One evening, Jim was camped on the island, Runit. He said to his mentor, "There is something terribly wrong here. There are no birds, the vegetation is sick, it looks terrible." His mentor said, "Don't worry about it, Jim, it's been 17 years."
Turns out the plutonium bomb on Runit Island did not ignite fully; fuel scattered everywhere. Word got out. Congress had to fund $120 million for clean-up; they ended up filling the nuclear test crater with the contaminated soil and then sealing it with a concrete lid.
"It should be noted," Jim says, "that the United States government had more nuclear waste than could fill the crater. They put up a sign that basically said, "This island is off-limits forever." Maragos pauses.
"28,500 years is the half life of plutonium…I slept on that island. All the reefs and lagoons in that area are still contaminated." He pauses again.
"Then there is Bikini Island -"
After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Navy refused to accept the fact that the Air Force was more powerful than they were.
"It was an ego thing between the two forces, so the U.S. Navy decided to test their own bombs in the Pacific. The Navy evacuated 125 Bikini islanders "for the benefit of mankind" and moved them to Ronjerik Atoll. In 1946, they set two tests. The first atmospheric test was called ABEL and the second one was BAKER, set at 160 feet on the lagoon floor. A mock battle was staged with 600 ships, including the US Saratoga, which was at Ground Zero."
Maragos shakes his head in disbelief. "With ABEL there wasn't too much damage. But with BAKER, they watched a 28,000 ton destroyer shoot up into the air like a cork. A tidal wave must have flooded the primary island on Bikini Atoll. Saratoga went down with 15 other ships. They contaminated the whole island."
"It's hard to comprehend this occurred a year after Hiroshima," I say. "After the war was over."
"And that's not the worst of it," Jim replies. "The 585 ships surrounding the test site were all contaminated. The Navy men under the commands of the admirals washed down the decks, and then the men and the ships went back to where they came from….True story. About 20,000 to 30,000 men were involved."
In the 1960's, some Bikini Islanders chose to go back home. Lawrence Livermore and Brookhaven National Laboratory (funded by US Atomic Energy Commission) agreed to let them. In 1969, they did full body dose radiation measurements. The laboratories found the levels of radioactivity in the Bikini Islanders were 10 times higher than recommended dosages. The Bikinians had eaten the coconuts. They were given 24 hours to leave, moving back to Kili and Majuro. Call them "nuclear nomads."