerful than the US atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

This year, the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) will hold ceremonies on 1 March to mark the 70th anniversary of the Bravo test. Many direct participants in the testing program have since died, but the commemoration is a day for younger Marshallese to learn about the 67 US nuclear tests at Bikini and Enewetak Atolls between 1946 and 1958.

Ariana Tibon-Kilma is one of three commissioners on the RMI National Nuclear Commission (NNC), and she highlights the importance of this year’s anniversary for younger Marshallese.

“The government has set aside 1 March as a national holiday and a national day of mourning,” she said. “It’s become a day of remembrance.”

The NNC was established in 2017 during the first administration led by RMI President Hilda Heine (who has just won another term of office). The commission works to build awareness about nuclear justice, coordinating activities between government ministries, the College of the Marshall Islands (CMI) and agencies like the Environment Protection Agency.

Working with school children is a key focus. Tibon-Kilma explained that “prior to recent improvements in the school curriculum, 1 March was really the only day that young children and students would hear about the nuclear testing program. For the longest time, we weren’t learning about this period. So, when school children would march in Majuro on 1 March, it was really the only time that we talked about the history of nuclear testing and the nuclear legacies.”

Nuclear contamination

Seventy years ago, the Bravo test sent a cloud of radioactive fallout across the Marshall Islands, especially impacting Islanders and US servicemen living on the northern atolls of Rongelap, Utirik, Rongerik, and Ailinginae. The atmospheric test also showered radioactive fallout on Japanese fishing vessels in nearby waters, including the crew members of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru (No. 5 Lucky Dragon).

The US military personnel were quickly evacuated from the northern atolls, well before action was taken to assist the hundreds of Islanders affected by ionising radiation.

Seventy years on, Bikini and other atolls are still contaminated with hazardous levels of radioactive isotopes, documented in studies in the prestigious Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences. A Columbia University team found relatively high gamma radiation at Bikini six decades after the end of nuclear testing. Low levels of gamma radiation persist on the settled island of Enewetak and the island of Rongelap.

Many people from Bikini Atoll were displaced from their home islands during the 20th Century and still live in exile on islands like Ejit, near the national capital. Tibon-Kilma said that global recognition of the name Bikini has overshadowed other atolls: “There’s a disconnect, as some people consider 1 March as a day for just the Bikinians. We’ve tried to make it so that it’s a national day, but for some it’s just Bikini Day.”

US health and environmental programs were initially focused on the population of the four northern atolls directly affected by fallout from the Bravo test. However, documents released from US Department of Energy archives in 1996 revealed that radioactivity had spread to virtually every atoll in the Republic.

The failure to release these documents for more than 40 years undercut the work of the RMI Nuclear Claims Tribunal (NCT), which was established under the 1986 Compact of Free Association (an agreement signed with the United States as RMI moved to self-government). From the 1990s, the NCT issued court rulings amounting to US2.3 billion, to compensate past and future property damage, loss of land use, personal injury, hardship, and suffering, as well as clean-up of contaminated lands.

Despite a “Changed Circumstances petition” issued in 2000, which sought extra US funding to pay more nuclear compensation, the US Congress has failed to address the financial shortfall, with many unpaid historic claims. Beyond this, a revised US-RMI Compact of Free Association was signed in October last year, but at the time of writing, the US Congress  was yet to approve new funding to implement its provisions.

Cultural responses

Just weeks after the 1954 Bravo test, Marshallese customary leaders, teachers and business people sent a petition to the United Nations Trusteeship Council, which oversaw the strategic Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (the post-war US military administration of Micronesia).

Their April 1954 petition highlighted the importance of land as a source of culture and identity – land that was being vaporised or contaminated by the nuclear tests. The petition stressed that the Marshallese people “are also concerned for the increasing number of people removed from their land …. land means a great deal to the Marshallese. It means more than just a place where you can plant your food crops and build your houses or a place where you can bury your dead. It is the very life of the people. Take away their land and their spirits go also.”

As the irradiated fishing boat Lucky Dragon limped home to Japan that month, it reached a nation still reeling from the US atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki nine years earlier. News of the Bravo fallout mobilised anti-nuclear movements across the world, and the Japan Council Against A and H Bombs (Gensuikyo) was founded in September 1955.

The Bravo test also inspired an outpouring of cultural responses by poets, artists, and filmmakers. The first of an ongoing series of Godzilla films began production in 1954 soon after Bravo, directed by Ishirō Honda. Through many remakes, the monster has continued as an icon of nuclear horror, a metaphor for the devastation created by nuclear testing. In Australia, media reports about Bravo and other US tests inspired the book On the Beach by British-born author Nevil Shute. The book, published in 1957, sold over four million copies and was made into a major Hollywood movie.

Bravo has also served as a symbol of life and death for generations of Pacific poets. In 1959, the Māori poet Hone Tuwhare published No Ordinary Sun in Aotearoa-New Zealand. Years later, Fijian scholar Teresia Teaiwa wrote the poem Bad Coconuts, highlighting the radioactive threat to the food chain. Today, Marshallese writer and climate activist Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner performs poems like History Project and Anointed, which celebrate the cultural memory of the islands damaged by colonial militarism.

Community education

In Majuro, there are many initiatives to raise awareness about the health and environmental legacies of the 67 US nuclear tests. These include activities organised by the College of the Marshall Islands, women’s organisations, and youth groups such as Jodrikdrik in Jipan̄ Ene Eo Ekutok Maroro (Jo-Jikum), Youth to Youth in Health and MISA4the Pacific.

For NNC commissioner Ariana Tibon-Kilma, there’s a need to develop resources that will assist a new generation to learn more about Cold War nuclear testing.

“When the National Nuclear Commission was established and I started doing community outreach, the first question I asked was ‘how many bombs were tested?’” she explained. “People would often respond with ‘one’. After I told them there was more than one bomb, they would start throwing out numbers like ‘seven’ or ’nine’. It was never anywhere near the real number of 67.”

“The NNC realised that there was a huge gap in knowledge, and we needed to have students learning more about this,” Tibon-Kilma said. “There was no understanding that there was a history of displacement because the US had relocated communities. I myself didn’t know about that until I went to college. Even working for the NNC, I still feel I have mountains to learn about nuclear history.”

Responding to a request from the RMI Ministry of Education, the Pacific Community (SPC) has developed a curriculum for primary and secondary school students to learn about nuclear history, alongside other social issues such as gender equality and human rights. The pilot program has been trialled in 12 RMI primary and secondary schools, with plans to extend it to other schools.

Tibon-Kilma told Islands Business that “today, we’re trying to have more programs that incorporate youth activities – for example, we started to have art competitions, instead of the traditional essay competition that was organised by the Ministry of Education.”

Ariana Tibon-Kilma
Ariana Tibon-Kilma

Preserving history

Another proposal is to develop a museum and research facility in Majuro, dedicated to the history of the nuclear era. However, even when they can be accessed, preserving historic documents, tapes and films is a financial and technical challenge for many countries across the Pacific islands.

The US government has long wavered between a culture of “restricted data” and a tradition of public accountability that allows access to nuclear archives. Cost is a major barrier: in 2022, the US Public Interest Declassification Board examined the feasibility of declassifying more Marshall Islands records, but argued that any reopening of nuclear-era archives would take up to six years, would cost between US$100 million and $200 million, and would need around a hundred staff “who are fully cleared at the Top Secret and Q levels” and “trained to identify and review technical nuclear weapons data.”

While the US government must take responsibility for opening its archives, there is also a role for other governments, NGOs, and academic institutions to support this work. A striking example was the solidarity shown by the municipal government of Girona in Catalonia and the NGO SwissPeace in Switzerland, who have digitised and stored crucial audio, video, and documentary records from the RMI Nuclear Claims Tribunal.

Marshallese want more studies on the health and environmental impacts of nuclear weapons, but also want to control the research agenda. The NNC has expressed concern about unethical practices by some overseas academics and scientists, noting “the Marshallese people and land is often violently exploited by outsiders who use the Marshall Islands to advance their own interests, careers, learning, or power. The exploitive and extractive activities reached an apex during the testing program, but these practices are not limited to the past, nor only to US Government researchers.”

In response, the commission has adopted protocols requiring researchers to engage in ethical research, seek local permissions, conduct ethics reviews, and make written commitments on post-research data transfer.

In 2019, RMI won a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council, an opportunity to raise international awareness about human rights and nuclear legacies. In October 2022, the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution recognising the need for greater technical assistance and capacity-building for this task. Mandated by this UN resolution, international law expert Raphael Pangalangan is currently conducting a study on the human rights implications of historic nuclear testing in the islands.

Climate / nuclear nexus

As conflicts rage in Europe and the Middle East, the danger of nuclear war remains a constant shadow over humanity. But across the Pacific, low-lying atoll nations face another existential threat: climate-related sea-level rise, storm surges and damage to water and food security.

The RMI National Adaptation Plan (NAP), launched at COP28 in December 2023, draws explicit connections between nuclear legacies and the changing environmental conditions driven by climate change.

The NAP explicitly links the traumatic heritage of nuclear testing and a rights-based approach on climate change, noting: “Our colonial legacies influence climate vulnerability. For example, the legacy of the nuclear weapons testing program forced many of our people to migrate to different islands that are unsuitable and more climate vulnerable. We do not want to perpetuate the subordination that has affected our country in the past, and instead will respect self-determination and human rights by centering climate adaptation decision-making in the hands of our communities and elected leaders.”

The connection between nuclear legacies and rising sea levels is highlighted by the potential for nuclear contaminants to leach into the marine environment from the Runit Dome on Enewetak Atoll. The concrete dome was built in the 1970s to cover radioactive-contaminated waste and soil, dumped into the deep crater of a previous nuclear test. A newly published RMI Climate Security Risk Assessment stresses: “Nuclear waste represents an ongoing threat to the Marshallese people and the environment, because of the risk that nuclear waste stored in the Runit Dome cannot be contained.”

On this northern atoll, the threat of radioactive contamination to fishing grounds is impacting people’s health, nutrition, and mental well-being. The RMI National Adaptation Plan notes that “many women in Enewetak are concerned about the health implications of consuming marine species, given their fears of sea-level rise causing greater contamination from radiation leached from the Runit Dome.”

Seventy years on, the trauma of Bravo continues for the remaining survivors, but a younger generation have picked up the torch to work for a nuclear-free and independent Pacific.

Islands Business correspondent Nic Maclellan is reporting from Marshall Islands in March, with more stories on the Islands Business website at www.islandsbusiness.com. Later this month, The Journal of Pacific History will publish a Special Edition on “Resistance and Survival – the Nuclear Era in the Pacific.”