Smack dab in the middle of the Pacific Ocean there is a very beautiful but very sad place called Bikini Atoll. A ring of coral reefs and small sandy islands in the Marshall Islands chain, Bikini–the place from which the swimsuit gets its name–was once the seat of a vibrant culture of Pacific Islanders with a long history and many unique customs. Today, only about five people live on Bikini Atoll, all of them caretakers, and they’re a lot braver than I am. Bikini is now an eerie, mostly-deserted semi-wasteland of bleached coral, mutant plants and radioactive coconut crabs, made so by U.S. military nuclear testing in the 1940s and 1950s, which created an environmental disaster that is shocking and outrageous in its callousness and incompetence.
Sixty-eight years ago today, on July 25, 1946, a massive nuclear explosion went off at Bikini Atoll, the second nuke blast there in the course of one month. “Operation Crossroads” was an attempt by the U.S. Navy to ascertain the effects of atomic bombs on ships at sea. The military chose Bikini as an ideal test site and thought it would be relatively easy to relocate the 167 native residents of the island to the nearby Rongerik Atoll for a few weeks, until the radioactive effects of the bomb blasts died down and permitted the islanders to return. It didn’t happen that way. The long-term effects of nuclear weapons were poorly understood in 1946, and the destructiveness of the Crossroads blasts took American officials by surprise. Fish, sand, trees and basically everything around Bikini was hot with lingering radioactivity. What was more, the beautiful lagoon was now littered with the blasted hulks of surplus U.S. Navy ships that the military had put there to test the effects of the bombs–and these hulks were also very radioactive. Nobody was going back to Bikini after that.
What happened to Bikini Atoll to make it suck so bad? This.
But life on Rongerik wasn’t much better. That island had very poor fish and food resources, and the Bikini Islanders who were forced to try to live there for much longer than expected began to die of starvation–right under the nose of the U.S. Navy. When government officials visited Rongerik and were horrified at innocent people under American jurisdiction literally starving to death, a series of makeshift island relocations occurred, which ended in 1948 when most of the surviving Bikini Islanders ended up living on tiny Kili Island. But the lack of resources there too left them entirely dependent on U.S. aid that had to be air-dropped to them. The culture of the Bikini Islanders, which was intimately connected with their land, was destroyed.
The American government kept promising the Bikini Islanders they would eventually get to go home, and that radiation levels would fall to safe minimums soon. In 1972 a group of them returned–but continued monitoring by scientists proved that the island was still toxic. Women suffered a rash of stillbirths and miscarriages. The crabs living on the island weren’t safe to eat, and the soil didn’t grow much anymore. For a second time, the survivors of Bikini, now thoroughly irradiated, were removed again.
Since then the story has mostly been about wrangling over reparations. The United States has signed several treaties and compacts with the Marshall Islanders–where the Bikini families now live–and which are now an independent country, but the U.S. has failed to pay the compensation it promised to the survivors. In 2001 a special tribunal ruled that the U.S. government owes the Bikini Islanders $563 million in damages and restitution. Congress’s response has been an upraised middle finger.
The reforestation effort on Bikini Atoll has obviously been an industrial process, as these trees, planted in monotonous rows, attest.
Now, so much time has passed that most of the people who were moved off Bikini in 1946 are dead, and few of their descendants have much desire to return. Various scientists and government officials have said that environmentally-speaking things have gotten a lot better on Bikini in the last 10 years, and they could theoretically return if they wanted to. As of now there’s no effort afoot to effect a large-scale repatriation to Bikini. In the meantime, some tourist outfits have begun to sponsor dives and fishing trips to the spectacular lagoon; evidently it’s safe enough for short-term tourists. Bikini, thus, exists in a sort of limbo. There are trees planted in neat rows and even a few guest facilities on the beach. One caretaker, Edward Maddison, has lived on Bikini since 1985. He’s braver than most.
This story is sad and outrageous. This beautiful island and its pastoral culture were completely ruined, most likely forever, by the short-sighted folly of military strategists and planners back in the 1940s, and by the hubris and folly that human beings can behave responsibly with anything as powerful and destructive as nuclear weapons. As I’ve observed before on this blog, nuclear technology, once acquired, has a curious way of distorting logic so that things that would ordinarily seem utterly insane become not only responsible choices, but in some cases, imperatives. One of those would be the lunatic notion of annihilating a peaceful Pacific island with atomic bombs basically just to see what would happen. The Bikini Islanders have paid for this indefensible decision for decades. The sad remnants of their civilization now lie under trucked-in soil artificially enriched with potassium and in the shadow of palm trees infused with Strontium-90–a lethal little environmental hell tucked in the sapphire gem of paradise.