In an isolated spot in the middle of the Pacific Ocean lies the Bikini Atoll, a tranquil patch consisting of 23 small islands so minute that they barely merited mention prior to 1945. It was then, in the midst of the Second World War, that the United States marshaled their best scientists and directed their efforts in the creation of one of the most awe-inspiring and monstrous creations known to man: the atomic bomb. Over more than a decade, 23 nuclear devices were detonated on the small island chain as the United States sought to perfect their most horrible weapon. Nearly sixty years later, the impacts of those tests can still be felt. Here is a short history of the Bikini Atoll.
1. Truman’s Edict
In December of 1945, with the threat of atomic war so present, President Harry S. Truman declared that nuclear testing was a necessity of modern war. He instructed his highest ranking army and navy officials to find a secluded spot where the US could test the effects of atomic blasts on flora and fauna. Being an out-of-the-way spot in the Marshall Islands, the Bikini Atoll was chosen.
2. Relocating the Locals
In February of 1946, Commodore Ben Wyatt relocated the island chain’s 167 residents. He explained to the people that their move would only be temporary, and that their sacrifice would be in the service of helping the United States put an end to all world wars. They were relocated to the nearby, uninhabited Rongerik Atoll, where they were essentially left by the US military.
3. Gathering Supplies
The American government was eager to get to work. It wasn’t long before 242 ships and 156 aircraft were drafted to start hauling supplies to the island chain. Among their cargo were some 25,000 radiation recording devices as well as more than 5,400 experimental rats, goats and pigs that were doomed to live very nasty lives in the wake of the tests.
4. Life in Rongerik Atoll
Though the United States left the Bikinians with several weeks food, it was not enough. The Rongerik Atoll produced far less vegetation than the bounteous Bikini Atoll and — after careful inspection — the islanders determined that the fish in the bay were inedible. Though they began to beg the Americans to return them to their native island, their requests went unheard.
5. Beginning Tests
In 1946, the United States conducted a series of tests intended to determine the effectiveness of nuclear bombs on warships. They detonated two devices at various places throughout the chain. Able was detonated in the sky above the island, and Baker was detonated 90 feet underwater.
6. The Journey of the Bikini Atoll Islanders
Two years after their initial relocation, in 1948, the United States government was finally forced to address the Bikini Islanders’ suffering. As a result, they were moved to Kwajalein Atoll, home to one of the United States military’s largest landing strips. The islanders were put up in tents alongside the runway. Six months later, the Bikinians moved to Kili Island, a spot that was almost as uninhabitable as Rongerik Atoll. Once again, the Bikini Islanders found themselves on the brink of starvation.
7. Operation Castle
In 1954, the Air Force and the Army began Operation Castle, a project designed to test the strength of the most powerful hydrogen bomb ever created. The detonation of the device, codenamed Bravo, kicked up millions of tons of sand, coral, plant and sea life, and essentially vaporized three islands. Water was rocketed miles into the air because of the blast and was visible by islanders more than 125 miles away. It was a thousand times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
8. The ‘Bravo’ Fallout
The results of Bravo were far-reaching. Islanders inhabiting some nearby islands were discovered to be suffering from radiation poisoning — the symptoms of which are nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, hair loss, and more — thanks to the fallout from the blast. The testers themselves were forced indoors for several hours and had to be air-lifted out in the wake of the blast. It was the most significant accidental radiological contamination caused by the United States in history. The islands impacted by the blast were considered unsuitable for habitation thereafter.
9. The Redwing Series
Between 1954 and 1958, the United States detonated twenty-one more nuclear devices at Bikini. Their combined atomic force added up to more than 75 megatons (that’s more 165 billion pounds, by the way). That’s more than three thousand Baker Bombs.
10. The 1970s Return
At the end of 1968, the United States was reasonably sure that most of the active radiation had left the Bikini Atoll, so they allowed the locals to return there. In the early seventies, 150 locals returned to the island, where they lived until 1978, when it was discovered that radiation had traveled through the island’s food chain and infected the islanders. After being relocated once more, the island has been uninhabited ever since.
11. The Habitable Radiation Zone
Today, 60 years after the atomic events, there continues to be misinformation and conflicting studies on the lingering radiation effects on the Bikini Atoll. Some studies suggest it is possible to live and work there with little threat of radiation damage, whereas others show radiation readings still exceed the minimum accepted levels. The big issue is food. All food needs to be imported, as local produce is not safe to eat in any form. While they’ve received more than $200 million in funds from the United States government, that’s nowhere near adequate to clean up the radiation effectively and so permanent resettlement of the atoll is not advised. Even nearby islands are at threat due to climate change and excessive flooding. It’s a crisis that needs to be addressed sooner than later.
12. Research on Bikini
So the 2.4-sq.-km island is officially uninhabited, but there are small groups of researchers working there plus municipal officials go there occasionally for temporary visits. For example, there is an agricultural study underway to determine if tomatoes, radishes, watermelons and other produce can safely grow in the contaminated soil.
13. Tourism to the Atoll
Slowly, but surely, the Bikinians are beginning to pour some time and effort back into their homeland. They’ve established a small dive tourism industry that attracts adventurous folks looking for something a little different. You stay on a liveaboard vessel from which you explore the underwater wonders of WWII wrecks in the area, but are also treated to an atoll tour that imparts a historical perspective of one of the most powerful and controversial events in world history.