Nuclear legacy gets US focus

The US government panel at the Tuvalu press conference, from left: US Coast Guard Rear Admiral Kevin Lunday, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, the State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary for Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands Sandra Oudkirk, and Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere Tim Gallaudet. Photo: Kelly Lorennij.


Among the important topics discussed by Pacific Island Forum leaders in Tuvalu last month was the issue of nuclear contamination in the region, a long-standing concern stated in previous Forum meetings and official communique statements, as well as health and security issues related to World War II wrecks and unexploded ordnance.

This year marked the 50th Forum meeting, and while leaders expressed concern for nuclear contamination as a potential threat, they only “called for the operationalism of the provisions of the Rarontonga Treaty, as necessary.” This Treaty of Rarotonga formalizes a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the South Pacific. In continuing to assist the RMI in bilateral, multilateral and regional actions in achieving full, fair and just resolution, the leaders also agreed to request a meeting with the US president on the nuclear legacy in the RMI.

President Hilda Heine, who headed the Marshall Islands delegation during the Forum, underlined that health security is a big part of the country’s independence and security. During an interview with Radio New Zealand, Islands Business Magazine and the Journal, Heine agreed that it very much isn’t over for the Marshall Islands when it comes to the nuclear legacy. She stressed the need for getting a third party to get involved in conducting a comprehensive assessment on the Runit Dome leakage and marine life contamination at Enewetak.

“We want to have a comprehensive look at all of these so that we know how to move forward,” Heine commented. “As you know, we’ve commissioned the National Nuclear Commission to come up with our strategy for justice and that is being introduced to Nitijela (Parliament) in the next two weeks, and that we hope will give guidance on how to move forward on the health front as well as other areas that are related to the nuclear legacy.”

On the margins of the post-Forum meeting with dialogue partners such as the US, a press conference was held with US Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and other officials from the US Coast Guard, Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the East Asian and Pacific Affairs Bureau of the State Department.

When asked by Nic McLellan of Islands Business Magazine whether the request for a meeting with the US president will be taken up with Trump and whether the US will be willing to review the RMI’s ongoing calls and petitions for greater action on clean up and compensation, Bernhardt said, “I think we’re already doing a couple things, where we’ve invested some money to look at some water testing on other things… at the same time I think certainly we’d be happy to – any request we get from leaders for a meeting, we’ll look at that request and visit with the boss as appropriate, absolutely. You know he took a meeting earlier this year with folks from this region and so I’ll have to see what the request looks like and go from there.”

Responding to the US-China tug-of-war on Pacific allies, Bernhardt said US ties with the Pacific are strongly built on “the fundamental belief of liberty, of freedom, and a legacy of sacrifice and commitment to the region.”

When asked by the Journal what the panel had to say to the nuclear nomads, the Marshallese people who cannot return to their homes after over half a century who have sacrificed a large part of their identity and heritage, and what actual progress is being seen on work other than water testing, Bernhardt replied, “But the reality is we’ll be out there, we’ll have somebody on the ground testing, and we want to work with people.”

Douglas Domenech, assistant secretary for Insular and International Affairs, added, “As you know it’s a complicated issue. The United States and the other countries they tested both in the Marshall Islands and other islands in the Pacific probably not knowing at the time what that contamination would mean for Bikini and Enewetak and other islands particularly in the Marshalls.”

“The reality is they have relocated,” Domenech told the Journal. “The probability of them moving back to Bikini, in my opinion not a scientist’s, is pretty low. I don’t see how, I don’t think there will be a will to move back there regardless of whether or not scientists tell us it’s still contaminated.” Having visited the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory that conducts yearly studies on the issue, he was also able to ask if people could move back to island. He was told that theoretically, someone could move back and live but they would not be able to eat anything that is grown or lives in the ground including coconuts and crabs.

Interior supports the health program for the four affected atolls – Bikini, Enewetak, Rongelap and Utrok, Domenech said, adding in reference to RMI Changed Circumstances petition, “We’re doing what we can, but it doesn’t mean more can’t be done.”

Read more about this in the September 6, 2019 edition of the Marshall Islands Journal.