Nuclear atolls: Momentum building

Nuclear test-affected atoll leaders, who met July 23 with US Ambassador Roxanne Cabral (fourth from right) and other US officials at the Marshall Islands Resort, see momentum building for action on the nuclear legacy.

GIFF JOHNSON

Leaders of nuclear test-affected atolls described their first meeting as a group with US Ambassador Roxanne Cabral late last week as “productive and positive.”

Coupled with a meeting the nuclear atolls had with President David Kabua earlier last week, they feel there is momentum building for dignified solution to the US nuclear weapons test legacy that benefits both the Marshall Islands and the United States.

In an unprecedented press conference with the Journal, leaders of Bikini, Enewetak, Rongelap and Utrok said Wednesday they view the friendly dialogue with Cabral and President Kabua’s commitment to pursuing the nuclear legacy in the upcoming Compact talks as important signs of progress.

Ambassador Cabral told the Journal she appreciated the discussion with the four atoll leaders last week.

Utrok Nitijela Member Hiroshi Yamamura is chairing the four atolls’ quest for nuclear legacy action. He led the press conference Wednesday, saying the islands want the opportunity to seek resolution of the nuclear legacy through the Compact talks with the US administration and through the US Congress.

Yamamura said each of the four local government councils during the past two weeks have adopted resolutions calling for the outstanding aspects of the nuclear test legacy to be part of upcoming negotiations with the United States. “We stand firm,” he said.

“We are solid on one goal: Justice,” said Vice Speaker Peterson Jibas, who represents Bikini. He said he was encouraged by the US Ambassador’s engagement with the group last week and sees this as an important step in the process to gaining resolution of the nuclear test legacy.

The Nitijela members and mayors expressed their appreciation to the US government for its many contributions related to the nuclear legacy, while making it clear there are still outstanding issues. They also said the RMI is a solid and unwavering ally of America.

“We are here for the interests of the US,” said Rongelap Mayor James Matayoshi. “We hope they see us in the same light.” He urged discussions about the Nuclear Claims Tribunal awards to the four atolls and other legacy matters, observing this can lead to “benefit for both countries.”

“I greatly appreciated the invitation from the leaders of the four atolls and the opportunity to listen to their concerns and understand the priorities they are focused on on behalf of their constituents,” Cabral said Wednesday. “The nuclear legacy is an important issue and a priority for both the United States and the RMI, and is among other important issues that our two governments work together on.”

Utrok Mayor Tobin Kaiko said he personally, as well as other nuclear test-affected islanders, continue living with health problems caused by their exposure to radiation. And they have suffered because US authorities consistently downplayed hazards of radiation and the potential for health problems among affected islanders.

Enewetak Mayor Jackson Ading praised the US for its support of various programs at Enewetak, while remarking on new information about radiation contamination at the former nuclear test site. He added: “Let’s work together on the negotiations.”

“We thank the US for what it has done so far,” said Speaker Kenneth Kedi, who represents Rongelap. “There is still a long way to go to address the justice issue.”

Kedi said they are aiming to meet more regularly with the US ambassador on the issues. “The Marshall Islands has always been a good friend of the US,” he said. “We shared sacrifices through generations to this day. We have a special relationship.”

The Speaker said they assured the US ambassador the RMI is solidly with the US. But, he said, the nuclear legacy remains an obstacle to smooth relations for the entire nation. “Our expectation,” he added, “is the nuclear legacy will be addressed as part of the outcome (of the Compact talks).” President Kabua told the nuclear atoll leaders that the legacy will be a high priority for the RMI in the talks with the US, said Kedi.

Yamamura said the initiatives of nuclear affected atolls with the US ambassador are “not to undermine the integrity” of the upcoming Compact negotiations. It is about establishing a friendly dialogue with the US government to address the changed circumstances that have become evident since the first Compact’s nuclear test compensation package was approved in the early 1980s, he said.

“I have confidence and I pray to God for good results in the future from this preparation,” said the Vice Speaker. The aim, Jibas added, is to resolve issues including compensation, cleanup of nuclear affected islands, and medical care for islanders.

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