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By Giff Johnson

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (Marianas Variety, Dec. 30) – A flood of new claims seeking compensation for nuclear test damage 50 years ago were filed this week with the Nuclear Claims Tribunal in the Marshall Islands, just days before the year-end deadline to wrap up such claims.

But even if some of these claims are eventually approved by the Tribunal, future payments are dependent on the United States Congress injecting more money into a nearly depleted compensation fund.

With the filing of land damage claims by leaders from nine more remote islands, two-thirds of the country’s 24 inhabited atolls and islands are now pressing compensation claims.

A petition from the Marshall Islands government seeking more than $4 billion in additional nuclear test compensation is with the U.S. Congress for review.

The sudden increase in claims filed is a response to a year-end deadline set by the Majuro-based Tribunal that is attempting to wrap up its nuclear compensation work that started in the late 1980s.

The United States conducted 67 nuclear weapons tests at Bikini and Enewetak atolls from 1946 to 1958. Through an agreement known as a "compact of free association," the U.S. government created the Tribunal to judge claims for both health and environmental damage, and provided it with a trust fund of $75 million to do the job. Personal injury awards alone exceeded the Tribunal’s fund, and now top $85.9 million. More than $14 million of approved awards remain unpaid, with the Tribunal’s fund at less than $4 million.

After a nearly 10-year adjudication process begun in the early 1990s, the Tribunal issued awards to the displaced islanders from the former nuclear test sites of Enewetak and Bikini that together exceed $1 billion. While these are the largest, some of the islands downwind of Bikini and Enewetak that received Chernobyl-level fallout are expected to bring awards in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Many of the other more distant islands are likely to receive significantly smaller, if any, compensation because of difficulty in proving a case that they were exposed to serious levels of radioactive fallout.

The Tribunal earlier this year announced a November 30 deadline, which it later extended to December 31, for any atoll wishing to lodge a class action claim. Several more islands are expected to file claims before the deadline expires.

But the Tribunal’s Public Advocate William Graham said in an interview Wednesday that even if local governments or other leaders from the remote islands do not file formal class action cases, dozens of people from every atoll and island have already filed land claims since the Tribunal first started accepting them in 1989. When the Tribunal begins addressing the new land claims in 2005, it will not deal with claims filed by these individuals on a case-by-case basis, but will be putting all such claims into class actions, Graham said.

The net affect of this is that "class" actions will be created for each atoll/island, whether or not leaders filed "official" class action suits before the Tribunal deadline, he indicated. The more important issue is the need to obtain additional compensation from the U.S. Congress to satisfy claims already approved by the Tribunal, Graham said.

The islands that have filed claims are Maloelap, Wotje, Mejit, Jaluit, Majuro, Wotho, Ailinglaplap, Lib and Lae. None of these islands are considered "exposed" by the U.S. government. But islanders claim that they were exposed to many of the hydrogen bomb tests that the U.S. conducted in the 1950s at Bikini and Enewetak.

The new Mejit Island claim cites a 1953 U.S. government report that stated that radioactive fallout from tests larger than 10 megatons could be expected 1,000-to-1,500 miles downwind. The 1954 Bravo test at Bikini was 15 megatons — the largest U.S. nuclear test ever — and Mejit is just 329 miles away from Bikini. About 400 people live on Mejit today.

There was never any advance warning before the 67 nuclear tests at Bikini and Enewetak, and Mejit was never evacuated, in contrast to nearby Utrik Atoll, the claim said. After the Bravo test exposed Mejit and other islands to fallout, no effort was made by the U.S. to decontaminate the Mejit population — although the U.S. did this for neighboring Utrik, Rongelap and U.S. personnel who were also exposed during the test.

The claim said that since the Bravo test, Mejit Islanders saw "profound changes" in their health and environment. This included thyroid tumors and many sicknesses that they did not understand.

On several occasions after Bravo, U.S. officials came to Mejit to take blood and urine samples from the population. These tests were never explained, nor were the results ever provided to islanders, the claim said.

U.S. officials insisted that Mejit was not exposed, but Mejit Islanders knew this was false, the claim said.

Applying U.S. standards for radiation protection, Mejit Islanders should have been removed from a contaminated environment for several decades. "Instead, because the United States failed to evacuate and remediate Mejit, its residents remained exposed to unhealthful radiation for many years," the claim said.

December 30, 2004

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