One of Selina Leem’s early childhood memories is a reminder that the history of nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands is a present reality, with lasting impacts to this very day.
When she was in elementary school, Leem, who grew up in Majuro, remembers her aunt giving birth to two cousins, each born with one ear and one born with their intestines exposed. She recalls feeling mixed emotions: attachment to her new family members and fear.
“They were only alive for a few days, and I remember being there,” Leem said. “They lived with us, and you were seeing these children, as a young person myself, they were children and I was scared of them.”
A few years later in school, Leem learned that the United States conducted at least 67 nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands, predominantly among four atolls, including Utrik, the one her mother’s family is from. Stories of babies born with abnormal features or other deformities on these atolls following the nuclear testing and subsequent fallout are not uncommon in the Marshallese community.
This week is Nuclear Remembrance Week, a virtual forum to commemorate the 67th anniversary of “Bravo” being tested in the Marshall Islands. In Washington, the COFA Alliance National Network is hosting a weeklong forum with local advocates, including some islanders who live in Spokane County. The alliance supports and advocates for islanders included in what’s called the Compact of Free Association (COFA), a trustee responsibility the United States has with islanders.
Erine Jitiam, a Marshallese elder who is in Spokane now but lived in the Enewetak Atoll, will be part of the event, and in prerecorded and translated interviews, Jitiam describes giving birth to her three children, all of whom had physical or mental health problems she blames on atomic bomb testing.
“One had a huge head and the other had his umbilical cord sticking outside of his body,” she said.
She goes on to describe other women giving birth to babies with their intestines or brain visible or outside their bodies at birth.
Leem, who is 23, carries those memories with her as she has learned more about not only the devastating effects of nuclear testing on her home country but the cleanup efforts that have dragged on for decades .
After moving to Europe to finish high school and then to the United States, Leem landed in Spokane, along with many other Marshallese.
For Leem and other young activists, recognizing the continued impacts of nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands is something she and the next generation are working to do.
“We are able to bring forth all of the pains and injustices that our elders went through, because they can’t do that,” she said.
The consequences of nuclear testing
While many people think of the Cold War as an era of avoiding conflict, the United States was testing powerful nuclear weapons more than 2,000 miles southwest of Hawaii in four atolls in the Marshall Islands.
The testing made many parts of the atolls and entire islands uninhabitable, and the United States relocated entire populations to other islands.
High rates of birth defects and cancer have been reported in the Marshallese in the decades following 67 documented nuclear device tests, which took place from 1946 to 1958 in the Marshall Islands.
The most powerful nuclear test, nicknamed “Bravo,” went off in Bikini Atoll on March 1, 1954. The blast was 1,000 times more powerful than the device the United States dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in the final days of World War II. The nuclear fallout was vast.
“If you take the equivalent of 67 nuclear tests conducted that we know occurred and stretch those out over the 12-year testing period from 1946 to 1958, it’s 1.6 Hiroshima-sized bombs every day for 12 years,” said Holly Barker, an anthropologist and professor at the University of Washington who has documented the effects of nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands, according to those who lived there.
Not all families relocated to the United States as a result of the nuclear testing. The United States and the Marshall Islands, along with the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of Palau, reached the COFA agreement in 1986 that allows Islanders to move to, live and work in the United States but not become residents.
Entire islands and groups of people were relocated while the testing occurred, and for some it took decades to return home. When they did, they encountered high levels of nuclear waste and radiation.
Only the Enewetak, Bikini, Utrik and Rongelap atolls were considered exposed by the United States, however, which disregarded fallout across the numerous other islands.
“None of the other islands were considered exposed,” Barker said, noting that the definition of legal exposure was based off of the four atolls impacted by the Bravo test. “So if people were exposed to the 66 other detonations they aren’t considered exposed.”
The nuclear testing that occurred in the Marshall Islands has ties to Eastern Washington, where plutonium was produced at Hanford and uranium was mined at the Midnite Mine northwest of Spokane.
Trisha Pritikin, a Hanford downwinder, advocate and author, has found similarities between the Marshallese struggle for compensation and acknowledgment, and those plaintiffs who sought damages after contracting cancer or enduring long-term health problems following downwind exposure from Hanford. Pritikin’s father, an engineer at Hanford, died of cancer, as did her mother, and she has sustained thyroid issues for several years since growing up in Richland in the 1950s.
“They’ve got so much contamination in the lagoons everywhere that people are getting constant low-dose exposure, which is what we got at Hanford,” Pritikin said.
Bomb tests in the Marshall Islands may have direct Eastern Washington ties as well, Pritikin said, since the Hanford site was the predominant plutonium producer during the Cold War years.
“Hanford was the main plutonium production facility for the Manhattan Project and throughout the Cold War, so there’s a huge probability, and (I’m) almost completely certain that quite a bit of plutonium produced at Hanford was used in nuclear tests in the Republic of the Marshall Islands,” Pritikin said.
The initial funds from the United States to pay Islanders impacted by nuclear testing was about $150 million administered through a tribunal to compensate for property and personal damages from the testing, according to a 2019 Marshall Islands National Nuclear Commission strategy report. And in 2009, the tribunal ran out of funds to administer.
The commission is advocating for congressional action to secure more funds to pay these claims, but the progress is slow.
“Over $91 million in compensation had been awarded to or on behalf of 1,999 individuals by the end of 2006, though over half of these individuals passed before full payment was received,” the nuclear commission report says.
Accessing health care is a challenge for Marshall Island natives, despite statewide efforts to create an insurance program for them. In Spokane County, COVID-19 hit the Marshallese community especially hard, exposing the longstanding need for better health care access.
“There’s no oncologist in the Marshall Islands today,” Barker said. “We know radiation exposure increases the likelihood of cancer, but to play the game that you have to prove that the cancer is due to the testing – why not just set up a cancer care facility?”
Late last year, Marshallese people, and all COFA Islanders, got access to health care through Medicaid in the United States, after being blocked from the program from 1996 to 2020.
The decadeslong cleanup effort
The lingering effects of nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands is not as simple as the single paragraph Sallyann Fedorov recalls reading in her history book when she was in grade school in Hawaii.
Fedorov, whose family has roots in several atolls, was born in Kwajalein, and her grandparents took her in and raised her at a young age. She didn’t realize it when she was growing up, but her grandfather had been there during the nuclear testing. She said it was not a story or a part of the history her grandparents passed down to her.
“From my perspective, I don’t think I learned about it through them because, you know, sometimes if you go through something, (you) don’t want to share it because (you) don’t want to relive it,” Fedorov said.
Her grandfather died from cancer last year, and her grandmother is suffering from memory loss. And while she doesn’t know for certain that radiation caused their illnesses, the question remains.
The U.S. military sent some service members to the Marshall Islands in the 1970s to initiate nuclear cleanup efforts.
Ken Brownell, a carpenter in the Army, had no idea they were cleaning up nuclear waste at the time. He describes arriving in the Marshall Islands in 1977 with a bunch of young men, with an assignment of setting up a base camp in six months. They camped on concrete pads they unearthed after digging and clearing space for the camp the island of Lojwa.
“We never knew there was (nuclear) testing; we were unaware of anything,” said Brownell, who is from upstate New York.
Brownell and his team were preparing a base camp for others who would come to Runit and construct the dome to cover a large crater caused by a nuclear test, where nuclear waste would be declared safely contained until recently.
“It was years later that we found out the concrete pads were originally a base camp for when they first started doing the nuclear testing, but they found after the first blast that the island was contaminated so they brought in uncontaminated soil and covered the island,” Brownell said.
His team had dug through two layers of radioactive soil without safety gear or prior warning. Enewetak veterans who helped construct the Runit Dome have joined forces with those from the Marshall Islands to advocate for compensation and health care in the wake of nuclear exposure. Brownell found the group about six years ago, he said. Many of the veterans who helped construct the Runit Dome or even set up the base camp with Brownell have had heart issues or cancer diagnoses.
“It’s been, for us, a nightmare, both physically and emotionally, because now you wonder, is it going to be my turn next?” Brownell said. “Am I going to wake up in the morning and find that I’ve got two weeks to live?”
Runit Dome, though located on an uninhabited island, stands in stark contrast to other nuclear waste sites on the mainland. There are no signs warning people of the toxic waste beneath the dome, which looks a bit like a flying saucer crash-landed in sand. A 2014 New York Times op-ed with a photo shows people walking on top of it.
Runit Island is located in the Enewetak Atoll, however, where residents have moved back after being told it was safe to do so. The Marshall Islands National Nuclear Commission expressed safety and environmental concerns with the site in its 2019 nuclear justice strategy report.
The Department of Energy claims the dome is safe, but a 2020 report also shows that many of the efforts to ensure nuclear levels around the dome are not hazardous have stalled.
In 2012, the department was supposed to set up a system to monitor groundwater for radiochemical analysis. To date, that has not been completed, and most recently, the department blamed the pandemic for nearly a decade of delays.
“DOE has developed plans to drill and install a series of groundwater monitoring wells within and surrounding the Runit Dome,” the June 2020 Runit Dome report says. “This phase of the project is presently on hold in response to international travel restrictions imposed as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Other researchers have surveyed and sampled the lagoon water next to Runit Dome, as well as the sediments on the bottom of the lagoon, and found elevated levels of plutonium and cesium.
“Thus radioactivity associated with seafloor sediments remains the largest source and long term repository for radioactive contamination,” a 2017 study found.
The study also found that the Bikini and Enewetak atolls are “an ongoing source” of plutonium and cesium to the North Pacific Ocean.
While the dome is not in current danger of collapsing, according to the department report, the report does acknowledge the potential for rising tides to do damage .
“Any future increase in the severity and frequency of storms or other major climactic forcing events may affect local groundwater hydrology beneath the containment structure and potentially increase the flow of contaminated groundwater into the lagoon or onto the ocean reef. However, no definitive data exists on how these events might impact on the environment,” the 2020 Runit Dome report says.
The threat of the dome collapsing is dwarfed by the amount of radioactive elements already circulating in the lagoon, Michael Gerrard, a law professor who leads the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, wrote in a 2014 New York Times article.
“As things now stand, the Runit dome is likely to be submerged by rising seas or torn apart by storms, releasing its radioactive poison into the ocean and compounding the legacy our advanced civilization has left to this tiny island nation,” Gerrard wrote.
Besides the threat of toxic nuclear waste polluting the Pacific, a more pressing issue for Leem and others is the fact that rising tides threaten the Marshall Islands themselves.
It is for these reasons that Leem is a climate activist.
“Seven decades later, we’re at the threat of possibly being displaced again,” Leem said. “It won’t be inside the country, but outside, because of the climate crisis.”
The next generation
For Federov and Leem, they view their place in history as an opportunity to make their voices heard, honoring the generations before them by acknowledging how nuclear testing still impacts the community decades later.
“The nuclear legacy is not over, it lives in the bodies of people who reside in Spokane every day,” Barker said.
From educating others about how nuclear testing continues to impact the Marshall Islands to advocating for better protections, health care and climate change policies, the next generation is giving voice to decades of hardships.
Ukōt bōkā eo is a Marshallese phrase that roughly translates to “turning of the tides,” referring to the Marshallese reliance on the ocean for food and sustenance and that what the ocean gives the Islands, the Islands must give back.
For Leem, “ukōt bōkā eo” is how she views her work: giving back to the generations that came before her.
Federov agrees, noting that their parents and grandparents did not have the same opportunities that Leem and their peers have had to educate themselves and then advocate for their country.
“Hearing stories about how they had to sacrifice everything for us and had to move away from who they knew, what they knew and their homeland and whatever they grew up with just to give me a better life, education and to give me the opportunity to speak out and learn more – that’s why they came here,” Federov said.
The COFA alliance Nuclear Remembrance events are open to the public and scheduled through Saturday.
Editor’s note: This story was changed on Wednesday, March 17, 2021. Because of a reporter error, an earlier version stated that Selina Leem grew up in the Utrik Atoll when she grew up in Majuro. This article also previously stated that the base camp built by Ken Brownell and his comrades was on Runit Island, it was built on Lojwa Island.