US Marshall Island nuke tests blamed for South China Sea radioactivity

A decade-long Chinese study into radioactivity levels in the South China Sea alleges that US Marshall Island nuclear testing is to blame.
Christopher McFadden
Image of the Castle Bravo Bikini Atoll test on March 1, 1954.

United States Department of Energy/Wikimedia Commons 

Higher than average radioactivity levels in the South China Sea have been blamed on US nuclear testing in places like the Marshall Islands during the Cold War, the South China Morning Post (SCMP) reports.

In a new study published in the Chinese language journal Environmental Chemistry, the findings come after almost a decade of study. According to the team, SCMP reports can now be used in this study to help China’s “environmental assessment” of the region, led by Peng Anguo, an associate professor at the University of South China.

Radioactivity in the South China Sea

According to a recent study, radioactive pollutants from the US Pacific Proving Ground (PPG) tests have spread throughout the South China Sea, carried by ocean currents over 3,000 miles (5,000km).

The study further reveals that these pollutants (mainly isotopes of plutonium in ocean sediments) still exist in the region today, including in previously uncharted areas in the southern part of the waterway. Given that China and other countries have overlapping claims to islands, reefs, and other features in the South China Sea, the study's findings may increase tensions in the region.

Between 1946 and 1958, the US carried out 67 nuclear tests at the PPG in the Marshall Islands. The total yield was 210 megatons of TNT, which is equivalent to more than two Hiroshima-sized bombs every two days, according to some scientific estimates. These tests, involving atmospheric and underwater detonations, released substantial amounts of radioactive materials such as plutonium, cesium, and strontium. Winds and ocean currents then carried these materials to other areas of the Pacific region.

Series of nuclear tests conducted by China

It is also important to note that China conducted a series of nuclear tests throughout the 1960s and 1980s, the impacts of which must also be factored in in any such discussion. However, most of their tests were in mainland China rather than at sea. There is also evidence that China is also ramping up more nuclear testing in Xinjiang.

According to a marine environmental science expert based in Beijing, SCMP reports, China could potentially collaborate with countries like the Marshall Islands to hold the US responsible for the environmental harm caused by their nuclear tests. The expert, who was not part of the initial study, stated that there are legitimate grounds for China to unite with other nations and pursue compensation for the negative effects of these tests.

“There are questions about the legality and ethics of the tests. This may give affected countries a basis for seeking compensation,” said the researcher, who asked not to be named because of the issue’s political sensitivity. In 1986, the US instituted a nuclear claims tribunal that has since granted over US$2 billion in compensation to the inhabitants of the Marshall Islands for harm to their health and property.

However, there are lingering concerns. The awarded compensation has been deemed insufficient due to the extensive and far-reaching environmental and health ramifications. Furthermore, certain supporters have urged supplementary payments to address the ongoing effects of the experiments.

Also, according to the SCMP interviewed expert, it may become challenging to establish a definite connection between the PPG tests and their impact on the environment or health as time passes. He also mentioned that the effects of these tests are still under investigation, and we do not have a complete understanding of them yet.

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