Marshall Islands President Christopher Loeak called on the US yesterday to resolve the “unfinished business” of its nuclear testing legacy in the western Pacific nation.
Compensation provided by Washington “does not provide a fair and just settlement” for the damage caused, he told a ceremony in Majuro marking the 60th anniversary of the devastating US hydrogen bomb test at Bikini Atoll, which contaminated many islands with radioactive fallout.
“We remain the closest of friends with the United States, but there is unfinished business relating to the nuclear weapons testing that must be addressed,” Loeak said.
Loeak said the unfinished business not only affected the four atolls that the US acknowledged as exposed, but also many other islands throughout the country. In 1983, 29 years after the March 1, 1954, explosion, a compensation agreement was reached in which Washington provided the Marshall Islands with US$150 million to settle all nuclear test claims.
Yet more than 10 years later, during then-US president Bill Clinton’s administration, formerly secret documents about the nuclear tests were released and confirmed dozens of islands were exposed to the fallout
Loeak called this “dramatic new information” that had not been revealed to Marshall Islands negotiators.
“It is abundantly clear that the agreement was not negotiated in good faith and does not provide a fair and just settlement of the damages caused,” he said.
Bikini islander Hinton Johnson criticized the level of compensation the displaced Bikinians receive from the US-provided funds.
“Today, each person receives US$46 per month or a little over one dollar per day,” he said during the ceremony.
Although the Nuclear Claims Tribunal had awarded the Bikinians more than US$560 million in compensation and nuclear test clean up funding, there was no fund to pay them from, he said. Many exiles refuse to go back to the zones that were contaminated, despite US safety assurances.
“I won’t move there,” Evelyn Ralpho-Jeadrik, 33, said of her home atoll, Rongelap, which was engulfed in a snowstorm of fallout from Bravo and evacuated two days after the test. “I do not believe it’s safe and I don’t want to put my children at risk.”
People returned to live on Rongelap in 1957, but fled again in 1985 amid fears — later proved correct — about residual radiation.
One of the more than 60 islands in Rongelap has been cleaned up as part of a US-funded US$45 million program, but Ralpho-Jeadrik has no intention of going back.
“I will be forever fearful. The US told my mother it was safe and they returned to Rongelap only to be contaminated again,” she said.
It is not just their homes which have been lost, says Lani Kramer, 42, a councilwoman in Bikini’s local government, but an entire swathe of the islands’ culture.
“As a result of being displaced, we’ve lost our cultural heritage — our traditional customs and skills, which for thousands of years were passed down from generation to generation,” she said.
Bikini islanders have lived in exile since they were moved for the first US weapons tests in 1946, when Kramer’s own grandparents were evacuated.
When US government scientists declared Bikini safe for resettlement, some residents were allowed to return in the early 1970s.
They were removed again in 1978 after ingesting high levels of radiation from eating local foods grown on the former nuclear test site.