Rising Seas Threaten Islanders Displaced By U.S. Nuclear Bomb Tests


EJIT, Marshall Islands — Jack Niedenthal carefully picked his way around overgrown graves, through tangled weeds and fire ants, toward a headstone tucked at the back of a small cemetery. Entombed in the sandy soil was his wife’s grandfather.

Jukwa Jakeo was his name, and he was one of the original islanders relocated off Bikini Atoll — one of the atolls in the Marshall Islands — by the United States after the Second World War. The story of how he came to rest here, in a cemetery on an island far from his home, is a story of a paradise lost.

“If you’re a Bikinian kid nowadays, you know that Bikini is your gift from God,” Niedenthal told The WorldPost on a recent walk around Ejit. “There’s still a huge affection for it. But it’s almost just a myth to them. They’ve never seen it. They probably never will see it.”

The Bikinians can’t go home. Not yet, anyway. The islands on Bikini Atoll are still contaminated with radioactive fallout, decades after dozens of nuclear tests by the United States during the Cold War. Bikini is a paradise — pristine white sandy beaches, a turquoise lagoon, the thundering waves of the Pacific, coconut palms, giant land crabs, coral reefs — but to live there would be to slowly and painfully kill yourself.

Nowadays, the Bikinians are a distinct community in the Marshall Islands, a homeless group marooned on two islands they never wanted nor believed they’d be stuck on in 2015. Meanwhile, their home remains virtually untouched by human development since World War II.

About 250 Bikinians live on Ejit, an island on Majuro Atoll, not far from the capital of the Marshall Islands. Many others live on a distant outer island called Kili. Both islands are about 500 miles away from Bikini, and 184 miles from each other. A plane flies from Majuro to Kili about once a week and ships go maybe four times a year, but otherwise they don’t have much contact with the outside world.  

These places were supposed to be temporary homes. 

The "Baker" explosion, part of Operation Crossroads, at Bikini Atoll, 1946.U.S. Department of Defense / Creative Commons
The “Baker” explosion, part of Operation Crossroads, at Bikini Atoll, 1946.

The story of how the Bikinians ended up on Ejit and Kili begins with a bomb.

The bomb was called “Helen of Bikini.” It was detonated in July 1946 almost 100 feet below the surface of Bikini’s lagoon. It sank 10 ships that had been placed in the expected blast radius (the military was wondering if an atomic bomb, aimed at ships, would sink them), including the USS Saratoga, an aircraft carrier as long as two and a half football fields.

By then the 167 islanders who had been living on Bikini had been moved to Rongerik, another atoll about 120 miles east. They had agreed to leave after U.S. military officers asked them to pack up and ship out “for the good of all mankind,” as Commodore Ben Wyatt, then the military governor of the Marshall Islands, put it. The islanders responded, “We will go believing that everything is in the hands of God.”

The military dumped the Bikinians on Rongerik with a few months’ worth of food and promptly forgot about them. A year and a half later, a medical officer arrived and found them in a severe state of malnutrition. The reporter Harold Ickes wrote that “the natives are actually and literally starving to death.” 

The natives are actually and literally starving to death.

After a few more fits and starts and a couple promises broken, the military finally moved the Bikinians to Kili, a lonely spit of sand smaller than half a square mile, far to the south. Kili was uninhabited; there were no landowning chiefs and families to compete for space with.

“They took it basically sight unseen,” Niedenthal said.

 Meanwhile, America’s nuclear testing continued. A total of 67 tests would eventually be conducted in the Marshall Islands between 1946 and 1958. One in 1954, codenamed Bravo, was the most powerful bomb ever exploded by the United States, a thousand times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Japan during World War II. Despite clear weather reports warning that the wind would blow radioactive debris over inhabited islands (whose residents had not been warned of the danger), the test went ahead as scheduled. Sure enough, white ash — radioactive fallout — fell like rain over the islands. Children unknowingly played in it. Within hours they showed signs of radiation sickness: nausea, vomiting, itchy skin, hair falling out. 

When the Bikinians got to Kili, they realized why no one lived on it.

Kili is not like other islands in the Marshalls. It has no lagoon. For most of the year, huge waves crash just offshore, making fishing a mostly futile enterprise. Fruit trees are scarce. Starvation again became a problem. Traditional fishing and sailing slowly faded away. The islanders began to rely mostly on imported food. It was not the same life their forefathers enjoyed on Bikini.

In 1969, however, an opportunity to return home seemed possible. U.S. scientists announced that they had “found virtually no radiation left” on Bikini, and President Lyndon Johnson himself told the islanders that America wanted to help them “build, on these once desolated islands, a new and model community.”

But by the middle of the ‘70s, after several families had gone back, it appeared something was very wrong. Sky-high levels of radioactive particles were discovered in the crabs, the coconuts, the breadfruit and the people. Relocation commenced again, this time to Ejit, and the effort to replant and rebuild Bikini so that the hundreds of displaced residents and their offspring could return was abandoned indefinitely.

Jack Niedenthal looks out at Ejit Island.Peter Mellgard / The WorldPost
Jack Niedenthal looks out at Ejit Island.

And now, a new threat might soon make life on Ejit and Kili even more uncomfortable: climate change. None of the islands in the Marshalls rises more than a few feet above the surface of the ocean. Before the end of the century, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change expects sea level to rise by 3 feet. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says it could be more than double that.

Kili has been inundated by the ocean twice in 2015. Rising seas have made it more susceptible to storms and high tides. Overwash events — in which ocean waves flow over the island — used to happen once a year, maybe. Two in a single year is a real challenge for the freshwater reservoir that lies under the island, and the sensitive crops that grow in the poor soil, to recover from. With more overwash events predicted, the Bikinians on Kili might again be forced to relocate — and perhaps leave the Marshall Islands altogether. 

For Junior Anjain, a police officer on Ejit (and a cousin of Niedenthal’s wife), climate change is not yet a pressing concern. But Ejit has never felt like home.

“There’s not enough space for us here,” he said. He looked around at the concrete-walled, sheet metal-roofed houses crowded together. The edge of the island was a few yards away through the trees, the turquoise lagoon just beyond. The Pacific was just a minute’s walk in the other direction. “On Bikini my grandparents had a lot more land.”

Anjain was born on Bikini in 1974, during the period when his family and neighbors hoped they had returned home for good. He tells his children about Bikini, but they have never been there. They know the stories. “They would love to see it,” he said. “If there is no radiation.”

Water washes over Ejit Island in March 2014.GIFF JOHNSON/AFP/Getty Images
Water washes over Ejit Island in March 2014.

Standing in the afternoon sun outside an elementary school on Ejit, where children could be heard counting from one to 10 in English, the man they’ve come to call Bikini Jack wondered if his work to get the Bikinians back home would ever succeed. Would it even be worth it, he asked, if the islands are underwater in 30 years? Whatever happens, he said, he’ll keep working, but he acknowledged he’s getting tired and that someone with more youthful energy is going to need to take up the fight to get the U.S. to clean up the radiation that lingers on Bikini.

“We don’t have representatives in Congress,” he said. “All we have is the story.”