Box 2

REASSESSMENT OF A FORMER NUCLEAR WEAPON TEST SITE

As a consequence of the nuclear weapons tests in the 1940s and 1950s, the inhabitants of the Bikini atoll (now part of the Republic of the Marshall Islands) were evacuated. In the early 1970s, US scientists advised the Bikinians that they could return to the atoll without risk. A few years later, however, the islanders had to be removed from Bikini again. The intake of radioactive substances via the main diet - coconut - had been underestimated.

Since then, several in-depth studies of the radiological situation on and around the former test sites have been made. The US Government sponsored long term studies, and the Marshall Islands themselves financed a completely independent survey. Both undertakings showed that the affected islands would, by now, be safe to live on, providing the islanders did not rely exclusively on local food.

But some scepticism remained and the Marshall Islands, after becoming a Member State of the Agency in 1994, asked for international assistance in reviewing the situation. After considerable preparatory work, an Advisory Group, set up by the Agency and involving experts from Australia, France, Japan, New Zealand, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, the USA and WHO, together with a delegation from the people of Bikini, met in Vienna in December.

The panel concluded that the available data on the radiological situation on the Bikini atoll were correct - the different studies, carried out independently of each other, had come to essentially the same results. To further assure the Bikinians, it was agreed that there will be additional radioactive contamination tests of various local foods, carried out at the Agency's laboratories at Seibersdorf.

The Advisory Group concluded that the safe return to Bikini would require measures to reduce the existing radioactivity in local crops to meet the strict international safety standards. It was the unanimous opinion of the experts that caesium remained the only risk factor to the Bikinians. International standards in this regard could be readily achieved by two main strategies: the removal and replacement of contaminated soil; or the effective chemical decontamination of the nutrients taken up by the plants by fertilizing the soil with potassium which would be absorbed by the plant roots and effectively block the residual radioactive caesium.

The decision about a return to Bikini will ultimately have to be made by the Marshall Islanders themselves. However, it is clear that remedial measures are available and that after remedial treatment the atoll could be re-occupied without restriction.