For months, the US refusal to take responsibility for the leak from the radioactive waste dome in the Marshall Islands made it difficult to negotiate with the government of the Marshall Islands on an international treaty deemed critical to weakening Chinese influence in the central Pacific.
On Thursday, members of the congressional oversight committee scolded representatives of the Biden administration for not making more progress in the negotiations and for taking the Marshall Islands’ stance more seriously. During the hearing, administration officials made conflicting statements about US commitments to the Marshall Islands, making it unclear what place the White House holds in American history in the region. In addition, the US State Department declined to participate.
“The purpose of today’s hearing was to find out why the United States is unwilling to discuss nuclear legacy with the Marshall Islands,” said Rep. Katie Porter (Irvine Democrat), who, along with a bipartisan group of legislators, highlighted the critical role of the Republic of the Marshall Islands in ensuring US national security.
Porter, who chairs the Natural Resources Oversight and Investigation Subcommittee, said negotiations would be difficult “unless we act in accordance with the moral and national security imperative that we must address with the nuclear legacy.”
The hearings were timed to coincide with the 35th anniversary of the signing of the agreement between the two countries, which expires in 2023. This is also due to the fact that China is developing friendly relations with the countries of the Central and South Pacific Ocean, as part of a broader strategy to limit US influence on its shores and around the world.
The Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands is home to the Ronald Reagan Missile Defense Test Site, where the United States is testing its long- and medium-range missile defense system. Its location halfway across the Pacific Ocean allows the US military to track hostile foreign forces, and it is also an important hub for the American space program.
Realizing its capabilities, the government of the Marshall Islands is increasingly putting pressure on US officials to take responsibility for cleaning up the Runit Dome. The leaking nuclear storage contains 3.1 million cubic feet of radioactive waste, a byproduct of U.S. Cold War weapons testing and the subject of a 2019 Times investigation.
For decades, the US government has been rejected. Instead, he insists that the Marshall Islands are solely responsible for the landfill, although Congress has required the Department of Energy, with financial backing from the Department of the Interior, to monitor it indefinitely.
In his testimony, Matthew Mowry, Assistant Undersecretary of Energy for Environment, Health, Safety and Security, said that while his department intends to conduct the promised tests close to the facility, Marshall Islanders are “fully responsible for maintaining and monitoring the Runit Dome.” …
Porter asked Nicolao Pula, director of the Office for Islands Affairs of the Ministry of the Interior, if he agreed with this statement.
“Nope. I don’t know,” he said, noting the difference between ownership of the Marshall Islands and the United States’ responsibility to monitor and maintain a waste pit.
Between 1946 and 1958, the United States detonated 67 nuclear bombs in and over the Marshall Islands, vaporizing entire islands, craters in their shallow lagoons, and expelling hundreds of people from their homes.
In the late 1970s, US soldiers removed contaminated topsoil and debris from the islands of Eniwetak Atoll, where 43 devices were detonated. Soldiers who were unprotected from radiological exposure dumped 3.1 million cubic feet – or 35 Olympic-size pools – of waste into an unlined bomb crater on Runit Island in the atoll.
In 1986, the United States and the Marshall Islands signed a Free Association Treaty, which provided funding to the Marshall Islands government, allowed its citizens to work and travel in the United States without visas, and provided the US government with a strategic military base on Kwajalein Atoll. – the center for testing US intercontinental ballistic missiles, as well as the most important node of their space program.
Renewal negotiations began in 2020 but have since stalled, said Rep. Paul Gosar, Arizona, a senior member of the Natural Resources Oversight Subcommittee, who accused the Biden administration of “ineptitude.”
“If he fails to renew our treaty with the Marshall Islands, he could give China another victory,” Gosar said of President Biden.
According to documents reviewed by The Times, as well as testimony at the hearing, US officials made it clear to the Marshall Islands that the nuclear legacy was non-negotiable.
This is an embarrassing moment for the people of the Marshall Islands, who are worried about the lingering effects of nuclear waste left over in their country, decades of persistent health problems, and fears that United States officials have not been frank or transparent about the risks that nuclear waste poses. for their health and the well-being of the environment.
In 2012, Congress ordered the Department of Energy to periodically test groundwater at Runit Dome with no more than four years between tests.
The Department of Energy has collected only preliminary samples so far; Agency officials cited lack of funding and the pandemic as obstacles.
According to a 2019 US government presentation, the Runit Dome is vulnerable to leaks caused by storm surges and sea level rise, and its groundwater, which seeps into the lagoon and ocean, is heavily contaminated with radioactive isotopes. Testing of sea creatures in the surrounding lagoon, including giant clams, shows high levels of radioactivity.
“It’s unusual for two federal agencies to publicly disagree before Congress,” said Michael Gerrard, a legal scholar at Columbia University School of Law, commenting on Pula’s remarks.
“The US government is undoubtedly morally responsible for this – they made nuclear bombs, detonated them over the Marshall Islands, cleaned up carelessly and tried to flood the local population with deadly remnants,” he said. “Perhaps at least some in government are seeking to acknowledge our legal responsibility.”
Others at the hearing highlighted the importance of the negotiations and expressed disappointment that the US negotiating team, which does not include any politically appointed State Department officials, is showing little progress.
“I have to admit that I am amazed at the lack of negotiations that other witnesses have pointed out,” said Ding Cheng, a Heritage Foundation expert on Chinese military and space capabilities, who testified at the hearing.
“I can only say that given the looming threat from the People’s Republic of China, I hope that both the executive and legislative branches of government will work together to basically move these negotiations forward because time is running out,” he said. “There are others who are watching and waiting to come up and take the opportunity that we will present to them on a silver platter.”
For Rhea Moss-Christian, chairman of the Marshall Islands National Nuclear Commission, the question was more personal. According to her, her mother was tested, and now she and her children live with this legacy.
In an interview before the hearing, she noted that the United States does not care about the Marshall Islands, indicating the time of the meeting – 10 am Washington time.
Moss-Christian, who lives in Pohnpei, Micronesia, had to log in at 1am on Friday morning to attend the teleconference. For her colleagues in Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands, it was 2 am.
“We are just island people living in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, so far away that you don’t even have to think about us,” she said. “This is what they thought when they used it as a testing ground, and it still hasn’t changed.”