Bikini Atoll

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Bikini Atoll and the H-Bomb
The “Bikini”
The bikini was invented in 1946 and named after the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall
Islands, the site of atomic bomb testing.
The primary objective of the Manhattan Project during World War II was the creation of
a nuclear fission or atomic bomb. Even before that goal was accomplished in 1945,
however, some nuclear scientists were thinking about the next step in the development of
nuclear weapons, a fusion or hydrogen bomb.
Progress on a fusion bomb was slow. Questions were raised about the technical
possibility of making such a bomb, as well as the moral issues raised by the use of such a
destructive weapon. But the detonation of an atomic bomb by the Soviet Union in 1949
placed the fusion bomb in a new perspective. Concerned that the United States was
falling behind in its arms race with the Soviet Union, President Harry S. Truman
authorized a full-scale program for the development of a fusion weapon.
The first test of a fusion device occurred on October 31, 1952, at Eniwetok Atoll in the
Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean. This was followed by a series of six more tests,
code-named "Operation Castle," at Bikini Atoll in 1954. Two years later, on May 20,
1956, the first nuclear fusion bomb was dropped from an airplane over Bikini Atoll.
Bikini Atoll had been selected in late 1945 as the site for a number of tests of fission
weapons, to experiment with different designs for the bomb and to test its effects on ships
and the natural environment.
At that time, 161 people belonging to 11 families lived on Bikini. Since the Bikinians
have no written history, little is known about their background. According to their oral
tradition, the original home of their ancestors is nearby Wotje Atoll. Until the early
1900s, they had relatively little contact with strangers and were regarded with some
disdain even by other Marshall Islanders. After the arrival of missionaries early in the
twentieth century, the Bikinians became devout Christians. People lived on coconuts,
breadfruits, arrowroot, fish, turtle eggs, and birds, all available in abundance on the atoll.
The Bikinians were expert sailors and fishermen. Land ownership was important in the
culture, and anyone who had no land was regarded as lacking in dignity.
On January 10, 1946, President Truman signed an order authorizing the transfer of
everyone living on Bikini Atoll to the nearly uninhabited Bongerik Atoll. The United
States Government asked the Bikinians to give up their native land to allow experiments
that would bring benefit to all humankind. Such an action, the Americans argued, would
earn for the Bikinians special glory in heaven. The islanders agreed to the request and,
along with their homes, church, and community hall, were transported by the United
States Navy to Rongerik.
In June and July of 1946, two tests of atomic bombs were conducted at Bikini as part of
"Operation Crossroads." More than 90 vessels, including captured German and Japanese
ships along with surplus cruisers, destroyers, submarines, and amphibious craft from the
United States Navy, were assembled. Following these tests, however, the Navy
concluded that Bikini was too small and moved future experiments to Eniwetok Atoll.
The testing of a nuclear fusion device in Operation Castle marked the return of bomb
testing to Bikini. The most memorable test of that series took place in 1954 and was
code-named "Bravo." Experts expected a yield of six megatons from the hydrogen bomb
used in the test, but measured instead a yield of 15 megatons, 250% greater. Bravo turned
out to be the largest single explosion in all of human history, producing an explosive
force greater than all of the bombs used in all the previous wars in history.
The value of Bikini as a test site ended in 1963 when the United States and the Soviet
Union signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty which outlawed nuclear weapons testing in the
atmosphere, the oceans, and outer space. Five years later, the United States government
decided that it was safe for the Bikinians to return home. By 1971, some had once again
take up residence on their home island. Their return was short-lived. In 1978, tests
showed that returnees had ingested quantities of radioactive materials much higher than
the levels considered to be safe. The Bikinians were relocated once again, this time to the
isolated and desolate island of Kili, 500 mi (804 km) from Bikini.
At the thirtieth anniversary of Bravo, the Bikinians had still not returned to their home
island. Many of the original 116 evacuees had already died. A majority of the 1,300
Bikinians who then lived on Kili no longer wanted to return to their native land. If given
the choice, most wanted to make Maui, Hawaii, their new home. But they did not have
that choice. The United States continues to insist that they remain somewhere in the
Marshall Islands. The only place there they can't go, at least within most of their
lifetimes, is Bikini Atoll.
Bikini Atoll is one of the 29 atolls and five islands that compose the Marshall Islands.
These atolls of the Marshalls are scattered over 357,000 square miles of a lonely part of
against an American invasion of the Marshalls. Throughout the conflict the Bikini station
served as an outpost for the Japanese military headquarters in the Marshall Islands,
Kwajalein Atoll.
The decision to go forward with the test, knowing that the winds were blowing in the
direction of inhabited atolls, was essentially a decision to irradiate the northern Marshall
Islands, and moreover, to irradiate the people who were still living on them.
Early in the morning on March 1, 1954, the hydrogen
bomb, code named Bravo, was detonated on the
surface of the reef in the northwestern corner of Bikini
Atoll. The area was illuminated by a huge and
expanding flash of blinding light. A raging fireball of
intense heat that measured into the millions of degrees shot skyward at a rate of 300 miles
an hour. Within minutes the monstrous cloud, filled with nuclear debris, shot up more
than 20 miles and generated winds hundreds of miles per hour. These fiery gusts blasted
the surrounding islands and stripped the branches and coconuts from the trees.
Bravo was a thousand times more powerful than the Fat Man and Little Boy atomic
bombs that were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima during the end of World War II.
In 1967, U.S. government agencies began considering the possibility of returning the
Bikinian people to their homelands based on data on radiation levels on Bikini Atoll from
the U.S. scientific community. This scientific optimism stemmed directly from an Atomic
Energy Commission study that stated, "Well water could be used safely by the natives
upon their return to Bikini. It appears that radioactivity in the drinking water may be
ignored from a radiological safety standpoint...The exposures of radiation that would
result from the repatriation of the Bikini people do not offer a significant threat to their
health and safety."
Accordingly, in June of 1968 [the story appeared on the front page of the New York
Times], President Lyndon B. Johnson promised the 540 Bikinians living on Kili and other
islands that they would now be able to return to their homeland. The President also stated
that, "It is our goal to assist the people of Bikini to build, on these once desolated islands,
a new and model community." He then ordered Bikini to be resettled "with all possible
dispatch."
In late 1972 the planting of the coconut trees was finally completed. During this period it
was discovered that as the coconut crabs grew older on Bikini Island they ate their
sloughed-off shells. Those shells contained high levels of radioactivity, hence, the AEC
announced that the crabs were still radioactive and could be eaten only in limited
numbers. The conflicting information on the radiological contamination of Bikini
supplied by the AEC caused the Bikini Council to vote not to return to Bikini at the time
previously scheduled by American officials. The Council, however, stated that it would
not prevent individuals from making independent decisions to return.
Three extended Bikinian families, their desire to return to Bikini being great enough to
outweigh the alleged radiological dangers, moved back to Bikini Island and into the
newly constructed cement houses. They were accompanied by approximately 50
Marshallese workers who were involved in the construction and maintenance of the
buildings.
The population of islanders on Bikini slowly increased
over the years until in June of 1975, during regular
monitoring of Bikini, radiological tests discovered "higher
levels of radioactivity than originally thought." U.S.
Department of Interior officials stated that "Bikini appears
to be hotter or questionable as to safety" and an additional
report pointed out that some water wells on Bikini Island
were also too contaminated with radioactivity for drinking. A couple of months later the
AEC, on review of the scientists' data, decided that the local foods grown on Bikini
Island, i.e., pandanus, breadfruit and coconut crabs, were also too radioactive for human
consumption. Medical tests of urine samples from the 100 people living on Bikini
detected the presence of low levels of plutonium 239 and 240. Robert Conard of
Brookhaven Laboratories commented that these readings "are probably not radiologically
significant."
While waiting for the radiological survey to be conducted, further discoveries of these
radiological dangers were made. In May of 1977 the level of radioactive strontium-90 in
the well water on Bikini Island was found to exceed the U.S. maximum allowed limits. A
month later a Department of Energy study stated that "All living patterns involving Bikini
Island exceed Federal [radiation] guidelines for thirty year population doses." Later in the
same year, a group of U.S. scientists, while on Bikini, recorded an 11-fold increase in the
cesium-137 body burdens of the more than 100 people residing on the island. Alarmed by
these numbers, the DOE told the people living on Bikini to eat only one coconut per day
and began to ship in food for consumption.
In April of 1978 medical examinations performed by U.S. physicians revealed radiation
levels in many of the now 139 people on Bikini to be well above the U.S. maximum
permissible level. The very next month U.S. Interior Department officials described the
75% increase in radioactive cesium 137 as "incredible." The Interior Department then
announced plans to move the people from Bikini "within 75 to 90 days," and so in
September of 1978, Trust Territory officials arrived on Bikini to once again evacuate the
people who were living on the atoll. An ironic footnote to the situation is that the long
awaited northern Marshalls radiological survey, forced by the 1975 lawsuit brought by
the Bikinians against the U.S. government, finally began only after the people were again
relocated from Bikini.
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