BIKINI ATOLL, MARSHALL ISLANDS – The tiny and remote Pacific island of Bikini, part of Bikini Atoll, is home to an abandoned nuclear test observation post and a vegetable farm that is used to research residual radioactivity.
The 2.4-sq.-km island is officially uninhabited, but small groups of researchers and municipal officials are rotated for temporary visits to carry out research.
A rare media tour of the island was held last week, explaining the research the United States is continuing to carry out on the effects of nearly 70 nuclear bomb tests in the 1940s and ’50s in the vicinity.
Participants on the tour saw tomatoes, radishes and watermelons, among other vegetables and fruit, struggling to grow on the vegetable farm.
A Bikini Atoll municipal official, who guided the tour, said people are not allowed to eat anything harvested on the island. Some of the crops had been sent to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California “a few months ago,” the official said. The West Coast facility is a nuclear research institute.
The official said coconuts are also regularly shipped about 600 km to Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands, so that the U.S. Department of Energy can analyze the radioactivity remaining in the soil.
Bikini locals, who were ordered in 1946 to leave the island because of the nuclear tests, returned home in 1968, after the U.S. government declared the site safe.
But they were forced to evacuate again after many complained of health problems — including thyroid cancer. U.S. government studies have suggested some diseases may have been caused by internal exposure to radiation after the islanders ate local coconuts and crops, according to the municipal official.
Readings of radioactive materials in the air only ranged between 0.1 and 0.4 microsievert during the 2½-hour stay on the island Saturday, and one reporter with a Geiger counter detected no radioactive substances.
Six temporary visitors are currently staying on the island, the official said.
Workers for the department and the Bikini Atoll municipality take turns staying there for several months to carry out research and equipment maintenance.
Jendrik Leviticus, a 77-year-old former islander who took part in the tour, said he returned to the island in the 1970s but had to leave again after many locals, including some of his relatives, started suffering health problems.
Standing on the empty lot where his house once stood, Leviticus said he felt “sad” when he heard about the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, which forced about 100,000 people in northeast Japan to evacuate.
“People in Fukushima are feeling just as insecure as we did,” said Leviticus, who now lives in Majuro. He said the U.S. nuclear tests were “unforgivable,” as they deprived Bikini islanders of their homes and put their health at risk.