Nuclear Testing in the Marshall Islands

Anthony Tsodikov
May 24, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2016


Fig. 1: Ebeye Island in Kwajalein Atoll (Courtesy of NASA. Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Marshall Islands is a sovereign state in the Pacific Ocean with a population of 62,000. Although the Marshall Islands is recognized as a sovereign state by members of the United Nations, it is not fully sovereign. The Marshall Islands gained its independence in 1986, when they signed the Compact of Free Association. According to the compact, the Marshall Islands would be in free association with the US, allowing the US to retain responsibility for its defense and maintain their defense needs. This involved the US using the Marshall Islands as a nuclear and missile test site. In return, the Marshallese people were given substantial subsidies (approximately $3.5 billion) and benefits as well as right to travel and work freely in the United States without needing a Visa. In fact, large fractions of the Marshallese people have settled in Springdale, Arkansas to work in chicken factories. [1] However, no amount of subsidies or benefits can make up for what the Marshallese people have experienced as a result of nuclear testing.

History of Nuclear Testing

From 1946 to 1958, the US conducted 67 nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands. One area in the Marshall Islands that was particularly affected was Bikini Atoll. In 1946, Bikini Atoll was the first site in the Marshall Islands used for nuclear testing by the US. Prior to the nuclear testing, the 167 people that lived on Bikini Island were forced to move to neighboring islands. Many were transported to the Kwajalein atoll, which is still used by the US as a target for testing missiles. Eleven of the ninety-seven Kwajalein atoll islands are leased by the US and are part of the Reagan Ballastic Missile Defense Test Site. As a result, a majority of the Kwajalein residents as well as refugees from nuclear testing in the Bikini Atoll have been forced onto one island, Ebeye. With about 10,000 residents crowded onto only 78 acres of land (see Fig.1), Ebeye is known as the "Slum of the Pacific." [2]

Impact on Marshallese People

Nuclear and missile testing has had a huge impact on the Marshallese people. Dr. Neal Palafox, a professor at the John Burns School of Medicine at the University of Hawaii, put in best when he said, "Did it cause cancer? Did it cause genetic defects? Did it cause radiation burns and thyroid issues? Yes. I really believe that the bigger destruction is the cultural, environmental, emotional, that carry further." [3] The indigenous people of the Marshall Islands are very land tied. In the Marshall Islands, the cultural structure and people's relationship to one another is tied to the land. Nuclear testing contaminated the land and required people to move to different safer areas, resulting in cultural catastrophe. Additionally, the people who relocated back to the Bikini Atoll were removed again in 1978 after eating locally grown foods that contained high levels of radiation. With all the damage they have caused in the Marshall Islands through nuclear testing, the US must do more to help the Marshallese people.

© Anthony Tsodikov. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] D. Zak, "The Marshall Islands, Once a U.S. Nuclear Test Site, Face Oblivion Again," Washington Post, 27 Nov 15.

[2] R. Kania, "South Pacific's Paradise Lost Ebeye Has Become Slum In The Marshall Islands," Orlando Sentinel, 13 Apr 89.

[3] L. Westcott, "Marshall Islands Nuclear Lawsuit Reopens Old Wound," Newsweek, 1 Aug 14.