Between the Marshall Islands and Fukushima [by Prof. Robert Jacobs]

Dr. Robert Jacobs

Dr. Robert Jacobs,

Hiroshima Peace Institute, Hiroshima City University

Prof Jacobs can be contacted at,, and

This week I travelled from the Marshall Islands to my home in Japan. In many ways it seemed like a long journey between two places that couldn’t be more different. One an ultra modern society of tall buildings, bright lights and mountains and the other a developing society on coral atolls less than a few meters above the ocean with small populations and no shopping malls.

I had been in the Marshall Islands during the 60th anniversary of the Bravo nuclear test in 1954. This was the largest nuclear weapon ever tested by the United States. The resulting fallout cloud covered an immense area and irradiated many populated atolls in the northern Marshall Islands. Whole populations were hastily evacuated from atolls in a panicked emergency by the US military, but not before they had been exposed to very high levels of radiation. This was followed by waves of sickness and death among the exposed populations. Thyroid cancers were rampant. Traditional foods were contaminated and became forbidden. Many people were “temporarily” relocated to small islands that had far less room and resources than the atolls that had been their homes, leading to near starvation and poverty. The US attempted to “decontaminate” several of these atolls and returned the populations to their homes with restrictions that they could not go to certain designated areas, or fish from those areas—as though the fish obeyed these imaginary borders. They were told that it was now safe to live there, that their homes had been made normal. However, many people began to get sick again from the remaining contamination and were evacuated a second time. They have lived as refugees, occupying inferior housing as guests on the atolls of others. Their lack of access to traditional foods has led to diets of processed foods subsidized by the US, with a resulting rise in diabetes and other health problems. Not being able to fend for themselves in traditional modes has led to a deterioration of other aspects of culture as well. The radiation on Enewetak Atoll has stopped traditional grasses from growing and ended centuries of woven crafts that were essential to daily life. This has taken away a source of work and income from the population still living on the atoll, the site of numerous nuclear tests.

60 years later, the people have become accustomed to the negligence and deterioration to quality of life that accompanied their irradiation. The US government that inflicted this radioactive nightmare upon them has done its best to rid itself of any obligation to those whose lives were upended. March 1st, the date of the Bravo test, is now a national holiday—Nuclear Victims Remembrance Day—in the Marshall Islands.

Sign commemorating Nuclear Victims Remembrance Day at the capital building of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, March 1, 2014

Sign commemorating Nuclear Victims Remembrance Day at the capital building of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, March 1, 2014

A week after the anniversary I left the Marshall Islands and returned to my home in Hiroshima. By all accounts Japan is the opposite of the Marshall Islands. It is sleek and modern and affluent. There is a convenience store on every corner and sometimes two. You can leap frog from shopping mall to shopping mall. But only a few days after my return was an anniversary here in Japan: the 311 anniversary of the giant earthquake and tsunami three years ago that claimed so many lives. And the anniversary of the nuclear disaster the natural disasters triggered that has devastated so many more lives. While the triple meltdowns of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, the three explosions that dispersed plumes of radiation across parts of Northern Honshu were triggered by a natural disaster, there was negligence in the planning, construction, maintenance and especially in the regulation of these plants that facilitated and exacerbated the disaster. Hundreds of thousands of lives have been devastated by the nuclear disaster, separate from the almost twenty thousand that were killed by the natural disaster that set it in motion.

In the three years since March 11, 2011 events eerily reminiscent of the history of the Marshallese nuclear victims has befallen the residents of Fukushima. Many have been displaced from their homes to “temporary” housing that feels more and more permanent every year. Some are now being told that they will be returned to their former homes in towns that have been “decontaminated” even as that has proved nearly impossible at other sites of nuclear disasters. Traditional diets have been replaced with prepared foods, and traditional forms of work have been lost and substituted with meager payouts to those displaced. Medical problems have been denied, and emotional distresses are simply not recognized or dealt with in any organized manner. The victims are told that soon these minimal forms of “assistance” will be cut off and they will have to fend for themselves. Those responsible have sought to rid themselves of the burden of responsibility to those whose lives they have torn apart.

Maybe the journey across all that ocean and social contrast wasn’t such a big journey after all. Although I doubt that 60 years from now the “nuclear victims” of the Fukushima disaster will have a holiday honoring their plight.

Dr. Robert Jacobs, Hiroshima Peace Institute

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