MAJURO, Marshall Islands (Marianas Variety, March 10) — Islanders from two ground zeros for 67 American nuclear tests and a third island that was engulfed in radioactive fallout in a Chernobyl-style nuclear accident are to file lawsuits in United States courts seeking more than $1 billion in compensation.
Seeing virtually no progress on the Marshall Islands government’s petition to the U.S. Congress asking for additional nuclear test compensation that was filed nearly six years ago, the nuclear test affected atolls are preparing to take their cases back to the U.S. court system for action.
Bikini Atoll will file a claim in U.S. courts this month, the 60th anniversary of their removal by the U.S. Navy to start the first post-World War II nuclear tests, according to Bikini Senator Tomaki Juda. The Bikinians’ lawsuit will be an effort to get payment on the $563 million judgment issued but not paid by the Nuclear Claims Tribunal in 2001, said Bikini official Jack Niedenthal on Wednesday.
Bikini was the site of 23 nuclear tests, including the 1954 Bravo hydrogen bomb, which was the largest U.S. weapon ever tested.
Enewetak Atoll, which received the first land damage award from the Nuclear Claims Tribunal in April 2000, is gearing to file a suit in the next several weeks in order to beat the six-year statute of limitations for filing a claim. Enewetak wants to get action on a $386 million Nuclear Claims Tribunal award. Enewetak was the site of 44 nuclear tests.
Because of a lack of funds, the Tribunal made only two small payments on these awards in 2002 and 2003, amounting to about $2.2 million for Bikini and $1.6 million for Enewetak.
Although the Tribunal has not yet ruled on Rongelap Atoll’s land damage claim, Rongelap is preparing for U.S. court action later this year.
Rongelap’s lawyers and scientific advisors will begin a series of community meetings next week Tuesday in Majuro to discuss legal strategy. Unsuspecting islanders on Rongelap, about 100 miles east of Bikini, were engulfed in radioactive fallout from the 1954 Bravo test. They suffered serious burns and other radiation-induced illnesses in the days after the test, and have suffered numerous health problems, including a high rate of thyroid tumors, in the 50 years since Bravo.
"If we get the Tribunal award by August, then we’ll file (in the U.S. courts) later this year," said Rongelap Mayor James Matayoshi, adding that the Tribunal has no funding left to satisfy any awards made.
"We have no other choice," he said. "The message from the United States government is that ‘changed circumstances’ doesn’t exist."
A provision in a now-expired nuclear compensation agreement between the U.S. and Marshall Islands governments said that if the Marshall Islands could show that there were "changed circumstances" that rendered the $270 million compensation already paid "manifestly inadequate," then the U.S. Congress would consider additional compensation. Nuclear test-affected islanders, including officials from the Majuro-based Nuclear Claims Tribunal, say that the U.S. compensation was clearly inadequate based on new information about the numbers of cancers that are arising from people’s exposure and new scientific understanding about the hazards of radiation. A petition seeking several billion dollars in additional nuclear test compensation and health care has been pending with the U.S. Congress since 2000 with little movement.
The Bush administration last year issued a report to the Congress stating that there is no legal obligation for the U.S. government to provide more compensation. U.S. Ambassador to the Marshall Islands Greta Morris told the Bikini people at a ceremony to mark the 60th anniversary of their relocation last Friday that the U.S. government continues to be "concerned about the damage done to the Marshallese people and environment caused by the nuclear tests in the 1940’s and 1950’s." She also expressed the U.S. government’s "deepest gratitude to the people of the Marshall Islands for your contribution to security, peace and freedom through your participation in the nuclear testing program."
But she described the 1986 compensation package as a "full and final settlement" of all Marshall Islands claims and confirmed that the Bush administration does not support additional compensation.
"Allow me to stress that nothing in the administration’s report in any way reflects a weakening of U.S. commitments to the Marshallese people," Morris said. "Indeed, the United States has no closer relationship with any nation in the world than it has through the Compact of Free Association with the Marshall Islands."
Bikini and Enewetak had lawsuits pending in the U.S. courts for land damages, and thousands of Marshall Islanders had personal injury claims pending when the first Compact of Free Association with its nuclear test compensation package came into effect in 1986. The more than $5 billion in lawsuits were dismissed in 1986 by a U.S. judge on the basis that an alternative forum — the Compact’s $270 million compensation section, which included direct compensation payments to four nuclear affected atolls and established the Nuclear Claims Tribunal to review claims for future nuclear damages — had been created by the two governments to address the nuclear test problem problem.
Matayoshi said the nuclear affected atolls spent the last 20 years going through this process, but that because the Tribunal was not adequately funded by the U.S. to pay the amounts awarded, the process has failed to satisfy the claims.
March 10, 2006
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