Pacific’s nuclear legacy overshadows US talks in Marshall Islands

Pacific’s nuclear legacy overshadows US talks in 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 agreement, provided Washington addresses grievances arising from nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific archipelago before more than 70 years.

The United States detonated 67 atomic bombs in the Marshall Islands between 1946 and 1958, and the health and environmental effects are still being felt on the islands and atolls 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 Pact 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, which totals just over $3 billion, of which about $270 million has been paid so far.

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

The Marshall Islands said they were also ready to resume talks with Yun if Washington addressed health and environmental issues arising from its nuclear tests.

“We are ready to sign tomorrow (an extension of the pact) as soon as the main issues are settled,” Parliament Speaker Kenneth Kedi told AFP.

“We have to find a worthy solution,” he said. Kedi represents Rongelap Atoll, which is still affected by nuclear testing.

He was emboldened by an agreement signed in late September by US President Joe Biden and Pacific Islanders leaders including Marshall Islands President David Kabua, which made reference to US commitments to coming to terms with its nuclear past.

Until that happens, however, “it throws a question mark on all the promises Washington has made,” Kedi said.

“If we can’t solve problems from our past, how will other problems fare?”

Thousands of Marshall Islands were engulfed in a cloud of radioactive fallout after the US military’s Castle Bravo nuclear test in 1954, and many later suffered health problems.

Tons of contaminated debris from the tests were dumped into a crater on Enewetak Atoll and covered in concrete, which has since cracked, raising health concerns.

Hundreds of islanders from Marshall’s Bikini, Enewetak, Rongelap and Utrik atolls have also been displaced due to nuclear contamination. Many still cannot return home.

A 2004 study released by the US National Cancer Institute estimated that about 530 cancer cases were caused by the nuclear tests.

“As Bikiniians, we have 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 get rich. We are asking for funding to solve our nuclear problems…actually, the funds are there to mitigate and address the problems of our health, resettlement and nuclear cleanup,” Kelen said.

More to explorer