Alson Kelen is seated comfortably on the grave of his great aunt, at the far eastern end of Bikini Island in the vast, hyperblue beyond of the Pacific Ocean. He is telling a story of a lost paradise, of a life he lived on this island a long time ago.
He is 44 years old now, a short, barrel-chested man with a bald head, medium-dark skin, elaborate tattoos over much of his body, and a disarming smile. The world he describes is lush and lovely. He was 10. He and his friends played here in the coconut groves and in the brilliantly colored waters of the lagoon. They ate breadfruit and pandanus fruit. They drank coconut milk. They fashioned hooks from common nails, baited them with hermit crabs, and caught all the fish they could carry. “Every day was an adventure,” Alson says. “We swam in the bluest water. We would cook the fish under the trees and eat them, and every day went like that—fishing, swimming, and cooking. It was a beautiful time.”
From all appearances, this place is still an earthly paradise. Here in the Bikinian Ancestral Cemetery, with its tidy white fence and weathered graves, the 3.4-square-mile island looks exactly as Alson describes it. The sky is a deep cobalt blue; coconut palms, orange-limbed and yellow-fringed, sway in the steady trade winds. There are still breadfruit trees and pandanus trees and flame trees with brilliant red blossoms. Two hundred yards to the north, a coral reef meets the full, transparent blue violence of the Pacific.
There is just one problem, though you could stare at this palm grove for a lifetime and never see it. The soil under our feet, whitish gray in color with flecks of coral, contains a radioactive isotope called cesium 137. In high enough doses, it can burn you and kill you quickly; at lower levels, it just takes longer to do the job, eventually causing cancer. The soil itself is not dangerous to touch. The danger lies in the plant life that takes it in, and in the animal life, like the huge coconut crabs that live on the island and eat the plants. The cesium 137 is fallout, a word introduced to the world during the systematic detonation, from 1946 to 1958, of 23 nuclear weapons by the U.S. army on Bikini Atoll.
Over the course of a nuclear exile that has lasted 66 years, the Bikinian people have been relocated five times. They have nearly starved to death. They have seen their way of life vanish. They have watched as nuclear scientists swarmed over their island, trying to figure out what the bombs had done to it. They have fought the U.S. government in legal battles all the way to the Supreme Court. Alson was part of a group of three extended families who moved back to the island in the 1970s after it had been declared safe. He lived the fantasy existence he describes for me, only to be told, after the discovery of the horrifying cesium 137, that he and his people had to leave.
And still men like Alson, a former mayor of the relocated Bikinians, most of whom now live in the Marshall Islands’ capital, Majuro, and on the island of Kili, want to come back to the place they believe God gave them.
Perhaps the cruelest part of exile for Bikinians like Alson is the staggering beauty of the atoll today, 54 years after the final atomic test. Just beyond the cemetery’s fence, the lagoon is jumping with fish; corals are blooming; the atoll’s uninhabited outer islands have become a gigantic seabird rookery; the beaches are perfect and white, the plant life lush and dense. Bikini is paradise again, but with an asterisk.
ON A MAP, THE Marshall Islands look like a large expanse of nothingness—a great, empty blue ocean dotted with flyspecks of land. That’s pretty much the view from the air, too, as we sail through the cottony clouds in an old 17-seat Dornier 228 turboprop, 10,000 feet above the scrolling white waves of the equatorial Pacific. The physical dimensions of the Marshalls tell you everything about the place: 29 coral atolls and five islands that cover 70 square miles in a sea area of 750,000 square miles. It’s like taking the small city of Wichita Falls, Texas, chopping it up into city-park-size pieces, and scattering it over Western Europe. One of those pieces is Bikini Atoll, which consists of a large oval-shaped reef and 23 small islands, including Bikini, occupying a total area of 230 square miles. There are some 125 miles of open ocean between it and the nearest inhabited island.