Remembering the victims of nuclear weapons testing in the Marshall Islands

Bikini Atoll

Bikini Atoll nuclear test site. Marshall Islands. Photo by Ron Van Oers / UNESCO. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 IGO

Pacific communities marked the 70th year of nuclear testing at Bikini Atoll in Marshall Islands by highlighting the demand for justice and accountability.

March 1 is Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific Day, but in Marshall Islands it is commemorated as Nuclear Victims Remembrance Day in honor of the victims of Castle Bravo, the codename for the thermonuclear bomb test made by the United States military.

The 15-megaton bomb dropped on Bikini Atoll was the equivalent of a thousand Hiroshima bombs. It created a mushroom cloud that reached 40 kilometers into the atmosphere and its radioactive fallout affected nearby inhabited atolls. The US military conducted 67 nuclear weapon tests in the Marshall Islands between 1946 and 1958.

The tests vaporized at least two islands and forced the permanent displacement of communities contaminated by radioactivity. Cancer cases and other serious diseases linked to nuclear testing went up over the next several decades.

Reparations were made but the toxic consequences of the testing continue to inflict damage up to this day. Civil society group ICAN emphasized that the Castle Bravo testing “is a story of how life on the Marshall Islands was uprooted, lands contaminated, and people left to struggle with the consequences for generations.”

Public assemblies in Fiji and the Marshall Islands marked the 70th anniversary of the Castle Bravo testing with calls for justice.

Some veterans and descendants of those who were evacuated from their homes also joined the event.

Kathy Joel was six years old in 1954 when her family was uprooted from their community.

I remember when I saw planes flying over my island, I was really frightened. We were evacuated by the US. Until now I long for my homeland. I always think about my homeland and I wish one day, with the help of our President, that I may set foot again on my homeland.

Henry Puna, secretary general of the Pacific Islands Forum, noted that resolving the issues related to nuclear testing has remained inadequate.

Our history is littered with overwhelming foreign disrespect for our Blue Pacific. Clearly, we were used as a testing ground – more like a testing laboratory. And we must ask the question, why was the most beautiful corner of the world, with the most beautiful and peaceful people, chosen for these horrific acts without our informed consent?

While we have come a long way in mending past grievances, regrettably, the terms of resolving nuclear legacy issues in the Marshall Islands have been inadequate, and therefore remain unfinished.

Peace Movement Aotearoa pointed out the political significance of the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific Day.

Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific Day is a day to remember that the arrogant colonial mindset which allowed, indeed encouraged, this horror continues today – the Pacific is still neither nuclear free nor independent.

It is a day to celebrate the courage, strength and endurance of indigenous Pacific peoples who have persevered and taken back control of their lives, languages and lands to ensure the ways of living and being which were handed down from their ancestors are passed on to future generations.

Shaun Burnie, the international climate and nuclear campaigner for Greenpeace International, also expressed solidarity with the people of the Marshall Islands.

The proud people of the Marshall Islands have retained their profound and deep connection to their Pacific home, despite all efforts to destroy that connection through displacement and contamination. That same determination is now evident in their response to the devastating impacts of climate change.

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