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Health Phys. 1997 Jul;73(1):28-36.

A history of the people of Bikini following nuclear weapons testing in the Marshall Islands: with recollections and views of elders of Bikini Atoll.


The people of Bikini Atoll were moved from their homeland in 1946 to make way for the testing of 23 nuclear weapons by the United States government, beginning with the world's fourth atomic detonation. The subsequent half-century exodus of the Bikini people included a 2-y stay on Rongerik Atoll, where near starvation resulted, and a 6-mo sojourn on Kwajalein Atoll, where they lived in tents beside a runway used by the U.S. military. In 1948, they were finally relocated to Kili, a small, isolated, 200-acre island owned by the U.S. Trust Territory government. Numerous hardships have been faced there, not the least of which was the loss of skills required for self-sustenance. Located 425 miles south of Bikini, Kili Island is without a sheltered lagoon. Thus for six months of the year, fishing and sailing become futile endeavors. Because of the residual radioactive contamination from the nuclear testing, the majority of the Bikinian population still resides on Kili today. One attempt was made to resettle Bikini in the late 1960's when President Lyndon B. Johnson, on recommendations from the Atomic Energy Commission, declared Bikini Atoll safe for habitation. In 1978, however, it was discovered by the U.S. Department of Energy that in the span of only one year, some of the returned islanders were showing a 75% increase in their body burdens of 137Cs. In 1978, the people residing on Bikini were moved again, this time to a small island in Majuro Atoll. In the early 1980's, the Bikinians filed a class action lawsuit against the U.S. government for damages arising out of the nuclear testing program. Although the claim was dismissed, eventually a $90 million trust fund was established for their local government. Since then the leaders of the people of Bikini residing on Kili Island and Majuro Atoll have been confronted with the immense responsibility of determining how to clean their atoll while at the same time maintaining the health and welfare of their displaced population. For the community and their leaders, grappling with these technical decisions has created a life of strife, debate and conflict-and an uncertain future. Now, a radiological cleanup of Bikini is expected to begin sometime within 1997. The objective of this paper, with the support of the views and the recollections of elder Bikinians, is to recount the history and discuss issues facing the first displaced people of the nuclear age.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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