Runit Dome was built on the Marshall Islands Enewetak Atoll in 1977 to temporarily store radioactive waste generated by the US military during the 1950s 60s. Photo / RNZ
The US detonated its largest nuclear bomb around the Marshall Islands in the 1940s and 50s – but the Marshallese people still campaigned for adequate compensation.
The Marshall Islands are two chains of 29 coral atolls in the middle of the Pacific Ocean between Papua New Guinea and Hawaii.
After the test, the entire island ceased to exist, hundreds of native Marshall had to be removed from their home island and many were affected by the testing.
In 1977, US authorities placed the debris and most contaminated soil into a large concrete dome called the Runit Dome, which is located on Enewetak Atoll and houses 88,000 square meters of contaminated soil and debris.
It recently received media attention because it appeared to be leaking, due to cracks and threats from rising sea levels, while some Marshallese feared the ship would eventually collapse.
However, American officials said it was not their problem and that their responsibility fell on Marshall, because it was their land.
The US has cited a 1986 free association deal, which exempted the US government from further obligations, to be renegotiated in 2023.
Meanwhile, Marshall continued to campaign for appropriate compensation from the US.
Giff Johnson, editor of the nation’s only newspaper, the Marshall Islands Journal and correspondent for RNZ, has experienced firsthand the legacy of the US nuclear test. His wife Darlene Cheese, an outspoken advocate for test victims and nuclear survivors, herself died of cancer in 1996.
While he said that the suggestion that Elaborate Dome – dubbed the “Tomb” by locals – would collapse alarmingly, there was still great concern around him.
“I wouldn’t say the dome is on the verge of collapse, there are concerns about the leak, about the cracks, and also about the contamination of the whole atoll,” he said.
“The problem is that it contains plutonium, which has a half-life of 24,000 years, and how long does concrete last?”
Describing the structure as a “symbol of nuclear legacy here,” Johnson said US government scientists had reported there was already so much contamination in the area that it would be difficult to find leaks from the dome that had been added.
The United States continues to refuse to accept responsibility for the conditions of the Runit Dome, despite the country’s history of nuclear testing.
In 1954, the US carried out their first nuclear weapon test, Castle Bravo, at Bikini Atoll in 1954 – which resulted in the contamination of 15 islands and atolls. Just three years later, residents at the affected Rongelap and Utirik atolls were encouraged to return to their homes, so researchers could study the radiation’s effects.
“The legacy of nuclear weapons testing is a major problem in the Marshall Islands with the United States and it remains a festering problem, because US compensation and medical care and so on are only part of what is needed,” Johnson said.
The first deal to free the association between the Marshall Islands and the US contained a compensation agreement, including the creation of a nuclear claims tribunal to decide all claims. Although it was determined that there was a large amount of compensation to be paid to Marshallese across the various atolls, this has never been paid, apart from a $ 150 million funding in 1986.
Since then, the US has no longer accepted responsibility for nuclear compensation, as the deal resulted in the Marshall Islands becoming an independent nation, which could join the United Nations.
However, Johnson said the United States Congress has taken a different stance on this matter.
For example, while the US executive branch would say the Marshall Islands are responsible for all former nuclear test sites, the US Congress several years ago passed a law requiring the US Department of Energy to monitor the Runit Dome, where so much radioactive waste is stored. “
There are also big differences in the treatment of Marshall nuclear victims and in the United States
“The US is using Bikini and Enewetak to test its biggest hydrogen bomb,” said Johnson. “While it maintains a nuclear test site in Nevada, it’s only testing a relatively small nuclear device there, because it can’t test a hydrogen bomb on the continental United States – America won’t support it.”
Shortly after the free associations in 1986 ended America’s responsibility for nuclear compensation in the Marshall Islands, the US Congress introduced radiation compensation measures for Americans – which Johnson said totally emphasized the injustice of the situation.
“Long story short, they allocated $ 100 million and then they ran out, the US congress allocated more, once again ran out, allocated more and fast forward to 2020 and they were over $ 2 billion in compensation to America’s nuclear victims.
“Then the question arises, that if they are willing to continue to recapitalize the compensation fund for America’s nuclear victims, why can’t they return the compensation fund for Marshallese, who has far more nuclear impact than the downwinders in Utah and Nevada?”
Johnson was also concerned about the lack of basic epidemiological studies by the US following the tests. Studies of the effects of radiation center around thyroid problems, but many islanders have reported cancer, miscarriage, and stillbirths in the following years.
His wife Darlene Cheese died of breast cancer, which also affected her mother and father – she grew up on one of the islands in the downwind zone.
The US has never looked at cancer rates, or studied the differences between low-impact and high-damage areas, he said.
Johnson hopes that the nuclear legacy between nations can work out peacefully, but he is not overly optimistic.
“The original compensation agreement was negotiated in the Cold War period and the US did it in a hostile way with the Marshall Islands, which had no position because it was not a country at the time, information was classified, they didn’t ‘don’t know what they know at the moment, and that’s needs to be done, a proper and viable fair deal needs to be finalized. “
Despite these tensions, Johnson said Marshall was not harboring anti-American sentiment and the issue of compensation was a “black mark on good relations” between the two countries.
He said about 30 to 40 percent of all Marshallese live in the US.
“The Marshall Islands, since World War II, have had a high respect and strong relationship with the US that emerged from the end of the period of Japanese militarism and the execution of many islanders and privacy, into the period in which the US pushed for institutional democracy, creating opportunities for education, giving scholarships, opens doors for people going to the US and the unpacked agreement really brings this together, in terms of a relationship that benefits both parties. “
However, the ongoing tensions between the US and China could assist the Marshall Islands in pushing for further compensation.
“In the current situation we have a US that continues to be in an uproar over China … which has increased the strategic interests of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau – the three north Pacific nations that are all free from US relations. That gives the Marshall Islands a little bit more. had a lot of influence in negotiating and talking to Washington.
“Perhaps the altered geopolitical situation here may offer an opening to gain interest in trying to peacefully do something to solve it all,” Johnson said.
But nuclear legacy isn’t the only problem affecting the island – climate change is looming and US scientists report that the Marshall Islands will be uninhabitable by the 2030s, due to rising sea levels.
“Because the Marshall Islands have a very small landmass, these are very small islands, it adds to the importance of land to the Marshallese people,” Johnson said. “I think people care about their islands and want to find ways to make them livable for the long term, but that may depend a lot on the world community now.”
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