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Bikini Islanders Still Deal With Fallout of US Nuclear Tests, 70 Years Later via Truthout

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The subsequent underwater bomb detonation didn’t go so well either. It unexpectedly produced a spray of highly radioactive water that extensively contaminated everything it landed on. Naval inspectors couldn’t even return to the area to assess ship damage because of the threat of deadly radiation doses from the bomb’s “fallout” — the radioactivity produced by the explosion. All future bomb testing was canceled until the military could evaluate what had gone wrong and come up with another testing strategy.

And Even More Bombings to Follow

The United States did not, however, abandon little Bikini. It had even bigger plans with bigger bombs in mind. Ultimately, there would be 23 Bikini test bombings, spread over 12 years, comparing different bomb sizes, before the United States finally moved nuclear bomb testing to other locations, leaving Bikini to recover as best it could.

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Residents of the Rongelap Atoll — Bikini’s downwind neighbor — received particularly high radiation doses. They had burns on their skin and depressed blood counts. Islanders from other atolls did not receive doses high enough to induce such symptoms. However, as I explain in my book Strange Glow: The Story of Radiation, even those who didn’t have any radiation sickness at the time received doses high enough to put them at increased cancer risk, particularly for thyroid cancers and leukemia.

What happened to the Marshall Islanders next is a sad story of their constant relocation from island to island, trying to avoid the radioactivity that lingered for decades. Over the years following the testing, the Marshall Islanders living on the fallout-contaminated islands ended up breathing, absorbing, drinking and eating considerable amounts of radioactivity.

In the 1960s, cancers started to appear among the islanders. For almost 50 years, the United States government studied their health and provided medical care. But the government study ended in 1998, and the islanders were then expected to find their own medical care and submit their radiation-related health bills to a Nuclear Claims Tribunal, in order to collect compensation.

Marshall Islanders Still Waiting for Justice

By 2009, the Nuclear Claims Tribunal, funded by Congress and overseen by Marshall Islands judges to pay compensation for radiation-related health and property claims, exhausted its allocated funds with US$45.8 million in personal injury claims still owed the victims. At present, about half of the valid claimants have died waiting for their compensation. Congress shows no inclination to replenish the empty fund, so it’s unlikely the remaining survivors will ever see their money.

But if the Marshall Islanders cannot get financial compensation, perhaps they can still win a moral victory. They hope to force the United States and eight other nuclear weapons states into keeping another broken promise, this one made via the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

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