When you hear the name Bikini Atoll, your mental image of the place will depend largely on your age. It’s either the home of SpongeBob SquarePants from the TV show of the same name or it’s the home of Godzilla. Or it may conjure up images of its original purpose, the purpose that cemented it in pop-culture in the first place. For those that don’t know, Bikini Atoll was the US’ test site during the 1940s and 1950s for 23 separate Nuclear bombs.
Beginning in 1946, a series of Atomic bombs were tested on and around the Marshall islands, of which Bikini Atoll is one, as both a means of testing and refining the incredibly destructive power demonstrated at Hiroshima and Nagasaki just a year earlier, as well as making a clear statement of US atomic superiority over the Soviet Union.
The Micronesian inhabitants of Bikini Atoll were approached in 1946 by the US government and asked to re-locate while the tests were being carried out. They would be transported to Rongerik Atoll, which is about 6 times smaller than Bikini Atoll — it also has insufficient food and water supplies and was uninhabited at the time.
One of the reasons it remained uninhabited was because the islanders believed that Rongerik Atoll was haunted by demons. However, demons or not, they agreed in good faith and were given enough food and water for a few weeks while the tests took place and promised that they could return within the month — most of them would never return to Bikini Atoll again.
The US were especially interested in the effects of nuclear explosions on ships, so they sailed a number of de-commissioned destroyers, cruisers, carriers and submarines to the Atoll, 95 in total, making this 6 largest fleet in the world at the time, to test their bombs on. They also built a nuclear testing facility, complete with instrumentation, quarters and workshops, as well as floating dry docks and observation towers.
Operation Crossroads was the first to be inflicted on the Atoll, with Baker and Able being detonated on the July 24th and June 30th, 1946 respectively. But it would be Operation Castle that would seal the fate of Bikini Atoll.
The islanders on Rongerik Atoll were starving, the land there being far less fertile than their native Bikini. They were then moved to Kili Island. It was little improvement for the islanders. Relying on fishing for a large part of their diet, they found Kili, which has no lagoons and rough seas most of the year particularly difficult to survive on.
But on March 1st, 1954, the fate of Bikini Atoll was about to take a destructive turn. Ironically, the bomb that was detonated was one of the few not detonated on the Atoll, instead it was detonated on an artificial island 900m from Namu island. This was the infamous Castle Bravo hydrogen bomb. It exploded that day with the force of 15mt , far more than the 6mt that was expected. It was 750 times more powerful that the Fat Man bomb that levelled Nagasaki. It denoted with 2.5 times the expected yield and remains the largest nuclear bomb ever detonated by the US, equivalent to 15 million tonnes of TNT.
Appropriate precautions hadn’t been taken for such a large detonation, and so nuclear fallout rained down on Bikini Atoll, Rongelap Atoll and Rongerik Atoll. 20,000 people were affected by the Castle Bravo detonation and 15 islands and atolls were contaminated. People showed signs of acute radiation sickness, and, on Rongelap, 2 cm of nuclear ash blanketed the entire island. Children, unaware of the fallouts affects, began playing with the falling ash like snow.
Another 19 atomic bombs would be detonated on and around Bikini Atoll, the last one Juniper on July 22nd, 1954, almost 12 years to the day since the Baker detonation. Now, the fight to return to Bikini Atoll really began. Struggling to survive on Kili Island, the islanders were eager to return home.
In spite of all we’d put it through Bikini Atoll had recovered from its years of abuse at the hands of the US. Having been bounced between various islands and atolls since the testing began, Kili had become their permeant home since 1948, but the islanders desperately wanted to return home. It wouldn’t be until 1968 when they got the chance. President Lyndon B Johnson promised that the islanders could return, but an investigation by the Atomic Energy Commission found that the radiation levels in the coconut crab, an essential food source for the islanders, were far above normal and acceptable limits. As such, the islanders were forced to remain on Kili island.
Three families did move back in 1972, followed by others in 1987 despite later advice. Issues continued to plague the islanders though, with a boy who’d been born on Bikini Atoll dying from cancer caused by the radiation. In 1982, those that had returned would be evacuated for a second time when it was found that the top 15 inches of soil contained high concentrations of Caesium 137, which would then make its way into the various plants and fruits the islanders ate — and yes, even the coconuts were affected. This resulted in a high number of stillbirths, miscarriages and genetic abnormalities in the children born from those affected by the atomic tests conducted in and around Bikini Atoll. What’s more men were four times as likely to develop lung cancer on the island, while women were 60 times more likely develop cervical cancer
Over $150 million has been paid to the Bikini islanders as compensation and to reconstruct homes, facilities and institutions for the islanders, many of whom now live on Kili Island. The call to return to Bikini Atoll is still strong though and many point to the fact that the island is still technically habitable.
The background radiation of the island has been found to be at normal levels, and even lower than that of some major US cities. While you could walk around on the island and suffer no real ill effects, living there is an entirely different story because of the aforementioned soil and subsequent food contamination.
One proposed solution, and the one favoured by the islanders themselves, is to scrap the topsoil. The top 15 inches of Caesium 137 contaminated soil would be removed and replaced with potassium rich soil. The plants, preferring the potassium over the caesium, would quickly switch to that. While Caesium 137 would still be present in the earth, it would be absent from the food.
There are unfortunately a number of issues with this. Removing the topsoil would have a devastating effect on the ecology of the island and scientists have argued that it would effectively turn Bikini Atoll into a wasteland. This is to say nothing of the expense and the fact that the scraping of the topsoil would likely have to be repeated on occasion to ensure that Caesium 137 didn’t return to the food supply.
Right now, the islanders live on a majority imported food supply and it’s likely that they could continue to do this on Bikini Atoll. It is hardly a return to normal life on the home island though and if the islanders are forced into the same food import practices they’ve had since the 40s, many argue why return to the island at all. Many islanders seem willing to take the risk of destroying the island if it means that they can return their a potentially grow food once more like their ancestors of old.
And so, it remains to this day. The Bikini islanders have never returned home, instead being forced into limbo. Most live on Kili Island today and there are as many as 2,400 Bikini islanders, with fewer than 40 of them having been alive to witness the fires of nuclear fission all those years ago. A great many of them have never even visited their home island, which in recent years has become a tourist attraction. A great many diving tours are offered, especially of the sunken USS Arkansas and the USS Saratoga aircraft carrier, two of the many ships sunk in the testing, as well as the colossal crater left by Castle Bravo.
Nuclear energy will always be divisive. It can provide some of the safest and cleanest energy available, but the destructive potential remains an ever-present danger. One tiny island and its people now stand as an example of what happens when we let our destructive tendencies get the better of us.
Bonus Fact: Louis Read named the recently reintroduced bikini (bikinis were worn as early as 300AD by the Romans) after Bikini Atoll because it he wanted people to have same reaction to them as when they saw the mushroom clouds over Bikini Atoll. His rival Jacques Heim named his own bikini garments, Atome, presumable because they were as so small.
Bonus Fact: Ironically for the islanders of Bikini Atoll, the word ‘bikini’ likely comes from ‘pikinni’ which, in the Marshallese language means ‘coconut place’.
Bonus Fact: The Castle Bravo bomb is the most powerful US bomb ever detonated, but not the most powerful bomb ever detonated. The Soviet Union’s ‘Tsar Bomba’ was detonated on October 30th, 1962 with a 50 mega tonne blast, almost 3.5 times more powerful than Castle Bravo. This was more powerful than the entire explosive power of Operation Castle, which include Bravo and six other bombs. Its mushroom cloud was 49 miles (67km) high, over 7 times the height of Mt Everest. If detonated in New York today, this bomb would’ve killed about 8 million people and injured a further 6.7 million.