What About Radiation on Bikini Atoll?

(Sample taken from the book, For the Good of Mankind by Jack Niedenthal)

Since the debacle of the aborted move to Bikini in the 1970's, a number of scientific studies have been performed on Bikini Atoll. Beginning in the late 1970's through to the present day, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has studied the radiological conditions of Bikini, usually with two missions per year. In the early 1980's, the Bikini Atoll Rehabilitation Committee [BARC], a group of highly regarded American scientists, completed and submitted a report about the radiation on Bikini Atoll to the U.S. Congress. In February of 1995 the Nationwide Radiological Study was completed by Dr. Steven Simon and a group of scientists from all over the world for the Marshall Islands government. In addition, the National Academy of Sciences also released a report about Rongelap Atoll in which Bikini Atoll cleanup options and radiological conditions were discussed. Beginning in the early 1990's, the Bikinians have had their own independent scientist, Herwig Paretzke, a German citizen, performing ongoing reviews of the aforementioned studies. All of this information was submitted to a panel of internationally renowned scientists, convened by the International Atomic Energy Agency, for review in December of 1995.

The IAEA's Bikini Advisory Group preliminary findings issued in 1996 contain the following statements with regard to background radiation on Bikini:

"It is safe to walk on all of the islands...The Advisory Group reaffirmed: although the residual radioactivity on islands in Bikini Atoll is still higher than on other atolls in the Marshall islands, it is not hazardous to health at the levels measured. Indeed, there are many places in the world where people have been living for generations with higher levels of radioactivity from natural sources - such as the geological surroundings and the sun - than there is now on Bikini Atoll...By all internationally agreed scientific and medical criteria...the air, the land surface, the lagoon water and the drinking water are all safe. There is no radiological risk in visiting the lagoon or the islands. The nuclear weapon tests have left practically no cesium in marine life. The cesium deposited in the lagoon was dispersed in the ocean long ago.

"The main radiation risk would be from the food: eating locally grown produce, such as fruit, could add significant radioactivity to the body...Eating coconuts or breadfruit from Bikini Island occasionally would be no cause for concern. But eating many over a long period of time without having taken remedial measures might result in radiation doses higher than internationally agreed safety levels."

*Copies of the full IAEA report may be ordered from



1. On the basis of the amount and quality of the scientific information on the residual radionuclides from nuclear weapon testing at Bikini Atoll submitted for review, it is concluded that:

No further independent corroboration of the measurements and assessments of the radiological conditions at Bikini Atoll is necessary.

This conclusion is based on: the excellent quality control of those measurements and assessments; the regular participation in intercomparison programmes by the various scientific groups that carried out those measurements and assessments; and the good agreement among the data submitted. Nevertheless, it is acknowledged that the Bikinian people have concerns about the actual radiological conditions in their homeland, and it is therefore considered that:

The Bikinians might be reassured about the actual radiological conditions at Bikini Atoll by a limited programme of monitoring of radiation levels, which should involve some participation by members of the community.


2. In view of the information submitted and under the assumption that the Bikinian community decides to resettle Bikini Island thec main island of residence at Bikini Atoll), it is concluded that:

Permanent resettlement of Bikini Island under the present radiological conditions without remedial measures is not recommended in view of the radiation doses that could potentially be received by inhabitants with a diet of entirely locally produced foodstuffs.

This conclusion was reached on the basis that a diet made up entirely of locally produced food-which would contain some amount of residual radionuclides could lead the hypothetical resettling population to be exposed to radiation from residual radionuclides in the island, mainly from 137Cs, resulting in annual effective dose levels of about 15 mSv (if the dose due to natural background radiation were added, this would result in an annual effective dose of about 17.4 mSv). This level was judged to require intervention of some kind for radiation protection purposes.


3. However, it is considered that:

In practice, doses caused by a diet of locally derived foodstuffs are unlikely to be actually incurred under the current conditions, as the present Marshallese diet contains-and would in the near future presumably continue to contain -a substantial proportion of imported food which is assumed to be free of residual radionuclides.

Nevertheless, the hypothesis of a diet of solely locally produced food was adopted in the assessment for reasons of conservatism and simplicity, and also because the present level of imports of foodstuffs could decrease in the future.


4. A number of straightforward environmental remediation strategies at Bikini Island have been considered, which, if properly implemented, would achieve very satisfactory results from the point of view of radiation protection. It is therefore concluded that:

Provided that certain remedial measures are taken, Bikini Island could be permanently reinhabited.


5. Several possible remediation strategies were considered with the result that the following were selected as a basis for further assessment:

*The periodic application of potassium based fertilizer to all areas of Bikini Island where edible crops may be grown, supported by the removal of soil from around and beneath the dwelling areas and its replacement by crushed coral (known as the potassium fertilizer remediation strategy);

*The complete removal of the topsoil from Bikini Island (called the soil scraping remediation strategy) .

While no definite recommendations are given on which strategy to follow, it is considered that the strategy using potassium fertilizer is the preferred approach.

In this connection, it was noted that the soils of Bikini Atoll are extremely deficient in potassium and extensive field trials have demonstrated that the application of potassium rapidly reduces the concentration of l37Cs in food crops since potassium is taken up by the plants in preference to caesium. The reduction of 137Cs in the food crops is sustained for about four to five years, after which the values slowly begin to increase again. However, repeated application of fertilizer forms an effective strategy in reducing the estimated doses to the potential inhabitants of Bikini Island. Furthermore, the supporting strategy of removing soil from dwelling areas would eliminate most of the external and internal exposures from direct soil ingestion or inhalation.


6. It is concluded that:

The results expected from the potassium fertilizer remediation strategy are consistent with international guidance on interventions to avoid dose in chronic exposure situations and, therefore, this strategy would provide a radiologically safe environment permitting early resettlement.

Depending on the assumptions made concerning diet, the annual calculated mean effective doses would be reduced as follows: from about 15 mSv (if the dose due to natural background radiation were added, this would result in an annual effective dose of about 17.4 mSv), for a high calorie diet of totally local foodstuffs, to about 1.2 mSv (if the dose due to natural background radiation were added, this would result in an annual effective dose of about 3.6 mSv); and from about 4 mSv (if the dose due to natural background radiation were added, this would result in an annual effective dose of about 6.4 mSv), for a high calorie diet of both local and imported foodstuffs, to about 0.4 mSv (if the dose due to natural background radiation were added, this would result in an annual effective dose of about 2.8 mSv). Even for the more conservative assumption of a high calorie diet of totally locally produced foodstuffs, the resulting doses will be far below acceptable generic action levels for intervention. The doses will be somewhat higher than those due to natural background radiation that were incurred by the inhabitants of Bikini Island before the evacuation and prior to when the nuclear weapon tests took place, and also somewhat higher than global average natural background doses, but lower than typical elevated levels of natural background doses around the world.


7. The conclusion is that:

The alternative strategy, i.e. the soil scraping remediation strategy-stated to be the alternative preferred by the Bikinians-would be very effective in avoiding doses caused by the residual radionuclides, but it could entail serious adverse environmental and social consequences.

The consequences may be serious because the fertile topsoil supports the tree crops, which are the major local food resource. The replacement of the soil with topsoil from elsewhere would be an enormous undertaking which is likely to be prohibitively expensive. The content of natural radionuclides in any continental soil used as replacement soil would most probably exceed that of the present soil.


8. It is concluded that:

No remedial actions should be proposed at this stage for the islands of Bikini Atoll other than Bikini Island.

The other islands have historically been nonresidential and used only for occasional visits and for fishing.


9. On the assumption that the proposed remediation strategy is undertaken, it is further recommended that:

Regular measurements of activity in local foodstuffs should be made to assess the effectiveness of the measures taken. A simple, local whole body monitor and training in its use should be provided as a further means of enabling potential inhabitants to satisfy themselves that there is no significant uptake of caesium into their bodies.

*Copies of the full IAEA report may be ordered from

Discussion of the 15mr Standard set by the U.S. EPA

Politics vs. Science
The problem with most of the scientific studies conducted on Bikini Atoll and throughout the Marshall Islands prior to the late 1990s, including the IAEA Study above, is that they all assumed a safe level of radiation to be 100 millirems [mrem] above background levels of radiation. While this level of radiation may in theory be considered safe in many segments of the scientific community, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has adopted a standard of 15 millirems above background for cleanups under the Superfund. When the people of the Marshall Islands came to understand about the EPA's 15 mrem EPA standard, the 100 mrem standard, regardless of its scientific merits, became all but irrelevant.

The theory and politics behind the islanders' thinking is simple: If 15 mrem above background is the standard that the United States cleans up their former nuclear test sites with, and the United States did all the damage to the Marshall Islands, then clearly this is the standard that should be adopted for radiological cleanups in the Marshalls. What makes this a conflict is that most of the scientists doing the data collection in the Marshall Islands, and most of the other regulatory agencies in the United States and the world, subscribe to the 100 mrem standard. The bottom line is, however, that the islanders want unrestricted use of their islands, which the 15 mrem standard ultimately provides while the 100 mrem standard does not.

Accordingly, the Nuclear Claims Tribunal, the body set up in 1985 under the Compact of Free Association with the United States to hear lawsuits resulting from damages arising from the U.S. nuclear testing, adopted the EPA's 15 mrem standard in determining cleanup costs for those atolls irradiated by the nuclear testing.

To further this point, the following section has been taken from a statement made before the Nuclear Claims Tribunal in the Marshall Islands by Dr. John J. Mauro and Dr. Hans Behling of S. Cohen & Associates on September 10, 1999 regarding the Potential Radiation Doses and Health Risks to a Resettled Population of Bikini Atoll. These scientists were hired by the people of Bikini.

Evaluation of Average and High-End Doses Using U.S. EPA Modeling Assumptions

The EPA Dose and Risk Assessment Philosophy

"Our evaluations consisted of reassessing the doses using assumptions that are more compatible with the EPA approach to the assessment of radiation doses and risks for the protection of the general public due to radioactivity in the environment. The EPA has developed a comprehensive set of standards and implementation protocols, under several environmental statutes, that are designed to protect members of the public from hazardous chemicals and radioactive materials in the environment. The statute most applicable to the issues of concern here is the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), also referred to as Superfund. The main objectives of Superfund are to assure cleanup of sites contaminated with hazardous material to acceptable levels and the return of the property to a condition suitable for unrestricted use. The statute is also concerned with ensuring that those individuals and organizations responsible for the contamination are held accountable for the costly cleanup of the sites.

"As indicated above, the dose assessment presented in Robison 1997 is concerned primarily with estimating doses to the average member of a resettled population on Bikini in the year in which the peak annual dose is projected to occur. Though the EPA makes use of average doses for some purposes, when establishing requirements for cleanup, it places primary reliance on the doses and risks associated with the reasonable maximum exposure of individuals. EPA 1989'0 states that:

"... actions at Superfund sites should be based on an estimate of the reasonable maximum exposure (RME) expected to occur under both current and future land use conditions. The reasonable maximum exposure is defined here as the highest exposure that is reasonably expected to occur at a site... The intent of the RME is to estimate a conservative exposure case (i.e., well above the average) that is still within the range of possible exposures.

Additional guidance provided in EPA 1992 states the following:

"Information about individual exposure and risk is important to communicating the results of a risk assessment. Individual risk descriptors are intended to address questions dealing with risks borne by individuals within a population. These questions can take the form of:

The high-end of the risk distribution is, conceptually, above the 90th percentile of the actual (either measured or estimated) distribution. The conceptual range is not meant to precisely define the limits of this descriptor, but should be used by the assessor as a target range for characterizing "high-end risk."

"Given the above general EPA guidelines, it can be concluded that, although the dose assessment [100 mrem] provided in Robison 1997 is useful for characterizing the doses to an average member of the population, it does not fully address the high-end doses and potential health risks."


The Bush Administration on June 6, 2001, announced the radiation protection standards to be used for Yucca Mountain, Nevada, the site of proposed high-level nuclear storage.

EPA Administrator Christie Whitman declared that final public health and environmental protection standards for Yucca Mountain will be set at 15-millirem annually and 4-millirem for groundwater. This represents a victory for EPA over the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which had recommended an overall limit of 25-millirem and no groundwater standard. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, who had favored the NRC proposal, said on June 6, 2001, that the EPA standards were "tough and challenging" but that "we believe we can meet the requirements."

The nuclear industry, represented by the Nuclear Industry Institute, immediately filed two separate federal court lawsuits, one in U.S. District Court and one in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, challenging the EPA standard. Stating that the industry "is extremely disappointed," the trade association said that the lower limits "will cost taxpayers and electricity consumers billions of additional dollars to license and build the [Yucca Mountain] repository without making the facility any safer."

The relevance of this to Bikini is that our scientific team from SC&A, John Mauro and Hans Behling, testified before the Nuclear Claims Tribunal using the 15-millirem standard. There was some concern during the hearings that a move by the Bush Administration to raise the standard would dramatically lower the cleanup costs developed by Mauro and Behling. It appears, however, that this will not be so, as the U.S. and Marshall Islands standards are now the same.

To give one an ideas of how strict this 15-millirem standard is, the EPA stated that the standard means that a person living eleven miles from the Yucca Mountain site, the distance to which the standard applies, will absorb less radiation annually than a person receives from two round-trip transcontinental flights in the United States. The EPA also stated that background radiation exposes the average American to 360-millrem of radiation annually, while three chest x-rays total about 18-millirem.

Marshall Islands Dose Assessmant and Radioecology Program
The United States Department of Energy (U.S. DOE) has recently implemented a series of strategic initiatives to address long-term radiological surveillance needs at former U.S. nuclear test sites in the Marshall Islands . The plan is to engage local atoll communities in developing shared responsibilities for implementing radiation surveillance monitoring programs for resettled and resettling populations in the northern Marshall Islands . Using the pooled resources of the U.S. DOE and local atoll governments, individual radiological surveillance programs have been developed in whole body counting and plutonium urinalysis in order to accurately assess radiation doses resulting from the ingestion and uptake of fallout radionuclides contained in locally grown foods. This web site provides an overview of the individual radiological surveillance programs currently being employed in the Marshall Islands along with a full disclosure of verified measurement data. A new feature of this updated web site includes a provision whereby users are able to calculate and track radiation doses delivered to volunteers (de-identified information only) participating in the Marshall Islands Radiological Surveillance Program.


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kindle The historical information within this site, while constantly updated, is drawn largely from the book, FOR THE GOOD OF MANKIND: A History of the People of Bikini and their Islands, Second Edition, published in September of 2001 by Jack Niedenthal. This book tells the story of the people of Bikini from their point of view via interviews, and the author's more than two decades of firsthand experiences with elder Bikinians.

Copies can be purchased from this direct ordering link at, or you can also buy and download the Kindle edition.