- Over a period of more than a decade, the US military conducted dozens of nuclear tests in the Pacific.
- Years later, soldiers were sent to the Marshall Islands to try and clean up the fallout from the testing.
- But many were exposed to contaminated food and dust, leaving them with severe and lasting health issues.
For over a decade beginning not long after World War II, the US carried out dozens of nuclear weapons tests in the Marshall Islands — a chain of islands and atolls in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
The largest of the 67 tests that were conducted between 1946 and 1958 was Castle Bravo. On March 1, 1954, the US military detonated a thermonuclear weapon at Bikini Atoll, producing an explosive yield 1,000 times greater than the atomic bomb that devastated Hiroshima, Japan.
Nuclear tests like Castle Bravo produced a substantial amount of nuclear fallout that negatively affected the people of the Marshall Islands, according to the Brookings Institution think tank. Radioactive material was even found in communities thousands of miles away.
American service members were later deployed to the Pacific so they could tackle the cleanup efforts. Insider spoke recently with one veteran who supported these efforts and said he was exposed to pollutants during his service. He’s one of many with such complaints.
‘There’s no way possible to clean that up’
Ken Brownell, who was a carpenter when he served in the military in the late 1970s, was sent to the Marshall Islands in 1977 to build a base camp for hundreds of soldiers assigned to cleanup operations. These cleanup efforts involved a concrete dome that was built on Runit Island, one of 40 islands that make up Enewetak Atoll, which was used to deposit soil and debris contaminated by radiation.
The goal, Brownell said, was supposedly to make the area habitable again for the Marshallese people after all the nuclear testing that happened during the US occupation, which began during World War II (the Marshall Islands eventually became independent in 1979).
Brownell, 66, said he worked 12-hour work days, six days a week, while living on Lojwa — an island “deemed safe” at the time because it didn’t host any nuclear tests, even though it was located near islands that did. His job included excavations and pouring concrete.
But despite the US military’s efforts to clean up the islands, Brownell said there was one, massive problem — it just couldn’t be done.
“There’s no way possible to clean that up. Once that soil was contaminated, the animals that lived on the islands, the birds, the rats, the coconut crabs, all the — whatever wildlife was there — they consumed all that,” Brownell said . “So all this — the radioactive material goes into the ocean, gets into the coral. Now you’ve got it into the fish life. You’ve got it into the lobsters.”
Brownell said exposure to radioactive material could come from “any place on those islands,” whether it was eating contaminated seafood, or just walking around in the dirt and breathing in contaminated dust.
“On our end of it, most of our guys are dead because of the cancers and all the ailments that come along with the radioactive materials that we ingested,” Brownell said, adding that he had nothing in the way of protective gear. On a typical day, he said he would wear an outfit consisting of just combat boots, shorts, and a hat.
Coming from a farming community in New York, Brownell said he had no knowledge of radioactive materials before getting sent to the Marshall Islands. He also said he did not receive any prior training in radiological cleanups and that the potential dangers of the mission were never properly addressed beforehand.
“There was no running water … you couldn’t actually wash up. So you’re eating a baloney sandwich with dirty, contaminated hands, sitting in contaminated soil,” Brownell said. “The government said, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it … be careful swimming because there’s sharks out there.'”
Atomic veteran Francis Lincoln Grahlfs echoed Brownell’s remarks about a lack of knowledge on the dangers of nuclear cleanups, writing in a Military Times op-ed last year that “little was known by the public about the long-term effects of radiation exposure.”
Impact of radiation pollution
Nuclear weapons testing in the Marshall Islands had “devastating effects” on the country’s environment that “remain unresolved,” according to a 2019 report by the Republic of the Marshall Islands’ National Nuclear Commission. Some individuals still “live with a daily fear of how their health might be affected by long-term exposure to radiation.”
Several of Brownell’s friends dealt with health complications that he believed to be related to their service in the Marshall Islands — and he was not immune. In 2001, he was diagnosed with stage-four non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and given only six months to live. That wasn’t the end though.
“That six months has turned into 20 years — 21 years,” Brownell said. “So I’m grateful every day that I’m still here.”
Like Brownell, Grahlfs — who was sent to the Marshall Islands in 1946 — wrote in his December 2021 op-ed that he has suffered from health complications, including cancer, believed to be a result of his service.
Brownell and other veterans have been fighting to be covered by government services that could provide compensation and other care. He is currently covered by the PACT Act, which is legislation aimed at improving funding and healthcare access for veterans who were exposed to toxins during their service that was signed by President Joe Biden in August.
However, he, like thousands of others, are excluded from the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which only covers veterans present for atmospheric nuclear tests. RECA has had faster response times for claims than those submitted through the VA.
Brownell said that in seeking compensation, he’s been denied — his health issues were acknowledged, but the PACT Act had not yet passed at the time. He’s been to Washington numerous times to advocate on behalf of cleanup veterans, and he’s already planning another trip in 2023.
Neither the Department of Veterans Affairs nor the Defense Department immediately responded to Insider’s requests for comment.
“We’re still fighting. We’re not gonna give up, and we’re just gonna keep going and keep fighting,” Brownell said. “The world needs to know. They need to know how dangerous the radiation is — how dangerous nuclear testing is.”