The U.S. has an Obligation to do the Right Thing in the Marshall Islands

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Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics that ranged from nuclear weapons to politics.  He is the author of Blown to Hell: America's Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders.  Pincus won an Emmy in 1981 and was the recipient of the Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy in 2010.

View all articles by Walter Pincus

OPINION — Despite everything else that’s going on, it’s time for the Biden administration to pay some attention to the tiny Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) and the need to negotiate an extension of the Compacts of Free Association (COFA), the 1986 agreement that holds our two countries together but expires in 2023.

The Marshall Islands are a chain of coral atolls and volcanic islands in the central Pacific Ocean where, from 1946 to 1958, the U.S. conducted 67 atmospheric atomic and thermonuclear weapons tests that left some atolls uninhabitable and subjected at least 253 Marshallese to radioactive fallout that negatively affected their health.

Of those originally exposed people from Rongelap and Utirik Atoll, who were subject to dangerous fallout from the 15-megaton Bravo test in March 1954, only 77 remain alive today, according to the Energy Department. But their relatives and heirs remain, along with Marshallese from other atolls who have since learned about their own exposure.

The U.S. still uses Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshalls for key military facilities that are essential to America’s testing of its ground-based, nuclear ICBMs, anti-missile defense systems and ongoing space programs.

As part of the original COFA agreement, which gave the RMI its independence, the U.S. acknowledged responsibility for the long-lasting negative effects caused by its nuclear testing and up to now, Washington has acted responsibly toward the people of the Marshall Islands.

However, negotiations that began in 2019 under the Trump administration stalled and, in the words of a November 5, 2021 letter to National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan from a bipartisan group of House members, “There have been no formal meetings since this [Biden] Administration began—even as our international focus continues shifting to the Indo-Pacific.”

As the Congressional Research Service has reported, not only does current economic assistance expire in 2023 for the Marshall Islands unless agreements to extend it are reached, Congress must also approve eligibility for some 30,000 Marshallese migrants in the U.S., as well as costs and U.S. compensation programs for surviving Marshallese back home related to American nuclear testing during the 1940s and 1950s.

I am not a casual observer to this problem. Since the late 1960s, I have followed the story of the Marshallese of Rongelap Atoll, where on March 1, 1954, 82 men, women and children were subjected to 10 hours of dangerous radioactive fallout that came down like snow from the Bravo test.  The bomb on Bikini Atoll, (more than 100 miles away) was 1,000 times more powerful than the one used in Hiroshima atomic bomb.  The story has had such an impact on me, that I wrote a book about it.

Last month, on October 21, the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations held a virtual hearing on the U.S. Nuclear Legacy in the Marshall Islands. The Subcommittee Chair, Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.), opened the session referring to how COFA had ended the Marshallese people’s ability to continue lawsuits seeking compensation for damages arising out of the nuclear testing. But she added, “It intentionally left open the doors to Congress and to the White House” should new information come to light, or past compensation proved inadequate.

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Rhea Moss-Christian, Chairperson of the Marshall Islands National Nuclear Commission, told the subcommittee that U.S. government studies since 1986 have shown that the radioactive fallout danger went beyond the Rongelap and Utirik Atolls.

She spoke of her mother who lived on Ailuk Atoll, some 300 miles from Bikini, but nonetheless at 10 years old had “heard the loud blast of the 1954 Castle Bravo test…She [the mother] remembered the U.S. military ship coming ashore a few days later to advise the residents not to eat the local food or drink any water that had already been collected.”

Moss-Christian pointed out that “Despite the fact that the people of Ailuk received radiation doses similar to those prompting the evacuation of Utirik, and that the Utirik community continues to receive U.S.-provided healthcare, U.S. Government officials decided that the effort to evacuate the larger Ailuk community was too much of a burden.”

That failure, she said, may be behind the numbers in a 2004 U.S. National Cancer Institute report that stated, “(W)e estimate that the nuclear testing program in the Marshall Islands will cause about 500 additional cancer cases among Marshallese exposed during the years 1946-1958, about a 9% increase over the number of cancers expected in the absence of exposure to regional fallout. More than 85% of those radiation-related cases would likely occur among those exposed in 1954 on the atolls of Rongelap, Ailinginae, Ailuk, Mejit, Likiep, Wotho, Wotje, and possibly Ujelang.”

Moss-Christian concluded, “Based on exposure levels, the U.S. Government should have evacuated my mother [who died in 2012 of stomach cancer at the age of 67] and other communities from all of these atolls to reduce their health risks. The elevated rates of cancer and thyroid today are the aftermath of failed action during the testing program that endure.”

During the October 21 hearing, subcommittee member Rep. Jesus G. Garcia (D-Ill.) said, “The Marshall Islands served as a toxic testing ground at the expense of the people living there…The Marshall Islands is marked by a higher risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease and other illnesses even decades after exposure. The U.S. ruined their food supply and after promising free health care we yanked it away in the mid-1990s welfare reform deal. That’s a lot of history to answer for.”

Garcia then referred to how climate change is threatening a buried, highly radioactive waste dump called the Runit Dome in Enewetak Atoll where some 600 Marshallese live on a nearby island.

In fact, danger from Runit Dome was one of the stated purposes of the subcommittee hearing.

During the 1977-to-1979 cleanup of Enewetak Atoll, where 43 nuclear tests were held between 1948 and 1958, plutonium-contaminated soil and other radioactive materials were mixed with cement and buried in a crater on Runit Island that was 30-feet deep with a diameter about 100-yards across. It was estimated to have contained 105,000 cubic yards of highly radioactive waste. In 1979, the crater was covered over with an 18-in-thick cement top and thereafter became referred to as the Runit Dome.

Since 1982, there has been concern about leakage from the Runit Dome, both because of rising ocean tides that often have covered Runit Island and from radioactive elements in the soil below leaking into the Enewetak Lagoon. The U.S. Department of Energy has been monitoring the Runit Dome.

At the October 21 hearing, the Energy Department’s Matthew B. Moury, Associate Under Secretary for Environment, Health, Safety and Security, said Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory periodically flies a drone over Runit Dome to monitor its status. But Moury admitted there appeared to be leakage into the groundwater below and Energy has plans for a $2 million, more sophisticated groundwater monitoring system to be built in fiscal 2022, if agreement can be reached with the Marshallese government.

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However, while the Trump administration opened negotiations for extension of the COFA agreement in 2019, the U.S.-provided agenda did not include discussion of issues related to effects from nuclear testing.

Those negotiations were halted. Marshall Islands Minister of Foreign Affairs Casten Nemra told the October 21 subcommittee hearing that meetings to set an agenda for talks with the Biden administration have not been set. “We hope to set them soon,” the Minister added.

He said the Marshall Islands has been “a firm ally of the United States and we hope these negotiations will allow us the opportunity to bring up these other issues, including the nuclear legacy…and the promises that have yet to be fulfilled.”

As Chair, Porter closed the hearing saying its purpose “was to examine why the United States is not willing to discuss the nuclear legacy with the Marshallese. We know…the resistance is on the side of the United States government, and I think it’s going to be very difficult for us to start the negotiations to extend COFA unless we act on the moral and national security imperative that we have to address that nuclear legacy.”

Now it is up to the Biden administration to take the lead.

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Fine Print

Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics that ranged from nuclear weapons to politics.  He is the author of Blown to Hell: America's Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders.  Pincus won an Emmy in 1981 and was the recipient of the Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy in 2010.

View all articles by Walter Pincus

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