Still Reeling From Nuclear Tests, Marshall Islands Seeks New Deal With United States

On March 1, 1954, the U.S. military detonated a thermonuclear weapon whose power was such a mystery that scientists took bets on whether it would ignite the earth’s atmosphere. The atmosphere didn’t catch on fire, but the historically powerful blast was nearly three times larger than expected, with its mushroom cloud reaching higher than commercial airliners fly. If detonated in Washington DC, it’s estimated that the entire population of the region would have died, with millions more deaths soon following from radiation poisoning extending to the borders of Canada. But instead, the test took place on the sparsely populated Marshall Islands—as did more than 65 other tests between 1946-1958, which experts say is roughly the equivalent of 1.7 Hiroshima-sized bombs per day for 12 years. The Marshall Islands and its inhabitants have been ravaged by the fallout from the blasts for decades. Communities have been relocated, cancer rates have soared, and some islands remain uninhabitable. At one site on Runit Island, a deteriorating concrete dome leaks nuclear waste in the groundwater, causing potential environmental damage that the U.S. government is still working to assess. Now, as a defense compact between the two countries is set to expire in 2023, the Pacific island nation seeks additional assistance. The United States spends some $70 million annually on the Marshall Islands in various forms in exchange for exclusive access to lands and waterways for national security purposes, but Marshallese leaders and others say that’s not nearly enough to recover from the devastating effects of nuclear radiation and other environmental damage. They say negotiators who earlier struck deals—including a 1986 $150 million settlement in exchange for forfeiting rights to sue the U.S. government—didn’t realize that the aftereffects of the nuclear testing would persist for many more decades. The federal government under successive administrations has been hesitant to take on additional responsibilities. The Department of Energy has said that maintenance for the dome on Runit Island falls to the Marshallese, while negotiations with State Department officials have stalled. The situation is a growing concern among a cross-section of political stakeholders. Human rights activists have called for the U.S. government to rectify historical injustices for decades, and in recent years they have been joined by national security officials willing to grant more concessions so the Marshall Islands doesn’t fall under China’s influence. Concerns and frustrations by all parties involved were expressed at a Oct. 21 House Natural Resources Committee hearing on the status of U.S.-Marshall Islands relations. There, the committee was informed that no negotiations have taken place between the countries since last December. “Sadly, the agenda [at the December meeting] was fixed. It was on a very specific provision that we thought was not adequate, and we want to broaden the issues—including the nuclear issue,” said Casten Nemra, the minister of foreign affairs for the Marshall Islands. “This is partly why, in our view, the negotiations thus far have moved slowly.” One of the major sticking points has been the waste dome on Runit Island. The Marshallese have been calling for help with the dome for years, but officials have reportedly declined. In his opening statement at Friday’s hearing, Department of Energy official Matthew Moury reiterated the government’s position that “Marshall Islands bears full responsibility for maintaining and monitoring the dome and Runit Island.” This statement drew the ire of multiple committee members, who suggested that the State Department might be responsible for the policy. Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) criticized the State Department for declining to attend the hearing and for allegedly coaching other departments on what not to say. Gregorio Sablan, the delegate to the House for the Northern Mariana Islands, also accused Moury of taking his positions from the State Department after Moury couldn’t cite the provision that makes Marshall Islands responsible for Runit. “What part of [US-Marchall military] compact says Marshall is responsible for Runit Dome testing?” Sablan asked. “That was the historical information provided to me as implementer of these programs,” Moury replied. “Do they work for the State Department, may I ask?” Sablan asked. “I do not know the answer to that question,” the DOE official said. The State Department did not respond to a media inquiry from The Epoch Times on the issue. National security witnesses expressed dismay at the lack of activity from the U.S. government towards its Pacific counterpart. “Frankly, I’m startled at the lack of negotiations,” said Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow on Asian studies for The Heritage Foundation. Cheng said China will fill the vacuum left by America if it fails to live up to its obligations in the Marshall Islands. “Time is running ou

Still Reeling From Nuclear Tests, Marshall Islands Seeks New Deal With United States

On March 1, 1954, the U.S. military detonated a thermonuclear weapon whose power was such a mystery that scientists took bets on whether it would ignite the earth’s atmosphere.

The atmosphere didn’t catch on fire, but the historically powerful blast was nearly three times larger than expected, with its mushroom cloud reaching higher than commercial airliners fly. If detonated in Washington DC, it’s estimated that the entire population of the region would have died, with millions more deaths soon following from radiation poisoning extending to the borders of Canada.

But instead, the test took place on the sparsely populated Marshall Islands—as did more than 65 other tests between 1946-1958, which experts say is roughly the equivalent of 1.7 Hiroshima-sized bombs per day for 12 years.

The Marshall Islands and its inhabitants have been ravaged by the fallout from the blasts for decades. Communities have been relocated, cancer rates have soared, and some islands remain uninhabitable. At one site on Runit Island, a deteriorating concrete dome leaks nuclear waste in the groundwater, causing potential environmental damage that the U.S. government is still working to assess.

Now, as a defense compact between the two countries is set to expire in 2023, the Pacific island nation seeks additional assistance.

The United States spends some $70 million annually on the Marshall Islands in various forms in exchange for exclusive access to lands and waterways for national security purposes, but Marshallese leaders and others say that’s not nearly enough to recover from the devastating effects of nuclear radiation and other environmental damage. They say negotiators who earlier struck deals—including a 1986 $150 million settlement in exchange for forfeiting rights to sue the U.S. government—didn’t realize that the aftereffects of the nuclear testing would persist for many more decades.

The federal government under successive administrations has been hesitant to take on additional responsibilities. The Department of Energy has said that maintenance for the dome on Runit Island falls to the Marshallese, while negotiations with State Department officials have stalled.

The situation is a growing concern among a cross-section of political stakeholders.

Human rights activists have called for the U.S. government to rectify historical injustices for decades, and in recent years they have been joined by national security officials willing to grant more concessions so the Marshall Islands doesn’t fall under China’s influence.

Concerns and frustrations by all parties involved were expressed at a Oct. 21 House Natural Resources Committee hearing on the status of U.S.-Marshall Islands relations. There, the committee was informed that no negotiations have taken place between the countries since last December.

“Sadly, the agenda [at the December meeting] was fixed. It was on a very specific provision that we thought was not adequate, and we want to broaden the issues—including the nuclear issue,” said Casten Nemra, the minister of foreign affairs for the Marshall Islands. “This is partly why, in our view, the negotiations thus far have moved slowly.”

One of the major sticking points has been the waste dome on Runit Island. The Marshallese have been calling for help with the dome for years, but officials have reportedly declined.

In his opening statement at Friday’s hearing, Department of Energy official Matthew Moury reiterated the government’s position that “Marshall Islands bears full responsibility for maintaining and monitoring the dome and Runit Island.”

This statement drew the ire of multiple committee members, who suggested that the State Department might be responsible for the policy.

Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) criticized the State Department for declining to attend the hearing and for allegedly coaching other departments on what not to say.

Gregorio Sablan, the delegate to the House for the Northern Mariana Islands, also accused Moury of taking his positions from the State Department after Moury couldn’t cite the provision that makes Marshall Islands responsible for Runit.

“What part of [US-Marchall military] compact says Marshall is responsible for Runit Dome testing?” Sablan asked.

“That was the historical information provided to me as implementer of these programs,” Moury replied.

“Do they work for the State Department, may I ask?” Sablan asked.

“I do not know the answer to that question,” the DOE official said.

The State Department did not respond to a media inquiry from The Epoch Times on the issue.

National security witnesses expressed dismay at the lack of activity from the U.S. government towards its Pacific counterpart.

“Frankly, I’m startled at the lack of negotiations,” said Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow on Asian studies for The Heritage Foundation.

Cheng said China will fill the vacuum left by America if it fails to live up to its obligations in the Marshall Islands.

“Time is running out, and there are others out there watching and waiting to exploit the opportunity we’d be presenting them on a silver platter,” Cheng said.

According to Cheng, the Marshall Islands is a key strategic area both militarily and economically. He said facilities at Kwajalein support missile defense efforts, and that various radars and facilities provide American missile defense planners and engineers with data to help improve missile interception capability.

“Finally, the facilities in the [Marshall Islands], including on Kwajalein, play a central role in space surveillance,” Cheng added.

“Because of the high speed of objects in orbit, even a bolt or a screw can do enormous damage to the International Space Station or an orbiting satellite,” Cheng explained. “The newly built Space Fence on Kwajalein provides the Space Force with the ability to monitor objects as small as a marble.”

Meanwhile, the dome on Runit Island continues to leak. Moury told committee members that his department has the funding and resources to investigate the scope of the damage and the environmental risk involved, but he said pandemic-related travel restrictions have prevented his staff from visiting the area—another statement that drew the committee’s ire.

“It doesn’t feel like this is a priority. If I wasn’t clear about how much damage this is causing, then that would be at the top of my list,” said Rep. Ed Case (D-Hawaii). “I see in your report various reasons for why you haven’t pulled it off, but in honesty I struggle to understand why you can’t overcome logistical concerns given the possibility of a substantial amount of leakage we just haven’t detected yet.”

“I don’t want to give the impression that this isn’t one of our highest priorities, because we have people working on this all the time,” Moury replied before adding, “Covid restrictions are real, and were established to protect the population of the Marshall Islands.

“So we have not been able to get out to the islands.”


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Ken Silva covers national security issues for The Epoch Times. His reporting background also includes cybersecurity, crime and offshore finance – including three years as a reporter in the British Virgin Islands and two years in the Cayman Islands. Contact him at [email protected]