Years On, Nuclear Blast Felt on Bikini Atoll |
50 Years On, Nuclear Blast Felt on Bikini Atoll
By Ben Gruber
BIKINI ATOLL, Marshall Islands (Reuters) - At first glance,
it looks like a tropical paradise: an island in the middle of the Pacific
Ocean, where palm trees encircling a pristine blue-green lagoon sway in
But to the native islanders, Bikini Atoll is more like an exhausted, scorched wasteland, where they eke out an existence in a place that today is forgotten by much of the world. But on March 1, 1954, it became ground zero during the Cold War.
Over the next 20 years, the Bikinians were moved several times. In 1967 some 150 people were returned to Bikini, only to be evacuated again when it was discovered that radioactive Cesium 137 had contaminated the food chain.
A SCATTERED PEOPLE
Today Bikinians remain scattered throughout the Marshall Islands. On Ejit Island, bare-footed children play marbles outside shanty homes as women wash plastic dishes in aluminum containers. The children swim in the lagoon and eat indigenous fruit such as pandanas and coconuts after returning from school where they learn English from foreign volunteers.
There is little economic activity to bring in foreign capital. Ironically, the testing left a treasure trove for dive enthusiasts who explore the sunken U.S. and Japanese aircraft carriers, warships and submarines off Bikini Atoll.
While fish from the lagoon are considered safe for consumption, tourists are not allowed to eat local vegetation, still considered toxic because of radioactive elements.
"People always ask me if I glow in the dark," joked head dive master Tim Williams.
However, tourism earnings are not enough to sustain the islanders. More than half of the country's income is derived from U.S assistance, and most Marshallese live on less than a dollar a day, said one Marshallese official.
The people of Bikini Atoll want the U.S government to fulfill a promise it made more than half a century ago -- to restore their homeland to the way it was prior to nuclear testing. But a Bush administration official in February could not confirm that U.S. promise.
Niedenthal, who has visited Washington with Bikinian leaders, says the fight for reparations has not been easy.
Under agreements between the United States and the Marshall Islands, a Nuclear Claims Tribunal was established to assess and award damages to victims of the nuclear tests. In 1999, the tribunal awarded more than $500 million to the people of Bikini and to complete its cleanup.
But the tribunal has never had the cash to fully compensate the Marshallese for the damage done, although a Bush administration official said U.S. assistance to the Marshall Islands is "one of the largest aid packages per capita in the world."
Officials in the Marshallese government say it would take $1.5 to $2.5 billion to complete the cleanup and to compensate the victims of the tests -- a fraction of the billions to be spent rebuilding Iraq (news - web sites).
Tomaki Juda, a Marshallese senator, notes the U.S. expenditures to help rebuild the infrastructure destroyed by the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (news - web sites). "Why won't they do the same for us?" he asks.
Any resemblance in this material to any
person is purely
coincidental and is unintentional.