Popular Science
September 1997

Back to Bikini?

Five decades ago, the United States evicted the residents of Bikini and began testing nuclear bombs on the atoll, part of the Marshall Islands. Over a dozen years, 23 bombs were exploded there. Today, the atoll's pristine appearance is drawing scuba-diving tourists. But is it safe for the exiled Bikinians to return permanently?

Yes, say scientists-as long as the islanders limit the amount of locally grown food they eat. Atmospheric radiation has dissipated, but cesium-137, a byproduct of nuclear fission, remains in the soil and is drawn up through plant roots. Cesium is part of the same chemical family as the plant nutrient potassium, so it concentrates in the coconuts and fruits that are part of the islanders' traditional diet.

As long as islanders limit their intake of local fruit, living on Bikini should cause an overall radiation exposure no greater than that experienced by the average American, says Steven Simon, who recently concluded a five-year study of radiation levels for the Marshall Islands government.

One way to remove the cesium would be to scrape off the top level of Bikini's soil, but that could destroy the atoll's fertility. Another option, proposed by William Robison of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, would be to spread potassium fertilizer, which plants would then absorb instead of cesium. Bikinians want to begin cleanup measures this year but are waiting for the U.S. government to officially declare that returning is safe.

-- Mariette DiChristina



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kindle The historical information within this site, while constantly updated, is drawn largely from the book, FOR THE GOOD OF MANKIND: A History of the People of Bikini and their Islands, Second Edition, published in September of 2001 by Jack Niedenthal. This book tells the story of the people of Bikini from their point of view via interviews, and the author's more than two decades of firsthand experiences with elder Bikinians.

Copies can be purchased from this direct ordering link at Amazon.com, or you can also buy and download the Kindle edition.