Legacy of Nuclear Testing on Micronesian Societies

Akua Nyarko-Odoom
May 16, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018


Fig. 1: Map of the Federated States of Micronesia in 1999. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

From 1946 to 1958, the U.S. tested nuclear weapons at 39 sites across Micronesian islands outside of the Marshall Islands with yields totalling 43 Mt. [1] In the Marshall Islands, 66 tests were conducted. [1] These areas were highly contested during the WWII era; the Marshall Islands were the springboards for Japans early attack on the U.S and the U.S. gained navy control over the area post-WWII. [2] During U.S. occupation of these islands, nuclear testing released numerous dangerous contaminants into the environment. Immediate exposures resulted in a number of short and long term effects including fatal acute myeloid leukemia and a large number of thyroid tumors among the Marshallese and military personnel. [3] For many, homelands were made uninhabitable for several years. [3]

Contamination Effects

According to Robison et al., exposure to external gamma is most common through ingestion of crops and marine life which contributes 70-90% of the external gamma dose rate. Cs-137 (radioisotope of Caesium) is the source of 95% of this dose. [4] The long list of health effects include cases of cretinism, hyperthyroidism, and thyroid tumors. [5] These health and environmental effects have been large push factors in the displacement and migration of many Micronesians. By 2008, 22,192 Micronesians were migrants in the Hawaiian Islands, in search of better living conditions and economic opportunities as made allowable through the Compact of Free Association. [6]

Compact of Free Association and Future Issues

Between 1982 and 1986, the U.S. signed a Compact of Free Association agreement with a number of Micronesian governments which essentially requires that the United States remain responsible for defense and external security and ensures economic assistance to the affected islands. [7] Through this compact, citizens of the Freely Associated States (see Fig. 1) have the right to reside and work in the United States and its territories as lawful non-immigrants or habitual residents and are eligible to volunteer for service in the U.S. armed forces. [8] As a result, migration from Micronesian islands has increased the burden on education, health, and welfare programs in the U.S., particularly in Hawaii, which is geographically closest to the polynesian triangle in which some Micronesian islands lie. [9] Nevertheless, the compact allowed Micronesian societies to secure exercise of their sovereignty over their domestic and foreign affairs, except as limited to allow the U.S. to exercise its defense responsibilities. [8]

© Akua Nyarko-Odoom. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. 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] S. L. Simon and W. L. Robison, "A Compilation of Nuclear Weapons Test Detonation Data for US Pacific Ocean Tests," Health Phys. 73, 258 (1997).

[2] L. Poyer, S. Falgout, and L. Carucci, The Typhoon of War (University of Hawaii Press, 2000).

[3] E. P. Cronkite, R. A. Conard, and V. P. Bond, "Historical Events Associated with Fallout From Bravo Shot - Operation Castle and 25 Y of Medical Findings," Health Phys. 73, 176 (1997).

[4] W. L. Robison et al., "The Northern Marshall Islands Radiological Survey: Data and Dose Assessments," Health Phys. 73, 37 (1997).

[5] S. Yamada, "Cancer, Reproductive Abnormalities, and Diabetes in Micronesia: The Effect of Nuclear Testing," Pac. Health Dialog 11, 216 (2004).

[6] "Compact of Free Association," Treaties and Other International Acts Series, TIAS 04-501, 1 May 04.

[7] P. A. McElfish, E. Hallgren, and S. Yamada. "Effect of US Health Policies on Health Care Access For Marshallese Migrants," Am. J. Public Health 105, 637 (2015).

[8] A. Tsodikov, "Nuclear Testing in the Marshall Islands," Physics 241, Stanford University, Spring 2016.

[9] A. M. Pobutsky et al., "Micronesian Migrants in Hawaii: Health Issues and Culturally Appropriate, Community-Based Solutions." Calif. J. Health Promot. 3, No. 4, 59 (2005).