Web Author's Note: The following cover story appeared in the New York Times Magazine on May 1, 1994. The reader of this lengthy tale should understand that it is now several years since this article was written: The successful land-based dive tourism program on Bikini has been in full swing since 1996, the nuclear waste issue is off the table as far as the Bikinians are concerned and has been since this time, and Niedenthal and Weisgall are working harmoniously on issues that concern the Bikinians. Some of the statements within this piece are now not accurate: The U.S. Department of Energy is not responsible for the cleanup of Bikini [under an agreement with the U.S. government, the Bikinians are responsible for making decisions regarding the radiological cleanup of their atoll] and Air Marshalls no longer has a Honolulu-Majuro-Kwajalein-Honolulu route. I have included this article to give the visitor of this web site a taste of what can happen when a volatile issue - such as nuclear waste - hits a small community of people living in the middle of the Pacific Ocean - or anywhere for that matter: It gets real ugly, the gloves get taken off, and friendships and working relationships dissolve. -JMN
THE BIKINIANS are nowhere to be found. Jack Niedenthal has made quick searches of the blackjack tables, the dollar slots, the all-night buffet lines, the Starlight Lounge. No luck. "Oh, they're here," he promises. 'They can't hide - not from me."
Even at twilight, Las Vegas simmers in late-summer heat. The strip is jammed with cars; the cavernous Stardust Casino, like all the others, is abuzz with weekend tourists. A few, barefoot and towel-wrapped, stream out of the pool-entrance doors toward the hotel elevators. Might the Bikinians have gone for a swim? No. The 36-year-old Niedenthal dressed in blue jeans, T-shirt and flip-flops, is, according to his business card, "Trust Liaison and Representative for the People of Bikini"; he would know. Bikinians, he answers flatly, do not swim in swimming pools.
Niedenthal weaves through crowded aisles of machines, scanning left and right for a familiar face. Along the way, his name is announced over the casino loudspeakers, but Niedenthal casually ignores the page. He has led a half-dozen trips to Las Vegas in as many years with large delegations of Bikinians and a call to the white courtesy telephone, he explains,means one of several things: a lost meal coupon, a request for a loan or, worse, a missing Bikinian.
Niedenthal's name is called a second time. "Probably someone's lost," he groans, wading through the crowd. At the far end of the casino pit, Niedenthal steps past velvet ropes and a placard that reads "Players Only." There, in a red- carpeted area, he finds an aisle full of wide-body, V.I.P.-class slot machines and a few Bikinians, cradling drinks, cigarettes and plastic tubs filled with silver dollars. They are members of the Bikini Council, representing the 2,000 or so of their people. Short and stocky men, big-bellied, they lounge in their customary leisure wear - Hawaiian shirts, double-knit pants and flip-flops.
A few Bikinians cluster around Jack Irujiman, a fireman, who has apparently hit the first big jackpot of the trip - $3,300, according to the flashing digital display. But as the group gathers around to celebrate, the machine falls silent and their excitement turns to confusion. Niedenthal walks over and explains, gently in Marshallese, that Irujiman hadn't deposited enough coins to receive the payoff. The Bikinians peer quizzically at the flashing numbers. Finally, Irujiman decides to cash out, staring sullenly as three silver dollars tumble into the metal tray.
The scene offers an irresistible metaphor: a Bikinian standing expectantly in front of an American gambling machine that tells him he is a winner but that through some unexplained circumstance refuses to pay off. That feeling - of having been cheated, left at the end of a broken American promise - describes much of what it has meant to be a Bikinian for the last half-century. In 1946, the Bikinians made what they believed was a safe gamble with the United States. They agreed to give up their native Pacific atoll - a ring of coral islands where they had lived in relative isolation for centuries - freely to the United States as a test site for the atomic bomb. In return, they were promised the benevolent guardianship of the United States Government and the honor of having done a heroic deed for humankind. Most important, however, was the promise that they would be returned as soon as the testing was over.
Three generations later, the Bikinians are still living in exile, most of them in plywood shacks on a solitary Pacific island called Kili some 400 miles from Bikini with others scattered from Honolulu to Enid, Okla. Twelve years of nuclear testing at Bikini Atoll during the 1940's and 1950's left Bikini and several other atolls in the Marshall Islands so contaminated with radioactive fallout that it has prevented the Bikinians from resettling. Only now is that exile coming to an end. The United States Department of Energy has begun cleaning up the atoll preparing the way for the islanders' return. For the first time in their history, the Bikinians face the challenge of planning for the future. What will they do? What will be their livelihood?
That they have been grappling with such questions during quarterly junkets to places like Las Vegas is only the first hint that they aren't likely to go back to sailing outrigger canoes and spearing tuna. The Bikinians, who had rarely laid eyes on any form of money before World War II, now operate with more than $100 million in trust funds, provided by the United States Government for resettlement and as compensation for their loss. A plan administered by Niedenthal, a former Peace Corps volunteer who has managed their day-to-day affairs for nearly a decade, also allots each Bikinian a $2,000 annual stipend.
"The Bikinians have a nice nest egg," says Jonathan M. Weisgall a 45-year-old attorney who has represented the Bikinians since 1975 and who is largely responsible for having secured their wealth. "If they handle it correctly, I think they will succeed in rescuing their culture. It's in their hands."
Perhaps. But the Bikinians must once again rely on Americans - Weisgall and Niedenthal - for guidance. In Vegas, away from the slot machines and gaming tables, the two men are leading a series of all-day meetings with the Bikinian leaders in one of the Stardust conference rooms, reviewing the Bikinians' investment portfolio, discussing their $8 million annual budget and listening to proposals to redevelop Bikini.
Among the ideas Weisgall is promoting is a plan to reopen Bikini Atoll as an exotic resort for divers and, perhaps, as an historic monument to the atomic age. A group of warships, the remains of a target fleet sunk by two atomic bombs in 1946, rests at the bottom of Bikini Lagoon, surrounded by opalescent waters and abundant marine life. The ships constitute what a growing number of sport divers and travel entrepreneurs say is the most spectacular wreck-diving attraction in the world. A handful of travel agents who have made proposals for dive parks at Bikini are waiting anxiously for their clients to decide on a plan.
All of which raises a question that worries Niedenthal who does not share Weisgall's enthusiasm for tourism: Since when does creating a diving resort count as a means of "rescuing a culture"? The Bikinians ceded their heritage once in good will. Now a new generation of salesmen has arrived at their doorstep, peddling dreams of a payoff. Are the Bikinians being hustled once again?
Niedenthal is afraid he knows the answer. He winces when he hears the hope of Jamore Aitap, one of the few elders who still remembers the idyllic life before the Bomb:
"If we could make Bikini into something like Vegas, we'd know we were really headed somewhere," Aitap says eagerly. 'It would be a dream come true."
SITUATED ROUGHLY HALFWAY between Hawaii and Australia, Bikini Atoll is a pinpoint in the vast archipelago of the Micronesian Pacific. It is 1 of 29 idyllic atolls - necklaces of low-lying coral islands that encircle large, shallow lagoons - in the young nation of the Marshall Islands in the easternmost region of Micronesia. Governed as a Trust Territory of the United States since World War II, the Marshalls were granted sovereignty in 1986.
Of all the events that touched the lives of the Marshallese over the years - the arrival of Christian missionaries, the occupation by the Japanese - none was as portentous as an unexpected visit to Bikini Atoll in the winter of 1946. Ben H. Wyatt, then the Military Governor of the Marshall Islands, arrived by seaplane in the lagoon in front of Bikini Island, where all 167 Bikinians lived. He had come to put "into gentle words," according to Navy records, what he, Congress, President Truman and most Americans already knew: that for its unique geographic characteristics - remoteness, primarily - Bikini Atoll had been chosen as the site for the first peacetime test of the atomic bomb and that the Bikinians would have to move to another island while the tests were being conducted. An authority "higher than any on earth" would look favorably on such a deed, Wyatt assured the Bikinian leader, Chief Juda Kessibuki. Less than a month later and after the Bikinians had reenacted their negotiations with Wyatt for the benefit of Navy film crews - the Bikinians piled their outrigger canoes, baskets, extra thatching and other belongings into a Navy transport and waved goodbye.
"When the Bikinians were moved, it was something that really shattered their hearts," says Tomaki Juda, Chief Juda's youngest son and the Bikinian Mayor since 1976. Soft-spoken and earnest, Tomaki radiates an evenness of temper that has provided the Bikinians with a measure of political stability through years of exile. "They were uncertain especially my father, as to how the United States was going to take care of them - where they would go, how they would survive," Tomaki continues. "But they made promises, and we held onto those. The United States was the leader of the world. Did we have a choice?"
As the first peacetime test of the atomic bomb, Operation Crossroads became a celebrated scientific and political event - a demonstration of fearsome military power wielded by benevolent masters. Within weeks, thousands of American military personnel (from ichthyologists and radiologists to oceanographers and bombardiers), Congressmen and foreign ambassadors, scores of journalists and thousands of laboratory goats, pigs, rats and sheep began to descend on Bikini Atoll. On July 1, 1946, a B-29 dropped the world's fourth atomic bomb over a fleet of 95 target vessels anchored in Bikini Lagoon and Operation Crossroads proved precisely what J. Robert Oppenheimer, a critic of the project, had wryly suggested to President Truman: "If an atomic bomb comes close enough to a ship ... it will sink it."
While the bombs were going off at Bikini its more popular namesake took off at the beach in Cannes. A French couturier, who had hired a skywriter to advertise his new creation ('L'atome - the world's smallest bathing suit") was outdone by another designer named Louis Reard, who made perhaps the world's most famous fashion statement: "Bikini - smaller than the smallest bathing suit in the world." The bikini debuted in Paris in the summer of 1946 and soon even the Webster's editors had lost clear sight of the Bikinians. "Bikini" they wrote, was derived "from the comparison of the effects wrought by a scantily clad woman to the effects of an atomic bomb."
Twenty-one more nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll followed the two in 1946. At Enewetak Atoll, 200 miles west of Bikini, 43 more nuclear tests were carried out over 10 years and its residents relocated. Only one test, however, sealed the Bikinians' fate in exile. On March 1, 1954, now a national day of mourning in the Marshall Islands, a 15-megaton hydrogen bomb, code-named Bravo, was set off at Nam, a large island in the northwest comer of Bikini Atoll. With 750 times more explosive than the bomb that fell on Hiroshima, Bravo vaporized a large portion of Nam and two surrounding islets and sent a plume of highly radioactive debris floating eastward over the lagoon and over 7,000 square miles of open water.
What the United States Atomic Energy Commission at the time called a "routine atomic test" turned out to be what the Government later admitted was "the worst single incident of fallout exposures in all the U.S. atmospheric testing program." The 236 residents of Rongelap and Utirik, atolls 75 and 300 miles to the east, hadn't been informed of the tests and were showered with dangerously radioactive ash. United States officials explained at the time that an unexpected wind shift accounted for the exposure. But documents later revealed that the wind shift had been foreseen and warnings ignored, and the Government's reported estimate that just over 200 Marshallese residents had been exposed to dangerous radiation has proved grossly conservative. Four decades after Bravo, the incidence rate of thyroid cancers and abnormalities among the Marshallese population is the highest in the world.
A visitor today sees little evidence of the testing. Palm trees, bearing fruit once again, carpet Bikini's landscape. Abundant schools of gray reef sharks, yellowfin tuna and mackerel patrol the calm waters and coral reefs; turtles and crabs nest in the shallow reef shores where radioactive fish once floated, belly up, by the thousands. Less apparent is the layer of radioactive cesium that Bravo deposited in the top- soil of Bikini and several other islands. The cesium doesn't pose a direct threat to life. (Scientists estimate that a person living on Bikini today would receive a lower annual dosage of external radiation than someone living in California.) But it can still be dangerous when ingested - through plants, coconuts or fruit. In a cluster of palm trees near the site where Wyatt met with Juda lies the only evidence of the Bikinians' centuries of existence here: several scattered gravestones, the cemetery where the last remaining Bikinian elders hope one day to be buried.
KILI, THE 200-ACRE ISLAND WHERE three generations of Bikinians have now grown up, is no paradise. Whereas Bikini is protected by its outer reef and calm lagoon - ideal for fishing - Kili is pounded constantly by the Pacific surf; five months out of the year it is inaccessible by boat. Nine hundred Bikinians now make tidy homes in ramshackle plywood shacks first built by Americans in 1948. The houses are clustered together on a dirt road that makes a single loop around the island. The elders still refer to the place as a prison.
As the years passed, fishing skills and other totems of their culture fell away, as did some of the innocence and naivete for which the Bikinians were so well known. They had been moved twice before they even arrived on Kili, and an attempt to return to Bikini in 1968 was aborted after a few years when the Energy Department discovered that the atoll was not as safe as its scientists had promised. In 1975, believing they had been treated unjustly by the Government that took away their land and promised them a safe, swift return, the Bikinian leaders did what many Americans might have expected of them: they got a lawyer.
"It became a source of anger for us that we were misled by the U.S. Government," Tomaki says. "We were being faithful to them, and time and again we felt like they didn't really care about us anymore."
Jonathan Weisgall a young Stanford-educated associate with Covington & Burling, one of Washington's largest old-line firms, took their case. In 1982, Weisgall secured the Bikinians their first $20 million from Congress to help them resettle on Bikini. He soon helped negotiate an even sweeter deal. Of the $150 million that Congress granted in 1987 to the Marshall Islands as compensation for nuclear claims, the Bikinians took home $75 million - $5 million a year over 15 years, income the Bikinians could spend as they please, provided they funnel half of their income into a trust. And, by 1992, the Bikinians had received a $90 million addition to their resettlement trust fund from Congress. The Bikinians may be homeless still, but they are at least homeless millionaires.
The results of the Federal funding are everywhere apparent. Across the dirt alley from the Kili schoolhouse, children flip through the latest American movies at the local video rental stand. "Bad Lieutenant" and "Falling Down." Down the alley, a few pigs nap in the freshly poured concrete of Lucky Juda's new open-air Laundromat. The island's several grocery stores offer dime-store fare for inflated prices: $325 for a dozen eggs, the same for a package of hot dogs. Fishing at Kili has become rare, but the Robert Reimers department store shelves are full of canned mackerel from California.
With new-found wealth to administer and distribute, the Bikinians needed a manager of some sort, someone who could speak the language, live in their community and serve as their link to the rest of the world. In 1984, it was Niedenthal - a Peace Corps volunteer who'd been dumped on an outer island in the Marshalls for three years - who washed up at the Bikinians' door looking for work. He taught English, worked his way into the community, eventually married a Bikinian and now has three young children. Like the rest of Bikinians, the Pennsylvania-born Niedenthal now has land rights on Bikini.
"When the Bikinians have to deal with the outside world - scientists, engineers, contractors and the American Government - you need someone to deal with powerful personalities," Niedenthal says. "I'm their link to the outside."
He also has appointed himself their 9-to-5 link to the past. Niedenthal's small, cluttered office on Majuro is a compendium of Bikinian history: snapshots of leaders and their families, archival photos, oral histories that Niedenthal hopes one day to publish. If Weisgall is the purveyor of financial opportunity, Niedenthal presents himself as the voice of conscience. (Indeed, in his role as budget manager, he audits Weisgall's bills and has managed to limit the attorney's $135-an-hour legal fees to about $300,000 annually.) As he drives a van through the Bikinian village on Kili, Niedenthal laments what he likes to call "the second bomb" that landed on the Bikinians in the form of trust fund millions.
"When I got here, there was no airstrip; the school was lousy; there was no recreation area, no power plant, no store, no nothing. It was a dump. Then money hit this place all at once. People bought something like 17 cars in six months - all Toyotas - and anybody at that point who didn't have a TV got one. Pretty soon, you had to pay for everything. You want a glass of water? You paid for it. You want a car ride? You paid for a car ride. It just kept expanding. The Bikinians are like anyone else living in a small community. They like to keep up with the Joneses next door. All our meetings now, it's just money, money, money."
Without a single industry to support their community, the Bikinians have found their $2,000 annual stipend to be woefully inadequate and Niedenthal now spends a good deal of his time processing loans. "When the trust funds came into being, yes, there was more money," Tomaki says. "But when you compare that with how we lived on Bikini able to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner without spending a penny, living off the land and fishing in the lagoon. ... When we have to go out and survive with that money, it isn't enough. The population continues to rise" - a product, in part, of the Marshallese men who rushed to marry Bikinian women the moment the trust funds landed - "and the money stays about the same, so people's shares go down. It just seems like there's never enough money for us, and that causes problems."
Even Weisgall admits that the wealth he helped win now threatens what remains of Bikinian culture. "All this money," he says, "now raises the question: 'How are you gonna get them back to the farm once they've seen Paree?' Well, how are you gonna get the Bikinians back to their atoll once they've seen Vegas? I'm not so sure you can put Humpty Dumpty together again. That's a question only the Bikinians can answer."
Perhaps the most painful realization for the Bikinians is that, for all their wealth, they cannot yet afford the ticket home. Energy Department scientists have been experimenting with a promising and affordable method of cleaning up Bikini Atoll. By adding potassium-rich fertilizer to the soil on Bikini, the plants and trees can be made to absorb the potassium and leave the dangerous cesium where it is. Experience, however, has taught the Bikinians an inherent fear of radiation. The cleanup method they favor would scrape every last ounce of cesium from the atoll - and would cost as much as $200 million, significantly more than the $110 million trust fund earmarked for the cleanup of Bikini.
"The bottom line is that the Bikinians need revenue," Weisgall says. "They need revenue to keep going and they need revenue to do a complete radiological cleanup of Bikini, and they do not have enough money in their trust fund to do it. Yes, they have tens of millions of dollars, but it's just not enough."
FIFTY FEET BELOW THE SURFACE OF THE Lagoon, a diver reaches the command tower and bridge of the U.S.S. Saratoga, which rise up from a vast, dark expanse. Dead corals - green, yellow and crimson-colored - cling to every inch of twisted steel. By descending another 50 feet, you can sit on the carrier's two forward guns and watch schools of mackerel swim across the seemingly endless flight deck. Or, time and air permitting, you can sink down into the carrier's elevator shaft and see the three Helldiver aircraft still huddled together, their wings folded. A neatly arrayed rack of 500-pound bombs - still live, according to National Park Service divers - rests nearby.
Scattered within a quarter-mile of one another at the bottom of Bikini Lagoon, the Saratoga and at least eight other ships left over from the Crossroads tests represent the Bikinians' most immediate hope for a homecoming. "If someone sat down and tried to devise a model for a blockbuster underwater attraction, you couldn't come up with something as perfect as Bikini," says Daniel J. Lenihan, who leads a team of underwater archaeologists with the Park Service. "It's like someone set up a park there."
That is precisely Weisgall's aim. In 1989, at the request of Weisgall and the Bikini Council, Lenihan joined several other experts from the Park Service's "Submerged Cultural Resources Unit" to scout and assess the tourist potential of the ships. Their 200-page report, accompanied by a letter from former Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr., reads like a travel brochure.
"Substantially unchanged, [the ships] are the only essentially unmodified museum of the dawn of the era of the atomic bomb - unlike the picked-over, filled-in and fenced ground zero of the Trinity Site or the rebuilt Hiroshima and Nagasaki." The Park Service report - full of maps, foldout schematic drawings of the ships and underwater photos of the abundant marine life - offered a blueprint of sorts for a Bikinian-managed dive park. Not long after the Park Service issued its report, Weisgall brought the Bikinians together for a trip to Orlando, FL, and the biggest dive equipment show in the country. Ever since, the stacks of tourism proposals have come pouring in.
"My clients want sharks," Chuck Simon explains between cigarette drags on a cellular phone from his backyard in San Antonio. "The high-end diver wants it - desperately. He'll pay an extra $50 a day to go on a shark dive at Bikini." The erstwhile television producer ("Entertainment Tonight" and "Solid Gold") is the more recent founder of a fledgling dive-tour company called Global Dive Management. Simon was approached by Weisgall at the Orlando conference and made several proposals to launch a dive resort at Bikini. "I'll be honest with you," Simon says. "I want to be the guy who opens up Bikini and I'd like to see the Bikinians not get screwed over for the rest of their lives..Sure, I come from Hollywood, but that's why they liked us, because we could promote them the best."
On a recent weekend afternoon in his Washington office, the gregarious Weisgall lounging in his "Crossroads Dive Team" T-shirt and shorts, explained his plan to bring tourism - and his clients- back to the islands they gave up m 1946. What Weisgall, Simon and others envision at Bikini is a kind of divers paradise, an adventure-oriented experience tailored to the baby-boom fascination with the atomic bomb. A dozen or so tourists would arrive at Bikini for a week at a time, stay at existing facilities - a guest house, a small video theater, a poolroom, store and gym - currently operated by the Energy Department and dive on the wrecks.
"Here's a scenario," Weisgall says. "You leave the West Coast Saturday morning. You get to Honolulu at noon. You take the 2 P.M. evening flight to Kwajalein. You get to Kwajalein at 5:30. A Dornier plane meets you and you get to Bikini at 8 o'clock. In one day, you get from the West Coast of the U.S. to Bikini. For six days, you dive, have a good time. You leave Saturday morning, get to Kwajalein by noon, take the Air Marshall Islands flight that afternoon, get to Honolulu late Saturday night, then take a red-eye out of Honolulu Saturday night, get home Sunday morning and you go to work Monday morning.
Weisgall mentions a list of other attractions that would fill out the travel package for nondivers. First, watersports: "A couple of Sunfishes, a little bit of surfing, maybe some sport fishing." Next, a "Robinson Crusoe" trip to one of the atoll's small outer islands: "You put people on one of those islands, you say- 'Folks, you're on your own, and here's the radio if you need help. See you in a week."' And, last but not least, shark cages: "You put somebody in one of those cages at Bikini you can almost predict when sharks will arrive," Weisgall glows. "That could be pretty exciting."
But Weisgall's enthusiasm - at one point he was courting Club Med's interest in a Bikini park - obscures a fundamental obstacle: the Bikinians are cool to the plan. Like most of the elders, Jamore Aitap is happy to see Americans "build something beautiful and dive on a few ships - as long as they pay." But the Bikinians don't want tourism to slow the pace of resettlement lest they jeopardize their financial relationship with the United States Government. And they are less than eager to invest any money in a plan like Simon's. 'They want us to invest in boats and things?" laughs Johnny Johnson, a church deacon. "Why should we pay after all we've been through?"
Niedenthal, ever quick to speak for the Bikinians, advocates a more modest approach: a "liveaboard" option that would handle almost every aspect of the operation offshore. Divers would come in groups of 10 or 12, fly into Eneu, the island just south of Bikini Island, and then leave for the dive boat. All they would see of the atoll is what is underwater. The Bikinians would do nothing beyond collect a fee.
"A land-based operation is only asking for trouble," Niedenthal says. "I mean, we should get Bikini Island cleaned up and ready for the Bikinians before we think about bringing tourists in. And how are the Bikinians gonna react when someone walks up to them and says, 'Hey you, get off my tennis court!' They don't need that."
To Weisgall, however, Niedenthal's ideas reek of Peace Corps sentimentality. "Jack is pushing to put people on Eneu," Weisgall sniffs. "Eneu is ugly, disgusting. It has no beach; it is not pretty; it is not nice. Bikini is. It has a beautiful, four-mile long sloping beach. You go to Bikini today and you will understand why the Bikinians want to go back. Nature carved out something beautiful there."
If the Bikinians don't want a role in the resort, Weisgall says, it's only because "they're not used to having a service economy." But their attitude frustrates tour operators like Simon: The Bikinians have to become destination-conscious, so that customers are banging down the door," says Simon. "They just want to sit back and make money."
Said one other travel agent who made a Bikini dive pitch, but never heard back: "These are cute little brown people. Don't get me wrong: I like them' But they've been offered a tremendous amount of money to do this. They just need to be shown how to spend it."
AT THE END OF A LONG DAY OF meetings at the Stardust, the Bikinians fidget while Niedenthal and Weisgall run through the last items on the agenda. Some of the Council leaders, jet-lagged and hung over, have withdrawn to the shelter of a plastic shrub. Tomaki stares down at a stack of trust fund and investment reports from Weisgall who sits with Niedenthal nearby.
"The question is," Weisgall says slowly, "how do you want to proceed with tourism on Bikini? Some sort of pilot program? Or do you want to keep the tourism project on hold? I'm asking because I get a lot of phone calls, and Jack gets a lot of phone calls, and frankly, people, I want to know what your policy is. Do we want to go low key or big time?"
Niedenthal translates the question, but the Bikinians return only yawns. Tourism fails to excite the Council leaders for several reasons, but there is one basic one: It doesn't promise the kind of income that keeps a modern Bikinian interested. The low impact plan that Niedenthal advocates would generate $50,000 to $100,000 a year - barely enough to finance their junket in Vegas, much less the elaborate cleanup plan they envision for their home. So the Bikinians find themselves in a bind. 'They are reluctant to entertain "big time" tourism but they can't afford not to.
This may explain why the Bikinians have been quietly rolling the dice with another of Weisgall's proposals, one far more lucrative than tourism and one that they are understandably loathe to discuss publicly: nuclear waste. It is the ultimate Faustian bargain, but one which would assure the Bikinians' financial security for generations. Weisgall has told the Bikinians that their entry into the nuclear waste market could bring them a long-term jackpot worth $1 billion.
Outside the Stardust meeting room, one Bikinian casually let the cat out of the bag. "Simple," explains Korent Joel, a Bikini Council member and a boat captain. Drawing an imaginary map of Bikini Atoll with his hands, he points to an island in the north. "Here we can put the waste. Over here" - he moves his hand toward Bikini Island - "we can have tourism."
The plan dates back a few years to when the Energy Department started looking hard for sites to store high-level radioactive wastes. As compensation, suitable hosts were expected to receive at least $50 million a year for 20 years. Several American Indian tribes, including the Mescalero Apache, had already expressed interest. In January 1988, Weisgall asked an intermediary to approach officials at Waste Management Inc. - the largest hazardous-waste conglomerate in the United States - about the feasibility of storing nuclear waste at Nam, the island that was the detonation site of the Bravo test in 1954. It is still blanketed in radioactive soot, and there is no money, in the Bikinians trust fund or any other source, to clean it up.
"What does Nam offer that no location can offer, that the Mescalero tribe can't offer?" Weisgall asks. "I'll tell you: it's already a dump site. It's contaminated. Why not charge rent?" Besides, Weisgall adds, "it's not that pretty an island. I've walked it. Nuclear waste is perfectly feasible. Perfectly feasible. Just the logistics - transportation, the communications network that would be required - would be of enormous benefit to the Bikinians, not to mention the employment opportunities."
That the Bikinians did not immediately dismiss the idea as ridiculous speaks volumes about their respect for Weisgall and their faith in the bottom line. "I didn't want to consider putting radioactive waste at Bikini at all," one Council member recalls. "But Jon came to us with the idea and said here's an opportunity for a lot of income, that he knew a company in the United States that could store it safely on Nam, which is a long ways from Bikini Island. And it was worth $50 million a year for the Bikinians! We were really excited. Wouldn't you be?"
Tomaki admits to an interest in the plan "if it can be done safely" and if the Bikinians receive no additional United States funds to clean up all the contaminated islands in their atoll. But he remains reluctant. "I would like to tell you that I am one of the owners of Nam," he says slowly. "My father was one of the owners. We really need Nam to go back to the owners who used it for many generations. Our population has increased and someday there will be not enough land for everybody."
Tomaki, as it turns out, isn't just wrestling with his conscience. He is also struggling with Niedenthal's conscience and the power it commands in the community.For six years, Tomaki and the rest of the Council have been caught in the middle of a debate between their two advisers, a debate pitting Weisgall's pragmatic opportunism, which would yield a constant flow of dollars, against Niedenthal's high-minded desire to recapture the Bikinian heritage.
"I am a member of this community, and I have certain rights," Niedenthal argues. "And if I can help it, I'm not going to allow nuclear waste to come near that atoll."
Waste Management Inc. wasn't interested. But Niedenthal recalls a meeting in Las Vegas with officials from Ogden Martin, a waste incineration company with a growing nuclear waste division. While the Bikinians watched a slide show about nuclear waste technology and pored over brochures, Niedenthal snapped. "I made the comment that this is like 1946 all over again. Here were these men, very powerful-looking, trying to say that putting this waste out there will benefit mankind and relieve the anxiety of the American people."
Weisgall bristles at the mention of a historical parallel. "Look," he says. "This isn't 1946. We're not doing this on a promise that it's for the good of mankind. O.K., it'll be for the good of mankind - but add $50 million a year. Imagine if that had been the response to Ben Wyatt: 'O.K., Commodore, it'll be for the good of mankind oh, and $2 million a test.'The Bikinians are not going to be taken advantage of here."
With such outspoken advisers, it is often hard to hear what the Bikinians want. On occasion, even they have trouble hearing it. "Sometimes Jack says no, Jon says yes," Tomaki notes. "They are r-bellies - Americans - so I don't know who is right, who is not right. I try hard in meetings with my family and members of the Council to come to our own conclusions. It is not easy."
What the Bikinians have heard for seven years, as they did again at the Las Vegas meeting, is Jack Niedenthal threatening to quit his job on the spot if they proceed with the nuclear waste option. And they know full well that, as Niedenthal likes to point out, Weisgall has a financial interest in whatever they choose to do. The latter, at least, is a cost they understand and accept.
"He is our lawyer," Johnny Johnson says of Weisgall. "And we really believe in him. Everybody on the Council does. He knows how to read the minds of the bureaucrats in Washington. He's been with us for so long, he's like a brother to us, and nobody knows us or our history better than Jon. He makes a lot of money, but we really think he's worth it." Niedenthal, one Council member intimates, may be the only "Bikinian" offended by Weisgall's salary. "I hate to say this, but I think he's jealous. He's not a lawyer and he doesn't make the big money."
The Bikinians, for their part, seem more amused than alarmed by the various factions tugging at their future. "We are a simple people," Johnson explains. "We want to feel simple. We don't want to be complex like you."
Down deep, many would like nothing more than to return to their atoll and be left alone; the faster they acquire more wealth, they believe, the faster their dream will be achieved. No doubt that dream also holds a certain appeal for the few Americans who even think about the Bikinians anymore, for it resolves a lingering dilemma, How best to insure their future?
"If I could, I would ask every American to contribute $5 to the cleaning of Bikini," says Johnny Johnson, sitting astride a slot machine in the casino pit late in the evening. "That is what you should get for all the troubles you have caused us. It is a shame for us to ask for more money, but if we don't, how could we survive?" He laughs. 'What's $5? Nothing!"
Potential donors, however, are still left with an uncomfortable question: Is what the Bikinians want good for them in the long run? Even Weisgall for all his rhetoric about "rescuing their culture," knows that their homecoming cannot, by itself, amount to much. They're not going to be building thatched-roof huts any more, and I think it's probably only the anthropologists and the graduate students of this world who wish that would happen. The Bikinians live in the real world now, and the real world ain't thatch-roofs, coconuts and cloth. It's plywood, Mountain Dew and Huggies.
"If I were a Bikinian today and I had three young kids and a wife, I'd think about jobs, health care and education. You're not going to find any of them on Bikini or Kili. I mean, there's one Bikinian working as a short-order cook in Enid, Okla., making four and a half dollars per hour and that's more than you're going to make in the Marshall Islands." As far as Weisgall is concerned, economic development will restore a sense of industriousness to their culture. "And that," he argues, "will lead to cultural maturity, not a colonial mentality."
Much as it may distress Niedenthal the Bikinians are no longer the innocents they were in 1946. And they have fared far better than the other Marshallese. The people of Enewetak, Rongelap and Utirik are plagued by radiation-related health problems, bitter infighting and government instability, and they gaze enviously at the Bikinian model of starting anew.
"Bikini is the only community out there that has parlayed its experience into what resembles an alternative form of self-sufficiency and has come out on top," says an attorney who has worked for both the Marshallese and American Governments. "There's a dark joke in Washington that Bravo was the best thing that ever happened to the Bikinians. But I give the Bikinians credit. They have Weisgall, who is a strange mix of social ethics and aggressive lawyering, and they are out hustling. They've always been out hustling. In the olden days, they hustled on the ability to gather food. Now they hustle on the ability to gather money. And we're the ones that introduced it to them."
IN THE MONTHS SINCE their meetings in Las Vegas, the Bikinians have put the nuclear waste plan on hold, not for ethical reasons or out of any allegiance to Niedenthal but simply because they feared that their own Government would walk away with all the money. In February, partly in response to rumors that Weisgall and the Bikinians were trying to negotiate a nuclear waste deal on their own, the President of the Marshall Islands, Amata Kabua, declared himself and the other tribal chiefs of the Marshall Islands the legal owners of Bikini Atoll. A bill passed in the Marshallese legislature announced that they would receive a third of any income the Bikinians might generate from the use of their islands.
That same month, a delegation of Marshallese officials met with Energy Department officials and Congressional staff, formally inviting the United States to consider its most tragically contaminated atolls, including Bikini, as permanent storage sites for high-level nuclear waste. Kabua has now insured that any money headed for Bikini - from tourism, nuclear waste or any other source - will flow through his hands first.
Bikinians, for their part, are inching toward their homeland. Energy Department scientists have visited Kili and assured them that at least one island, Eneu, is completely safe and ready for resettlement. Tomaki has announced in the Marshall Islands newspaper that the Bikinians are gearing up for the move home. There aren't any houses yet for them to live in, but contractors have built three small hotels and a dive shop on Eneu. And there is talk of expanding an old airstrip to accommodate flights from Honolulu.
Back in Washington, Weisgall has stumbled upon another moneymaking scheme for his clients. It seems the Department of Defense, as part of its missile defense research program at Kwajalein, wants to use Bikini as a launch site for short-range ballistic missiles. "Firing from Bikini Island would be difficult," Weisgall acknowledges. "But there's been no mention yet of money."
Letter to the Editor of the New York Times Magazine of May 29, 1994
BIKINI'S SILVER LINING
As Jack Niedenthal's sister and an observer of the politics of Bikini for the past nine years, I want to add some insights to Jeffrey Davis's article "Bikini's Silver Lining" (May 1).
The very real social problems that now exist in the Bikinian culture as a result of the influx of trust-fund monies and exposure to the outside world negate the ability to turn back time. My brother supports a careful long-term cleanup and resettlement program rather than one that quick-fixes it with money.
The "temporary" homeland on Kili, which has no natural harbor for fishing and inadequate land for cultivation, essentially robbed the Bikinians of their livelihood. The article asked us to believe that a Las Vegas strip and a bunch of money could replace a home and a means of sustaining life. Those who have given the resettlement problem careful thought talk less about reliving a heritage than about finding a way finally to allow the culture to support itself. From the moment those bombs went off, the Bikinian culture existed only as a welfare state created by bureaucrats and lawyers in Washington.
I do not believe that taking on $1 billion in nuclear waste that nobody else wants is in the best interest of the Bikinians. How many of us, with our American media savvy, would do that to our own children?
My brother's motivation is simple, one that most of us can understand. He is a husband and a father, and his wife and children are Bikinians. I am grateful that he is there to protect what remains of their heritage, while safeguarding their possibility of a future.
Nancy Niedenthal Axberg,
For further reading on the nuclear waste issue with regard to the Bikinians, read Outside Magazine's "Lost at Sea" 3/97
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