Cover photo credit: UNESCO.org
While SpongeBob doesn’t quite depict the horrors of nuclear testing, its inspiration does.
SpongeBob’s home, Bikini Bottom, was named for Bikini Atoll where the U.S. conducted nuclear tests from 1946 to 1958. References to the destructive nuclear tests are littered throughout the show, ranging from a magazine “Toxic Waste Monthly” to an indiscreet island featured in the introduction to every episode. Even more blatant are all the explosions in the show, which mirror the infamous nuclear mushroom clouds. One episode even features a town called “Rock Bottom” that mimics the crater created on the ocean floor during one of the nuclear bomb tests.
SpongeBob got to this nuclear adjacent crater accidentally, and was then left stranded because of decisions out of his control. Sound anything like nuclear weapons and their aftermath?
Bikini Atoll is one of the atolls (a reef, island, or chain of islands,) that make up the Marshall Islands, which is located between Hawaii and the Philippines. After World War Two, the United States gained control of the Marshall Islands and began nuclear testing on the islands in 1946. Between 1946 and 1958, the U.S. conducted over sixty-seven nuclear weapons tests in the Marshall Islands. The U.S. claimed the purpose of the tests was to study the effects of the nuclear bombs on U.S. warships. They also stated that the location chosen was based on its relative remoteness. Largely ignored, however, was the impact the tests had on the island residents who were left displaced and to deal with the aftermath of the nuclear testing largely themselves.
The vacant island featured during the cheery SpongeBob intro song is speculated to be Bikini Atoll. In 1946, the 146 residents of the island were forcibly relocated with the promise of return once the tests were complete. Twenty-five years later they were able to, but they returned to an island devastated by nuclear bombs and drenched with radiation — and were quickly forced to leave their home again. The radiation levels today still far exceed levels considered to be habitable, and are even higher than those at Chernobyl and Fukushima.
The largest of the nuclear tests in the islands was the Castle Bravo test that took place on March 1, 1954. Its explosion was greater than the one at Hiroshima and obliterated 3 islands. Its unexpected size and an unaccounted-for wind left the Rongelap, Rongerik, Alinginea and Utirik atolls to deal, unknowingly, with nuclear fallout that fell out of the sky like snow and exposed the residents to extreme levels of radiation. Over six-hundred people were recorded to be overexposed to radiation, resulting in lifetimes of serious health complications. Nuclear fallout plagued the soils and water, with food grown on multiple islands being too saturated with radiation to eat. The majority of food eaten on the islands is imported and has led to high levels of diabetes in the population.
Accessing healthcare is challenging for Marshallese citizens, even those who have chosen to relocate to the U.S. In 1986, the Marshall Islands gained independence and entered a deal known as the Compact of Free Association (COFA) with the United States. It allows Marshallese to freely enter, live, and work in the states while the U.S. retains control of Marshallese waters and maintains a base on the islands. Under its original implementation, COFA included Medicaid for the Marshallese living in the U.S. However, in 1996 this right was taken from them and has yet to be returned. High levels of diabetes, as well as continuing repercussions from radiation, still threaten the population, and lack of easy access to healthcare makes treatment nearly impossible for many Marshallese.
After the completion of the tests, the U.S. began an eight-year cleanup that addressed just three of the forty islands that needed attention, making only some habitable again. Their solution for the radioactive waste left on the island was to bury it in a crater created by one of the bombs on the Enewetak Atoll. Known as Runit Dome, the radioactive grave contains a mix of nuclear debris and cement from the Marshall Island testing as well as soil from atomic testing in Nevada.
COFA left the island residents the responsibility of the dome, unaware that it was meant only to be a temporary fix. More than sixty years later, the dome has begun to crack and radioactive material has been leaching into the surrounding soil. Climate change and rising sea levels threaten to expedite the damage as more of the tomb becomes submerged in water and unpredictable weather threatens to pull it apart. Michael Gerrard from Columbia University states succinctly “the Marshall Islands is a victim of the two greatest threats facing humanity — nuclear weapons and climate change.”
Unlike at the end of an episode of SpongeBob, there has been no happy resolution for the Marshallese; instead a series of threats and obstacles continue to endanger them. March 1 in the Marshall Islands is recognized as Nuclear Victims Remembrance Day, marking the anniversary of the detonation of the Castle Bravo bomb and remembering Marshallese impacted by nuclear testing between 1946 and 1958.
Oftentimes, the visible and quantifiable side of the devastation of nuclear testing is not recognized. The Marshallese, like many others, are a population that has been irreversibly damaged by nuclear testing and has been left largely to deal with the consequences themselves.
“The Marshall Islands is a victim of the two greatest threats facing humanity — nuclear weapons and climate change.” – Michael Gerrard