On June 25, Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA) addressed her colleagues in the U.S. House of Representatives to speak about the impact and implications of nuclear testing conducted in the Republic of the Marshall Islands from 1946 to 1958, during which time 67 tests of nuclear weapons were conducted on Bikini and Enewetak Atolls.
“We deceived the Marshallese, using them as guinea pigs to study the effects of radiation. We turned ancestral lands into dumping grounds for nuclear waste. And we still haven’t done the bare minimum to make this right,” Rep. Porter stated on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.
“We established a tribunal for compensation,” she explained, “but provided less than 10% of the money owed.”
“We don’t even translate environmental studies into Marshallese,” she added.
“Our nuclear legacy in the Marshall Islands is at the nexus of President Biden’s top priorities: racial justice, healthcare, climate change, U.S. global reputation, countering China through diplomacy,” Porter said as she ended her floor speech. “We must commit across party lines to make this right.”
The Marshall Islands is a Free Associated State
The Marshall Islands is a sovereign nation that has signed a Compact of Free Association with the United States. As part of that Compact, the Marshall Islands Nuclear Claims Tribunal was established to examine claims of damages and to award compensation for health and property effects of the nuclear testing.
The tribunal concluded that the U.S. should pay $2.3 billion dollars in compensation, but the United States refused, claiming that the nation had already done enough.
“The United States recognizes the effects of its testing and has accepted and acted on its responsibility to the people of the Republic of the Marshall Islands,” said Karen Stewart, a former U.S. Ambassador to the Marshall Islands.
The Embassy states on its website: “The U.S. never intended for Marshallese to be hurt by the tests.” In general, the U.S. takes the position that the U.S. is responsible for damages from the testing period, but does not acknowledge ongoing effects.
The COFA between the United States and the Marshall Islands is up for renewal in 2023.
Are the Marshall Islands still affected by the nuclear testing?
A controlled study in 2019 found dangerously high levels of radiation on Bikini Atoll and three other islands: Enewetak, Rongelap, and Utirik. None of these islands, the study concluded, is safe for human habitation.
On Runit Island, a 377 ft in diameter concrete dome was built to house nuclear waste. Investigations have found that radiation is leaking from the dome. As the water levels rise, the dome — built at sea level — becomes more of a concern.
There is some evidence that ongoing health problems among the Marshallese are due at least in part to the legacy of nuclear testing.
Would Puerto Rico be different?
Some Puerto Rican leaders imagine a future for Puerto Rico as a Freely Associated State (FAS). The relationship they describe is completely different from the relationship shown by the history between the Marshall Islands and the United States.
In Puerto Rico, for example, the U.S. military agreed to leave Vieques many years ago; in the Marshall Islands, the U.S. operates the preeminent Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missle Test Site. The U.S. also controls all matters of national security of the Freely Associated States, including the right to deny access to the FAS to other nations. The U.S. also has the power to overrule FAS decisionmaking on all matters of their national defense.
There also appears to be concern among the Freely Associated State of the Republic of the Marshall Islands that the U.S. had not done enough to address its nuclear legacy, including managing the nuclear waste that remains on idyllic atolls.
Unlike the U.S. territories, people who live in a Freely Associated State are not U.S. citizens. They also have no representation within the U.S. government, not even a non-voting Resident Commissioner or Delegate.