The film Oppenheimer has shone a global spotlight on the dawn of U.S nuclear weapons tests. In the Marshall Islands, where 23 of those earth-shattering blasts happened, people have never been able to forget.

By Lucy Sherriff

At first glance, the aquamarine waters that surround the Marshall Islands seem like paradise. But this idyllic Pacific scene hides a dark secret: it was the location of 67 nuclear detonations as part of US military tests during the cold war between 1946 and 1958.

The bombs were exploded above ground and underwater on Bikini and Enewetak Atolls, including one device 1,100 times larger than the Hiroshima atom bomb. Chernobyl-like levels of radiation forced hundreds from their homes. Bikini Atoll remains deserted. At the U.S government’s urging, residents have begun returning slowly to Enewetak.

Today, there is little visible evidence of the tests on the islands except for a 115-metre (377ft)-wide cement dome that locals nickname the Tomb – for good reason.

Built in the late 1970s and now aged and cracking, the huge concrete lid on Runit Island covers more than 90,000 cubic metres (3.1m cubic ft) – or roughly 35 Olympic-sized swimming pools – of radioactive soil and nuclear waste. Unbeknown to the Marshallese people, the U.S shipped the waste from Nevada, where it was testing nuclear weapons on Native American land.

The legacy of America’s nuclear testing on Indigenous communities both on the U.S mainland and its territories has come under renewed scrutiny with the release of Oppenheimer, the blockbuster film about the physicist who led development of the atomic bomb.

Although his team tested the nuclear weapons on Native American land – there were 928 large-scale nuclear weapons tests in Nevada, Utah and Arizona during the cold war, dispersing huge clouds of radioactive material – the film never mentions the impact of the testing on the local Native Americans.

“The film completely ignores the experiences of our people,” says Ian Zabarte, principal man of the Western Bands of the Shoshone Nation – who have been described as “the most bombed nation on earth”.

Zabarte is attempting to forge connections with those Pacific Islanders who were similarly affected by nuclear testing. Earlier this year, he met representatives from the Marshall Islands when they visited Nevada to discuss the effects on their health from nuclear weapons testing.

“The health impacts on our people have never been investigated,” Zabarte says. “We have never received an apology, let alone any kind of compensation.”

Separately, a band of Marshallese activists are now sailing around the country’s 29 atolls, along with artists and climate scientists, on a 12-day tour that aims to raise awareness of nuclear testing on the archipelago.

The 520-mile ocean voyage is being operated by Cape Farewell, a cultural programme founded by the British artist David Buckland and funded by the Waverley Street Foundation, Laurene Powell Jobs’s climate charity.

“Cancers continue from generation to generation,” says Alson Kelen, a master navigator and community elder who grew up on Bikini Atoll and is joining the expedition.

“If you ask anyone here if there’s a legacy of nuclear impact on their health, the answer would be yes. The Marshall Islands Nuclear Claim Tribunal has a list of cancers that are related to nuclear throughout our people. These cancers are hereditary.”

The U.S maintains that the Marshall Islands are safe. It seized them from Japan in 1944, and eventually granted the islands independence in 1979, but the fledgling nation remained in “free association” with the U.S. Under this system, along with Micronesia and Palau, the Marshall Islands are self-governing but economically remain largely dependent on Washington, which also retains a military presence. Today it continues to use the US dollar, and American aid still represents a large percentage of its GDP.

In 1988, an independent international tribunal was established to adjudicate between the two countries, and it later ordered the U.S to pay US$2.3bn (£1.8bn) to the Marshall Islands in healthcare and resettlement costs.

The U.S government has refused, arguing that its liabilities ended when it paid US$600m in the 1990s. In 1998, the U.S stopped providing medical care for cancer-stricken islanders, leaving many in financial hardship.

The agreement is up for renegotiation this year, and the Marshallese hope they will have stronger negotiating power with the U.S now that China is showing an interest in the islands due to their strategic location. The islanders are pushing for the US$2.3bn they feel they are owed, and a cleanup of the Runit Dome, which is at risk of collapsing due to rising sea levels and the natural ageing of concrete structures.

“Of course it’s going to break,” says Stephen Palumbi, a Stanford University marine scientist who led a research trip to the islands in 2016. “What else can you expect? You can’t just build something like that and walk away from it and expect it to stay there. You wouldn’t do that with your patio.”

According to a 2019 investigation by the LA Times, many U.S military personnel present at the construction of Runit Dome realised that radioactive material was leaking from it, and would continue to do so – yet did not alert the Marshallese government.

The threat to the Tomb is particularly acute because the islands, which lie just two metres above sea level on average, are very vulnerable to rising sea levels. The country’s capital, Majuro, is highly likely to be at risk of frequent flooding, according to a World Bank study.

The U.S says it has discharged its responsibilities to the Marshall Islands, and because the dome is on Marshallese land, the onus is not on Washington to fix it.

It is not clear what will happen to the environment when the Tomb crumbles, and has also been hard to track how the ecosystem has behaved over time as “there’s just not many people” on Bikini Atoll to even casually monitor changes, Palumbi says.

But a 2012 United Nations report said the effects of radiation on the Marshall Islands are long-lasting and have caused “near-irreversible environmental contamination”.

On Palumbi’s visit, locals warned his team not to eat the coconuts – which are radioactive due to the contaminated groundwater – or the coconut crabs that feed on them. “You do not grow crops, you do not eat coconut, you do not drink the water,” Palumbi says.

In general, it has been shown that nuclear blasts represent an extreme threat to local biodiversity. A 1973 US government-funded study on nuclear testing in Alaska found both immediate harm and long-term damage to marine species: fish exploded when their gas-filled swim bladders reacted to the change in pressure underwater, and hundreds of sea otters were also killed instantly.

Researchers have recently found that sea turtle shells can be used to study nuclear contamination, with traces of uranium found in animals not born when testing in the Pacific Islands ended. The turtles are thought to accumulate human-made radionuclides in their bony outer shell, which is usually made of keratin, through the food chain by eating uranium-contaminated algae.

Japan recently announced it would start dumping waste from the Fukushima nuclear power plant, which had meltdowns in 2011, into the ocean. Although the UN’s nuclear watchdog says it is safe to do so, there are fears that there is still not enough understanding of how radioactive nuclear waste affects the ecosystem to be sure of this.

Palumbi notes that the resilience of the ocean is impressive, with corals regrowing on the Marshall Islands as soon as 10 years after the bombs were exploded. “This is the most destructive thing we have ever done to the ocean, dropping 23 atomic bombs on it, yet the ocean is really striving to come back to life.”

There are, however, eerie reminders of what happened decades ago, including a fine talcum powder-like sediment covering the reefs – and still-visible damage to the reef itself. “On the inside of the lagoon, where the actual bombs were, it’s still an amazing mess,” Palumbi says. “The reef has cracked in half, and you realise that it was the bomb.”

Kelen says he would not trust anyone who says releasing nuclear material into the water is safe. “Everybody who has talked to me about nuclear has been lying,” he says. This, he says, includes the U.S “who promised our islands were safe to live in. This continues. I do not trust politicians who say this will be OK.”

Zabarte, who has numerous family members who have died of cancer, is similarly concerned about the long-term impacts of radiation. “My people have nowhere to go,” he says. “We have to stay there, exposing ourselves on a daily basis. We have no choice.”

“We have to keep repeating this story,” says Kelen. “We have forever been moved around by people who make decisions over us, telling us our lives will be safe and how to live. But no matter what life has thrown at us, from nuclear testing to rising sea levels, our home and life are very much still here.

“We live this story, and it informs us culturally, but we do not let it define who we are.