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Civil Beat: The US Faces Pressure To Do More To Address Its Nuclear Legacy In The Marshall Islands

November 22, 2021

Two Congress members are asking the U.S. Department of Energy to provide more information about the effects of U.S. nuclear waste in the Marshall Islands.

The U.S. conducted 67 nuclear weapons tests in the Marshall Islands from 1946 to 1958, exposing Marshallese people to radiation that continues to have health and environmental implications. The U.S. then stored the atomic waste at Runit Dome, a concrete dome on Enewetak Atoll.

Rep. Katie Porter represents Orange County, California, and is chair of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations in the House Committee on Natural Resources.

She has been seeking more details about the effects of nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands in the wake of a Los Angeles Times investigation that found the U.S. stored nuclear waste from Nevada in Runit Dome without informing the Pacific nation.

In a letter Friday, Porter and Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona asked for documents and correspondence among Department of Energy officials related to a letter that officials sent to the Marshall Islands about the state of nuclear waste in May.

The Department of Energy didn’t respond to a request for comment.

‘A Moral And National Security Imperative’

In October, Porter led a congressional hearing regarding concerns about Runit Dome, which is leaking radioactive waste. The Energy Department said in a report last year that the leaking is not significant.

“The U.S. has both a moral and national security imperative to address our nuclear legacy in the Marshall Islands,” Porter said at the hearing, adding that addressing the issue would be in line with the Biden administration’s commitment to racial justice and national security issues in the Pacific.

Department of Energy officials testified that the Runit Dome “is not in any immediate danger of collapse or failure.” The agency said the U.S. has for decades enrolled survivors from two affected atolls in a program that provides access to medical care and treatment, and 77 survivors are still participating.

“DOE is in the process of establishing a groundwater radiochemical analysis program designed to provide scientifically substantiated data that can be used to determine what, if any, effects the dome contents are having, or will have, on the surrounding environment now and in the future,” the agency said in its testimony.

In their letter, Porter and Grijalva criticized the agency’s lack of response to repeated document requests, raised concerns about conflicting Energy Department testimony and the timing of the department’s May letter.

The U.S. is in the midst of renegotiating a treaty with the Marshall Islands that in part gives the U.S. military strategic denial rights over the country’s surrounding air and waters.

The Congress members described how the U.S. failed to evacuate Marshallese people quickly enough to protect them from the fallout during the 1946-1958 testing, and cited descriptions of how mothers later gave birth to babies with translucent skin and no bones.

A 2014 study analyzed how the radiation exposure in the Marshall Islands increased the risk of certain cancers, especially thyroid cancer.

Broader Concerns

Franscine Anmontha, communication director of the Marshall Islands National Nuclear Commission, said Saturday that the community is concerned about the ongoing health effects of radiation on people not only on the atolls enrolled in the U.S. medical program but on surrounding atolls.

“If you were to ask a group of young Marshallese people if they knew someone with cancer almost 90% of them would raise their hands,” she said. She said the commission wants to bring scientists to the Marshall Islands to analyze the dome so that they don’t have to rely solely on U.S. data.

Anmontha said October’s congressional hearing was a turning point in the struggle over the U.S. nuclear legacy in the Marshall Islands.

“I think it’s really important because we’re seeing someone with a title and power to voice their opinion and represent those who have been fighting,” she said. “It’s kind of amplifying the Marshallese community to have a voice and to have someone supporting them.”

Friday’s letter is the second letter this month pressing the Biden administration for more information about the nuclear testing.

Several Congress members — including Hawaii Reps. Ed Case and Kai Kahele — wrote to the White House on Nov. 5 pushing for the appointment of a lead negotiator for treaty discussions who would have the ability to address concerns about nuclear waste.

The lead negotiator “should have the mandate to see that legacy issues related to U.S. nuclear testing in the region are appropriately resolved, including proper environmental protections, clean up, health benefits, and monetary compensation for victims and their descendants,” the lawmakers wrote.

Anmontha said she’s glad to hear that U.S. officials are pressing the Energy Department for more information.

“This has been a long and hard fight for the Marshallese community. A lot of the people who are directly impacted are very old now,” she said. “We just want them to be able to see some sort of justice before they all pass away.”