Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility (WPSR) has a long history of organizing against the threats to human health caused by nuclear weapons and nuclear war. As a physician-based organization, this WPSR statement acknowledges the profound health impacts experienced by the people of the Marshall Islands as a direct result of U.S. nuclear weapons testing during the Cold War, and calls on our organization, network, and policymakers to support the Marshallese people in their efforts to establish adequate healthcare for their communities, particularly cancer care. Today there is no oncologist or cancer center in the Marshall Islands and the lack of adequate healthcare means that the violence of U.S. nuclear weapons testing continues every day that people cannot access the care they need. Marshallese patients who migrate to Washington State and the U.S. legally are also in need of comprehensive and accessible cancer care.
From 1946-1958, the United States Government detonated sixty-seven atomic and thermonuclear weapons in the Marshall Islands when the islands were part of a trust territory administered by the United States. The weapons tests included the infamous Bravo shot on March 1, 1954. Bravo was the equivalent of 1,000 Hiroshima-sized bombs and to this day remains the largest weapon ever detonated by the United States. Although the U.S. Government routinely evacuated downwind communities for tests as a protection measure, on the day that the U.S. Government detonated the Castle Bravo US hydrogen bomb, the U.S. Government purposefully decided not to evacuate or warn downwind communities about potential dangers. Following their exposures to fallout from Bravo, the U.S. Government enrolled residents of two downwind communities, Rongelap and Utrik, into a top secret medical experimentation program, Project 4.1, to study the effects of radiation exposure on human beings. U.S. Government weapons designers used data collected in the Marshall Islands to modify their weapons of mass destruction based on their understandings of the ways radiation exposure impacts human beings.
For people exposed to acute levels of radiation in the Marshall Islands, they immediately experienced deep burns, in some cases down to the bone, hair loss, vomiting, diarrhea, and fevers. Parents were so overcome by their radiation sickness that they could not care for their own children calling them for help. Rather than provide medical care to the exposed populations during the immediate crisis, the U.S. Government brought them to an internment camp on Kwajalein to photograph the health impacts, and extract bone marrow, blood, skin and hair samples from the people.
In the days and years following, U.S. Government doctors continued medical trips to the Marshall Islands to advance their research, and in some cases distributing placebos to avoid altering their study of the effects of radiation on human beings. Cancer, thyroid disorders, stunted growth, developmental delays, birthing anomalies and deaths are just some of the health issues experienced by communities, including those resettled or residing on islands with residual levels of radiation.
Despite widespread exposure resulting from cumulative and long-term exposure to radiation from sixty-seven weapons, today the U.S. Department of Energy provides medical care to fewer than 100 people who resided downwind from just one of the tests, Bravo. The health impacts of 66 atmospheric tests are not factored into U.S.-provided healthcare. Furthermore, DOE provides medical care for only specific types of cancer.
The Government of the Republic of the Marshall Islands is overwhelmed by the healthcare needs of its population. The lack of existing infrastructure and human resources coupled with the immense cost of off-island referrals for cancer and other radiation-related illnesses exceeds the resources of the Marshall Islands. Many Marshallese migrate to Washington State, and the United States, in part, to access healthcare, including cancer care.
Marshallese remain concerned about healthcare issues related to exposure to radiation from the tests as well as to communities resettled or living in areas with residual radiation. A recent L.A. Times article reported contemporary radiation levels in the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) up to 1,000 times higher than Chernobyl and Fukushima. For decades the U.S. Government maintained that it cleaned up radiation from the ground zero testing area on Enewetak Atoll, and a segment of the Enewetakese population evacuated for the testing program today lives on an island adjacent to the nuclear waste facility, the Runit Dome. Recent studies by Drs. Nikolic and Emlyn Hughes from Columbia University reported in research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, identified sources of radiation in the facility, and on Naen Island of Rongelap, that are from sources other than fallout from weapons, and opens the possibility of unreported and illegal dumping by the U.S. of radioactive waste from sources outside the Marshall Islands. Furthermore, the RMI Government recently learned from the U.S. Department of Energy that the Runit Dome contains less than 1% of the plutonium released on Enewetak and the remaining 99% is free flowing in the lagoon near where resettled populations reside; a “clean-up” did not take place.
In August 2019, the National Nuclear Commission (NNC) of the Republic of the Marshall Islands submitted a Nuclear Justice Strategy to the President and Cabinet of the Marshall Islands outlining priorities to address nuclear justice in the islands. As the NNC notes, healthcare, and particularly cancer care, remains an urgent priority for the Marshallese people.
From the start of the U.S. nuclear weapons testing program in 1946 until the present, Marshallese leaders have been vigorously demanding accountability from the United States, and pleading with the international community for assistance. Many of the most outspoken and effective Marshallese advocates on nuclear issues have died from cancer, including the late Minister Tony deBrum who helped file lawsuits with the International Court of Justice against nations with nuclear weapons, and was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2016 before his death.
Government leaders and citizen activists from the Marshall Islands have asked WPSR for assistance to address the incredible health injustices in the Marshall Islands linked to activities by the U.S. Government for which the United States fails to take responsibility. WPSR has been making introductions and setting up meetings between the RMI’s NNC and the RMI’s Ministry of Health & Human Resources to consider opportunities for collaboration with cancer care providers, particularly in Washington State. Given that the nuclear weapons tests conducted by the United States Government took place when the islands were a territory of the United States, Marshallese deserve the same standard of healthcare received by Americans citizens. The United States advanced its military, political and economic goals through its activities in the Marshall Islands, but the U.S. left an array of intergenerational health impacts and trauma that need attention. WPSR acknowledges the need for U.S. physicians and healthcare providers to support and join Marshallese efforts to secure cancer care access for Marshallese citizens residing in the islands, as well as in Washington State and beyond.
Her Excellency Dr. Hilda Heine, President of the RMI
The Honorable John Silk, RMI Minister of Foreign Affairs
The Honorable Kalani Kaneko, RMI Minister of Health & Human Resources
Rhea Moss-Christian, Chair, RMI National Nuclear Commission
Alson Kelen, Commissioner, RMI National Nuclear Commission
Holly Barker, Commissioner, RMI Nuclear Commissioner, WPSR Nuclear Weapons Taskforce
Bruce Amundson, Co-Chair, WPSR Nuclear Weapons Taskforce
Joseph Berkson, Co-Chair, WPSR Nuclear Weapons Taskforce
Carly Brook, Nuclear Weapons Abolition Organizer, WPSR Nuclear Weapons Taskforce
David Anitok, Program Director, COFA Alliance National Network