Exiled by nuclear testing, rising seas force Bikinians to flee again

11:17 am on 8 August 2015

Nearly 70 years after they were uprooted to make way for United States nuclear weapons testing, Bikini Islanders are now reeling from rising seas and have asked Washington to aid a new resettlement.

For decades, Bikini islanders have struggled to survive on Kili, an inhospitable and isolated island with no lagoon for fishing or calm anchorage for boats. Repeated ocean water flooding over the past four years and a runway that turns to mud when it rains pushed the Bikini Council on Thursday to request US government assistance to relocate a population that has lived in exile since the start of nuclear testing at Bikini in 1946.

The United States launched the Baker underwater nuclear test in Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands, July 1946.

The United States launched the Baker underwater nuclear test in Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands, July 1946. Photo: US Navy

The United States tested 24 nuclear weapons at Bikini, including its largest hydrogen bomb, Bravo, at 15 megatons in 1954. Early in the testing, radioactive contamination of all the target ships created the first case of immediate, concentrated radioactive fallout from a nuclear explosion.

Bikinians have suffered from health impacts of the testing for decades and a struggle continues to get adequate compensation from the US and full disclosure about its testing programme. The Bikini people now also hope for American help to overcome the upheaval they increasingly face from the change in sea levels.

High tides in Kili Island, Marshall Islands, February 2015.

High tides in Kili Island, Marshall Islands, February 2015. Photo: Kili/Bikini/Ejit Local Government Marshall Islands

Bikini people faced with no choice but to leave

The Bikini Council has approved two resolutions, requesting US Interior Department assistance to gain Congressional amendments to allow the Resettlement Trust Fund for the People of Bikini, established in 1982 by US public law, to be used for relocation outside of the Marshall Islands.

"In the future, we may have no option but to relocate," said Bikini Mayor Nishma Jamore, explaining why the Council adopted the resolutions following public hearings in Majuro and Ejit, and a council meeting on Kili.

"We are preparing for the future. Climate change is real. We are feeling and experiencing it. In the future we will have no choice [but to relocate]."

Resolution 46 noted that since their resettlement to Kili in 1948, the change from an atoll environment to a single island with no lagoon "continues to take a severe psychological toll on the people."

Flooding in a village of Kili Island, Marshall Islands, February 2015.

Flooding in a village of Kili Island, Marshall Islands, February 2015. Photo: Kili/Bikini/Ejit Local Government Marshall Islands

But added to this long-term problem for life on Kili is the impact of sea level rise. The resolution said that Kili and Ejit Islands have been covered by high waves at least five times in the last four years, resulting in contamination of all wells on both islands.

The mayor said that "because of ongoing deterioration of conditions on Kili and Ejit Islands, many of the people of Bikini living on these islands want to move out of the Marshall Islands, primarily to the United States."

US to be held to its promise

As it stands, the resettlement fund specifically restricts resettlement spending to the Marshall Islands. However Mr Jamore said US officials were supportive of seeking amendments to the existing US law governing trust fund use when Bikini representatives visited Washington DC earlier this year.

"The Americans said 'we will always take care of you as the children of America' and we believe that if promises are made, they will be kept," said Councilwoman Lani Kramer. "After 70 years there has to be some action to get the people off this small island."

Resolution 54 says that it has become clear that "conditions on Kili Island are similar to those facing the people of Bikini on Rogerik in 1946, of being placed on an island that cannot sustain the population."

Bikinians in the Marshall Islands being evacuated from their home island after nuclear testing in the area by the US.

Bikinians in the Marshall Islands being evacuated from their home island after nuclear testing in the area by the US. Photo: US Navy

The US Navy evacuated Bikini islanders from Rongerik in 1948, two years after their initial resettlement for the first nuclear tests, because the islanders were starving. They were then moved to Kili Island where about 800 people currently live.

"Kili Island can no longer sustain a population of more than a few hundred people," the resolution said.

The Bikinians say they are asking for US government help because they consider that the Resettlement Trust Fund was never designed to finance a relocation of the entire population from Kili Island - a move Mayor Jamore says is essential. The Bikinians said the US government remained morally responsible for the welfare of the Bikinians "due to its failure to ever conduct a radiological clean-up of Bikini Atoll in order to repair the damage it caused from the nuclear testing."

"I believe that if you borrow something from someone you should return it in the same or better condition," said Kramer. "They [the Americans] really need to clean up Bikini. I believe even if we don't go back they should clean it up no matter what."