On March 1, 1954, the United States carried out Castle Bravo, testing a nuclear bomb on the Bikini Atoll, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The test not only went without a hitch, it actually went better than expected. The yield produced by the bomb was much higher than scientists had anticipated. At the same time, the weather conditions in this part of the Pacific turned out to be different to what had been predicted. Radiation fallout from the blast was blown upwind, towards the Marshall Islands. But, instead of alerting the islanders to the danger, the project heads sensed an opportunity. How many times would they be able to see the affect of radiation fallout on a population for real?
Making the most of the opportunity, the American scientists simply sat back an observed. That is, they watched innocent people be affected by the fallout of an American nuclear bomb. Over the next decade, the project observers noted an upturn in the number of women on the Marshall Islands suffering miscarriages or stillbirths. But then, after ten years or so, this spike ended. Things seemingly returned to normal, and so scientists were unable – or unwilling – to make any formal conclusions. But then, things started to go downhill again.
At first, children on the Marshall Islands were observed to be growing less than would be expected. But then, it became clear that not only were they suffering from stunted growth, but a higher-than-expected proportion of youngsters were developing thyroid cancer. What’s more, by 1974, the data was showing that one in three islanders had developed at least one tumor. Later analysis, published in 2010, estimated that around half of all cancer cases recorded on the Marshall Islands could be attributed to the 1954 nuclear test, even if people never displayed any obvious signs of radiation poisoning in the immediate aftermath of the explosion.
Given that the initial findings of Project 4.1 as it was known were published in professional medical journals as early as 1955, the American government has never really denied that the experiment took place. Rather, what has been, and continues to be contested, is whether the U.S. actually knew that the islands would be affected before they carried out the test. Many on the Marshall Islands believe that Project 4.1 was premeditated, while the American authorities maintain that it was improvised in the wake of the explosion. The debate continues to rage.