By Graham Earnshaw
BIKINI ATOLL, Northern Pacific, Aug 25, Reuter – The many movies of recent years set in the post-nuclear war age do not prepare you for Bikini Island.
The United States exploded 23 atomic bombs on or near this northern Pacific atoll between 1946 and 1958, but you would never know it from the beauty of its palm-fringed beaches and coconut groves.
Nature’s power of regeneration may be remarkable, but this crescent-shaped four km- (three mile) long island remains virtually uninhabited because of lingering radioactivity in the island’s soil.
The people of Bikini, who were shifted out before the first atomic bomb blasts, have yet to move back permanently and a dispute over what needs to be done before they can has been dragging on for years.
The tests began in July 1946 with a blast over a fleet of 90 warships assembled in Bikini lagoon, an event which inspired a French designer to name a new two-piece swimsuit which devastated the world of fashion.
Some of the shipwrecks still lie on the floor of the lagoon, a diver’s delight if tourism to Bikini is ever opened up.
In 1954, the first hydrogen bomb, 1,000 times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Japanese cities in 1945 to end World War Two, was tested there, leaving behind the radiation which keeps the Bikini people exiled from their home.
Now the U.S. says it wants a solution that will allow the so-called “Nuclear Nomads” to return to Bikini in safety, while the Bikini people are trying to win as large a cash settlement as possible to pay for rehabilitating their island.
While the Bikini people press their claims in Washington, a small team of U.S. Department of Energy people man a field station on Bikini tending experimental plantations.
American scientists think their experiments point to a way to ensure the people’s safety, but with decades of fear and mistrust behind them, the Bikini people are loath to believe them.
For years, they were herded around the Marshall Islands, most of them ending up on the island of Kili where their traditional culture and diet have collapsed under the weight of U.S. welfare payments and food handouts.
The U.S. announced in 1968 that the island was safe and some families moved back, only to be taken off again in 1978 when scientists found radiation levels in their bodies rising due to their consumption of coconuts and other island food.
The scientists say there are two options for solving the problem — scraping off all the contaminated soil, or spreading potassium-rich fertiliser to cut the amount of radioactive elements the plants take up from the soil.
The Bikini people tend to favour the scraping option, the scientists the potassium option.
One of the leaders of the 2,000-strong Bikini community, Marshall Islands Finance Minister Henchi Balos, told a correspondent on a recent visit that he did not trust the scientists.
“They are the same scientists who told us it was safe in 1968,” he said. “The only peace of mind you will have is to see all the radioactive soil removed. You will not live comfortably on Bikini knowing you are surrounded by radioactive objects.”
The University of California’s Bill Robison, who is in charge of a team working on how to clean up Bikini, said the ultimate decision would rest with the Bikini people.
“The obvious option is to scrape away the top 40 cm (15 inches) of this island and dump it somewhere,” Robison said.
“It would definitely be an effective way of doing away with the (radioactive) caesium, but you would be left with something that looks like a beach and you would be faced with a tremendous problem of revegetating the island,” he added.
Professor Earl Stone, a soil science expert who works on the project, said there was less environmental radiation on Bikini than in some parts of the United States, and no sign of any mutation of animal or plant life.
“The external (radiation) dose is low. I wouldn’t hesitate to live here,” he said.
The main concern is that the plants on Bikini collect and concentrate radioactive elements from the soil and would pose a threat to health if eaten in large quantities over a number of years, Stone said.
That threat would be effectively ended by the application of potassium-rich fertilisers, Robison said, making the island’s food safe to eat.
“But they are worried, could it (the radiation) come back? They’re scared and with their history, it’s understandable,” he said.
Robison said that with occasional applications of potassium, the radiation levels in the coconuts and other plants on Bikini would remain at levels close to those in other parts of the world.
A bill allowing for money to be paid to the Bikini people to pay for the rehabilitation of their island is before the U.S. Congress. The sum 90 million dollars is frequently mentioned.
But if the Bikini-ites insist on the scraping option, it could cost them much more than that, and could ironically leave their island looking like something out of a Mad Max movie. REUTER GAE MH