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article imageBikini Atoll: 60 years after the dawn of the nuclear age

By Karen Graham     Mar 3, 2014 in Environment
Bikini Atoll is a paradox. On the one hand, the atoll looks like a beautiful earthly paradise, undisturbed by the march of time. It is the first place in the Marshall Islands to be named a World Heritage Site. Yet Bikini has a more sinister history.
Bikini Atoll is significant today because of events that took place there on March 1, 1954. The detonation of a 15-megaton hydrogen bomb on the atoll 60 years ago gave birth to the nuclear age. The "Bravo Test" was 1,000 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and exposed thousands of people to radioactive fallout.
Test Bravo  a 15-megaton nuclear detonation 1 000 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped o...
Test Bravo, a 15-megaton nuclear detonation 1,000 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
United States Department of Energy
Even today, Bikini Islanders and their descendants are afraid to move back to the atoll. The nuclear tests conducted at the atoll had major and lasting consequences to the environment, geology and to the health of many of the islanders after being exposed to the radiation.
Bikini islanders and their descendants have lived in exile since being moved in 1946 by the U.S. government so nuclear tests could begin. The U.S. promised the islanders the move was only temporary, no more than a couple months, and 167 people were relocated to Rongerik Atoll, around 120 miles east of Bikini Atoll.
In 1970, the atoll was declared safe for habitation, and the exiles were moved back to Bikini, but island leaders were concerned enough to raise questions about the radiation that was probably still present. Sure enough, the inhabitants were getting high doses of radiation from the home-grown food they had been ingesting. They were moved again in 1978.
In 1975, the Bikini islanders were awarded a $3 million trust fund by the U.S. government called The Hawaiian Trust Fund for the People of Bikini (U.S. Public Law 94-34). After another relocation in 1978, an additional $3 million was added to the trust. In 2006, the fund was liquidated, and no longer exists. A new trust fund implemented in 1982 now is valued at $84 million.
But what the public does not hear about is the hardships the Bikini islanders and their families endured at the hands of the U.S. government, scientists and the Atomic Energy Commission because they really didn't know enough about radiation and its long-term affects.
Moving Day  Bikini to Rongerik: On March 7  1946  the population of Bikini was moved to Rongerik in ...
Moving Day, Bikini to Rongerik: On March 7, 1946, the population of Bikini was moved to Rongerik in LST 1108, a total of 161 persons making the trip.
Joint Task Force 1
Near the end of WWII, in 1945, Bikini Atoll was claimed by the U.S. President Truman in late December of 1945 issued a directive authorizing the Army and Navy to conduct joint-testing of nuclear weapons "to determine the effect of atomic bombs on American warships." American officials thought Bikini Atoll would be the perfect location because of its isolated location in the Marshall Island group.
The atoll was immediately taken over in March 1946, when the people were moved by a Naval LST landing craft to Rongerik Atoll, a mere 120 -125 miles away to the east. Operation Crossroads had begun. Very soon, 242 naval ships, 156 aircraft and thousands of radiation detection devices started arriving. There were also 5,400 experimental rats, goats and pigs the Navy planned on using to test the affects of radiation on living creatures. In all, over 42,000 U.S. military and civilian personnel took part in the nuclear testing program on Bikini.
The legacy of the Bikini islanders has been one of not understanding the scientific concepts behind the destruction of their island homeland and their culture. But most of all, the islanders didn't understand a "Cold War" of worldwide proportions that was out of their control. They had more to worry about, like finding enough to eat and raising their families.
Rongerik Atoll was an uninhabited atoll, believed to be haunted by evil spirits, according to the islanders cultural beliefs. There was little to eat, and the lagoons on the island held little in the way of edible fish. Within two months, the Bikinians were close to starving, and were begging to be moved back to Bikini. As it turned out, the Bikinians ended up staying on Rongerik Atoll clear up into May 1947.
A rough map of the Marshall Islands. Near the top left  you can see Enewetok Atoll  moving to the ri...
A rough map of the Marshall Islands. Near the top left, you can see Enewetok Atoll, moving to the right, Bikini Atoll, and a little further to the right, Rongerik Atoll. Kili, where many Bikinians now live in near the bottom right of the map.
Holger Behr
A large fire had damaged the coconut trees on Rongerik, and when a U.S. physician visited the island, he found the people literally starving to death. Finally, in the fall of the year, a U.S. team of investigators visited the island, and seeing there was an inadequate supply of food and water, said the islanders had to be moved immediately. Harold Ickes stated in his 1947 syndicated column Man to Man, "The natives are actually and literally starving to death."
Finally, in March of 1948, the islanders were moved from Rongerik to Kwajalein Atoll where they were housed in tents near an airstrip. Not happy with where they had been moved, in June 1948, the Bikinians chose Kili Island, located in the southern Marshall Islands. On Kili, the third move in two years, the islanders were again plagued with starvation, and it got so bad, airdrops of food supplies were ordered brought in.
All the trials the Bikini islanders were going through were nothing to what was to come. On March 1, 1954, in a test called "Castle Bravo," the U.S. detonated the 15-megaton "shrimp" nuclear bomb on Bikini Atoll. This H-bomb is the largest one ever detonated by the U.S., and was not the very first H-bomb tested in the Marshall Islands. A device called "sausage" was tested on November 1, 1952. It was only 10.4-megatons. This test, dubbed "Ivy Mike" was detonated on Enewetak Atoll, also in the Marshall Islands group.
The United States effectively irradiated most of the northern islands of the Marshall Island group in the nuclear testing that took place on Bikini Atoll. In all, , 23 nuclear weapons devices were detonated at seven test sites located either on the reef, on the sea, in the air or underwater between 1946 and 1958.
To sum up how the Bikini islanders felt in 1946 after being forced to move to Rongerik Atoll, and while facing near starvation, here is an anthem written by Lore Kessibuki:
No longer can I stay, it’s true
No longer can I live in peace and harmony
No longer can I rest on my sleeping mat and pillow
Because of my island and the life I once knew there
The thought is overwhelming
Rendering me helpless and in great despair.
More about Bikini atoll, operation crossroads, Marshall Islands, Reparations, unliveable
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