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Pacific nuclear legacy overshadows US talks in Marshall Islands

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A file photo from July 1946 shows the mushroom cloud following nuclear testing on Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands./AFP
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Nov 01, 2022 - 10:23 AM

MAJURO, MARSHALL ISLANDS — Marshall Islands officials say they are ready to resume talks with the United States this week on renewing a long-standing economic and security deal, provided Washington addresses grievances stemming from the testing of nuclear weapons on the Pacific archipelago more than 70 years ago.

The United States detonated 67 nuclear bombs in the Marshall Islands between 1946-58, and the health and environmental impacts are still felt on the islands and atolls that lie between Hawaii and the Philippines.

US special envoy Joseph Yun is scheduled to land in the capital Majuro on Thursday to resume negotiations on extending the 20-year Compact of Free Association, part of which expires in 2023.

Marshall Islands negotiators first want the United States to pay more of the compensation awarded by the international Nuclear Claims Tribunal, totalling just over $3 billion, of which around $270 million has been paid so far.

Officials in Majuro broke off talks in September to renew the compact, a key international agreement between the United States, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau.

The Marshall Islands said it would also be ready to resume talks with Yun if Washington tackled health and environmental issues stemming from their nuclear testing.

“We are ready to sign (a Compact extension) tomorrow, once the key issues are addressed,” Parliament Speaker Kenneth Kedi told AFP.

“We need to come up with a dignified solution,” he said. Kedi represents Rongelap Atoll, which is still affected by nuclear testing.

He was encouraged by an agreement signed in late September by US President Joe Biden and Pacific island leaders, including Marshall Islands President David Kabua, that included references to the US commitment to addressing its nuclear past.

However, until that happens, “it casts a question mark on all the promises Washington has made,” Kedi said.

“If we can’t resolve issues from our past, how will it be going forward with other issues?”

Thousands of Marshall Islanders were engulfed in a radioactive fallout cloud following the 1954 Castle Bravo nuclear test by the US military, and many subsequently experienced health problems.

Tonnes of contaminated debris from the testing was dumped in a crater on the Enewetak Atoll and capped with concrete that has since cracked, sparking health concerns.

Hundreds of islanders from the Marshall’s Bikini, Enewetak, Rongelap and Utrik atolls have also had to relocate due to nuclear contamination. Many are still unable to return home.

A study issued by the US National Cancer Institute in 2004 estimated around 530 cancer cases had been caused by the nuclear testing.

“As Bikinians, we’ve done enough for the United States,” said Alson Kelen, chairman of the Marshall Islands’ National Nuclear Commission, who believes the United States should pay the full amount of the compensation awarded.

“We’re not asking to be rich. We’re asking for funding to solve our nuclear problems … really the funds are to mitigate and address the problems of our health, relocations and nuclear cleanups,” Kelen said.

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