The people of the Marshall Islands, the site of 67 U.S. nuclear tests between 1946 and 1958, have their own Bikini stories.
Fifty years later, the legacy of the nuclear testing program still runs deep, says Seiichiro Takemine, a doctoral candidate at Waseda University studying the effects of nuclear testing on the islanders.
“Those nuclear tests have destroyed their way of life,” he says.
The Marshalls, made up of 29 coral atolls and five small islands just north of the equator, were administered by the United States for decades following World War II. They became a sovereign state in 1986 with the signing of the Compact of Free Association with the U.S.
During the testing period, the people living on and near Bikini and Eniwetok atolls, which were used for nuclear testing, were evacuated to other islets. But the U.S. later admitted that at least 239 people were left behind, where they were exposed to strong radiation at the time of the March 1, 1954, Bravo blast.
Half a century later, Bikini and Rongelap, which received strong radioactive fallout, are still uninhabitable.
The nuclear fallout is believed to have also caused high rates of certain health disorders across the Marshall Islands, including thyroid cancer and miscarriages.
The U.S. acknowledged responsibility for radiation-induced health problems when it signed the compact in 1986 and set up a $150 million compensation trust fund.
Most of the islets to which the islanders were evacuated were isolated and barren, which caused the evacuees to abandon their traditional “canoe” culture, Takemine says.
The people of the Marshall Islands would take to canoes for every occasion, and used them for fishing and gathering fruit on nearby atolls and islands, he says.
Now they are dependent on compensation money and canned food supplied by the U.S. as emergency relief goods, Takemine says.
The government of the Marshall Islands wants the U.S. to beef up the compensation program, whose funding is running out, and help clean up the contaminated land and resettle the displaced people, according to Mary Leon Silk of the College of the Marshall Islands. As of last May, $9.5 million was left in the fund.