Nuclear War and Its Consequences

In 1946 the United States detonated two atomic weapons in the Marshall Islands. In 1947, the United Nations designated the Marshall Islands a United States Trust Territory, and over the next eleven years the territory hosted another sixty-five atmospheric atomic and thermonuclear tests. The largest of these tests, code named “Bravo,” was detonated on March 1, 1954. A 15-megaton hydrogen bomb, Bravo was exploded close to the ground, melting huge quantities of coral atoll, sucking it up and mixing it with radiation released by the weapon before depositing radioactive ash ­fallout – on the islands and its’ inhabitants. The wind was blowing that morning in the direction of inhabited atolls, including Rongelap and Utrik, some 100 and 300 miles from the test site at Bikini. Some communities, and Japanese fishermen aboard the Daigo-Fukuryumaru (Lucky Dragon, a tuna ship working in near-by waters), received near-lethal doses of radiation.

In an atomic detonation, uranium atoms are transformed through fission. One of the radioactive isotopes formed is krypton-90, a very hot isotope that almost immediately deteriorates, changing into rubidium-90 with a half-life of 4.28 minutes. Rubidium-90 decays into strontium-90, an element in global fallout that presents a great threat to human health. In humans, strontium-90 behaves chemically like calcium and easily finds its way to bones, teeth, and even arterial plaque, emitting beta radiation throughout its half-life of 28.9 years. Strontium-90 can be absorbed by eating food, drinking water, or breathing. Like a great many environmental toxins, it is bioaccumulative, meaning it is easily incorporated into the environment, and concentrations increase as one moves up the food chain. The derivative element of strontium-90 is yttrium-90, which decays after some 64 hours into the nonradioactive zirconium-90. When absorbed in humans, strontium-90 and its energetic daughter, yttrium-90, can generate bone deformities, bone tumors, and cancers of the blood-cell- forming organs. Irradiation of the bone marrow also impairs the immune system. Another fallout element, cesium-137, emits beta particles and relatively strong gamma radiation in its decay to barium-137, a short-lived decay product that in turn decays to a nonradioactive form of barium. The half-life of cesium-137 is 30.17 years, and because of the chemical nature of cesium, it moves easily through the environment at increasingly concentrated levels. Upon entering the human body, cesium-137 can produce acute and chronic health effects, including cancer. Iodine-131, with an eight-day half-life, is quickly absorbed in the human body and is one of the elements of greatest concern in local fallout. Iodine-131 accumulates in the thyroid. Acute exposure causes thyroid disease and tumors, and long-term exposure to lower levels of iodine-131 causes thyroid cancer.

Over the 12 years that the United States played their nuclear weapons war games in the Marshall Islands they released some 3 billion curies of iodine-131, a highly radioactive isotope with an 8-day half-life. To place this figure in broader context, over the entire history of nuclear weapons testing at the Nevada Proving grounds some 150 million curies of iodine-131 were released, and varying analyses of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster estimate an iodine-131 release of 40 to 54 million curies.

Human Health Effects of Nuclear War

What does it mean to host the largest and dirtiest nuclear weapons ever detonated by the United States? Declassified studies of the Marshallese following their acute exposure to Bravo fallout in 1954 documented beta burns, loss of hair, depressed red cell and leukocyte counts, flu-like symptoms, nausea, fingernail discoloration, radioactivity in the urine, and changes at the cellular level in blood and bone marrow. Over the next four decades US scientists regularly visited Rongelap, conducting medical exams and collecting biological samples. Their classified research documented immune-deficiency diseases, metabolic disorders (diabetes), growth impairment in children, cancers, leukemia, premature aging (dental decay, cataracts, degenerative osteoarthritis), and a host of reproductive problems including miscarriages, congenital birth defects, and sterility. The long-term study of the Marshallese also confirmed what other classified research suggested: that radioiodine-131 adheres to and accumulates in the thyroid, stimulating the production of benign and cancerous nodules and interfering with the production of hormones, leaving children and pregnant women especially vulnerable. Thyroid cancer and other radiogenic changes occur not only in people exposed to an acute level of ionizing radiation but also in those who were born or moved into contaminated areas long after the initial blast and fallout had occurred.

How Do You “Repair” the Damages from Nuclear War?

In 1988, the United States, acknowledging its remaining obligations to the people of the Marshall Islands, established a Nuclear Claims Tribunal as part of the terms by which the Marshall Islands gained independence from its former colonial master. The NCT functions as an administrative court governed by Marshallese and United States law and international legal norms. It received claims and issues payments from the $150 million fund established in 1988. Since 1991, the NCT has paid a portion of the personal injury claims of Marshall Islanders, and a much smaller portion of property damage claims. Despite the obvious inadequacy of the fund to cover all of the health damages, let alone provide funds to remediate and restore the environment and compensate the Marshallese for the long-term or permanent loss of their homelands, the NCT continued to function under its established mandate to hear and act upon claims, with the Marshallese government retaining the right to return to United States Congress and request additional monies should the initial fund prove inadequate because a broader array of damages are understood as circumstances change and new information has come to light.

In 1994 Holly Barker began working with the Marshallese people to document the experiences of life after being so horribly exposed to radiation. Her efforts were sponsored by the Marshallese governments and helped to encourage the development of personal injury claims. In 1999 I began, with Holly Barker, efforts to rethink the meaning of land value with regards to the methods used to define and assess property damage.

Our work was sponsored by the Public Advocate for the Nuclear Claims Tribunal, Bill Graham. He was concerned that the methods used in the claims for atomized islands (Bikini and Enewetak awards) used Western notions of property and the values associated with loss of access and use of dry land, and such methods would fail to properly address the damages experienced by the people of Rongelap who had their land, but had intensely contaminated lands. We approached this problem by establishing for the Nuclear Claims Tribunal the traditional way of life–where land is not owned, rights to use land reflect maternal ties and the stewardship performance. Land cannot be bought or sold, it is larger than money–land is the means to sustain a way of life. And we argued that the compensation principle should reflect the loss, and related consequential damages, of a healthy way of life. To support this approach, we drew the Tribunal’s attention to methodologies and case precedents used in the United States, Canadian and Australian courts that identify and value the material resources that support Native American/First Nation/Aboriginal ways of life, as well as the methodologies used to assess impact to human health and related values assigned to environmental contamination.

Our 1999 land value research occurred with the help of a Marshallese advisory committee, and this work was followed by the 2001 hardship report and expert witness testimony in a “consequential damages” hearing that was three days of testimony and tears. The hearing took place in Majuro, the capital city of the Republic of the Marshall Islands in October 29–November 2, 2001. With the testimony and lived experiences of the Marshallese supported by the declassified words and findings of US scientists, we documented and recounted the traditional way of life, the chain of events as experienced by a community immediately downwind from 67 atmospheric weapons tests, the pain and hardship of radiation exposure, evacuation, and serving as scientific objects in a scientific research study that went for some four decades, and the struggles to understand (let alone adjust) to the many new health problems that increasingly constrained life in a radioactive world. And as participants in this proceeding, all of us – judges, experts, witnesses, lawyers, and the attending Rongelap community – learned that “reparation” involves process as well as material outcome. When the hearing was concluded, a Marshallese elder told me, we do not need the judges findings, this was our Nuremberg Tribunal, and we know we have won.

But then the months turned to years. Post-hearing proceedings slogged on, and no judgement was issued. Pain became muted, the intensity of the claim and the hearing distant. So many people have died in the years since – several the Marshallese “land valuation” advisors are now dead from cancers, as is the chief judge on the Marshallese Nuclear claims tribunal, and two of our primary Rongelap witnesses.

One Billion Dollar Judgement

On April 17, 2007, some sixteen years since the first claims were filed, the Nuclear Claims Tribunal finally issued their decision in the Rongelap case. As laid out in the 34-page judgement: “The Tribunal has determined the amount of compensation due to the Claimants in this case is $1,031,231,200. This amount includes $212,000,000 for remediation and restoration of Rongelap and Rongerik Atolls. This award further includes $784,500,000 for past and future lost property value of Rongelap, Rongerik and Ailinginae Atolls as a result of the Nuclear Testing Program. Finally, it includes $34,731,200 to the Claimants for consequential damages.”

Notably, the loss of land award reflects “loss of way of life damages” including the loss of the means to live in a healthy fashion on the land (people were on island, but exposed to high levels of radiation).

And, the consequential damages award includes not only the resulting pain, suffering and hardships from “loss of a healthy way of life” but also awards personal injury awards to subjects identified as receiving chromium-51 injections which were “an additional burden to the already considerable exposure from consuming contaminated foods and living in a radioactive environment.” With regard to the larger involvement of the Rongelap people in four decades of human subject research, the Tribunal found that “the emotional distress resulting from the participation in these studies and the manner in which they were carried out, warrants compensation, and is a component in the consequential damages related to the period of time the people spent on Rongelap from 1957 to 1985.”

The Nuclear Claims Tribunal was forced to halt payments in 2006 due a lack of funds. Today there is approximately $1 million left in the fund. The Rongelap award, the prior awards to Bikini, Enewetak, and Utrik, as well as a huge portion of the personal injury awards – will not be paid unless US Congress acts on the RMI’s “changed circumstance” petition filed in September 2000. New information not only includes public awareness that nuclear weapons tests adversely affected the entire nation, but new scientific evidence that low-level exposures to radiation produces significant health risks, and that these risks were not understood when the Compact was originally negotiated. In 2004, the National Cancer Institute predicted that nearly 500 cancers will manifest in the years to come in Marshall Islands as a direct result of the testing program–cancers that would not exist had the U.S. government not used the Marshall Islands to conduct atmospheric weapons tests. More than 200 of those cancers have yet to surface because of the long latency period of certain types of cancer and the aging of the population. In 2006, the Bush Administration, in their report to Congress responding to the RMI’s request for additional funds, argued that no new information has come to light and the United States has fulfilled all its obligations with regards to the damages associated with atmospheric weapons program.

Given this impasse, the local governments for Bikini, Enewtak, Utrik, and now Rongelap, are appealing to the US Court of Claims to consider the findings of the Nuclear Claims Tribunal and issue a judgement ordering the United States government to pay. A hearing on these cases is expected to take place on April 23, 2007 in Washington.


Despite the questions surrounding payment of the award, the judicial findings in the Rongelap Claims are significant and create precedents that other cases can build upon. For the people of Rongelap, who began their petitions for help and justice more than 50 years ago, a formal decision has been announced to the world, and the injustices they suffered have been acknowledged.

This is reparations: the years and decades and lifetimes of struggle to insure that historical injustice is not pushed aside, dismissed, and denied. The ceaseless efforts to secure your day in “court.” To stand face to face with responsible parties and have experience accepted. To have the consequences of injustice assessed and the pain, suffering and hardships understood. To hear culpable parties acknowledge their wrong. To see judgements issued against those parties. To be asked “how can we make amends” and to have your voice heard. Reparations is about the process as much as it is about the outcome. And most of all, more than all the money in the world, reparations is about insuring never again. Now, more than ever, this world needs to consider what the Marshallese know all to well.

BARBARA ROSE JOHNSTON is the senior research fellow at the Center for Political Ecology and 2006-07 residential scholar at the School for Advanced Research on the Human Experience in Santa Fe, NM. Her most recent book, Half-lives and Half-Truths: Confronting the Radioactive Legacies of the Cold War (SAR Press 2007) includes chapters by Johnston and by Holly Barker on human subject experimentation in the Marshall Islands, the health consequences of radiation exposure, and the problematic history of the United States response to Marshallese needs. She can be reached at


Barbara Rose Johnston is an environmental anthropologist and Senior Fellow at the Center for Political Ecology, an independent environment, health and human rights research institute based in Santa Cruz, California.