Bikini Atoll

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Bikini Atoll
Pikinni Atoll
Bikini Atoll. On the northwest cape of the atoll, adjacent to Nam island,  The crater formed by the 15 Mt Castle Bravo nuclear test can be seen, with the smaller 11 Mt Castle Romeo crater adjoining it.
Bikini Atoll. On the northwest cape of the atoll, adjacent to Nam island, The crater formed by the 15 Mt Castle Bravo nuclear test can be seen, with the smaller 11 Mt Castle Romeo crater adjoining it.
Flag of Bikini Atoll
Map of the Marshall Islands showing Bikini
Map of the Marshall Islands showing Bikini
Map of Bikini Atoll
Map of Bikini Atoll
Coordinates: 11°35′N 165°23′E / 11.583°N 165.383°E / 11.583; 165.383Coordinates: 11°35′N 165°23′E / 11.583°N 165.383°E / 11.583; 165.383
Country Republic of the Marshall Islands
 • Land 2.3 sq mi (6 km2)
 • Total 4-6 caretakers[1]
  Native population relocated in 1948.
Official name: Bikini Atoll Nuclear Test Site
Type: Cultural
Criteria: iv, vi
Designated: 2010 (34th session)
Reference No. 1339
State Party: Marshall Islands
Region: Asia-Pacific
Bikini is located in Pacific Ocean
Location of Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean

Bikini Atoll (pronounced /ˈbɪk.ɨˌniː/ or /bɨˈkiː.ni/; Marshallese: Pikinni, [pʲi͡ɯɡɯ͡inʲːii̯], meaning coconut place)[2] is an atoll in the Marshall Islands. The atoll consists of 23 islands totaling 3.4 square miles (8.8 km2) surrounding a deep 229.4-square-mile (594.1 km2) central lagoon at the northern end of the Ralik Chain (approximately 87 kilometres (54 mi) northwest of Ailinginae Atoll and 850 kilometres (530 mi) northwest of Majuro). Within Bikini Atoll, Bikini, Eneu, Nam and Enidrik islands comprise just over 70% of the land area. Bikini and Eneu are the only islands of the atoll that hosted a permanent population. Bikini Island is the northeastern most and largest islet. Before World War II the atoll was known by its Baltic German name as Escholtz Atoll.[3]

Between 1946 and 1958, 23 nuclear weapons devices were detonated at seven test sites located either on the reef, on the sea, in the air or underwater[4] by the United States at Bikini Atoll with a combined fission yield of 42.2 Mt. The testing began with the Operation Crossroads series in July 1946. Prior to nuclear testing, the residents initially accepted resettlement voluntarily to Rongerik Atoll, believing they would be able to return home within a short time. Rongerik Atoll could not produce enough food and the islanders experienced starvation. When they could not return home they were relocated to Kwajalein Atoll for six months before choosing to live on Kili Island, a small island one-sixth the size of their home island. Some were able to return to the Bikini Island in 1970 until further testing revealed dangerous levels of strontium-90. The islanders have been the beneficiary of several trust funds created by the United States government which as of 2013 covered medical treatment and other costs and paid about $550 annually to each individual.

In 1998, the Bikini Council authorized diving operations as a means to generate income for Bikini islanders currently and upon their eventual return. The tours, limited to less than a dozen experienced divers a week, cost more than USD$5000 and include detailed histories of the nuclear tests. The dive operations were managed from a shore-based facility until operations were suspended in 2008 when the Marshall Island airline ceased service due to unresolved mechanical issues. They have since been resumed from a live-aboard ship. While the island may be habitable in the near term, virtually all of the islanders alive today have never lived there. As of 2013, about 4880 Bikini people live on Kili and other Marshall Islands, and some have emigrated to the United States. Bikini Island is currently visited by a few scientists and inhabited by 4-6 caretakers.[1]

Because the Bikini Atoll bears direct tangible evidence of the nuclear tests conducted there, UNESCO named it a World Heritage Site. The atoll and island gained world-wide attention as a result of the nuclear testing. They gained additional fame when they were the source for naming a new swimsuit design, the bikini, that has become popular in Western cultures around the world.


The island's English name is derived from the German colonial name Bikini given to the atoll when it was part of German New Guinea. The German name is transliterated from the Marshallese name for the island, Pikinni, ([pʲi͡ɯɡɯ͡inʲːii̯]), Pik" meaning "surface" and "Ni" meaning "coconut", or surface of coconuts.[2]


Before the advent of Western influence, the Bikini islanders' sustenance-based lifestyle was based on cultivating native plants and eating shellfish and fish. They were skilled boat builders and navigators, sailing the two-hulled proa to and from various islets around the Bikini Atoll and other atolls in the Marshall Islands.[5] The islanders were relatively isolated and had developed a well-integrated society bound by close extended family association and tradition.[5] The men wore a fringe skirt of native materials about 25 to 30 inches (60 to 80 cm) long. Women were traditionally topless[6] and wore two mats about a yard (metre) square each, made by weaving pandanus and hibiscus leaves together,[5] and belted around the waist.[7] Children were usually naked.[5]

The Christian missionaries who began arriving in the late 19th century influenced the islanders' notions of modesty. In 1919, a visitor reported that Marshall Islands women "are perfect models of prudery. Not one would think of exposing her ankles..." Every lagoon was led by a king and queen and a following of chieftains and chief women who comprised a ruling caste. Some of the leaders maintained Western-style bungalows and maintained servants, including secretaries, maids, and valets. Poverty was non-existent. The islanders worked the copra plantations under the watchful eye of the Japanese, who took a portion of the sales. Chiefs could retain as much as $20,000 per year, and the remainder was distributed to the workers. The Marshall islanders were formerly aggressive but the influence of the mission churches eliminated most conflict. They took pride in extending hospitality to one another, even distant relatives.[8]

Women in the Marshall Islands today are still very modest. They believe a woman's thighs[9] and shoulders should be covered.[10] Women generally wear cotton muʻumuʻus or similar clothing that covers most of the body. While personal health is never discussed except within the family, and although women are especially private about female-related health issues,[6] they are willing to talk about their breasts.[6]

Marshall island women do not wear swimsuits but swim in their muʻumuʻus which are made of a fine polyester that quickly dries. In the capital of Majuro, revealing cocktail dresses are inappropriate for both islanders and guests.[10] With the increasing influence of Western media, the younger generation may wear shorts, though the older generation still equates shorts with loose morals. T-shirts, jeans, skirts, and make up are making their way via the media to the islands.[11]

Land based wealth[edit]

The Bikini islanders continue to maintain land rights as the primary measure of wealth.[12]

To all Marshallese, land is gold. If you were an owner of land, you would be held up as a very important figure in our society. Without land you would be viewed as a person of no consequence... But land here on Bikini is now poison land.[13]

Each family is part of a clan (Bwij), which owns all land. The clan owes allegiance to a chief (Iroij). The chiefs oversee the clan heads (Alap), who are supported by laborers (Dri-jerbal). The Iroij control land tenure, resource use and distribution, and settle disputes. The Alap supervise land maintenance and daily activities. The Dri-jerbal work the land including farming, cleaning, and construction. The Marshallese society is matrilineal and land is passed down from generation to generation through the mother. Land ownership ties families together into clans, and grandparents, parents, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, and cousins form extended, close-knit family groups, and gatherings tend to become big events. One of the most significant family events is the first birthday of a child (kemem), where relatives and friends celebrate with feasts and song.[5][14]

Payments made in the 20th century as reparations for damage to the Bikini Atoll and the islanders way of life have elevated their income relative to other Marshall Island residents. It has also caused some Bikini islanders to become economically dependent on the payments from the trust fund. This dependency has eroded individual's interest in traditional economic pursuits like taro and copra production. The move also altered traditional patterns of social alliance and political organization. On Bikini, rights to land and land ownership were the major factor in social and political organization and leadership. After relocation and settlement on Kili, a dual system of land tenure evolved. Disbursements from the trust fund was based in part to land ownership on Bikini and also based on current land tenure on Kili.[15]

Before the residents were relocated, they were led by a local chief and under the nominal control of the Paramount Chief of the Marshall Islands. Afterward, they had greater interaction with representatives of the trust fund and the U.S. government and began to look to them for support.[15]


Most Marshallese speak both the Marshallese language аnd at least some English. Government agencies use Marshallese. Оne important word іn Marshallese іs "yokwe" whіch іs similar tо the Hawaiian "aloha" аnd means "hello", "goodbye" аnd "love".[16]


The Bikini Atoll is part of the Ralik Chain (for "sunset chain") within the Marshall Islands.


There are 23 islands in the Bikini Atoll; the islands of Bokonijien, Aerokojlol, and Nam were vaporized during the nuclear tests.[17] The islands are composed of low coral limestone аnd sand.[16] The average elevation is only about 7 feet (2.1 m) above low tide level. The total lagoon area is 229.4-square-mile (594.1 km2). The primary home of the islanders was the most northeast and largest islet, Bikini Island, totaling 586 acres (237 ha) and 4 kilometres (2.5 mi) long.

Flora and fauna[edit]

The islanders cultivated native foods including coconut, pandanus, papaya, banana, arrowroot, taro, limes, breadfruit, and pumpkin. A wide variety of other trees and plants are also present on the islands.[17]

The islanders were skilled fishermen. They used fishing line made from coconut husk and hooks from sharpened sea shells. They used more than 25 methods of fishing.[5] The islanders raised ducks, pigs, and chickens for food and kept dogs and cats as pets. Animal life in the atoll was severely impacted by the atomic bomb testing. Existing land species include small lizards, hermit crabs, and coconut crabs. The islands are frequented by a wide variety of birds.[17]

To allow vessels with a larger draft to enter the lagoon and to prepare for the atomic bomb testing, the United States used explosives to cut a channel through the reef and to blow up large coral heads in the lagoon. The underwater nuclear explosions carved large holes in the bottom of the lagoon that were partially refilled by blast debris. The explosions distributed vast amounts of irradiated, pulverized coral and mud across wide expanses of the lagoon and surrounding islands. As of 2008, the atoll had recovered nearly 65% of the biodiversity that existed prior to radioactive contamination, but 28 species of coral appear to be locally extinct.[4]


The islands are hot аnd humid. The temperature on Bikini Atoll is a constant 80 to 85 °F (27 to 29 °C) year round. The water temperature is also 80 to 85 °F (27 to 29 °C) all year. The islands border the Pacific typhoon belt. The wet season is frоm May tо December while the trade winds from January through May produce higher wave action.[17]

Resident and non-resident population[edit]

When the United States asked the islanders to relocate in 1946, 19 islanders lived elsewhere. The 167 residents comprising about 40 families[18] who lived on the atoll voluntarily moved to Rongerik Atoll, and then to Kwajalein Atoll, and once again in November 1948 to Kili Island, when the population numbered 184. They were later given public lands on Ejit and a few families initially moved there to grow copra. In 1970, about 160 Bikini islanders returned to live on the atoll after they were reassured that it was safe. They remained for about 10 years until scientists found an 11-fold increase in the cesium-137 body burdens and determined that the island wasn't safe after all. The 178 residents were evacuated in September 1978 once again.[12]

Since then a number of descendants have moved to Majuro (the Marshall Islands' capital), other Marshall Islands, and the United States. In 1999, there were 2600 total individuals; 1000 islanders living on Kiji, 700 in Majuro, 275 on Ejit, 175 on other Marshall Islands or atolls, and 450 in the United States. Of those, 81 were among those who left the atoll in 1946.[19] In 2001, the population of the dispersed islanders was 2800.[20]

As of February 2013, there were 4880 living Bikini islanders: 1250 islanders living on Kili, 2150 on Majuro, 280 on Ejit, 350 on other Marshall Islands, and 850 in the United States and other countries. Of that number, 31 lived on Bikini in 1946.[17] The resident population of the atoll is currently 4-6 caretakers,[1][20] including Edward Maddison. Maddison has lived on Bikini Island since 1985. His grandfather was one of the original residents relocated in 1947.[21] He also helps the U.S. Department of Energy with soil monitoring, testing cleanup methods, mapping the wrecks in the lagoon, and accompanying visitors on dives.[22]


The Bikini islanders were historically loyal to a king, or Irojj. After the Marshall Islands separated from the United States in the Compact of Free Association in 1986, its constitution established a bicameral parliament. The upper house is only a consultative body. It consists of traditional leaders (Iroijlaplap), known as the Council of Irooj, who advise the lower house on traditional, cultural issues.[23] As of 2013, there are four members of the Council.

The lower house or Nitijela consists of 33 senators elected by 24 electoral districts. Universal suffrage is available to all citizens 18 years of age and older. The 24 electoral districts correspond roughly to each Marshall Islands atoll. The lower house elects the president who, with the approval of the Nitijela, selects a cabinet from among members of the Nitijela.[24][25]

Local government[edit]

Four district centers in Majuro, Ebeye, Jaluit, and Wotje provide local government. Each district elects a council and mayor and may appoint local officials. The district centers are funded by the national government and by local revenues. There are two political parties. Elections are held every four years. In 2011 Nishma Jamore was elected mayor of the district representing the Bikini people. Council members are elected from two wards on Ejit Island (three seats) and Kili Island (12 seats).[24]

U.S. liaison[edit]

The local government works with a U.S. paid Liaison Officer for Bikini Atoll Local Government, Jack Niedenthal, who is acting Bikini/Kili/Majuro Projects Manager. He is also the Tourism Operations Manager and oversees Bikini Atoll Divers.


Human beings have inhabited the Bikini Atoll for about 3,600 years.[26] U.S. Army Corps of Engineers archaeologist Charles F. Streck, Jr. found bits of charcoal, fish bones, shells and other artifacts under 3 feet (1 metre) of sand. Carbon-dating placed the age of the artifacts at between 1960-1650, B.C. Other discoveries on Bikini and Eneu island were carbon-dated to between 1,000 B.C. and 1 B.C., and others between 400-1,400 A.D.[27]

Map of Bikini Atoll, taken from the 1893 map Schutzgebiet der Marshall Inseln, published in 1897.

First recorded sighting by Europeans was in September 1529 by the Spanish navigator Álvaro de Saavedra on board of his ship La Florida when trying to return to New Spain, and was charted as Buenos Jardines (Good Gardens in Spanish).[28] The Marshalls lacked the wealth to encourage exploitation or mapping. The British captain Samuel Wallis chanced upon Rongerik and Rongelap atolls while sailing from Tahiti to Tinian. The British naval captains John Marshall and Thomas Gilbert partially explored the Marshalls in 1788.[29]

The first Westerner to see the atoll in the mid-1820s was the Baltic German captain and explorer Otto von Kotzebue, sailing in service of the Russian Empire. He visited three times during 1816 and 1817.[30] He named the atoll Eschscholtz Atoll after Johann Friedrich von Eschscholtz, the naturalist of von Kotzebue's ship. The Baltic Germans used the atoll to produce copra oil from coconuts although contact with the native population was infrequent. The atoll's climate is dryer than the more fertile southern Marshall Islands which produced more copra. Bikini islanders were recruited into developing the copra trade during the German colonial period.[15]

Spanish-German Treaty of 1899[edit]

The explosion in Havana Harbor of the battleship USS Maine—sent by the U.S.A. to protect American commercial interests in Cuba—led to the Spanish–American War in 1898. It resulted in Spain losing many of its remaining colonies, Cuba became independent while the United States took possession of Puerto Rico and Spain's Pacific colonies of the Philippines and Guam. This left Spain with the remainder of the Spanish East Indies in the Pacific, about 6000 islands that were tiny, sparsely populated. After the loss of the administrative center of Manila, the minor islands became ungovernable and, after the entire loss of two Spanish fleets in 1898, indefensible. The year is still known in Spain as the "Year of the national disaster" or "the loss of the 400 years Empire".

The Spanish government sold the islands to Germany.[24] The treaty was signed on February 12, 1899 by Spanish Prime Minister Francisco Silvela and transferred the Caroline Islands, the Mariana Islands, Palau and other possessions to Germany. The islands were then placed under control of German New Guinea. The first American missionary arrived in 1908.

Japanese occupation[edit]

Bikini was captured along with the rest of the Marshall Islands by the Imperial Japanese Navy in 1914 during World War I and mandated to the Empire of Japan by the League of Nations in 1920. The Japanese administered the island under the South Pacific Mandate, but mostly left local affairs in the hands of traditional local leaders until the start of World War II. At the outset of the war, the Marshall Islands suddenly became a strategic outpost for the Japanese. They built and manned a watchtower on the island, an outpost for the Japanese headquarters on Kwajalein Atoll, to guard against an American invasion of the islands.[31]

World War II[edit]

The islands remained relatively unscathed by the war until February 1944, when in a terrific bloody battle, the American forces captured Kwajalein Atoll. There were only five Japanese soldiers on Bikini and they committed suicide rather than allow themselves to be captured.[31]

Nuclear testing[edit]

Between 1946 and 1958, the United States detonated 23 nuclear devices at seven test sites on the reef, on the sea, in the air and underwater[4] at Bikini Atoll, with a combined fission yield of 42.2 Mt. The testing began with the Operation Crossroads series in July 1946.

Residents relocated[edit]

March 7, 1946, 161 residents of Bikini Island board LST 1108 as they depart from Bikini Atoll.
Bikini islanders arrive on Rongerik Atoll and unload pandanus for thatching the roofs of their new buildings.[32]

Shortly after World War II ended, President Harry S. Truman directed Army and Navy officials to secure a site for testing nuclear weapons on American warships. While the Army had seen the results of a land-based explosion, the Navy wanted to know the effect of a nuclear weapon on ships. They wanted to determine if ships could be spaced at sea and in ports in a way that would make nuclear weapons ineffective against vessels.[33]

Bikini was distant from both regular sea and air traffic, making it an ideal location. In February 1946 Navy Commodore Ben H. Wyatt, the military governor of the Marshalls, asked the 167 Micronesian inhabitants of the atoll to voluntarily and temporarily relocate so the United States government could begin testing atomic bombs for "the good of mankind and to end all world wars." After "confused and sorrowful deliberation" among the Bikinians, their leader, King Juda, agreed to the US relocation request, announcing "We will go believing that everything is in the hands of God."[31] Nine of the eleven family heads, or alaps, chose Rongerik as their new home.[34]

In February, Navy Seabees helped them to disassemble their church and community house and prepare to relocate them to their new home. On March 7, 1946, the residents gathered their personal belongings and saved building supplies. They were transported 125 miles (201 km) eastward on U.S. Navy landing craft 1108 to the uninhabited Rongerik Atoll,[34] which was one-sixth the size of Bikini Atoll.[34] No one lived on Rongerik because it had an inadequate water and food supply and due to deep-rooted traditional beliefs that the island was haunted by the Demon Girls of Ujae. The Navy left them with a few weeks of food and water which soon proved to be inadequate.[31]

Operation Crossroads[edit]

Aerial view of the Able test, a 23 kilotons of TNT (96 terajoules) device detonated on July 1, 1946 at an altitude of 520 feet (160 m). This bomb consumed the infamous Demon core that caused the death of two scientists in two separate criticality accidents.
The Able test from an automated camera on a tower on Bikini Island, 3.5 miles (5.6 km) from the blast.
Baker, like Able, was a 23 kilotons of TNT (96 terajoules) device, and was detonated 90 feet (27 m) underwater on July 25, 1946.
The Baker explosion from an aircraft.

Operation Crossroads was a series of nuclear weapon tests conducted by the United States at Bikini Atoll in mid-1946. It was the first test of a nuclear weapon since the Trinity nuclear test in July 1945, and the first detonation of a nuclear device since the atomic bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. Its purpose was to investigate the effect of nuclear weapons on naval ships.

Crossroads consisted of two detonations, each with a yield of 23 kilotons of TNT (96 terajoules): Able was detonated at an altitude of 520 feet (160 m) on July 1, 1946; Baker was detonated 90 feet (27 m) underwater on July 25, 1946. A third burst, Charlie, planned for 1947, was canceled primarily because of the United States Navy's inability to decontaminate the target ships after the Baker test. Charlie was rescheduled as Operation Wigwam, a deep water shot conducted in 1955 off the California coast. The Crossroads tests were the fourth and fifth nuclear explosions conducted by the United States (following the Trinity test and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki). They were the first of many nuclear tests held in the Marshall Islands and the first to be publicly announced beforehand and observed by an invited audience, including a large press corps.

Bikini's native residents agreed to evacuate the island, with most moving to the Rongerik Atoll. Later, in the 1950s, a series of large thermonuclear tests rendered Bikini unfit for subsistence farming and fishing. Because of radioactive contamination, Bikini remains uninhabited as of 2013, though it is occasionally visited by sport divers. Although there are claims that participants in the Operation Crossroads tests were well protected against radiation sickness, one study showed that the life expectancy of participants was reduced by an average of three months. The Baker test contaminated all the target ships. It was the first case of immediate, concentrated local radioactive fallout from a nuclear explosion. Chemist Glenn Seaborg, the longest-serving chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, called Baker "the world's first nuclear disaster."[35]

After the Bikini Atoll residents were relocated, a support fleet of more than 242 ships provided quarters, experimental stations, and workshops for more than 42,000 personnel. The islands were primarily used as recreation and instrumentation sites.[36] To support the nuclear bomb testing program, the personnel built bunkers, floating dry docks,[13] 75 feet (23 m) steel towers for cameras and recording instruments,[33] and other facilities on the island.

Cross Spikes Club[edit]

The Cross Spikes Club, painted by Navy artist Arthur Beaumont.[37]

The Cross Spikes Club was an improvised bar and hangout created by servicemen on Bikini Island between June and September 1946 during the preparation for Operation Crossroads. The "club" was little more than a small open-air building that served alcohol to servicemen and provided outdoor entertainment, including a ping pong table.[38] The Cross Spikes Club has been described as "the only bright spot" in the Operation Crossroads experience. The club, like all military facilities on the island, was abandoned or dismantled following the completion of Operation Crossroads.

Ship graveyard[edit]

The Bikini Atoll lagoon was designated a ship graveyard by the United States Navy. The United States brought in 95 ships[20] including carriers, battleships, cruisers, destroyers, submarines, attack transports, landing ships, and auxiliary vessels from across the world. The Navy positioned them in the lagoon to help assess the damage to vessels, equipment, and material from a nuclear explosion. Military equipment including tanks and other armor was positioned on some of the ships to see how well they survived the nuclear blast. Amphibious craft were berthed on Bikini Island for similar purposes.[36] The proxy fleet would have made the sixth largest naval fleet in the world. The target ships included the U.S. carrier USS Saratoga (CV-3) and Admiral Yamamoto's 708 feet (216 m) flagship, Japanese battleship Nagato. All carried varying amounts of fuel and some carried live ordnance. Airplanes were positioned on the USS Saratoga (CV-3), their wings loaded with ordnance.[13] Live animals including goats were positioned on the ships and shore to test for the impact on living creatures.

Weapons tests[edit]

The U.S. light aircraft carrier USS Independence (CVL-22) afire aft, soon after the "Able Day" atomic bomb air burst test at Bikini on 1 July 1946.
View of the USS Independence's port quarter, showing severe blast damage caused by the "Able Day" atomic bomb air burst over Bikini Atoll on 1 July 1946.

Two fission bombs, both with a yield of 21 kilotons comparable to the bombs used on Japan, were tested first. A third test was planned, a deep underwater detonation, but was canceled. Able was dropped over Bikini on July 1, 1946 and exploded at an altitude of 520 feet (160 m) but had drifted about 1,500 to 2,000 feet (460 to 610 m) off target.[36] It sank only five of the ships in the lagoon. The second, Baker, was detonated underwater at a depth of 90 feet (27 m) on July 25, sinking eight ships.[36] The second, underwater blast created a large condensation cloud and contaminated the ships with more radioactive water than was expected. Many of the surviving ships were too contaminated to be used again for testing and were sunk. The air-borne nuclear detonation raised the surface seawater temperature by 55,000 °C (99,000 °F), created blast waves with speeds of up to 8 metres per second (26 ft/s), and shock and surface waves up to 30 metres (98 ft) high. Blast columns reached the floor of the lagoon which is approximately 70 metres (230 ft) deep.[4] The Bikini Island King visited Bikini Atoll in July after the second atomic bomb test code-named Baker and found it apparently in good condition.

Strategic Trust Territory[edit]

The United States convinced the United Nations to designate the islands of Micronesia a United Nations Strategic Trust Territory. This was the only trust ever granted by the U.N.[39] The United States Navy controlled the Trust from a headquarters in Guam until 1951, when the United States Department of the Interior took over control, administering the territory from a base in Saipan.[40] The directive stated that the United States should "promote the economic advancement and self-sufficiency of the inhabitants, and to this end shall... protect the inhabitants against the loss of their lands and resources..."[31]

Despite the promise to "protect the inhabitants," from July 1946 through July of 1947 the residents of Bikini Atoll were left alone on Rongerik Atoll and were starving for lack of food. A team of U.S. investigators concluded in late 1947 that the islanders must be moved immediately. Press from around the world harshly criticized the U.S. Navy for ignoring the people. Harold Ickes, a syndicated columnist, wrote "The natives are actually and literally starving to death."[31]

Move to Kili Island[edit]

Kili Island is one of the smallest islands in the Marshall Islands.

In January 1948, Dr. Leonard Mason, an anthropologist from the University of Hawaii, visited Rongerik Atoll and was horrified at what he found. One resident of Rongerik commented,[13]

We'd get a few fish, then the entire community would have to share this meager amount... The fish were not fit to eat there. They were poisonous because of what they ate on the reef. We got sick from them, like when your arms and legs fall asleep and you can't feel anything. We'd get up in the morning to go to our canoes and fall over because we were so ill... Then we started asking these men from America [to] bring us food... We were dying, but they didn't listen to us.

Mason requested that food be brought to the islanders on Rongerik immediately along with a medical officer. The Navy then selected Ujelang Atoll for their temporary home and some young men from the Bikini Atoll population went ahead to begin constructing living accommodations. But U.S. Trust Authorities changed their mind. They decided to use Enewetak Atoll as a second nuclear weapons test site and relocated that atoll's residents to Ujelang Atoll instead and to the homes built for the Bikini Islanders.[31]

In March 1948, 184 malnourished Bikini islanders were relocated again to Kwajalein Atoll. They were given tents on a strip of grass alongside the airport runway to live in.[39] In June 1948 the Bikini residents chose Kili Island as a long-term home.[31] The small, 200 acres (81 ha) (.036 square miles (0.093 km2)) island was uninhabited and wasn't ruled by a paramount iroij, or king. In June the Bikini community chose two dozen men to accompany eight Seabees to Kili to begin construction of a village. In November 1948, the residents, now totaling 184 individuals, moved to Kili Island,[31] at 0.93 square kilometres (0.36 sq mi), one of the smallest islands in the Marshall Island chain. They soon learned they could no longer fish the way they had on Bikini Atoll. Kili lacked the calm, protected, bountiful lagoon.[39] Living on Kili Island effectively destroyed their culture that had been based on fishing and island-hopping canoe voyages to various islets around the Bikini Atoll.[13] Kili does not provide enough food for the transplanted residents.

Castle Bravo test[edit]

The size of the Castle Bravo test on 1 March 1954 far exceeded expectations.

The United States was in a Cold War Nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union to build bigger and better bombs.[31] The next series of tests over Bikini Atoll was code named Operation Castle. The first test of that series was Castle Bravo, a new design utilizing a dry fuel thermonuclear hydrogen bomb. It was detonated at dawn on March 1, 1954.

The 15 megaton nuclear explosion far exceeded the expected yield of 4 to 8 megatons (6Mt predicted),[41] and was about 1,000 times more powerful than each of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. The nuclear weapon was the most powerful device ever detonated by the United States (and just under one-third the energy of the Tsar Bomba, the largest ever tested). The scientists and military authorities were shocked by the size of the explosion and many of the instruments they had put in place to evaluate the effectiveness of the device were destroyed.[31]

Castle Bravo contamination[edit]

The unexpectedly large yield, combined with other factors, led to the most significant accidental radiological contamination caused by the United States. A few minutes after the detonation, Fallout began to fall on Eneu/Enyu Island on Bikini atoll where the U.S firing crew that triggered the device were stationed, this was detected by their geiger counter, and as they were aware of the hazard, they were forced to shelter in place indoors for a number of hours before it was safe enough for an airlift rescue operation to be carried out.[42] After arriving at Eneu, the fallout, being carried by the wind, then began to settle on the inhabited islands of the Rongelap and Utrik Atolls, arriving a few hours after the detonation, the fallout continued to spread around the world being diluted as it went. The inhabited Rongelap and Rongerik atolls, were evacuated by US servicemen,[43] 48 hours after the detonation, and those on the more distant Utrik atoll, 72 hours post detonation.[44] Many of the inhabitants soon began to show signs of radiation sickness. They were returned to the islands three years later but were removed again when their island was found to be unsafe.[45] The crew of the Japanese fishing vessel Daigo Fukuryū Maru ("Lucky Dragon No. 5"), was also contaminated by fallout, killing one crew member shortly after the ship returned to port. The blast created an international reaction about atmospheric thermonuclear testing.[46]

The fallout spread traces of radioactive material as far as Australia, India and Japan, and even the United States and parts of Europe. Though organized as a secret test, Castle Bravo quickly became an international incident, prompting calls for a ban on the atmospheric testing of thermonuclear devices.[47]

Local populations affected[edit]

The Rongelap Atoll was coated with up to 2 centimetres (0.79 in) of snow-like irradiated calcium debris and ash over the entire island. Virtually all the inhabitants experienced severe radiation sickness, including itchiness, sore skin, vomiting, diarrhea, and fatigue. Their symptoms also included burning eyes and swelling of the neck, arms, and legs.[48][49] The inhabitants were forced to abandon the islands, leaving all their belongings, three days after the test. They were relocated to Kwajalein for medical treatment.[49][50][51]

Six days after the Castle Bravo test, the U.S government set up a secret project to study the medical effects of the weapon on the residents of the Marshall Islands.[52]

The United States was subsequently accused of using the inhabitants as medical research subjects, without obtaining their consent, to study the effects of nuclear exposure.[48] Until that time, the United States Atomic Energy Commission had given little thought to the potential impact of widespread fallout contamination and health and ecological impacts beyond the formally designated boundary of the test site.

Japanese fishermen contaminated[edit]

Ninety minutes after the detonation, 23 crew members of the Japanese fishing boat the Daigo Fukuryū Maru[53] also were contaminated by the snow-like irradiated debris and ash. They had no idea what the explosion they'd seen meant nor any inkling of the deadly debris raining down on them. But they all soon became ill with the affects of acute radiation poisoning. One fisherman died shortly after the ship reached shore. Edward Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb and architect of the Marshall Island tests, upon learning of the death of the fisherman, commented, “It’s unreasonable to make such a big deal over the death of a fisherman.”[citation needed] Eleven of the crewmen eventually died of radiation-related illnesses.[54][better source needed]

Later tests[edit]

The seventeen-shot Redwing series followed—eleven tests at Enewetak Atoll and six at Bikini. These were followed by the 33-shot Hardtack tests which began in late April 1958. The last of ten tests were detonated on Bikini Atoll on 22 July 1958.[39]

Nuclear Testing Summary[edit]

Series Start Date End Date Count Yield Range Total Yield
Crossroads 30 June 1946 24 July 1946 2 21 kilotons 42 kilotons
Castle 28 February 1954 13 May 1954 6 0.11 - 15.0225 megatons 48.2 megatons
Redwing 20 May 1956 20 July 1956 6 365 kilotons - 5 megatons 18.265 megatons
Hardtack I 28 April 1958 18 August 1958 10 144 kilotons - 9.3 megatons 12.020 megatons
Total     24   78.527 megatons (15.1% of total test yield worldwide)

Failed resettlement[edit]

After their relocation to Kili, the Bikini residents continued to suffer from inadequate food supplies. Kili is a small island without a lagoon, and most of the year it is exposed to 10 to 20 feet (3.0 to 6.1 m) waves that make fishing and putting canoes out difficult. Starvation ensued. In 1949 the Trust Territory administration donated a 40 feet (12 m) ship for transporting copra between Kili and Jaluit Atoll, but the ship was wrecked in heavy surf while delivering copra and other fruit.[31] The U.S. Trust Authorities airdropped food onto Kili. The residents were forced to rely on imported USDA rice and canned goods and had to buy food with their supplemental income.[31]

During 1955 and 1956, ships dispatched by the U.S. Trust Territory continually experienced problems unloading food because of the rough seas around the island, leading to additional food shortages once again. The people once again suffered from starvation and in 1956 food shortages increased. The U.S. suggested that some of the Bikini Islanders move to Jaluit where food was more readily available. A few people moved.[39]

The United States opened a satellite community for the community on public land on Jaluit Atoll, 30 miles (48 km) north. Three families moved there to produce copra for sale and other families rotated living there later on.[31] Their homes on both Kili and Jaluit were struck by typhoons during 1957 and 1958, sinking their supply ship and damaging crops.

Return to Bikini Island[edit]

In June 1968, based on scientific advice that the radiation levels were sufficiently reduced, President Lyndon B. Johnson promised the 540 Bikini Atoll families living on Kili and other islands that they would be able to return to their home. The Atomic Energy Commission cleared radioactive debris from the island, and the U.S. Trust Territory was in charge of rebuilding structures and replanting crops on the atoll. But shortly afterward the Trust Territory ended regular air flights between Kwajalein Atoll and Bikini Atoll which seriously impeded progress. Coconut trees were finally replanted in 1972, but the AEC learned that the coconut crabs retained high levels of radioactivity and could not be eaten. The Bikini Council voted to delay a return the island as a result.[31]

In 1987, a few Bikini elders returned to the island to reestablish old property lines. Construction crews began building a hotel on Bikini, and installed generators, desalinators, and power lines. A packed coral and sand runway still exists on Enyu Island.

Three extended families, eventually totaling about 100 people, moved back to their home island in 1972 despite the risk. But 10 years later a team of French scientists performed additional tests on the island and its inhabitants. They found some wells were too radioactive for use and determined that the pandanus and breadfruit were also dangerous for human consumption. Urine samples from the islanders on Bikini Atoll showed low levels of plutonium 239 and 240. As a result, the Bikini community filed a federal lawsuit seeking a complete scientific survey of Bikini and the northern Marshall Islands. Inter-departmental squabbling over responsibility for the costs delayed the work for three years.[31] Then in May 1977 scientists found dangerously high levels of strontium-90 in the well water exceeding the U.S. maximum allowed limits.[55] In June, the Department of Energy stated that "All living patterns involving Bikini Island exceed Federal [radiation] guidelines for thirty year population doses." Later that year scientists discovered an 11-fold increase in the cesium-137 body burdens in all of the people living on the atoll.[31] In May 1978 officials from the U.S. Department of the Interior described the 75% increase in radioactive cesium 137 found as "incredible."[12]

Women were experiencing miscarriages, stillbirths, and genetic abnormalities in their children.[56][57][better source needed] Researchers learned that the coral soil behaved differently from mainland soil because it contains very little potassium. Plants and trees readily absorb potassium as part of the normal biological process, but since cesium is part of the same group on the periodic table, it is absorbed by plants in a very similar chemical process. The islanders who unknowingly consumed contaminated coconut milk were found to have abnormally high concentrations of cesium in their bodies. The Trust Territory decided that the islanders had to be evacuated from the atoll a second time.[45]

Depart for Kili Island[edit]

As a result of the military use of the island and the failed resettlement, the islands are littered with abandoned concrete bunkers and tons of heavy equipment, vehicles, supplies, machines, and buildings.[58] In September 1978, Trust Territory officials finally arrived to relocate the residents. The radiological survey of the northern Marshalls, compelled by the 1975 lawsuit, only began after the people were removed.[31] The residents were removed and returned to Kili Island.[31]

As of 2013, Kili Island supported about 600 residents who live in cinderblock houses. They must rely on contributions from a settlement trust fund to supplement what they produce locally. Each family receives 1-2 boxes of frozen chicken, 2-4 50-lb bags of flour, and 2-4 bags of rice 2-3 times per year. The islanders operate several small stores out of their homes that supply nonperishable food items like salt, Tabasco, candy, and canned items. A generator provides electricity.

Children attend elementary school on Kili through eighth grade. Toward the end of the eighth grade, students must pass a standardized test to gain admission to attend public high school in Jaluit or Majuro.

Testing and radiation levels[edit]

Following their evacuation from the island, an 11-year-old boy, born on Bikini in 1971, died from cancer that was linked to radiation exposure he received while living on Bikini. The records obtained by the Nuclear Claims Tribunal later revealed that Dr. Robert Conard, head of Brookhaven National Laboratory's medical team in the Marshall Islands, understated the risk of returning to the atoll.[59] Dr. Konrad Kotrady was contracted by Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) to treat the Marshall Island residents. In 1977, he wrote a 14-page report to BNL that raised serious questions about the residents' return to Bikini and questioned the accuracy of Brookhaven's prior work on the islands.[59] After they were promised their home was safe, and then being removed after this was found to be wrong, the Bikini Atoll islanders grew to distrust the official reports of the U.S. scientists.[59]

The special International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Bikini Advisory Group determined in 1997 that "It is safe to walk on all of the islands ... although the residual radioactivity on islands in Bikini Atoll is still higher than on other atolls in the Marshall Islands, it is not hazardous to health at the levels measured ... The main radiation risk would be from the food: eating locally grown produce, such as fruit, could add significant radioactivity to the body...Eating coconuts or breadfruit from Bikini Island occasionally would be no cause for concern. Eating many over a long period of time without having taken remedial measures, however, might result in radiation doses higher than internationally agreed safety levels." IAEA estimated that living in the atoll and consuming local food would result in an effective dose of about 15 mSv/year.[60]

After the aborted resettlement in 1978, the leaders of the Bikini community have insisted since the early 1980s that the top 15 inches (38 cm) of soil be excavated from the entire island. Scientists reply that while removing the soil would rid the island of cesium-137, it would also severely damage the environment, turning the atoll into a virtual wasteland of windswept sand. The Bikini Council has repeatedly contended that removing the topsoil is the only way to guarantee future generations safe living conditions.[citation needed]

In 1997, researchers found that the dose received from background radiation on the island was between 2.4 mSv/year—the same as natural background radiation—and 4.5 mSv/year, assuming that residents consumed a diet of imported foods.[61] Because the local food supply is still irradiated, the group did not recommend resettling the island. A 1998 International Atomic Energy Agency report found that Bikini is still not safe for habitation because of dangerous levels of radiation.[56]

A 2002 survey found that the coral inside the Bravo Crater has partially recovered.[62] Zoe Richards of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies and James Cook University observed matrices of branching Porites coral up to 8 meters high.[63]

Compensation claims and reparations[edit]

In 1975, when the islanders that had returned to Bikini Atoll learned that it wasn't safe, they sued the United States for the first time, demanding a radiological study of the northern islands.[64]

In 1975, the United States set up The Hawaiian Trust Fund for the People of Bikini, totaling $3 million. When the islanders were removed from the island in 1978, the U.S. added $3 million to the fund. The U.S. created a second trust fund, The Resettlement Trust Fund for the People of Bikini, containing $20 million in 1982. The U.S. added another $90 million to that fund to pay to clean up, reconstruct homes and facilities, and resettle the islanders on Bikini and Eneu islands.[65]

In 1983, the U.S. and the Marshall islanders signed the Compact of Free Association, which gave the Marshall Islands independence. The Compact became effective in 1986 and was subsequently modified by the Amended Compact that became effective in 2004.[66] It also established the Nuclear Claims Tribunal, which was given the task of adjudicating compensation for victims and families affected by the nuclear testing program. Section 177 of the compact provided for reparations to the Bikini islanders and other northern atolls for damages. It included $75 million to be paid over 15 years.[65] On March 5, 2001, the Nuclear Claims Tribunal ruled against the United States for damages done to the islands and its people.[31]

The payments began in 1987 with $2.4 million paid annually to entire Bikini population, while the remaining $2.6 million is paid into The Bikini Claims Trust Fund. This trust is intended to exist in perpetuity and to provide the islanders a 5% payment from the trust annually.[65]

The United States provided $150 million in compensation for damage caused by the nuclear testing program and their displacement from their home island.[67]

By 2001, of the original 167 residents who were relocated, 70 were still alive, and the entire population has grown to 2800.[13] Most of the islanders and their descendents lived on Kili, in Majuro, and in the United States.

The Hawaiian Trust Fund for the People of Bikini was liquidated as required by law in December 2006. The value of The Resettlement Trust Fund for the People of Bikini as of 31 March 2013 was approximately $82 million and The Bikini Claims Trust Fund was worth approximately $60 million. Each member of the trust receives about $550 a year, making them relatively well-off (compared to other Marshall Island residents).[65]

In 2001, the Nuclear Claims Tribunal awarded the islanders a total of $563,315,500 after deducting past awards. The Tribunal, however, has not been funded by the U.S. government and the award has not been paid. The only recourse is for the Bikini people to petition the U.S. Congress to fund the payment and fulfill this award. The United States Supreme Court turned down the islanders' appeal of the United States Court of Appeals decision that refused to fund their claim.

Representatives for the Bikini people expect this process to take many years and do not know if the United States will honor the terms of the Compact of Free Association.[65]

World Heritage Site[edit]

Because the site bears direct tangible evidence of the nuclear tests conducted there amid the paradoxical tropical location, UNESCO determined that the atoll symbolizes the dawn of the nuclear age and named it a World Heritage site on 3 August 2010.[68][69]

Bikini Atoll has conserved direct tangible evidence ... conveying the power of ... nuclear tests, i.e. the sunken ships sent to the bottom of the lagoon by the tests in 1946 and the gigantic Bravo crater. Equivalent to 7,000 times the force of the Hiroshima bomb, the tests had major consequences on the geology and natural environment of Bikini Atoll and on the health of those who were exposed to radiation. Through its history, the atoll symbolises the dawn of the nuclear age, despite its paradoxical image of peace and of earthly paradise.[68]

Visitor access[edit]

Bikini Atoll is open to visitors aboard vessels that are completely self-sufficient if they obtain prior approval. They must also pay for a diver and two local government council representatives to accompany them. The local representation is required to verify that visitors don't remove artifacts from the wrecks in the lagoon.[70]

Bikini Lagoon diving[edit]

To provide an economic base for future resettlement of the atoll, the Bikini Council organized the Bikini Atoll Divers to host divers in June 1996.[71] Because the lagoon has remained undisturbed for so long, it contains a larger amount of sea life than usual, including sharks, which increases divers' interest in the area. Visibility depth is over 100 feet (30 m). The lagoon is immensely popular with divers, and is regarded as among the top 10 diving locations in the world. The Bikini Council hired Edward Maddison who has lived on Bikini Island since 1985 as Head Divemaster and Resort Manager.[22]


To accommodate the dive program and anglers, the Bikini Council built new air conditioned rooms with private bathrooms and showers. They include verandas overlooking the lagoon. There is a dining facility that serves American-style meals. The head chef Mios Maddison also prepare Marshallese dishes featuring fresh seafood. Only 12 visitors can be hosted at one time.[22]

In September 2007, the last of Air Marshall Islands' commuter aircraft ceased operations when spare parts could not be located and the aircraft were no longer airworthy. A half dozen divers and a journalist were stranded for a week on Bikini Island.[39] The Bikini islanders suspended land-based dive operations from August 2008 through 2010, unless the vessel was fully self-contained and only by prior arrangement.[72]

Diving program[edit]

The diving program is limited to 11 visitors per week at US$4,000 per diver, the operation brought in more than $500,000 during the season from May to October during 2001.[73] Because of the lingering contamination, all fruits and vegetables used for the Bikini Atoll dive and sport fishing operation were imported.[19]

The visitors receive a history lesson along with the dive experience, including movies and complete briefings about each of the ships, their respective histories, and a tour of the island and the atoll.[73] Divers are able to visit the USS Saratoga.[73] Sport fishing was also opened to visitors.


Although the atomic blasts obliterated three islands and contaminated much of the atoll, after 50 years the coral reefs had recovered. The reefs attracted reef fish and their predators: 30 pounds (14 kg) dogtooth tuna, 20 pounds (9.1 kg) barracuda, and bluefin trevally as big as 50 pounds (23 kg). Given the long-term absence of humans, the Bikini lagoon offers sportsmen one of the most pristine fishing environments in the world.[20]

Live-aboard program[edit]

In October 2010, a live-aboard, self-contained vessel successfully conducted dive operations. In 2011, the local government licensed the live-aboard operator as the sole provider of dive expeditions on the nuclear ghost fleet at Bikini Atoll. The dive season runs from May through October. As of 2013, the 12 day dive trip costs US$5,100 per person.[17] Visitors are still able to land on the island for brief stays.


Shipwrecks in the lagoon include:

Current habitable state[edit]

The potential to make the island habitable has substantially improved in recent years. The International Atomic Energy Agency found that cesium-137 levels are dropping considerably faster than anyone expected. Terry Hamilton, scientific director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s Marshall Islands Dose Assessment and Radioecology Program, reported that “Conditions have really changed on Bikini. They are improving at an accelerated rate. By using the combined option of removing soil and adding potassium, we can get very close to the 15 millirem standard. That has been true for roughly the past 10 years. So now is the time when the Bikinians, if they desired, could go back.”[20][74]

The islanders want the top soil removed, but the money is not there for the cleanup. The opportunity for some Bikini islanders to potentially relocate back to their home island creates a dilemma. Only a few living islanders were born there. Most of the younger generation have never lived there or even visited and do not have a desire to return. Unemployment in the Marshall Islands was as of 2013 at about 40 percent. The population is growing at a four percent growth rate, so increasing numbers are taking advantage of terms in the Marshall Islands’ Compact of Free Association that allow them to obtain jobs in the United States.[20]

After the islanders were relocated in 1946, while the Bikini islanders were experiencing starvation on Rongerik Atoll, Lore Kessibuki wrote an anthem for the island:[20]

No longer can I stay, it’s true
No longer can I live in peace and harmony
No longer can I rest on my sleeping mat and pillow
Because of my island and the life I once knew there
The thought is overwhelming
Rendering me helpless and in great despair.

In popular culture[edit]

Swimsuit design[edit]

The atoll's name became well-known world-wide as a result of the nuclear tests. On July 5, four days after the first nuclear test, the atoll gained additional attention when a new swimsuit design was named after it. Louis Réard, a French mechanical engineer, introduced the new garment to the media and public[75] on July 5, 1946[76] at Piscine Molitor, a public pool in Paris.[77] He named it the bikini.[78] Réard named his design the "bikini" because he hoped its revealing style would create an explosive commercial and cultural reaction, similar in intensity to society's response to the nuclear test on Bikini Atoll.[79][80][81][82] A competitive design had been introduced three weeks earlier named the "atome", but Réard's name for the minimalist swimsuit stuck with the media and public.[80]

The bikini's design violates traditional Marshall Islander's customs of modesty because it exposes the woman's thighs and shoulders.[9][10] Marshall Island women were traditionally topless and they do not attach any social stigma to breasts as is common in much of Western society[6] which the bikini does cover. Marshall Island women swim in their muumuus which are made of a fine polyester that dries quickly.[10] Wearing a bikini in the Marshall Islands is mainly limited to restricted-access beaches and pools like those at private resorts or on United States government facilities on the Kwajalein Atoll within the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site.[83][84]

See also[edit]



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  • Niedenthal, Jack, For the Good of Mankind: A History of the People of Bikini and their Islands, Bravo Publishers, (November 2002), ISBN 982-9050-02-5
  • Wiesgall, Jonathan M, Operation Crossroads: Atomic Tests at Bikini Atoll, Naval Institute Press (21 April 1994), ISBN 1-55750-919-0

External links[edit]