U.S. Navy warships arrived in 1946 bearing heartbreaking orders for 6-year-old Tomaki Juda and the other 166 islanders on Bikini Atoll: They were going to have to live somewhere else.
America had just designated their lush tropical paradise as ground zero for 23 atomic bomb blasts, including a devastating shot that would send a column of radioactive water a mile high on July 25, 1946.
By the time the mushroom clouds cleared for good in 1958, the soil was so full of cesium that the coconut palms and every other edible plant posed a radiation hazard.
As the 50th anniversary of the first Bikini tests passes this month, Juda, now leader of the Bikinian people, is hoping finally to embark on a massive environmental restoration project so that they can return home.
"We are tired," Juda said. "We don't want to wait anymore."
With the help of scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory outside San Francisco, the islanders are weighing two proposals.
The cleanup would be financed from a $100-million trust fund won by the Bikinians after a lengthy legal battle against the federal government in the 1980s.
But it will be many years before Bikini will be fit for habitation. And the islanders must still come to grips with the sociological and cultural damage done by their 50-year exile, which began the day they sat on the ground, listening as U.S. officials promised their deportation would be temporary.
It is difficult to appreciate just how isolated Bikini was when Navy destroyers anchored off shore in 1946. The atoll, a ribbon of 23 islands that surrounds a lagoon teeming with marine life, had no airport or ferry service, no telephones or radios. If islanders wanted to travel, they did so across hundreds of miles of open ocean in small outrigger canoes.
The Bikinians likely had little grasp of just what Navy officers meant when they explained they would test atomic bombs on the atoll. And in truth, the islanders had little choice, since the Truman administration had already designated Bikini as the site for atomic tests--known as Operation Crossroads--said Jonathan Weisgall, a Washington attorney who represents the Bikinians.
Upon leaving the main island, the late Bikinian leader King Juda lamented: "Everything is in God's hands now." The words are enshrined on the Bikinian flag.
The islanders were transported first to Rongerik, a desert atoll where they nearly starved to death in two years. Then they were sent to Kili, a wind-swept island 425 miles from Bikini with poor fishing, no lagoon and salty soil, where they remain. Once a seafaring people who lived off what nature provided, the Bikinians now subsist on a diet of surplus canned meat and rice provided by the Agriculture Department.
"It is like a prison island," said Juda, the son of King Juda. Many Bikinians have scattered as far away as Costa Mesa; altogether, Weisgall estimates the world's population of Bikinians at 2,200.
"It is love and hate," Weisgall said. "There is sorrow and anger over the move, but there is also a sense of dependency and entitlement that something is still owed them by the United States. It is no coincidence that their flag so closely resembles that of the U.S."
The flag has a series of stars and stripes, representing the islands of the atoll. Two stars are set apart, symbolizing the two islands vaporized in the atomic tests.
For years, the federal government rejected Bikinian demands for compensation. In a series of three lawsuits, federal courts ultimately ruled that the United States had violated the terms and intent of the trusteeship under which it took possession of the Marshall Islands, which include Bikini, from Japan after World War II. The Marshalls gained independence in 1986, and U.S. courts later awarded the Bikinians $100 million.
The United States has stepped up to its responsibility to the Bikinians, said Sen. Frank H. Murkowski (R-Alaska), chairman of the subcommittee that oversees the Marshall programs. Under legislation that enjoys bipartisan support, Murkowski said in an interview last week, the United States will extend its food aid program to the Bikinians and expand their medical care.
"There is not only a legal but a moral obligation on our part," said Murkowski, who went to Bikini on a fact-finding trip this year.
The Bikinians have some difficult choices to make if they ever hope to return to the atoll.
The soil there is contaminated with plutonium, americium and strontium. But the most serious problem is the radioactive isotope cesium 137, which closely mimics the potassium that all plants need to live. As a result, the plants readily absorb the cesium.
While it is not dangerous to breathe the air or walk on the ground of Bikini, eating locally grown food is deadly. The Bikinians have only two choices to fix the problem--neither of which appears very attractive.
They could scrape the top 16 inches of soil off the main island of Bikini, which would strip all vegetation and the topsoil that has taken centuries to mature from the atoll's coral reef. But that would create a million cubic feet of radioactive soil that nobody knows how to dispose of safely. Moreover, the cost would far exceed the $100-million fund.
Lawrence Livermore experts have recommended that Bikinians instead treat the main island with large quantities of potassium, which would block the uptake of cesium. Only the village area would be scraped to prevent children from playing in the dirt that still contains plutonium.
After years of testing, scientists have found that potassium treatments every five years would reduce plant uptake of cesium to just 5% of current levels and allow future residents to eat locally grown food without receiving excessive doses of radiation, said William Robison, chief of the Marshall Islands Program at Lawrence Livermore.
Robison estimates that 17 potassium treatments would be required over the next century, after which natural radioactive decay of the cesium would eliminate the threat. The plutonium will remain radioactive for thousands of years, however.
But the Bikinians do not trust the Lawrence Livermore recommendations and are reluctant to depend on U.S. scientists for another century. They want the peace of mind that only a scrape would provide, although Juda said they recognize that it could be decades before they returned home if they insisted on it.
The Bikinians have been misled before. President Lyndon B. Johnson declared the atoll safe in 1968, and Bikinians were relocated to the island. Less than a decade later, radiological health experts at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York found the Bikinians were at risk of being radioactively poisoned.
The islanders again were removed from Bikini before any of them exceeded the international standard for safe annual radiation exposure, which is set at 170 millirems, said Dr. Ed Kaplan, head of a Brookhaven radiological health program for the Marshall Islands. A dental X-ray delivers 1 millirem and a chest X-ray, 9 millirems. Nonetheless, Weisgall asserted that the cesium exposure represented the largest mass contamination in history.
In addition to the Bikinians, residents of three other Marshall islands are being monitored by Brookhaven as a result of exposure to U.S. radiation. The other islanders were exposed when U.S. bomb makers underestimated the nuclear yield of the massive 1954 Bravo bomb and radiation drifted hundreds of miles farther than expected.
The 23 atomic blasts at Bikini stripped away vegetation and destroyed some sections of the coral reef, but nature has undergone a remarkable healing process. The main island now has 40,000 coconut trees, Robison said. The lagoon is considered one of the most spectacular reefs in the Pacific, both for its coral formations and its marine life--earning a spot on the cover of National Geographic magazine three times.
Dozens of Navy ships sunk in the 300-foot-deep lagoon are now a top destination for scuba divers. A tour operator is bringing small diving groups to Eneu, the second largest island of the atoll, which now has an airstrip.
But time is running out for the 90 remaining original residents of Bikini, fewer than two dozen of whom were old enough at the time of their deportation to recall today what life was like before the Atomic Age. Weisgall said it is unlikely many of them will ever make it back home.