America plunged the world headlong into the Atomic Age by unleashing its devastating new invention on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to bring World War II to an apocalyptic conclusion. The nuclear scientists who had worked on the Manhattan Project researching the atom bomb were appalled by what they had created and strongly advised against any further testing. But the US military wanted to play with their new weaponry; their excuse was that they needed to observe the after-effects of radioactive fallout, about which hardly anything was known.
The Marshall archipelago, a sparsely populated paradise in the Pacific Ocean, was selected as a suitably remote region. Bikini, an atoll of 23 islands, was forcibly cleared of inhabitants and, over the next 12 years, 67 nuclear tests were carried out at both Bikini and neighbouring Enewetak Atoll. In 1954 a 15-megaton hydrogen bomb (equivalent to about 1,000 Hiroshimas) was tested, to far more devastating effect than had been anticipated. It vaporized three of Bikini’s islands. The H-bomb created a fireball nearly 5 km (3 mi) in diameter and scattered radioactive debris over a vast area of more than 100,000 sq km (40,000 sq mi) leaving a 1.5 km-wide (mile-wide) crater in the bed of the lagoon. Radioactive ash rained down on the neighbouring atolls, causing the inhabitants to suffer severe burns and sickness.
Today, more than 50 years after the last test, Bikini and Enewetak are still contaminated with radioactive fallout. At first sight, the environment appears to be like the Garden of Eden but, although the lagoon is teeming with fish, they are unsafe to eat, as is the radioactive produce of the land. As comedian Bob Hope put it: ‘As soon as the war ended, we located the one spot on earth that hadn’t been touched by war and blew it to hell’.
When: July 1 1946 to August 18 1958
Where: Bikini and Enewetak Atolls, Marshall Islands. South Pacific
Toll: More than 50 years later, Bikini is still uninhabitable. Among the Marshall islanders generally there has been an exceptionally high incidence of birth defects, growth retardation and thyroid cancer as a result of exposure to nuclear fallout. Many of the islanders believe they were used as guinea pigs to test the effects of excessive radiation. The USA paid $150 million in compensation but the Bikini islanders are still in exile.
You should know: Bikini swimwear, first introduced as a fashion item in 1946, was named after Bikini Atoll. The smallest one-piece contemporary swimsuit had been called the Atome, which enabled bikini designer Louis Reard to pun that he had ‘split the Atome’. Advertisers had a field day with such slogans as: ‘like the bomb, the bikini is small and devastating’.