Exiled by nuclear tests, now threatened by climate change, Bikini islanders seek refuge in U.S. via The Washington Post

On the morning of July 1, 1946, a second sun rose over the remote Pacific island chain of Bikini Atoll.

The world’s fourth atomic bomb had just been detonated over the area with an “unearthly brilliance that petrified observers,” wrote the Washington Post reporter at the scene.

A hundred miles away, from a ship just off the shore of tiny Rongerik Atoll, Bikini’s former residents watched a mushroom cloud form over the place that had been their home. Now it was a bomb site, shrouded in toxic nuclear fallout that would render it uninhabitable. The Bikini islanders didn’t know that yet; they had agreed to a series of nuclear tests on their islands believing they would be able to return as soon as the experiments ended.

Instead, they began a decades-long nomadic existence that would see Bikini islanders starve on atolls too small and sparse to sustain them and sicken from lingering radiation on others. The tiny community would be relocated five times in as many decades before settling elsewhere in the Marshall Islands. Some islanders watch warily as scientists re-evaluate their old home. Others have tried to move on, settle down.

But their bad luck just won’t let them. Now, they say, the rising seas and brutal storms brought on by climate change have rendered their new homes uninhabitable. On Wednesday, Marshallese Foreign Minister Tony de Brum will meet with members of Congress and ask for a change in the terms of the fund that was set up to help Bikini islanders resettle. Currently, the fund can only be used to help them buy property in the Marshall Islands, but they’re giving up on the Pacific entirely. They want to come to the U.S. instead.

“Kili [is] uninhabitable because of climate change,” de Brum told the BBC Tuesday, referring to the tiny island where about 700 people now live.


In the late ’60s, U.S. officials announced that most of the effects of its nuclear detonations had worn off, and some Bikini islanders opted to return to the atoll. But subsequent tests found alarming levels of radiation in the islands’ sand, fruit, fish and the people themselves. The hundred or so islanders living in Bikini atoll were re-evacuated in 1978, and most returned to Kili.


Niedenthal, the liaison officer for the displaced people of Bikini, says the U.S. has a moral obligation to help the community it displaced 70 years ago. He knows people who were there when the last islanders left Bikini Atoll, who still recite a promise made by an American officer there “like it’s right out of the Bible,” Niedenthal told Radio New Zealand in August.

“This American stood up to them, Commodore [Ben] Wyatt in 1946,” Niedenthal said. “[He] said ‘Don’t you worry. It doesn’t matter if you’re adrift on a raft at sea or on a sand bar, you will be like the children of America. We are going to take care of you.”

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