Although scientists now say Bikini Island's food and water are too radio-active for safe comsumption by humans, the 100 or so Bikinians who have returned there over the past eight years "want to stay," a Department of Energy official says.
The islanders' decision is likely to bring to the surface disagreements within the U.S. government and among Bikini leaders over what to do about the island that once was the site of U.S. nuclear tests.
Fueling the controversy have been accusations by Marshall island politicians that the United States has used the Bikinians and other islanders to study radiation effects. Fewer than two years ago, it has been learned, U.S. government-supported scientists wrote that Bikini was the best source for data on reaction to plutonium inside the human body. But DOE officials deny that the scientists meant to suggest that islanders be allowed to remain as study subjects.
Bikini initially was declared safe for reoccupation in 1969. At that time, Atomic Energy Commission officials were quoated as saying: "There's virtually no radiation left and we can find no discernible effect on either plant or animal life." About 100 out of 500 former residents subsequently returned to the atoll.
Last year, however, sophisticated tests on them showed that higher than acceptable concentrations of cancer-causing radioactive elements, including plutonium, were being taken into their bodies from the water and food grown in the island's still rafioactive soil.
DOE-sponsored study by Lawrence Livermore Laboratory of California found the long-term dose to an individual living on Bikini would be far above federal guidelines.
As a result, since last October the United States has been sending food and drink to the island's inhabitants so they won't eat radioactive, locally grown coconuts, fruit and other vegetables.
According to Roger Bay, DOE's assistant manager for environmental safety who visits Bikini regularly, there is "no need for a sudden shift" of the people away from the island.
"If the situation [of radioactive elements within the bodies] can be moderated by getting good food in to the island," he said, "I would not be disturbed if they continued to live in the houses on Bikini island."
Last month the Interior Department asked Congress for $15 million to begin preparing another island for al the Bikinians, including the 100 or so who had moved back to Bikini.
DOE, according to Ray, is studying Eneu, another island in the 26-island chain. Eneu, 10 miles away, received far less fallout during the 1950s nuclear tests than did Bikini.
Interior officials, who have political responsibility for Bikini, have made it clear they believe the island's residents must be moved. They say it is impossible to keep the people, particularly children, from wandering into the interior, which is considered too contaminated to live in, and from eating the coconut, pandanas and bread-fruit growing there. They also note that plutonium dust can be inhaled.
They are joined in that view by leaders of the Bikinians who live on Kili, to which they were moved in the late 1940s before the nuclear tests. Last fall these leaders wanted those off immediately."
According to Ray, the leaders later changed their view after meeting with him and other government officials who explained the radiation risks.The leaders backed down on the demand that those people on Bikini be evacuated immediately, but argued that no one else should be allowed to move to the atoll.
One irony is that the free U.S.-supplied food is an attraction to live on the contaminated island. Life on Kili is hard, with most residents working all day to subsist.
In contrast to the view at Interior, some DOE officials have said the people on Bikini should decide for themselves where they want to live once the sutuation has been explained to them.
Some DOE officials do not believe the intake of radioactive elements that was recorded last year was serious enough to require moving the residents even over the long term.
The 1976 Livermore study for DOE concluded: "Bikini atoll may be the only global source of data on humans where intake via ingestion is thought to contribute the major fraction of plutonium body burden . . .
"It is possibly the best available source of data for evaluating the transfer of plutonium across the gut wall after being incorporated into biological systems."
A DOE official said the summary "reads too callously," but said the scientists were not suggesting the residents be thought of as guinea pigs. "It was done by technical types," he said, "anxious to know about the transfer of radioactive elements."
U.S. officials deny accusations that islanders and others have been used in the study of radiation effects, saying extensive health-care examinations given the isalnders are for their benefit and not to gather scientific data.
A U.S. medical team is in th Marshalls to examine and collect specimens for later study from the Bikini residents and others exposed to radiation in the 1950s.
According to Ray, the results should permit a decision on whether Eneu would be safe as a place of residence for the former Bikinians.