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After the bombs

Bikini Atoll is as close to the middle of nowhere as you can get. This is why the US tested its nuclear weapons there. Bikini Island, the largest in the atoll, is an eerie place. On a fragrant evening, beneath palms hurling coconuts to the ground in startling thuds, a concrete pad shines in the moonlight. It’s all that remains of a church where the people of Bikini once worshipped. Then one fine morning in early 1946, US Commodore Ben Wyatt stood there and asked Bikini’s 167 inhabitants to leave – ‘for the good of mankind and to end all world wars’ – so that the US could test nukes in their turquoise home.

Sixty-one years later and thousands of miles away, on 2 August the US Court of Federal Claims dismissed a lawsuit against the US on behalf of almost 4,000 survivors and descendants of those Bikinians. They are demanding that over a half billion dollars that was awarded in 2001 by the Majuro-based Nuclear Claims Tribunal (NCT) be paid. The NCT, created in 1986 between the US and Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), has only been able to pay a fraction of that award. But the judge said it’s a political issue, and that Bikinians should complain to the US Congress.

Bikinians are used to setbacks. They’ve suffered starvation and countless indignities. Some returned to Bikini in 1972, only to leave again in 1978 when told they were being poisoned by residual radiation. A 1981 lawsuit was dismissed when the NCT was set up to adjudicate claims. But the NCT, under-funded by the US, has been swamped by claims from atolls across the northern Marshalls and has issued almost $2.5 billion in personal injury and property damage awards. It’s now virtually broke.

While demands for compensation have fostered a mentality of entitlement and inertia, the inhabitants of Marshall Islands’ nuclear atolls are taking their lives in their own hands. The people of Enewetok, where 44 tests occurred, have resettled a portion of their atoll. Rongelap, showered by fallout from the colossal Bravo H-bomb at Bikini in 1954, is pitching its pristine reefs to ecotourists. Bikini’s dive operation has been running since 1996, cashing in on the wrecks of two dozen warships scuttled there in 1946.

Still, most Bikinians aren’t returning home. Edward Maddison has lived on Bikini Island since 1985, helping the US Department of Energy monitor soil and test cleanup techniques, mapping ‘ghost wrecks’ and accompanying tourists to the bottom of the lagoon. But others are slow to follow. Older Bikinians say they’ll return when the entire atoll is clean and local food safe to eat. Younger generations who’ve never even seen Bikini view their ancestral home as a quaint myth. In the absence of reliable air or sea links to Bikini, and of Bikinian leaders with the gumption to visit regularly – or move here to boost their community’s confidence – there’s no guessing when this lovely, lonely atoll will ever be resettled.

New Internationalist issue 405 magazine cover This article is from the October 2007 issue of New Internationalist.
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