This place is the bomb

Something wild is happening on Christmas Island, once ground zero for nuclear test explosions.

Published August 31, 2008 11:08AM (EDT)

Driving south on Christmas Island's lone north-south road, Tonga Fou and I are heading to the spot where, 50 years ago, the British military detonated a couple of thermonuclear weapons. Fou, 81, smokes USA Gold Full Flavor 100 cigarettes. As he runs a leathery hand across his forehead, he recalls his experience during one of the test explosions.

Crowded onto a military vessel in case of an emergency evacuation, Fou huddled with his wife and two children. The blast shook the boat, as if it had been shoved by a deity, and everyone winced as their ears popped. About a minute after the detonation, Fou wandered on deck, looked up and thought the world was coming to an end. "It was just terrible," he says. "The mushroom cloud was beginning to come up, with these bright colors, like breaking waves of fire, going up, bigger and bigger, until the sky was all red."

Between 1957 and 1962, this former British colony in the equatorial Pacific played involuntary host to 30 nuclear explosions conducted by the British and U.S. militaries. Code-named Operation Grapple, Britain's tests at Christmas (also known as Kiritimati) and neighboring Malden Island ranged from a 3,000-kiloton explosion 8,200 feet in the air and far out to sea, to a 24-kiloton "balloon-suspended air burst over land." (For comparison, the bomb dropped at Hiroshima had about a 15-kiloton yield.) With thousands of troops, weekly DDT spraying to keep fly populations at bay, and a steady stream of boats and airplanes delivering ever more provisions, it's safe to say that the Cold War's tenure on Christmas Island didn't exactly follow the mindful traveler's dictum: Take only pictures, leave only footprints.

But things change, even in places where WMD have inflicted their catastrophic toll. The Partial Test Ban Treaty, signed in 1963, brought an end to U.S. and British testing in the region. In the '70s, the British government followed up at Christmas with Operation Hard Look, investigating whether radioactive fallout might be found on the island and, if so, determining what to do with it. They didn't find any, although there was no shortage of trash -- abandoned vehicles and drums, mostly, decaying rapidly in the humid climate.

In 1975, American surveyors drew the same conclusion about lingering radioactivity. Still, for goodwill, to avoid future liability, or both, the British recently carried out a cleanup operation on Christmas, carting away tons of decades-old debris, most of which had been concentrated in a junkyard next to the village of Banana and totaled more than 30,000 cubic yards of material. Last May, the final shipment of waste was loaded onto a vessel bound for the U.K.

Fou is the last living person on Christmas Island who was here when the nukes, nuke scientists and soldiers came to town. Now only fragments of that era remain: old truck tires stacked as a makeshift fence between village huts, concrete platforms where buildings once stood, a rotted wooden backboard on a metal pole -- what was once a basketball hoop for recreating servicemen -- and a crumbling church constructed of dead coral and concrete.

What can be found in abundance, however, is nature. In the intervening decades since the era of nuclear-weapons testing, the natural world has quietly rebounded. Today, Christmas Island, Bikini Atoll and other Cold War proving grounds, like Monte Bello north of Perth, Australia, constitute some of the most ecologically intact corners of the world, emitting not radiation but a peculiar allure; it's atomic tourism with a naturalist spin.

Marine biologists diving at Bikini have returned with glowing reports. Inspecting a mile-wide crater left by a hydrogen bomb that exploded with a force 1,000 times greater than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, researchers recently found the lagoon to be 80 percent covered by thriving corals, with some species growing into huge, treelike formations.

Karen Koltes, a coral specialist with the U.S. Department of the Interior, says reefs around places like Bikini "are among the few examples left in the world of what an ecosystem looks like absent human presence and exploitation." (Unintentionally pouring on the irony, scientists will sometimes employ the word "pristine.") This nature-despite-nukes contrast can be seen at other former test sites, such as the waters surrounding Alaska's Amchitka Island where, 40 years ago, the U.S. conducted three underground explosions. The same is true of the desolate dunes of a former French test site in Algeria, and even the scrublands inside the fence at the Nevada Test Site.

Radioactive materials are long-lasting, which is what makes them both scary and misunderstood. The smoke detectors in your home likely contain a radionuclide called americium. But the reason to worry about them has nothing to do with radioactive material and everything to do with whether the detector's battery is working. Contrary to popular belief, previously bombed geographies are not transformed into lifeless, poisoned landscapes for the next 50,000 years. Hiroshima and Nagasaki look just like every other bustling Japanese city, and crawling around in the grass of a city park there is no different than doing so in Seattle or Milan, Italy, or Auckland, New Zealand, at least as far as radiation hazard is concerned.

But that's not to say everything is peachy with former nuke test sites. Radioactive fallout, and the dizzyingly complex study of it, depends on factors such as microclimates, local geography, wind, altitude of detonation, size of the bomb and environmental conditions on the ground like soils, rock type and vegetation. There are places in the Pacific you don't want to go and probably can't -- that's why they're off limits. The same is true for parts of the Nevada Test Site and other detonation locations.

On or around once-pummeled Pacific Islands, the matter of harmful radiation depends on where you go and whom you ask. Christmas Island, as far as anyone can tell, was always safe from radioactivity, thanks to winds that carried fallout out to sea. And in the ocean -- not just around Christmas but anywhere -- radioactive materials dilute quickly, rendering them essentially harmless. It's when they're concentrated that they can be dangerous.

At places like Bikini and Rongelap Atolls in the Marshall Islands, the picture gets murkier. In the 1950s, the locals on Rongelap watched fallout, delivered on the wind, sprinkle down from above like snow. (And this from a people who had never seen snow.) The islanders were evacuated, only to return and then evacuate again years later because of renewed fears about perceived radiation hazards.

Today, the people of Rongelap are planning to resettle their homeland yet again. The government of the Republic of the Marshall Islands wants the U.S. to cough up money and medical support for cancers caused and damage done during the era of nuclear testing. The U.S. says a previous settlement of $150 million should have done the trick, and this conflict remains a contentious one, at least for the Marshallese. As for existing radiation hazard, U.S. and independent scientists say there is none, although you wouldn't want to dine month after month on certain local plants that accumulate radioactive material.

Still, it's one thing to accept government reports declaring that a place once used for thermonuclear target practice is fallout-free and not hazardous to one's health. It's quite another thing to travel there on vacation.

Geiger counter in hand, I hopped off the skiff and onto the coral beach at the tiny island of Motu Tabu, inside the lagoon at Christmas Island. Rain showers gave way to a mix of billowing clouds and hammering equatorial sunshine. The cacophony from the seabird colony intensified as I approached, but the thousands of noddy and sooty terns did not leave their posts, standing guard over black-speckled eggs. Encountering animals so unaccustomed to human visitors, I thought of Darwin in the Galapagos.

I switched on the Geiger counter and squinted at the digital display. The readings were minuscule -- 0.008, 0.003, 0.006 milli-Roentgens per hour -- numbers indicating nothing more than background radiation from the sun, and noticeably lower than the background radiation levels one would find in a typical American city.

For an unconventional island adventure away from it all, Bikini may have the name recognition, but Christmas is easier for most Americans to get to -- just a three-hour flight from Honolulu. The largest coral atoll on the planet, Christmas is 124 square miles of land, set in the shape of a globular crucifix, with two spits at the northern end enclosing a lagoon. (The island first became known to the Western world when Capt. James Cook discovered it on Christmas Eve, 1777.)

The island is perfectly -- no, ridiculously -- flat. The highest point is a 35-foot-high mound, Joe's Hill, erected by a British serviceman who was bulldozing coral and tar sands to construct the road that runs the length of the island. According to one account, he made the miniature hill as a perch for camping, preferring the seaside solitude to the military barracks. The rest of the island setting is made up of palm trees, a ubiquitous plant called saltbush, inedible crabs skittering everywhere, and sun that will burn you through a T-shirt.

In 1979, the British ceded possession of the island, and Christmas became the easternmost outpost of the scattered island nation of Kiribati. Straddling the international dateline, the country covers an area of the Pacific Ocean equal to that of the continental U.S., even though the tiny islands together total 311 square miles. The island's 5,000 residents subsist on international aid, tropical fish exports and scarce tourist dollars. They live in tiny villages composed of huts and yards patched together with tin, palm-thatched roofs and pigs roaming streets littered with rusting corned beef cans.

The splendor of this place is out on, and in, the water. Fly-fishing enthusiasts who come to Christmas are on a pilgrimage to stalk the elusive, torpedo-fast and deceptively strong bonefish. Christmas is home to the largest bonefishing flats in the world, shallow waters in which the fish feed on tiny shrimp, sometimes revealing their whereabouts by nosing into the sand and extending their sparkling silvery tails above the waterline. When I called one fly-fishing expert who had been to Christmas to ask for a few travel tips, he said, "If you go there without a fishing rod, you should be shot."

Vacationing anglers, decked out in $100 UV-protective shirts, long-billed hats and polarized sunglasses, carrying in their rod setup and tackle cases another $1,500 worth of gear, spend upward of 10 hours a day wading in the calf-deep waters of the lagoon, casting shrimp-shaped flies toward their prey. The visiting sport-fishermen are so essential to the barely extant island economy that locals are, at least on paper, forbidden from eating the bonefish. (Inedible in the eyes of most Westerners, bonefish are part of the islanders' regular menu.)

But some non-fishing-obsessed travelers do manage to make their way to Christmas. One morning, paddling kayaks on the far side of the lagoon, Garry and Kerry Phillips of Brisbane, Australia, were delighted to spend an afternoon in a place where they didn't see another soul for hours -- only manta rays gliding through the shallows. Having traveled and scuba-dived throughout the Pacific and points beyond, they were stunned by the quality of what they saw on the island of nuclear detonations.

"When we were looking into this trip, I did consider the weapons," recalls Garry. "I wondered if it might look like a concrete wasteland or something." But after a week spent kayaking in the aquamarine flats, snorkeling among kaleidoscopic reef fish, and then, at the seabird colony, appreciating the chance to spot rare bird species such as the phoenix petrel and red-footed booby, Phillips laughed at his pre-trip preconceptions. "The contrast of it is amazing. I mean, the hydrogen bomb is the most powerful and destructive thing there is, right? Yet out here, this place, and the reefs we saw yesterday -- it's just gorgeous."

By David Wolman

David Wolman is a frequent contributor to Wired and the author of the forthcoming book, "Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling" (HarperCollins).

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