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Nuclear weapons and climate change: A double whammy for the Marshall Islands via The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

On May 30, an unarmed intercontinental ballistic missile launched from the Kwajalein Atoll military base in the Republic of the Marshall Islands collided with an interceptor launched from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base. Planned for years, the shootdown was the first live-fire test against an ICBM-class target of a system designed to defend the United States against enemy missiles. Although many areas of the Marshall Islands are threatened by radioactive contamination from US nuclear testing during the Cold War—and, more recently, by rising sea levels in a warming climate—the US military continues to use the Kwajalein Atoll for missile testing and other operations.

The United States is modernizing facilities in the Marshalls, just as it did during the age of nuclear testing. But these steps, seen largely as successes by the Pentagon and the American public, leave behind casualties. For the Marshallese, casualties came in the form of deadly radiation and displacement during the period when America was testing the most powerful weapons the world had ever seen. Today, islanders are faced with an equally harrowing issue, one that is only worsened by the testing done in the 1940s and ‘50s: rising seas that are threatening to destroy low-lying homes.

Nuclear testing and climate change together constitute a double whammy that is again forcing the Marshallese out of their homes. Because nuclear testing destroyed or irradiated much of the highest ground in the Marshalls, it left the Marshallese with ever-limited options of where to go to escape the flooding that now threatens their lifestyles.

A nation at risk. The United States began nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands in 1946, and the decades that followed saw fatal radiation, failed relocation, and the Atomic Energy Commission’s denial that radiation was an issue for the Marshallese. After forced evacuations from the Bikini, Enewetak, and Rongelap Atolls—the most populated original settlements—the Marshallese moved to smaller, lower-elevation islands. There they were poisoned by irradiated fish, starved, flooded, and finally told it was safe to go back. The Bikini islanders’ attempt at resettlement failed: Not only did they suffer from ground-level external doses of radiation, but also from various forms of ingested nuclear particles. After settling again on Bikini, the islanders were forced to re-evacuate after they began to suffer many ill effects of radiation. Today, echoes of this radiation still remain on the atoll, making it unsafe for human habitation.

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