Bikini Atoll may sound like the ideal island getaway, but visitors would be better off wearing a biohazard suit than swimwear, as the nuclear fallout from tests carried out by the US military over 60 years ago has left parts of the Marshall Islands more radioactive than Chernobyl.
The Marshall Islands, which can be found in the central Pacific Ocean, were turned from tropical paradise to nuclear disaster after the US hit them with more than 70 nuclear bombs between 1946 and 1958 in a weapons testing program.
An analysis of soil samples, ocean sediment, and fruits from the Marshall Islands – the site of nearly 70 nuclear weapons tests during the 1940s and 1950s—has revealed alarmingly high levels of radiation, with some regions at levels exceeding areas affected by the Fukushima and Chernobyl disasters.
People living on Bikini were devastated when the island was hit with the largest hydrogen bomb ever, and researchers recently discovered radiation levels ‘were up to 15 to 1000 times higher than in samples from areas affected by the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters’.
While the majority of people living on the islands were forced to flee their homes, there is still an estimated 50,000 people living there.
Locals were forced out of their homes and decades later the nuclear waste is still flowing into the water.
In the aftermath of the hydrogen bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the US and Soviet governments entered into a nuclear arms race that became known as the Cold War. Like rival baboons trying to intimidate each other with the size of their bottoms, neither side ever actually pushed the button, but both engaged in some serious nuclear posturing, setting off mushroom clouds in remote testing sites as a display of their might and stupidity.
Between 1946 and 1958, the US conducted almost 70 nuclear bomb tests in the Marshall Islands, a chain of atolls and volcanic islands in the central Pacific Ocean, roughly halfway between Hawaii and the Philippines. The largest of these detonations was code named Castle Bravo and released the equivalent of 15 megatons of TNT in Bikini Atoll on March 1, 1954. Now that’s a spicy meatball.
The explosion completely vaporized a nearby artificial island and left a crater measuring 1.5 kilometers (1 mile) in diameter and 75 meters (245 feet) in depth.
Radioactive fallout from Castle Bravo made the atoll unsafe for human habitation, and researchers from Columbia University have now analyzed radiation levels in the Bravo crater, with some shocking results.
Publishing their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the authors explain how they dove to depths of around 60 meters (225 feet) to collect 129 samples of sediment from different points across the crater. Levels of certain nuclear isotopes – including plutonium-(239,240), americium-241, and bismuth-207 – were found to be at least an order of magnitude higher than in other nearby atolls, and many times above the legal exposure limit agreed by the US and Marshall Island governments.
These results build on existing research indicating that the long-term effects of nuclear testing may be further-reaching than previously imagined, altering the environment to such a degree that they may have even ushered in a new geological age.
All-in-all, some very discouraging results, as much of the Marshall Islands remain unsafe for resettlement. It’s not immediately clear when these islands will be free of radiation, or if people will ever return to Bikini Atoll. Sadly, climate change is making a bad situation worse, as rising sea levels could render many of the safe Marshall Islands uninhabitable.
Cover image: US ARMY/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS