The Key to a World without Nuclear Weapons: Appeal from the Marshall Islands, Part 3

Seeking greater recognition of nuclear damage, fuller compensation

At an assembly hall near the airport on Enewetak Island, part of the Marshall Islands, delegates from the Japan Council against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs held a meeting in the middle of January. The delegates, who were sent to the island to investigate the damage caused by past nuclear tests and provide support for the local people, called on residents to continue to demand compensation from the U.S. government. Some 100 residents attended the meeting.

Karmi Job, 61, was one of the meeting participants. He underwent thyroid surgery in 1991 and his disease was certified to have been caused by the radioactive fallout from nuclear tests by the national government’s Nuclear Claims Tribunal located in Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands. He said angrily that he should have been provided with 25,000 dollars as medical compensation from the government fund but he actually received only a portion of this amount and in installments.

With the conclusion of the Compact of Free Association with the United States in 1983, the Marshall Islands government established a foundation to save and operate the fund of 150 million dollars provided by the U.S. government in the name of medical compensation and financial support. However, according to Bill Graham, 70, a former staff member of the tribunal and now the advisor on Nuclear Issues for the RMI government, only 50,000 dollars are actually left in the fund.

The foundation paid more than 2,000 residents a total of about 73 million dollars as medical compensation and 3.9 million dollars as compensation for land damage. It also used the fund to pay for food supplies, which are provided every three months. However, the money paid to the residents as compensation for their medical expenses amounted to 76% of the amount specified by the tribunal, and payments for the land damage totaled just 0.2% of the specified amount. In addition, food supplies are inadequate for the increasing population. One of the residents said that food supplies, which were previously allocated for one person, are now shared by the whole family. Due to the depletion of the fund, various kinds of support programs have either been stopped or delayed, which consequently caused rumblings of discontent among the residents.

Some residents of the Marshall Islands have a lingering view that the United States underestimated the nuclear damage and as a result didn’t pay sufficient compensation, and it’s this response by the United States that has caused the current plight. The U.S. government has acknowledged responsibility for the damage to human health and soil contamination caused by radioactive fallout only for four atolls including Enewetak.

In contrast, the Marshall Islands government maintains that the whole nation was affected by the radioactive fallout from the nuclear tests and has determined that there is a relationship between various types of cancers and exposure to radiation. The basis for which the government has made this judgment is the 1990 bill in the United States known as the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act for downwinders and people involved in atmospheric nuclear tests at the test site in the U.S. state of Nevada. Based on this legislation, the U.S. government has so far paid 2.1 billion dollars to people at home who suffer health problems resulting from the nuclear tests. However, the U.S. government did not accept the petition requesting additional compensation that was submitted by the Marshall Islands in 2000 and thus rebuffed the demands of the islanders.

Maynard Alfred, 64, a senator from Ailuk Atoll, for which the United States has not acknowledged damage resulting from the nuclear tests, said that the vital information about the damage caused by the nuclear tests was confidential in 1983 when the Compact of Free Association was concluded, which was the problem. Part of the information was declassified and opened to the public by the U.S. government in the 1990s. He is convinced that, based on the series of declassified documents, the four confirmed atolls weren’t the only areas affected by radioactive fallout. He demands that the United States reveal all its information about the damage caused by the nuclear tests and, based on this information, that it accept negotiations with the Marshall Islands for revising the Compact of Free Association or conclude a new agreement.

In the near future, the Marshall Islands government plans to establish a nuclear committee as a governmental body. To respond to the United States, which has not accepted a special report issued in 2012 by the United Nations Human Rights Council that urges it to pay additional compensation, the Marshall Islands government will unify the information and authorities concerning nuclear issues and strengthen its approach to negotiating with the United States. Kenneth Kedi, 45, a parliament speaker from Rongelap Atoll whose residents were exposed to radioactive fallout from the nuclear tests, said that he hopes to expedite issues which have been stymied for some time under previous administrations and demand justice from the United States. His words echo the thoughts of the people of the Marshall Islands.

(Originally published on February 16, 2017)