The island is part of a group of atolls in the Pacific Ocean named the Marshall Islands which occupy a geographic area called Micronesia. The islands were found by the civilized world in the 1600's, particularly the Spanish and Germans. The island provided a source of vegetable oils, however there was not significant contact between the islanders and the outside world because of its remote location. In the 1900's Japan took control of the islands, and as World War II approached, they began a military buildup there due to the strategic location. US forces took control of the island in 1944, at which point the remaining Japanese soldiers committed suicide before they were captured.

The US military decided that the remote location of the Bikini atoll would be an ideal testing ground for nuclear weapons, specifically their impact on navy warships. The Bikinians were asked if they would be willing to temporarily leave their island so that the US could begin testing atomic bombs, and they agreed. The islanders were transported to another island 125 miles away, which in the past had been considered uninhabitable because of inadequate food sources. The islanders were left with a supply of food meant to last several weeks, although it quickly became apparent that it would not be sufficient, and they began to starve. During this time, two atomic bombs were detonated near the atoll. Afterwards, a Bikinian elder traveled to the atoll with a US delegation to view the results, noting that the island looked visibly unchanged.

During the next several years, the islanders were relocated from island to island in an attempt to find surroundings which would provide them sustenance. None of the islands were able to provide enough food and the Bikinians remained near starvation, growing increasingly dependent on the military in order to remain fed. In 1954, under fear that the Soviets had already tested a hydrogen bomb, the US government decided to test its own device. A date was selected, and testing commenced despite knowledge that the weather conditions present would irradiate the inhabitants of most of the Marshall islands. The hydrogen bomb was detonated in the northwest corner of the Bikini atoll, without informing any of the of the people who would be subjected to the radiation ahead of time.

Naval ships which were stationed 40 miles away to monitor the radiation were alarmed at the extremely high radiation levels and all crew were sent below deck and the hatches were sealed. Millions of tons of sand, coral, and plant life were sent high into the air by the blast. Three or four hours later a snow white ash began to fall on the inhabitants of the numerous islands. Soon the radioactive dust formed a layer more than two inches deep, turning the water it fell on yellow. Unaware of the danger, Bikinian children began to play in the fallout. Soon the parents began to see the physical signs of exposure set in (vomiting, diarrhea, hair loss). Two days later, the islanders were evacuated to a medical center for treatment.

In 1957 the Bikinians signed an agreement with the US government turning over full rights to the atoll. The agreement also stated that any future claims against the US government for its use of the atoll and their relocation would have to be made against the Bikinian leaders instead of the US government. In return, the islanders were given $25,000 in cash and $300,000 in a trust fund (which yielded an annual dividend of about $30 per person). The Bikinians made this agreement without any legal representation.

In 1967, the US government decided that the island was radiologically safe and began to consider allowing the Bikinians to return. Several families moved back in 1972, and the number of people living on the island continued to increase. Further testing of the island and the people who were living on it in was done in 1975. As a result of this testing the island was deemed unsafe to live on and the people who had been there were contaminated well beyond safe limits. Several years after the government decided this, the Bikinians were then relocated to a different island and a lawsuit was filed against the government.

Currently Bikini atoll is habitable, however none of the food produced on the island is edible due to radiation contaminants in the soil. The primary activity on the island is divers exploring the wrecks of the naval ships destroyed during the testing of the nuclear weapons.