Marshall Islands: Where America shot Mother Earth down
Oval-shaped Majuro Atoll is the nation’s political, economic and transport center, its 53 islets arcing in a slender 108km ribbon.
When Robert Louis Stevenson visited Majuro in 1889 he called it the ‘pearl of the Pacific‘, and while some of the luster may have worn thin, there’s enough charm remaining to recall his description.
—Introducing Marshall Islands
Nowhere in Micronesia is the US military presence so pronounced as on Kwajalein Atoll, a US$4 billion space tracking and missile defence facility operated by the US Department of Defense.
Measured by lagoon size Kwajalein is the world’s largest coral atoll, its 97 islands surrounding an immense 2175 sq km body of water.
The original main base for the US nuclear test program, and an essential component in the development of the ‘Star Wars‘ missile defense system, Kwajalein has been at the heart of US weapons of mass destruction development for nearly 60 years.
The lagoon, sometimes described as ‘the world’s largest catcher’s mitt‘, is the target and splashdown point for intercontinental ballistic missile tests (ICBMs); many come from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, 6760km away, a distance covered in under 40 minutes.
The Kwajalein Missile Range (officially called US Army Kwajalein Atoll, or USAKA) includes Kwajalein Island to the south, Roi-Namur Island in the north and some smaller islands between the two. Two-thirds of the lagoon is termed the Mid Atoll Corridor, and access to this area is severely restricted.
—Introducing Kwajalein Atoll
Kwajalein atoll has been leased by the United States for missile testing and various other operations from well-prior to independence for the Marshall Islands.
Although this military history has influenced the lives of the Marshall Islanders who have lived in the atoll through the war to the present, the military history of Kwajalein has prevented tourism and has kept the environment in relatively pristine condition.
American civilians and their families who reside at the military installations in Kwajalein are able to utilize this environment with few restrictions.
Kwajalein has one of five ground stations used in controlling the range that assist in the operation of the Global Positioning System (GPS) navigational system.
Population: 15,000 inhabitants
Area: 0,36 sq km (0.14 sq mi)
Ebeye is the most populous island of Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, as well as the center for Marshallese culture in the Ralik Chain of the archipelago. Over 50% of the population is estimated to be under the age of 18. It is the fifth most densely populated island in the world.
U.S. officials uprooted many residents from Bikini Atoll and Enewetak Atoll to insure that the nuclear weapons testing did not directly harm human life.
The relocated Marshallese had to move somewhere, and most moved to Ebeye under the assistance of the United States. This forced relocation caused a huge mess, including a severe housing shortage and land owner legality issues that persist today.
The combination of factors created an environment of hostility and squalor, creating the slum of the South Pacific.
A 1998 International Atomic Energy Agency report found that Bikini is still not safe for habitation, because of dangerous levels of radiation.
Bikini Atoll was entered into the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites in August 2010.
The Marshall Islands, officially the Republic of the Marshall Islands (Marshallese: Aolepān Aorōkin M̧ajeļ), is an island country located in the northern Pacific Ocean. Geographically, the country is part of the larger island group of Micronesia, with the population of around 68,000 people spread out over 34 low-lying coral atolls, comprising 1,156 individual islands and islets.
The islands share maritime boundaries with the Federated States of Micronesia to the west, Wake Island to the north, Kiribati to the south-east, and Nauru to the south.
The most populous atoll is Majuro, which also acts as the capital.
From 1946 to 1958, as the site of the Pacific Proving Grounds, the U.S. tested 67 nuclear weapons in the Marshall Islands, including the largest nuclear test the U.S. ever conducted, Castle Bravo. In 1956, the Atomic Energy Commission regarded the Marshall Islands as “by far the most contaminated place in the world“.
Nuclear claims between the U.S. and the Marshall Islands are ongoing, and health effects from these nuclear tests linger.
Project 4.1 was a medical study conducted by the United States of those residents of the Bikini Atoll exposed to radioactive fallout. From 1956 to August 1998, at least $759 million was paid to the Marshallese Islanders in compensation for their exposure to U.S. nuclear testing.
With the 1952 test of the first U.S. hydrogen bomb, code named “Ivy Mike“, the island of Elugelab in the Enewetak atoll was destroyed.
- Nuclear legacy in the Marshall Islands: “Nomads in their own country” – UN Expert (yubanet.com)
- Liveblogging World War II: February 1, 1942 (delong.typepad.com)
- Mark Stege: When It Hits Home… (huffingtonpost.com)
- Research and Markets: 4Q11 Marshall Islands Mobile Operator Forecast, 2012 – 2015: National Telecommunications Authority in Marshall Islands to Have Approximately 17,000 Mobile Subscriber Connections in 2015 (sys-con.com)