'90% of Bikinians Have Never Seen Bikini. It's a Legend'

In Pacific, rising tensions evoke troubling nuclear legacy
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Oct 7, 2017 11:45 AM CDT
In Pacific, Rising Tensions Evoke Troubling Nuclear Legacy
In this March 14, 1946 file photo, native people wave farewell to their Bikini Atoll home from a Navy LST transporting them to a new home on Rongerik Atoll 109 miles away.   (AP Photo/Clarence Hamm,File)

As a young boy growing up on Bikini Atoll, Alson Kelen spent idyllic days playing on the beach and fishing. With fewer than 150 people on the remote Pacific island it was a close community, he says, with few signs of the former US nuclear testing program other than the concrete bunkers he was told to avoid and the sunken ships in the lagoon. But in 1978, when Kelen was 10, officials evacuated everybody. It turned out they'd been premature in declaring the Marshall Islands atoll safe again for humans. Radiation levels were still dangerously high. More than 70 years after the first tests, the atoll remains contaminated. It's part of a troubling nuclear legacy that continues to affect islands and people across the Pacific long after the end of nuclear testing programs. As nuclear tensions rise in the Asia-Pacific region, Kelen and others are reflecting on that legacy anew, the AP reports.

Kelen, 49, says he has no idea if his exposure to radiation during the four years he lived on Bikini as a boy has affected his health. He says scientists used to test him and his family regularly, but stopped within a couple of years of them leaving the atoll. Scientists have calculated that about 1.6% of all cancers developed by Marshallese people exposed to radiation can be attributed to the nuclear tests. For some islanders who were close to the blasts, the rate rises to 55%. The nuclear tests exacted an enormous social toll on Bikini residents and their children, who are now scattered across the Marshall Islands and beyond and have been left without a homeland. Kelen says they've lost the ancestral land that's central to their identity. "Ninety percent of Bikinians have never seen Bikini. It's a legend; it's a fairy tale," he said. Read the full piece here.

(More nuclear weapons stories.)

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