Opinion: Sixty years after the nuclear tests on the Marshall Islands

Resident-oriented resettlement plan needed

by Satoe Nakahara, research fellow, Institute of Social Sciences, Chukyo University

The Marshall Islands, a small island nation in the Pacific, gained their independence from the United States in 1986. Known as the “Pearl of the Pacific,” the country comprises a group of low-lying coral atolls about 2 meters above sea level. Nearly 60,000 people are believed to be descendants of the original residents who settled on the islands after crossing the sea about 1,500 years ago.

Whenever I see the islands from the air, I wonder why people chose to live on these small atolls with few resources. I suppose it’s because even when the open sea is rough, fish can be caught in the atolls’ shallow lagoons.

The atolls also offered a favorable environment for conducting nuclear experiments. If the test site were in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, debris from the blast would sink into the depths, and it would be difficult to accurately measure the bomb’s destructive force. But in the vicinity of the atolls, where the water was less than 50 meters deep, debris could be recovered and it was easy to observe the impact of the blast on the environment.

From 1946 through 1958 the United States conducted 67 nuclear tests on the Marshall Islands. In the so-called “Castle Bravo” hydrogen-bomb test on Bikini Atoll in 1954, in which the Daigo Fukuryu Maru (Lucky Dragon No. 5) fishing boat was exposed to radiation, residents of Rongelap Atoll, 210 km east of the test site, were contaminated by radioactive fallout. They developed symptoms of acute radiation sickness and were evacuated from the atoll by the U.S. military three days later. An official document issued by the U.S. government states that the air dose rate of radioactivity at the time was between 10 and 23 millisieverts an hour.

Residents returned to Rongelap three years later, but there were many health problems, including birth defects and cancer. Based on subsequently disclosed information on the high level of radiation, the residents again evacuated the island in 1985. Most relocated to Mejatto Island, 210 km south of Rongelap and have continued to reside there “temporarily.”

Since shortly after the residents’ evacuation, Rongelap’s regional government has negotiated with the U.S. government for decontamination, the reconstruction of residences and other forms of restitution in anticipation of residents’ return to the island. In 1998 the government began formulating a resettlement plan, and decontamination, the development of infrastructure and the construction of private residences have been completed. At the same time, the regional government promoted the development of industries such as tourism, pig farming and pearl culture. As of last summer, about 30 people, including workers and five of their family members, were living on Rongelap.

But the return of all the residents as a group, which had initially been part of the plan, was not carried out because the government of the Marshall Islands has not built an elementary school on Rongelap out of concern for possible health problems. Also, about half of the population has chosen not to return to the island for various other reasons including concern about radioactive contamination, relocation to urban areas or the U.S. and an attachment to the island to which they evacuated. This can also be viewed in terms of other factors such as dependence on compensation, their loss of identity as people of the atoll and fading memories of exposure to radiation.

Last year I visited Mejatto for the first time in 11 years. Previously undeveloped land had been cultivated and turned into pandan and coconut groves. The making of various preserved foods and dried fish products, which were seldom seen before, had become commonplace. Although the population had declined from 350 to 150 over the course of 11 years, by distributing preserved foods to others, the people on Mejatto have forged ties with other former residents of Rongelap as well as residents of neighboring islands.

Residing on land they own has never been the way of life of residents of the Marshall Islands; people stay in one place for anywhere from a few months to a few years. Relations across atolls help residents overcome difficulties, both individually and as a community. So, when meeting for the first time, islanders ask each other not “Where do you live?” but “Where do you sleep?”

The problem of returning to Rongelap – being pressed to choose between returning or not – has been found to be incompatible with the culture of the Marshall Islands. The U.S. Department of the Interior has repeatedly urged the mayor to have all the residents of Rongelap return as a group. Instead, the matter should be considered from the perspective of how to provide support to the current dispersed population.

The people living on Mejatto have voiced a desire to have their own boats. If they had boats, they might be satisfied with their present lives, and their return to Rongelap might be delayed. But they would also adopt a new way of life in which they travel back and forth between their places of residence. Ordinary people are no longer willing to accept the resettlement plan initiated by the U.S. in its present form.

Many members of families in Fukushima have been forced to live apart as a result of the disaster at the nuclear power plant there, placing a heavy financial burden on them. They will need assistance for years, not only with the basic necessities of life but also in support of the ties between them. March 1 will mark the 60th anniversary of the nuclear test on Bikini Atoll, and the problems there have yet to be resolved. So it is clear that resolving the problems caused by exposure to radiation in Fukushima will take far longer than expected.


Satoe Nakahara
Born in Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture in 1965. Specializes in cultural anthropology and peace studies. Author of “Hoshano nanmin kara seikatsuken saisei e” (From Radiation Refugees to the Resumption of Everyday Life), “Kaku jidai no masharu shoto” (The Marshall Islands in the Nuclear Age) and other works. Resident of Nagoya.

(Originally published on February 25, 2014)