Exactly 70 years have passed since the first atomic bombs were dropped over Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands.
The second bomb tested, an implosion-type nuclear weapon affectionately named "Helen of Bikini," created a towering spray dome of two million tons of radioactive water. It was called "the world's first nuclear disaster" by Glenn Seaborg, one of the fathers of the atomic bomb, and the United States government would detonate another 66 of its kind over the Micronesian archipelago between 1946 and 1958. Could these islands ever be safe for life again?
"People dream of going back to Bikini Island, but there's an ugly history of people returning too early and getting sick. I couldn't get clear answers, even in scientific literature, on whether these islands were, in fact, radioactive or not," Emlyn Hughes, a professor of physics at Columbia University, told me.
Hughes is a CERN-trained particle physicist who found himself in the Marshall Islands after leading a documentary project on nuclear weapons with his undergraduate students. At the time, the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) was suing the US government for allegedly violating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. After closely following the case, Hughes decided to pursue an unbiased analysis of the islands' actual radiation levels.
The nuclear arms race between the US and Soviet Union displaced 167 Marshallese as refugees in their own country. Today, the fallout is still present in poisoned food, land, and water, and in thousands of descendants who fear revisiting their ancestral homes.
In 2012, the United Nations filed a complaint on behalf of the RMI, accusing the US government of fostering a "legacy of distrust" and "indefinite displacement." The claim references unreliable government studies of radiation levels on atolls Bikini, Enewetak, and Rongelap that have effectively paralyzed the island nation in a state of fear, welfare, and poverty.
What Hughes and his colleagues discovered was a vastly different portrait of background gamma radiation than the ones painted by outdated studies—a finding that could revitalize islanders' hopes for one day resettling their deserted homeland.
Of six main islands across Bikini, Enewetak, and Rongelap atolls, four harbored radiation levels well below 100 millirem per year, which is the standard agreed upon by the US and RMI as safe for habitation. Only Bikini Island was found to have radiation levels exceeding that standard, at 184 millirem per year. The team lacked sufficient data to draw any conclusions about the sixth island, Nam.
According to Hughes, most recent estimates of radiation in the Marshall Islands reference decades-old measurements taken during the 1970s and 1980s by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory for the US Atomic Energy Commission.
Many of these previous studies made assumptions about the half-life of radioactive cesium-137, which was used to extrapolate radiation levels up through 2010. Other predictions, such as those made in 1994 for the National Research Council Report on the Radiological Assessments for the Resettlement of Rongelap, declared the island safe for resettlement without even considering how much time residents would spend on different parts of the island, including their own houses. Between 1954, when Rongelap islanders were fatally exposed to unexpected fallout, and 2005, when the Bush Administration stated it would no longer provide reparations to residents for nuclear testing, the island was resettled and evacuated twice due to negligent government science that left people homeless and sick from radiation.
So the group of researchers decided to produce their own current measurements by physically plotting radiation maps of all six islands using gamma scintillation detectors and GPS trackers.
"What we saw on the radiation maps was consistent with history. On Enewetak, which the United States cleaned up [from 1977 to 1980], radiation levels were very low. That was good. It meant you really can clean up an island," said Hughes.
Bikini Island, as their results confirm, has not yet recovered from one of the "most serious nuclear fallout incidents in history." On March 1, 1954, the US secretly carried out its largest ever nuclear test by detonating a thermonuclear weapon 1,000 times more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The test, codenamed "Castle Bravo," reached a yield of 15 megatons, sending radioactive fallout as far as Australia, India, Japan, North America, and Europe.
The inhabited neighboring islands of Rongelap, Utirik, and others were almost immediately affected. According to one account of the event, "believing that this powder was snow, many inhabitants played in and ate the powder." Their eventual evacuation came too late, however, and many Marshallese became sick from radiation.
Both Rongelap and Bikini atolls were mistakenly resettled in 1957 and 1968, respectively, forcing large populations of Marshallese to move back to their home islands where radiation levels weren't much lower. In the 1980s, Enewetak and Medren islands were eventually repopulated after extensive cleanup measures.
Today, less than one thousand people live on Enewetak, while Medren has been abandoned. According to census records from 2011, only 26 Marshallese inhabit Rongelap Island, and a mere 4 people currently live on Bikini Island as "caretakers," despite the risks associated with radiation. Many have since relocated to Hawaii, Guam, and Arkansas.
Despite being self-governed, the Marshall Islands relies on the US government for nearly two-thirds of its annual budget, and even after millions of dollars in reparations, the sovereign nation is plagued with poverty, disease, and malnutrition.
The new study's findings, which were published this week to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, don't claim that Enewetak and Rongelap are completely safe yet. Hughes admits that plutonium topsoil contamination could still make these atolls unfit for life, and he intends to return to the Marshall Islands to study radiation levels in local fruit and fish populations.
But the report provides fresh evidence that some islands could be on the mend, and underscores the US government's responsibility to completely restore the Marshall Islands, as it agreed to do decades ago in several Memorandums of Understanding.
It remains to be seen whether younger generations are willing to forgive more than half a century of perceived deception committed in the name of nuclear proliferation.
"When I asked members of the Marshallese government who they would trust to make these measurements," Hughes added, "they just looked at me and said, 'I don't know.'"