The US government hydrogen-bombed a chain of islands in the 1950s, and we’re only now getting clues about the radiation effects
- The Marshall Islands were the site of the US's largest-ever nuclear bombings, a series of 67 tests completed between 1946 and 1958.
- The US government called the space the "Pacific Proving Grounds," in a show of post-WWII force to the world.
- The atolls had been home to hundreds of Marshalese people, who were asked to relocate to neighboring islands, days away by boat. There, they were still not safe from the effects of radioactive fallout, which also extended to people around the world.
- Because studies of lingering radiation on the islands are scant, the Marshalese are asking an independent scientist to train them to measure the effects for themselves.
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They were the largest weapons of war the world had ever seen.
Over a 13-year period from 1945 to 1958, a series of 67 nuclear tests conducted by the US government instantaneously torched the former homes of hundreds of Marshall Islanders.
Billowing mushroom clouds burning white-hot, grey, and orange lifted into the air above the sparkling blue Pacific Ocean, on an isolated chain of volcanic islands more than 2,000 miles east of Hawaii.
The largest hydrogen bomb, a 15-megaton nuclear explosion detonated on March 1, 1954 - was 1,000 times more powerful than the bomb the US dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. Called "Castle Bravo," it burned so hot that it could have permanently blinded anyone watching for dozens of miles around, and set any combustibles in sight aflame.
Some Marshall Islanders were forced to relocate, as dangerous conditions extended far beyond the Bikini and Enewetak atolls where the tests were conducted. Nuclear fallout rained down like snow. Some children even played in the powder.
It's been 74 years since the US started this show of bombing force, which it dubbed the "Pacific Proving Grounds."
Today, scientists still warn islanders not to visit certain groups of islands, like the Bikini atoll, where the nuclear tests were once conducted. One 2019 study from researchers at Columbia University suggests that average background radiation levels in Bikini soil are still hovering at nearly double the federal limit set for nuclear testing-related exposure.
A new batch of tests being conducted now might help locals find even more answers.
No one really knows how dangerous it is to live in the Marshall Islands
"The fundamental question for the community is, 'Are we safe?'" said Rhea Moss-Christian, chair of the national nuclear commission in the Marshall Islands. "What does this exposure to radiation, and plutonium in particular, what does it mean for our health? Those answers have not been clear."
Moss-Christian's mother, who lived on an atoll north of where the bombs were dropped as a child, remembered Navy ships sailing up to shore days after the giant Bravo explosion. Sailors told people not to eat the island coconuts or drink any rainwater.
Seven years ago, Moss-Christian's mom died from stomach cancer, a disease that has been linked with radiation exposure in the Marshall Islands due to ingestion of radionuclides.
"We've lost a lot of people in her generation," Moss-Christian said.
The US Department of Energy (DOE) has been funding some studies of people, groundwater, and coral around the atolls, but the monitoring is far from consistent and many Marshalese are wary of federal results.
A new project will allow locals to take their own samples
Now, marine radiochemist Ken Buesseler is on a quest to provide fresh answers about how much radiation remains on the islands.
"What we want to scientifically understand is, how is it going up or down over time, over the years and decades?" Buesseler said.
He's setting out this November to teach a duo of Marshalese citizen scientists how to test for the presence of two key radioactive rare earth elements, by collecting sea water from a single nuclear waste site.
The plan is that the locals will take one sample per month for a year, and then send them back to his lab in Massachusetts where he'll test them for cesium and plutonium.
The samples will be taken from the waters near Runit Dome, one of the areas of greatest concern for the Marshalese. It's a spot where thousands of cubic meters of radioactive material sits capped in cement.
"We're taking some of my own funds to go, to pay for my travel and time, bringing out with me empty containers for them to fill," he said, calling it an endeavor done for the love of science.
It's also an effort to give locals some peace of mind, and perhaps one day return them to the islands they were once exiled from, knowing it's healthy to do so.
Buesseler has a hunch that radiation levels around Runit Dome may not be as bad as many locals fear, but there's no way to know that just yet.
"You can't taste or smell or touch or feel it," he said. "So it's kind of this invisible thing that can harm you, and no one wants that."
Not all radiation is created equal, and some kinds are more harmful than others
Buesseler, who works at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, has completed citizen science projects like this on ocean radioactivity before. In a project he dubbed "Our Radioactive Ocean," he convinced interested Californians to fund their own $100 water tests, measuring levels of cesium in their beloved sailing and surfing quarters.
"There is cesium in everything you eat, plutonium in everything you eat and drink," he said. "They've been with us since we started testing nuclear weapons and using them in World War Two."
Buesseler points out that even if you swam all day every day off the California coast, which is teeming with Cesium-137 released from the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011, that would still be at least a thousand times less harmful for your body than the dose of radiation you get from boarding a flight from New York to Los Angeles.
"You don't want any exposure, but you can't avoid it," he said.
If it turns out that the atolls are safe, some aging Marshalese might want to relocate to their former homes.
"Each of those islands had its own culture, its own music," Buesseler said. "That's where they want to move back to, that's where they want to be buried."
Moss-Christian is more cautious about that idea. Resettlement, she said, is "always an underlying goal," for the Marshalese, but as time passes, and sea levels in the Marshall Islands rise, priorities may shift. In any case, more independent data is always welcome.
"We know we still have radiation in our islands and nothing's being done about it," she said. "Having this information helps empower people to take action."
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