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Nuclear-affected atolls in Marshalls see momentum building

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MAJURO — Leaders of four nuclear test-affected atolls in the Marshall Islands said Wednesday they see momentum developing behind efforts for renewed attention to lingering problems of the US nuclear weapons testing program from 1946 to 1958.

Elected leaders from Bikini and Enewetak, the ground zeroes for 67 nuclear weapons tests, and Rongelap and Utrok, two atolls heavily contaminated with radioactive fallout from the 1954 Bravo hydrogen bomb test, described separate meetings in the past few days with U.S. Ambassador to the Marshall Islands Roxanne Cabral and Marshall Islands President David Kabua as “productive and positive.”

The push for action on compensation, health care and cleanups of radioactive islands comes against the backdrop of negotiations beginning between the Marshall Islands and U.S. governments to extend expiring grant funding in a Compact of Free Association.

Island leaders say nuclear test legacy issues have languished for years and they want the Marshall Islands to pursue them during the upcoming talks for a solution that benefits both the Marshall Islands and the United States.

Members of parliament and mayors of these four atolls said Wednesday they view the friendly dialogue with Cabral and President Kabua’s commitment to pursuing the nuclear legacy in the upcoming Compact talks as important signs of progress.

Ambassador Cabral said Wednesday she also appreciated the discussion with the four atoll leaders last week, the first time for her to meet these leaders as a group.

Nuclear test-affected atoll leaders, who met last week with U.S. Ambassador Roxanne Cabral, fourth from right, and other U.S. officials at the Marshall Islands Resort in Majuro, say they see momentum building for action on the U.S. nuclear legacy. Contributed photo

Utrok Nitijela Member Hiroshi Yamamura is chairing the four atolls’ quest for nuclear legacy action. He said the islands want the opportunity to seek resolution of the nuclear legacy through the Compact talks with the U.S. administration and through the U.S. Congress. Yamamura said each of the four local government councils during the past two weeks have adopted resolutions calling for the outstanding aspects of the nuclear test legacy to be part of upcoming negotiations with the United States. “We stand firm,” he said.

 “We are solid on one goal: Justice,” said Vice Speaker Peterson Jibas, who represents Bikini. He said he was encouraged by the U.S. ambassador’s engagement with the group last week and sees this as an important step in the process to gaining resolution of the nuclear test legacy.

The parliament members and mayors expressed their appreciation to the U.S. government for its many contributions related to the nuclear legacy, while making it clear there are still outstanding issues. They also said the Marshall Islands is an unwavering ally of America.

 “We are here for the interests of the U.S.,” said Rongelap Mayor James Matayoshi. “We hope they see us in the same light.” He urged discussions about the Nuclear Claims Tribunal awards to the four atolls and other legacy matters, observing this can lead to “benefit for both countries.”

United States-provided compensation fell far short of funds needed to meet compensation awards for this nuclear test-affected nation.

Before it ran out of funding to pay nuclear test compensation awards in the mid-2000s, a Nuclear Claims Tribunal in Majuro had awarded $96.6 million to over 2,000 people for personal injury claims from the weapons tests but had compensation funding to pay only $73.5 million. In addition, the tribunal awarded these four atolls $2.2 billion in compensation for loss of past use, hardship while living in exile when they were moved by the U.S. military to make way for the testing, and nuclear clean ups to make the atolls habitable. But the tribunal was able to pay less than $4 million on the $2.2 billion award for lack of compensation funding from the U.S. government.

“I greatly appreciated the invitation from the leaders of the four atolls and the opportunity to listen to their concerns and understand the priorities they are focused on  behalf of their constituents,” Cabral said Wednesday. “The nuclear legacy is an important issue and a priority for both the United States and the Marshall Islands, and is among other important issues that our two governments work together on.”

Utrok Mayor Tobin Kaiko said he personally, as well as other nuclear test-affected islanders, continues living with health problems caused by exposure to radioactive fallout. Their suffering has been exacerbated by U.S. authorities consistently downplaying the hazards of radiation and the potential for health problems among affected islanders, he said.

Enewetak Mayor Jackson Ading praised the U.S. for its support of various programs at Enewetak, while commenting about a range of radioactive contamination problems at the former test site.

 “We thank the U.S. for what it has done so far,” said Speaker Kenneth Kedi, who represents Rongelap. “There is still a long way to go to address the justice issue.”

Kedi said they are aiming to meet more regularly with the US ambassador on the issues. “The Marshall Islands has always been a good friend of the U.S.,” he said. “We shared sacrifices through generations to this day. We have a special relationship.”

The speaker said they assured the U.S. ambassador the RMI is solidly with the U.S. But, he said, the nuclear legacy remains an obstacle to smooth relations for the entire nation. “Our expectation,” he added, “is the nuclear legacy will be addressed as part of the outcome (of the Compact talks).”

Yamamura said the initiatives of nuclear affected atolls us aimed at establishing a friendly dialogue with the U.S. government to address the changed circumstances that have become evident since the first Compact’s nuclear test compensation package was approved in the early 1980s.

 “I have confidence and I pray to God for good results in the future from this preparation,” said the Vice Speaker. The aim, Jibas added, is to resolve issues including compensation, cleanup of nuclear affected islands, and medical care for islanders.

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