Case 3 Atomic Testing at Bikini Island
The island of Bikini was, in 1946, a true tropical paradise in the Pacific Ocean's Marshall Island chain. Eleven families lived peacefully on the island, headed by their chief Juda. They fished, ate coconuts, pandanas and breadfruit, collected turtle eggs, and sailed to nearby islands to visit friends.
But, that year, American military planners concluded that the Bikini Atoll, a collection of fragile islands surrounding a lagoon, was the ideal target for testing the power of atomic bombs. An advance team came to Bikini and talked to the islanders about turning "this great destructive force to something good for mankind." Soon the 161 islanders were moved from their island to the Rongerik Atoll, hundreds of miles away. They were told that they would only be away from home temporarily.
Next, 42,000 American soldiers moved out to Bikini. They installed a "ghost fleet" of tens of ships in the lagoon and set up a radio station from which they could broadcast their impressions and observations. In July, two bombs were set off: the first was dropped by the plane "Dave's Dream" on July 1; the second was detonated under the sea on July 22. Americans back home heard the commander of "Operation Crossroads," Vice Admiral William Blandy, say that the undersea bomb "will not start a chain reaction in the water, converting it all to gas, and letting all the ships on all the oceans drop down to the bottom. It will not blow out the bottom of the sea and let all the water run down the hole. It will not destroy gravity."
American soldiers watched the explosions from the ship Mt. McKinley, which was nine miles offshore. They protected their eyes with tinted goggles as the mushroom-shaped clouds rose from the lagoon. Within minutes of the bombings, the soldiers and other observers were turning their backs on the scene, removing their goggles, and nonchalantly going about "business as usual." Within hours of each blast, soldiers were exploring "ground zero" to record the bombs' effects. Some ships sank; others floated on their sides; all were riddled with holes, black, charred, and stripped of surface paint. Gun barrels and other structures on the ships had melted. Many lambs and pigs that had been placed on the ships had burns and lesions on their bodies; others were dead. When the soldiers stepped onto the ships, their geiger counters ticked rapidly from the radioactive fallout.
The day of the second blast, the winds shifted, and, instead of being out of range of the bomb's fallout, Mt. McKinley and the troops were suddenly downwind. The ship and the soldiers were pelted with small stones, ash, coral, and other debris from the explosion. One soldier, John Smitherton, said (in the documentary film Radio Bikini ) that the blast was "one of the greatest things I'd ever seen." He also said that he never heard the word "radioactive" or heard anything about possible hazards. He put a small (radioactive) stone in his pocket, but later he tossed it aside.
That summer, the temperature hovered around 100 degrees at Bikini. The soldiers stripped down to shorts and tee shirts whenever possible, slept on the ship's deck, and swam in the lagoon to try to stay cool. They washed their clothes in lagoon water and cooked their food in it.
Over the next 11 years, American soldiers participated in 23 tests at Bikini during which hundreds of bombs were detonated.
Meanwhile, far from home, the Bikini islanders found that they could not construct a life on Rongerik. The island was not like Bikini, not luscious, not inviting, not productive, not home. Within two years, the islanders were starving and had to be relocated. The American military moved the islanders twice. In exile, the islanders had nothing to do; they sat waiting to return home and ate Spam.
The largest bomb ever dropped anywhere was dropped on Bikini on March 1, 1954. Called Bravo, it was a hydrogen bomb 1000 times more powerful than the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. The day Bravo was tested, the winds changed once again. Radioactive fallout rained down on the Rongelap and Utrik atolls and on the island of Rongerik. Islanders and American soldiers were drenched with white ash. To the children, the ash looked like snow, and many played with it throughout the day. A Japanese fishing vessel, The Lucky Dragon , carrying 23 fishermen, was also hit hard.
The fallout made people violently ill; many were burned, lost hair, and vomited. Later, their blood counts were low, and some developed thyroid nodules and leukemia and other classic signs and symptoms of radiation poisoning. Much later, the Defense Nuclear Agency called this blast "the worst single incident of fallout exposures in all the U.S. testing program" (cited in Operation Crossroads, p. 304).
In 1968, a few islanders moved back to Bikini, but by 1978 they were evacuated again, because the radioactive cesium (137Cs) and strontium (90Sr) levels in the water and in the soil were too high. More than half a century later, the island is still too radioactive for habitation. The islanders and the U.S. government continue to negotiate, searching for a means for restoring the island's soil so that it will be safe to live on.
- National Geographic, June 1986, A Way of Life Lost: Bikini, W.S. Ellis. 813-834.
- Video: Radio Bikini, 1987, First Run/Icarus Films, NY.
- Operation Crossroads, Jonathan Weisgall, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD. 1994.
- Health Physics, July 1997, 73(1): Special Issue: Consequences of Nuclear Testing in the Marshall Islands.
- Radium Girls: Women and Industrial Health Reform, 1910-1935, Claudia Clark, U. North Carolina Press, 1997.
- Website: http://www.eh.doe.gov/portal/ Search "Marshall Islands." Almost 100 articles are posted at this Department of Energy site related to the human and environmental tolls of the atomic tests and the fallout.
- The Island of the Colorblind, Oliver Sacks, Alfred Knopf, NY, 1997. (Briefly mentions the fallout. This is a story about people on the island who inherited a gene for colorblindness.)
AimsStudents should understand the following:
- History of the Marshall Islands and the people
- Atomic testing and the Cold War
- Illnesses and other effects of radioactive fallout
- Vulnerability of ill-informed and uninformed individuals
- Responsibility of the military to the soldiers stationed on Bikini
- Responsibility of the military to the inhabitants of Bikini Island
- Disposal of radioactive substances
Suggested Questions for Discussion
- Was the United States government within its rights to choose Bikini as its target for bomb testing and move the islanders away? What factors should the government have considered in making the decision?
- How much did the military know at the time of the bomb tests about the long-term effects of radiation?
- What kinds of reparations can be made today to the island and the islanders and their descendents?
- What are the biological effects of exposure to radiation? How does fallout injure people? How does it affect soil, water, food, other organisms, etc.?
- What illnesses are associated with exposure to radioactive materials? What environmental contaminants, besides radioactive ones, cause disease?
- What reparations are being made or are due to the injured soldiers and their families?
- Is there a safe place to dispose of radioactive waste? What has the United States done with its radioactive wastes? How have citizens reacted to these governmental actions?
Topics for Discussion/Written Assessment
- How was the culture of the Bikini Islanders altered by the move? What has this done to the integrity of their society? If any islanders move back to Bikini now, is it likely that they will resume a lifestyle like that of their forebears? Why or why not?
- The National Geographic article about Bikini notes that "In their culture a man without land is denied his dignity, his very reason for being." Discuss how this statement pertains to the inhabitants of Bikini. What cultural and social values should the U.S. government have considered when taking the islanders off their land?
- The Bikini Islanders no longer trust the U.S. government. Many soldiers no longer trust the military. What happens to trust when one is promised protection and fair treatment but gets something else?
- What is an atoll?
- What is the history of the Marshall Islands? Who settled them? Who has governed them?
- What radiation-associated effects did the U.S. government admit to at the time of the tests on Bikini and what has it admitted to more recently? Why is the truth usually not revealed at the time of a nuclear accident?
- What changes in the health of the islanders have been documented as a result of the move, their consumption of western foods, and their exposure to radioactive fallout?
- What changes occurred in the health of the soldiers who were involved in the atomic tests?
- Do soldiers sign away all their rights when they join the military? Which rights do they lose? Which rights do they keep? Consider these questions in light of the ongoing debate concerning Major Sonnie Bates's refusal to be vaccinated against anthrax.
Extension Questions for Further Investigation
- The Cold War and atomic testing were intimately entwined. What impact did atomic testing have on the positions taken by the players in the Cold War?
- Study accounts of the accident that occurred at the Indian Point, N.Y. nuclear facility in February 2000. What was revealed at the time of the accident? What ambiguities can you find in the government's news releases?
- When radiation accidents occurred at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, what information was released immediately? How different is it from the information that is available now about those accidents?
- Weigh the effects on the islanders' culture with the effects of atomic testing. On balance, did the testing at Bikini produce more good or more bad outcomes? Provide details.
- What are the moral obligations of governments to large groups and to small groups of individuals?
- What do other governments and citizens of other countries think about the United States and its policies on nuclear testing and nuclear power?
Topics for Teacher Preparation:
- History of the Marshall Islands and the inhabitants
- The impact of relocation on the people of Bikini
- The lasting effects of relocation today
- Post World War II atomic testing
- Knowledge of radiation hazards at the time of testing
- Effects of radiation on living organisms
- Disposal of radioactive waste, including soil
- The radioactive decay process and the danger that remains years later
- Other nuclear accidents